WHAT’S THE BEST CAMERA SYSTEM FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY AND HOW CAN YOU CHOOSE IT?
Before looking in detail at how to choose the best camera system for landscape photography, allow me a minute for a little introduction.
CAMERA LIFE CYCLE IN THE DIGITAL ERA AND THE BENEFITS OF KNOWING YOUR GEAR
In the old film days, the production cycle of a professional camera model generally lasted between 5 to 10 years, depending on manufacturer and model. Some especially successful cameras lasted even longer, such as the 14 years run of the iconic Leica M6, in production between 1984 and 1998 (18 years if you consider the M6 TTL, in production until 2002), or the 20 years run of the Nikon F3, which stayed in production between 1980 and 2000 and well after the introduction of the F4 and F5.
Back in the day, photographers used to stick with their gear for years: accidents and breakings aside, they worked with a couple of camera models for most or possibly even for all of their professional career.
Since the advent of digital, however, everything changed. The technology was new, and therefore not mature. On one hand, we had to deal with the shortcomings of the first generations of digital cameras, which a new model would promise to fix. On the other hand, we had to deal with clever marketing making you believe that a new model, even if with just incremental upgrades, would be the solution to all your photographic problems. So, we got used to expecting new camera announcements every other year or, with some manufacturer, even more frequently than that.
Thus, in the last decade, switching between camera systems and camera brands became normal for many amateurs and professionals alike. Some switched more than once, sometimes moving between brands searching for their ideal camera, sometimes just to switch back when their old brand released the newest and greatest model. Often, they did so without even getting close to taking advantage of the full potential of the gear they left behind: this is more and more true now that the technology matured and that pretty much any professional camera’s features would be enough to last for a lifetime for most photographers.
Knowing your gear by heart is fundamental, as it is fundamental to be able to extract its full potential. In the field, time is of the essence, and you don’t want to lose time trying to find this or that button, this or that function. So, despite the sirens of the newest and best, the best camera system for landscape photography (or for any kind of photography, for that matter) is first and foremost the one you invested time and effort in knowing perfectly.
Of course, there are many different camera systems out there that you can spend time getting to know perfectly: let’s see how to choose the best one for you.
WHAT MAKES A CAMERA SYSTEM THE BEST?
Obviously, as with everything else, there is no absolute “best” system: there is only what is best for each of us, and that differs from one photographic application to another and from an individual to another. This article is about what I am looking for in a camera system as a Fine Art Landscape Photographer, and therefore ultimately is about which system is best for me. If you work with a different kind of photography, the specifics of this article might not apply to you, but the principles and methods showed here will still help you to choose the best system for you and your kind of photography.
Ok, let’s go! Let’s start with a simple but fundamental question:
What do I need, to do my job the best I can both in the field and in post-processing?
It might sound pretty obvious, but how many photographers truly ask themselves this question when planning their next purchase? How many instead just “think” they are asking themselves this question, but what they really do is trying to rationalise the purchase of the next camera or lens they want?
Please note that I have nothing against loving gear, nor against enjoying buying new cameras, lenses, accessories and the like: on the contrary, I think that’s great, but it has nothing to do with my question above. If you enjoy the technical aspects of photography, if you love gear and can afford buying and maintaining 4-5 different system, or if you are a collector, my suggestion is don’t even think about it and just to go for it: you are among the lucky ones who can enjoy photography your way, without having to try and find any reason for your purchases other than sheer enjoyment.
Personally, while I buy and sell a lot of gear, I am definitely not a collector. I never keep things that I don’t use: I buy a camera or a lens, try it out, and decide whether to keep it or not. If I end up keeping it, that normally means I am getting rid of something else: for me, my gear simply must make sense for my work. Whatever does not make sense, is going to the great Ryuichi Watanabe and his guys at NEWOLDCAMERA in Milan to be sold!
Disclaimer: I am a Leica Ambassador and I use Leica equipment. To exemplify my method, I will use my requirements and my current equipment as a user-case for this article. Just apply the method to your requirements to come to conclusions suitable for your kind of photography. Nowadays, my workhorse is the Leica SL, which I have been using and loving for two years now (see A LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHER IN-DEPTH LEICA SL REVIEW, and ONE YEAR OF LANDSCAPES WITH THE LEICA SL to follow my journey with the Leica SL).
Back to my question above, let’s see now what my 10 most important requirements are, point by point.
To do my job at best, I need my equipment to enable me:
1. To create amazing images: sharp, detailed and with beautiful colours
Sharpness and detail: We all know that for landscape photography the more detail the better. However, sharpness and detail do not depend on sensor resolution alone: what makes an image look sharp and detailed is first and foremost the quality of the lenses you use. So, while Leica SL has “only” 24 Mp, the amazing Leica SL optics make up for that, resolving more fine detail than pretty much any 35mm lens on the market – bar some Leica M optics, which I also can use on the SL if needed.
