CHOOSING THE BEST CAMERA SYSTEM FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY
IS THERE A BEST CAMERA SYSTEM FOR LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY AND IF SO, HOW CAN WE CHOOSE IT?
Choosing the best camera system for landscape photography, or for any kind of photography, is a very personal matter. Everyone’s approach to photography and gear choice is different, and there is no right or wrong here – just what suits someone, versus what suits someone else. Therefore, this article is not meant as a “camera X is best”, “brand X is best”, or a “brand X is better than brand Y” discussion. This article is about outlining the process I follow to make my gear choices as a professional landscape photographer, hoping that it will be interesting and of help to others as well.
Photography is not just my lifetime long love, but my profession as well. As a professional photographer, since 2010 I only do Fine Art landscape & architectural photography. This, in turn, puts me in the enviable position of not needing a “universal” camera system, or even a camera system that is good at a couple of different photographic genres or three. I just need to find the best camera system for landscape photography. As I progressed in my journey with photography, my understanding of aesthetics and my ideas about landscape photography got clearer and clearer. You can call that my “vision”, as it’s fashionable nowadays. The more my vision became clearer to me, the more I focused my requirements for gear more precisely as well. As a result, I became fully purpose-oriented in my personal quest for that elusive “best tool for the job”.
DIFFERENT TOOLS FOR DIFFERENT PHOTOGRAPHERS
Cameras are tools, first and foremost. As all tools, some cameras are designed to be more “universal” than others, while some are designed to excel at one or two photographic applications only. As an example, the Leica M might be one of the best street shooters out there; however, you won’t see many Leica M shooting the NFL’s Superbowl game for Sports Illustrated. You won’t see many tech cameras with digital backs at the Superbowl either, even though they are arguably amazing image making tools, as we’ll see further down this article. And so on.
Keeping that in mind, when choosing the best camera system for landscape photography it is important to try and examine different camera systems in the most objective and purpose-oriented way possible. That’s often not as easy as it sounds. We all love gear, we all love chasing the “newest and best thing”, no matter whether it is actually going to improve our photography or not. In fact, we often want it even if it isn’t suitable for our kind of photography at all. Of course, I love the “newest and best thing” as much as anyone else, and I’m fascinated by camera technology’s developments as much as the next guy, but I have long decided to try and be as pragmatic as possible when it comes to my working tools.
STICK WITH YOUR CHOICE – AT LEAST FOR A WHILE!
The best camera system for landscape photography, and for any kind of photography for that matter, is the one that feels like an extension of your brain, the one that becomes transparent when you pick it up, the one that you can use without thinking about it. As it takes time and practice for a pianist to be able to play without thinking about which finger goes where during a concert, it takes time and practice for a photographer to know a camera so well that one can operate it with one’s eyes closed in the field, getting perfect results every time.
I am always astonished by the number of “switchers” I meet, both online and in the real world. There are so many people constantly changing systems, looking for that elusive Holy Grail that will fix everything that is missing in their photography. Of course, if trying new gear is important for you as part of the enjoyment of your photography and of your hobby, or if you enjoy the collecting side of photography, by all means go for it. Obviously, I have nothing against it – as I said, I enjoy gear as much as the next guy! – but that has nothing to do with the point of this article.
Today, digital photography developed to the point where a new model is often just offering small, incremental advantages over the previous generation, and we often don’t even need these for our particular kind of work. As well, most high-end brands’ best cameras are not much different from one another, in terms of capabilities and image quality.
Despite the sirens of the newest and best, the features of pretty much any of today’s professional or advanced amateur cameras would be good enough to last most photographers a lifetime, whether they are professionals or amateurs.
However, there still are defining features separating one camera system from another. I am not just talking about megapixels, as important as they are. Sensor’s size, user interface, lens quality, lens selection, a feature set better suited for a kind of photography or another, portability, size, weight, connectivity, and more, have all been increasingly important factors for me in my choice of gear during the years.
Some of these advantages might seem very small to you when taken one by one. However, combine them together and they will make a huge difference when you work in the field. The problem is that cameras are becoming so good that it’s getting more and more difficult to know what to look for. As with anything else, the more focused on your photography you’ll become, the deeper you’ll get into your hobby or profession, the more fine-tuned and demanding your requirements will in turn become.
It takes a lot of time and practice to get your knowledge of aesthetics, of photography technique and of camera gear to the point where a single, apparently minimal feature will make an enormous difference for you.
It takes a lot of time and work to get to the point where you’ll know for sure that the limiting factor in your growth as a photographer and as an artist is, in fact, your camera system and not you. Constantly changing camera systems, often without really getting to know their true potential and therefore their limits, will make this journey much longer and arduous.