Thanks to its optics, Leica SL produces files equal to, or better than, the files I was getting from my 36mp Nikon D800E with Nikkor lenses. In fact, Leica SL’s files are almost as detailed as the 50 Mp of my Pentax 645z with the new 28-45mm or 90mm, and better than what I got with almost any other older Pentax 645 lens.
Beautiful colours: that is very subjective, of course. Personally, I find the files created by Leica SL with Leica glass beautiful, balanced and very easy to post-process.
2. To create large prints of my images
As many Landscape photographers, I print big. I produce and sell unique Single Piece Fine Art prints sized up to 100 x 150 cm, or 40 x 60” (see VIERI BOTTAZZINI FINE ART). Leaving a bit of room for matting and framing, this means that I need resolution enough to cover a print area of about 80 x 120 cm, or 32 x 48”. Carefully processed Leica SL’s files, again thanks to the fine detail provided me by SL lenses, print great at 300dpi up to 60 x 90 cm (24 x 36”), and at 200 dpi up to my required 80 x 120 cm (32 x 48”). Would I want more resolution? Of course I would, and I am pretty sure that the next iteration of the SL will answer that: I really can’t wait to see what the SL lenses can do with higher resolution sensor!
3. To work without any worries in adverse weather conditions
The Leica SL and its lenses are built like a tank: not only they are weather-sealed, they can take pretty much anything you throw at them. Believe me, I know. I used them in temperatures ranging from -16 C to 40 C. Rogue waves splashed both me and my two cameras pretty thoroughly with salt water. I photographed in very windy conditions in sand and salt deserts. I worked under rainstorms, snowstorms and hailstorms. I worked immersed almost up to my chest in the ocean, laying down on extremely rough rocks and on lava beaches. Both my Leica SLs kept working as if nothing happened, just needing to be wiped clean with a towel wet with fresh water to clean salt and sand away.
4. To completely trust my system’s reliability
Both my Leica SL and its lenses worked perfectly from day one without ever skipping a beat and without any problem. A quick Internet search will tell you that there have been no reports of known problems of any kind: the Leica SL just works. So far, it’s easily the most reliable camera I have ever worked with.
5. To work effectively in low light and with filters
The Leica SL’s EyeRes electronic viewfinder is simply amazing and is a unique tool for long exposure, Fine Art landscape photography. In short, it is a game changer. Not only there is nothing like it on the market, but between its technical specs and implementation there is nothing out there getting even close to it. It was the best EVF when the SL was released in 2015; in 2018, it’s still unequalled by anything released since. With its 4.4 Mp, its colour and contrast, excellent Eye Point, fast refresh and with its real-time exposure preview mode, it allows me to compose, focus and expose under any conditions, including when it’s too dark to use a traditional optical viewfinder. Most importantly, it allows me to work with ND filters on my lens up to 10-13 stops in daylight without having to take them off to focus and compose, which is revolutionary compared to an optical viewfinder. In short, for me EVF is the future of landscape photography: once a firm supporter of optical viewfinders, now I would never go back.
6. To do very long exposures easily and with clean files
The Leica SL’s implementation of long exposures is just perfect, with no need for dedicated modes such as Bulb (B) or Time (T) and no need for cable releases. Just select Manual mode (M), and the camera’s meter will work perfectly up to 30 minutes: in short, the SL made long exposures work just like “normal” exposures. Perfect. Since the camera is mirrorless, the only vibration are the ones your finger initiates when releasing the shutter: the use of delayed release is therefore enough to make sure there is no vibrations. The resulting files are clean with beautiful colours, no matter how long the exposure: I often go up to 10-12 minutes, and the results are nothing short of great.
7. To work fast in the field
In my opinion, the “Essential” philosophy behind any Leica cameras made the Leica SL the camera with the cleanest, simplest and most powerful user interface on the market. I can assign whatever functions I need to the four unlabelled buttons around the Leica SL’s LCD, buttons large and isolated enough to use without any problems with gloves (or frozen fingers!). Long gone are the times when I had to worry about finding a small button placed in a strange place on a classic DSLR, or about pushing the wrong button on a cramped camera body: in the field, Leica SL is simply the fastest, easiest and most efficient camera I ever worked with.