MY APPROACH TO CHOOSING THE BEST CAMERA SYSTEM FOR ME
Nothing is perfect, unfortunately, and even choosing the best camera system for landscape photography involves accepting some compromises. My approach to this choice, which is never an easy one, is to prepare a list of requirements that are fundamental for me. I then look at what’s available on the market and choose the system that meets most, if not all, my requirements in the best possible way. This approach served me well so far, and I use it both for camera systems and for pretty much every other piece of equipment I need to do my job.
Let’s see now what my 10 most important requirements are, point by point. Since my working system since December 2020 is the Phase One XT with a 150 Mp IQ4 back, I’ll use that to exemplify how my chosen system meets my requirements, comparing it with the Leica SL and Hasselblad X1D, the two systems that preceded the Phase One XT in my bag. Disclaimer: At the time of writing, I am a Phase One Local Ambassador. That said, I am a professional photographer looking for the best equipment for my work, I buy all my gear with my hard-earned cash and I don’t get paid by anyone to write articles for my blog.
To do my job to the best of my abilities, I need equipment enabling me:
1. To create amazing images, sharp, detailed and with beautiful colours
We all know that for landscape photography the more resolution the better. However, sharpness, detail and colour do not depend on resolution alone. They depend on a combination of the qualities of sensors, lenses and post-processing software you use. More, no amazing sensors and lenses would do the trick if they were in a package unfitted for the job when it comes to portability, weather-resistance, user interface, and so on.
The Phase One IQ4 digital back, with its 16-bit files, over 15 stops of dynamic range and beautiful colours, paired with Rodenstock lenses, arguably the best on the market, make sure that my images are technically unsurpassed by anything today. While the Leica SL and Hasselblad X1D are both very good cameras, especially the latter, the Phase One XT files are on a different league. Now more than ever, the limiting factor is me.
2. To create large prints of my images
As many landscape photographers do, I print big. I produce and sell unique Single Piece Fine Art prints, with very large print areas (see VIERI BOTTAZZINI FINE ART PRINTS). Between the extremely high resolution of the Phase One IQ4 digital back and the extreme acutance of Rodenstock lenses, I can print pretty much as large as I want. Natively, the 150 Mp of my Phase One IQ4 digital back allow me to print up to 120 x 90cm at 300 dpi, 180 x 135cm at 200 dpi and 240 x 180cm at 150 dpi.
Careful interpolation allows me to print even bigger. Plus, thanks to the shift capabilities of my Phase One XT camera, I can easily stitch without any parallax problem, for even higher pixel count. Again, the Phase One XT is in a different league, when it comes to large prints, compared to anything I used before.
3. To work without any worries in adverse weather conditions
As many landscape photographers, I have to work in any weather. I routinely photograph in very windy conditions in sand and salt deserts, as well as under rainstorms, snowstorms and hailstorms. I work immersed almost up to my chest in the ocean, as well as laying down on extremely rough rocks, on sand, and on lava beaches. Unfortunately, the very nature of tech cameras, with their modularity, makes it impossible to make them weather sealed. However, there are very workflow-efficient solutions to this problem: I choose a Think Tank Photo Emergency camera cover, which works very well for me.
As I mentioned before, the choice of camera system always involves compromises. In this case, I choose to use a third-party solution to make my camera & lenses weatherproof, in exchange for the best image quality I can get. If you favour convenience over image quality, then either of my previous cameras (the Leica SL and the Hasselblad X1D) will be a better compromise for you.
4. To completely trust my system’s reliability
If you photograph professionally, or if you are an advanced amateur working in hostile environments, reliability is never enough. You simply have to be able to trust that your cameras will keep working no matter what you throw at them. I just got my Phase One XT, so I will update this article with its long-term reliability as I keep using it. However, Phase One’s digital backs are very reliable, and so are tech camera lenses. The Phase One X shutter is heavy duty, guaranteed for 500.000 actuations. The XT itself is just a metal frame with electrical contacts. Most importantly, for my complete peace of mind Phase One offers a 5-year Uptime Guarantee, meaning that if unluckily you’ll have a Camera System or component break down, Phase One will send you a replacement item within 24 hours.
Before the Phase One XT, none of the manufacturers I used offered such a guarantee. Luckily, during the previous two years with the X1D & X1D II, my Hasselblad bodies proved to be extremely reliable; before that, I used for three years the Leica SL, an extremely reliable system too; before the SL, I enjoyed the reliability of my Pentax 645D and 645Z. I would never choose a system which reliability I have reasons to doubt, no matter how impressive all its other features might be.
5. To work effectively in low light and with filters
A long-time optical viewfinder lover, I converted to using electronic viewfinders (EVF) & LCDs when I moved to the Leica SL and its amazing EyeRes EFV. Using EVFs & LCDs allows me to work in daylight with 10-13 stops ND filters mounted on my lenses without having to take them off to focus, or to adjust my composition. For landscape photography, this is simply a revolutionary improvement compared to using an optical viewfinder.