8. To have lenses from 10-12mm to 90-135mm, with superior optical quality
When it comes to optical quality, pretty much all Leica lenses are on a different level, and Leica SL lenses are among the best lenses Leica ever made. More, if I wanted to use a particular lens made for a different camera, I could: with Leica SL you can adapt lenses made for almost any camera system retaining all functionality, starting with Leica’s own spectacular M, R and S series lenses. For my work I need to use ultra-wide angles, while being able to use my 100mm square filters with all my lenses (see below). With Leica SL I am able to use two great little lenses in Leica M mount such as the Voigtlander 15mm Super Wide-Heliar, which I modified to use 100mm filers (see SURGERY ON THE VOIGTLANDER SUPER WIDE-HELIAR 15MM III), and the Voigtlander 10mm (see VOIGTLANDER HELIAR-HYPER WIDE 10MM F/5.6 REVIEW), also with 100mm filters through the Bombo adapter.
9. To be able to use 100mm square filters with all my lenses
A direct consequence of point 5 above. While most camera systems on the market offer native lenses as wide as 14mm and non-native lenses as wide as 12mm, almost all these ultra-wide lenses require you to use 150mm filters. This is something I really want to avoid: compared to 100mm filters, 150mm filters are bigger, heavier, break more easily, turn into sails with strong winds and are cumbersome to use in the field. Finally, no brand’s filter line-up in 150mm is as complete as their offer in 100mm; 150mm polarisers are very basic; 150mm filters are much more expensive, and so on.
10. To be able to hike and climb easily to get where I need to go with my gear
My bag with two Leica SL bodies, 2-3 lenses, filters, batteries, memory cards etc. is light enough to hike pretty much anywhere. Certainly, there is no comparison with the Pentax 645z kit I was using before!
Ah, and I nearly forgot the Leica SL app, for both iOS and Android. The app works great allowing you full control of all camera operations including menus, as well as allowing you to download your images on your phone or tablet for preview, editing and sharing (including RAWs). The app is a fantastic plus to have and it saved my bacon quite a few times when I had my camera set up in locations where looking into the EVF was impossible and the LCD screen was at a bad angle to work comfortably.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER 35MM CAMERA SYSTEMS?
These are great times to be photographers, with many offers from Nikon, Canon, Sony and Pentax in Full-Frame 35mm, from Fuji in APS-c and Olympus in Micro 4/3. So, do they provide a convincing alternative to Leica SL?
As I mentioned before, everyone has different preferences and requirements, and there are many photographers out there happily using one of these systems. Personally, however, I find these solutions not as convincing on many of the points above:
1 (Sharp images with great colours): As per today, all other FF manufacturers offer cameras with more than 24 megapixels. However, megapixels are not the end-all of image quality: lens quality is. I’d take extremely crispy 24 Mp images that I can easily up-scale 1.5x or even 2x over 50 Mp images with soft corners any day. The optical quality of Leica lenses is the main reason why I love to work with my Leica SL: they produce extremely sharp images, with a fine detail that makes them punch well over their 24 Mp weight. More, while this is personal, for me Leica SL images have beautiful colours and are very easy to work with. While I would welcome an updated SL model with more resolution, resolution alone is definitely not important enough for me to consider switching to a different system.
5 (Work in low light and filters): The Leica SL’s EVF would be reason enough for me to choose it against any other system from any other manufacturer. It’s that good. In fact, the SL’s EVF makes such a dramatic difference in workflow, especially in low light and when using ND filters (both very common situation doing Fine Art landscape photography), that I consider it to be one of those things that once you’ll try, you’ll start wondering how you could have been able to work at all without it before.
6 (Long exposures made “normal” again): This varies from camera model to camera model; however, teaching Workshops I meet with many photographers (see VIERI BOTTAZZINI WORKSHOPS), and I noticed how a vast majority still uses remote controls, cables, gizmos and such. They are Ok, but they are one more thing to worry about, one more thing that can break or that you can lose, plus they create an entry point for water, sand and salt, they are a pain to use in strong winds, and so on. Leica SL just makes long exposures behave like “normal” exposures: it seems like a minor point, but if you do long exposures all day it quickly becomes fundamental. One caveat: LENR (long exposure noise reduction) is not switchable off on the Leica SL. This is not a problem for most kind of night photography, from the milky way to northern lights; however, if you do a lot of star trails then the Leica SL is not for you.
7 (Speed in the field): Again, this varies from camera model to camera model, and is ultimately down to your knowledge of the camera. That said, the user interface of the Leica SL together with its uniquely uncluttered, simple and powerful camera body make for the easiest, fastest and most effective camera I have ever used in the field. And I did use pretty much everything, from Nikon to Pentax to PhaseOne and Leaf digital backs, to Fuji, Sony and even Sigma DSLRs (Canon aside, there is not much I didn’t try!)
You might have noticed that I didn’t include Fuji’s APS-c or Olympus Micro 4/3 cameras in my considerations above. While they are certainly very good, to me their image quality as per today is just not suitable for my professional use, directly eliminating them from this comparison. I am sure that there will be many that disagree with me on this one, but that’s just how I see it.