With the Phase One XT, I use the IQ4’s LCD to compose and focus my images. For critical focusing and precise composing, I use a Hoodman HoodLoupe. While a bit more cumbersome than simply using an EVF as I did before with my SL and X1D, this solution allows me to achieve perfect results, which is what counts for me.
6. To do very long exposures easily and with clean files
When it came out, the original Leica SL’s implementation of long exposures was best in class, thanks to the possibility to stay in Manual mode without any need to move to dedicated modes such as Bulb (B) or Time (T), and with no need for cable releases. File quality wasn’t great, though, with artefacts and banding appearing if you went longer than a minute or so, and I never enjoyed the Leica SL’s mandatory long exposure noise reduction (LENR) which meant having to wait twice as long for every capture before being able to take another shot. The Hasselblad X1D’s implementation of long exposures was just perfect, and its file quality was so much better than the Leica SL’s that it wasn’t even funny. The Phase One XT with the IQ4, however, took long exposures to a completely new level.
Frame Averaging, available in the IQ4’s Lab, is truly revolutionary. Thanks to Frame Averaging, I now can make long exposures without the need for an ND filter, without the need for a dark frame, with perfectly clean files with no noise whatsoever, and what’s more important I can fine tune the length of my long exposures much more precisely than I could do with ND filters. A real game changer!
7. To work fast in the field
I loved the Leica SL and the “Essential” philosophy behind it, and behind any other Leica camera as well. The Hasselblad X1D was as essential if not more, in a similarly sized body. Such essentiality in body and user interface is fundamental for me, and it’s what kept me away, i.e., from Fuji GFX cameras. The Phase One XT is, if possible, even more essential and minimalistic.
On the lens, you have your high-precision focussing ring. On the digital back’s LCD, your aperture and shutter speed, controlled either via touchscreen, or via the four buttons on the screen’s side. That’s it. Since I moved to the SL in 2016, long gone for me are the times when I had to worry about finding a small button placed in a strange place on a classic DSLR’s body, and long forgotten is the last time I pushed the wrong button on a cramped camera body. I had enough of that, both with my Nikon cameras and especially with the Pentax 645Z, which felt like the camera with most buttons ever built by man. While someone might love to have a dedicated button for each and every feature, personally for my work I don’t. Once it’s powered up, which takes quite a bit, the Phase One XT is simply the most essential, the fastest, easiest and most efficient camera I ever worked with, and I love it for that.
8. To have lenses covering a range from 15-16mm to 90-100mm FOV equivalent with superior optical quality
Modern lenses are generally very good, much better than what they used to be. Leica lenses are of course legendary, and SL lenses are definitely living up to that. Hasselblad XCD lenses are second to none. Rodenstock lenses are a step above, and if you want the best image quality you can get, coupled with the Phase One IQ4’s 150 Mp, they pretty much are your only choice. I love wide-angles and ultra-wide angles, and the Phase One XT offers the Rodenstock 23mm with a field-of-view equivalent, in 35mm terms, to that of a 14,5mm lens. This is the widest FOV equivalent native lens you can get for any medium format system, except for the non-native (and not superlative) Laowa 17mm in FujiFilm GFX mount, which is slightly wider. Then, I choose to get the 32mm (20mm FOV equivalent), the 50mm (31mm FOV equivalent) and the 90mm (56mm FOV equivalent).
Compared to my previous Leica & Hasselblad systems, I fall a bit short on the long end. Since I don’t use longer lenses all that much, I will add a longer lens in the future, probably either a Rodenstock 180mm in Cambo mount, with no shutter, or an adapted Hasselblad 180mm. Stitching with the Phase One XT’s shift will cover focal lengths in-between all my lenses, while adding some more resolution to my files.
9. To be able to use 100mm square filters with all my lenses
With the Phase One XT system, I can use my 100mm square filters with all my Rodenstock lenses without any worries. I don’t need to move up to 150mm or larger filters, which is almost inevitably a necessity if you want to use wide-angle lenses with traditional Medium Format cameras. The only adjustment I had to make here is to get a filter holder supporting 86mm lenses.
The use of 100mm filters is paramount for me, so obviously I was able to do so with both my Hasselblad X1D and with my Leica SL before that.
10. To be able to hike and climb easily to get where I need to go with my gear
My bag with my Phase One XT, Phase One IQ4 digital back, 4 lenses, filters, batteries, memory cards and other bits and pieces is light enough to hike pretty much anywhere. Considering that you are carrying a full-frame Medium Format camera with you, it is a pretty impressive achievement, and a large improvement over Phase One’s own, more studio-friendly XF.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER MIRRORLESS MEDIUM FORMAT OFFERS?