WHAT ABOUT MIRRORLESS MEDIUM FORMAT?
These last couple of years saw the advent of two mirrorless Medium Format system, the Fuji GFX and the Hasselblad X1D. While very different in conception, they both offer a lighter, smaller and (relatively) less expensive “way in” to medium format photography. Historically, Medium Format has always been interesting for landscape photographers due to the extra resolution it offered; now that it became lighter, smaller and more affordable, does it provide a viable alternative to the Leica SL?
As always, your answer might be different: personally, not for me, not yet at least. Available mirrorless Medium Format solutions still come short on various of the points listed above:
3 (Worries and weather): Medium Format, with the frequent need for lens changes (more so for Hasselblad, less so for Fuji), increase risks in adverse weather conditions, in dangerous or unstable working environments, and so on.
5. (Work in low light and filters): The EVF on both cameras and their implementation aren’t even close to the one on the SL (more so for Hasselblad, less so for Fuji).
7 (Speed in the field): The need for frequent lens changes, the cameras’ user interfaces and ergonomics (more so on the Hasselblad), and their body design (more so on the Fuji) make the SL a better choice for me.
8 (Lens range): There simply aren’t enough lenses on either Medium Format systems to get even close to the SL’s range and flexibility, and very likely there never will be (i.e. wide angles under 17mm equivalent, 100mm filters with all lenses including adapted 35mm lenses, and so on). This point alone would make it nearly impossible for me to be happy working with either of these systems.
10 (Portability): While the X1D is comparable to the SL in portability, the GFX is not.
Sure, all these points can be of minor importance for you and your work. For me, on the other hand, they make either mirrorless Medium Format offer a no-go today.
You might have noticed that I always speak about “camera system” rather than just about cameras: this is because for me more than a single camera, or more than a single feature in a camera, what counts is having a system that works for me from end to end. This includes the camera, of course, but as a whole: i.e., it’s not important just how many pixels a camera has, but how it puts them to a good use. User interface, workflow, reliability, solidity, flexibility, battery life, and so on are all qualities as important as megapixels if not more. As well, a system for me includes lenses, filters, tripod, tripod head, memory cards, bags, everything down to battery chargers and cleaning cloths: every single piece of it must help you get great images, with nothing getting in the way between you and that amazing photograph that you saw in your mind before pressing the shutter.
We know all too well that no camera system is perfect for everything and everyone, and that what works for me might not work for someone else. Whether Leica SL is the right system for you depends first and foremost on the kind of photography you do, your workflow, your requirements and so on. My suggestion is to prepare a list of requirements that are absolutely fundamental for you and your work (and they might be very different from mine, of course), the ones making for your ideal camera system. Then, check if any of the systems you have been thinking about satisfies them all: if so, just go get it. If none does, choose the camera system that comes closer to your ideal one and that satisfies most of your priority requirements.
For the kind of Fine Art landscape photography that I do the Leica SL system ticks all the right boxes: two years in, my love for the camera is growing more and more every day I use it. Granted, I would love to have more resolution: but not at the expense of everything else that Leica SL gives me. I’ll immediately jump on a higher resolution SL the second is available: until then, however, no other system strikes such a perfect balance of superb image quality, landscape-specific features, handling, ease of use in the field, reliability, strength and flexibility as the Leica SL. In short, I think that today Leica SL is the best system on the market for me and for my Fine Art landscape photography work.
Below you’ll find a selection of images created in my second year working with the Leica SL (see VIERI BOTTAZZINI PORTFOLIO to view all my galleries): enjoy!
Thanks for reading this post, I hope you enjoyed this article about how to choose the perfect camera system, and that it might prove useful when making your next choices! Why don’t you share it with your friends, or drop me a comment to let me know how you feel about this?
Have a great day, and don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE TO THE NEWSLETTER!
Technical details: all photographs in this article have been shot with the Leica SL equipped with the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH, the Voigtlander Super-Wide Heliar 15mm v. III, the Voigtlander Hyper-Wide Heliar 10mm, the Leica Super-Elmar-M 21mm f/3.4 and the Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4. For support I used a Gitzo 4542LS tripod equipped with an Arca-Swiss P0 Classic ballhead. Last, as always, I used Formatt-Hitech Firecrest and Firecrest Ultra Filters: Grad ND filters (0.6, 0.9, 1.2 and 1.5 stops), Solid ND (3, 6, 10 and 13 stops) and a Firecrest Polariser. Photos have all been developed and finished in Adobe Photoshop CC. Leica SL in the field images have been shot with iPhone 8 Plus.
Backstage photos of me at work have kindly been offered by Zeynep Paftali.