After two years of Hasselblad X1D and X1D II, when the time came for me to move to the next level, the Phase One XT was the only possible choice to get a sizeable difference in image quality. Both the 150 Mp, IQ4 digital back and the Rodenstock lenses coming with the XT are a step above my previous system, and the files outputted by this combination are nothing short of exceptional. Let’s see now what other mirrorless medium format offers are there.
Starting from the high end of the market, pricewise, under Phase One we’ll find Hasselblad and the X1D II system. This is the system I previously happily used for two years. There is nothing wrong with the Hasselblad X1D II and XCD lenses, of course, and I enjoyed working with the X1D very much.
On the lower end of the market, pricewise, we’ll find FujiFilm. FujiFilm’s offer of medium format gear pricewise is disruptive, not only for the medium format market but for high-end 35mm full-frame players as well. While very different in concept from both Phase One XT and Hasselblad X1D, FujiFilm also offers a mirrorless medium format system with many of the advantages I listed above, including the GFX 100, a higher resolution camera than the Hasselblad X1D II.
As I mentioned before, it is always a matter of compromises. While your answer might be different, personally I choose to go with the Phase One XT for the best image quality, the better and simpler user interface, for some better implemented, dedicated landscape features (especially for long exposures) and for the most minimalistic camera body and most “essential” working philosophy.
That said, both Hasselblad and FujiFilm definitely offers a viable alternative for people looking for a mirrorless medium format answer to the question of what the best camera system for landscape photography is.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER SENSOR SIZE SYSTEMS?
These are great times to be landscape photographers, with a wide array of offers from Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax, Leica, Panasonic, Fuji and Olympus, ranging from Full-Frame 35mm, to APS-c and to Micro 4/3. As I mentioned before, everyone has different preferences and requirements, and there are many landscape photographers out there happily using any one of these systems to great success.
So, would they provide a convincing alternative to the Phase One XT for me? While there are very good propositions there, I personally prefer the overall image quality and the look of medium format in general, and of full-frame medium format in particular, against smaller formats such as FF, APS-c and Micro 4/3. In the past, I used the Leica SL for years because it brought me as close as possible to the medium format look I love, in times when the available medium format offer was lacking in some of the areas I valued as fundamental for my work (see A LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHER IN-DEPTH LEICA SL REVIEW).
However, as things stand today, I wouldn’t go back to a sensor smaller than medium format, and more precisely smaller than full-frame medium format, if I can help it. Technology and the camera market are fast evolving, though, so nothing is set in stone.
You might have noticed that throughout this article I always talked about “camera system” rather than just cameras. This is because I believe that more than a single camera, or more than a single feature in a camera such as Mp, what counts is having a system that works for me from end to end. This includes the camera itself, of course, but as part of a larger whole: camera, lenses, accessories, filterability of lenses, portability of the system, flexibility in use, and so on.
Taking one step back, an even more important concept for me is that of the image capturing system, or “image capturing chain”, as I like to consider it. For me, the image capturing chain includes cameras, lenses, filters, tripods, tripod heads, memory cards, bags, everything down to battery chargers and cleaning cloths. As every chain, the image capturing chain is just as strong as its weakest link, which is something to keep in mind when choosing tripods, heads, filters, and so on. Every single piece of your chain must work as one to help you get great images, with nothing getting in the way between you and that amazing photograph that you previsualized in your mind before pressing the shutter.
In conclusion, to choose the best camera system for landscape photography my suggestion is to prepare a list of requirements that are absolutely fundamental for you and your work. In this article, I provided you with a list of what is important for me, but of course your list might be very different. Then, try and find the system that fulfils them all: if such a system exists, perfect! Just get it, go out to take photos and never look back. If no system gets 100% of your requirements perfectly right, right now, then rather than waiting for the next and best I’d choose the camera system that fulfils the majority of your most important requirements, the one closer to your ideal system, and make the most of it while keeping your eyes open for any improvement in technology.
For the kind of Fine Art landscape photography that I do, in the environments I work in and with the hiking I do, the Phase One XT system is the one ticking the highest number of boxes in my list. Granted, I wouldn’t say no to weather-sealing; granted, I would love a native longer lens; granted, while it’s likely never going to happen, having the convenience of zoom lenses would be great. But, definitely not at the expense of everything else that the Phase One XT gives me. Today, I believe that Phase One XT is the best camera system for landscape photography on the market for me and for my kind of work. Tomorrow, who knows. I will keep my list of requirements updated and my eyes on the market, as I always do. In the meantime, I’ll keep creating images as close as possible to my vision with my Phase One XT and Rodenstock lenses.
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