If you’re new to landscape photography – or digital photography in general – you should know the importance of your camera’s sensor size. There are some great benefits to us landscape photographers that can make capturing beautiful scenes much simpler.
First, you need to know exactly what your sensor does. The digital sensor is the equivalent to actual film in analog photography – think of it as a blank negative where your photo is exposed onto. For digital photographers, the size of your sensor is an important thing to keep in mind since most digital SLRs come with smaller sensors that are somewhat counterproductive to the nature of landscape photography.
Digital SLRs typically come with either crop sensors or full-frame sensors, which get their names from their relationship to the size of film. Most film cameras shoot with a film size of 35mm – the basic gauge. Crop sensors – which are very common in digital photography – are smaller than a 35mm film slide, while full-frame sensors are the same size as their 35mm film counterpart.
Why is the sensor size important to landscape photographers in particular? For one, the larger sensor size allows you to capture more of your surroundings with the same lens as there is more room for your image to be exposed on – it’s like painting with a bigger canvas. With landscapes, we usually try to get as much of a scene into our viewfinder as possible (which is why wide-angle lenses are so popular) so this sort of instant expansion of our viewing area allows us to capture more of our surroundings with no decrease in image quality or wide-angle lens side effects.
Another benefit to us landscapers is the decrease of noise when using a higher ISO setting as compared to crop sensors. While there is a very interesting technical explanation for this (which you are more than welcome to Google), the point is that the smaller your sensor size, the more grain you will have for a given ISO setting. For example, the sensor size on your compact camera (or even your cellphone) is much smaller than a digital SLR camera, so you may have noticed how horribly grainy these photos turn out when taken in low-light conditions. You will see a vast improvement when using a full-frame sensor at the same ISO setting.
Finally, with a full-frame sensor you’ll get the visual benefit of a stop or two wider, which will give you a more shallow depth of field – this means that a photo taken on a crop sensor at f/5.6 will appear to look like it was taken at f/4.0 on your full-frame sensor. While you won’t get other benefits of actually shooting at this wider aperture – like a faster shutter speed – you will see a difference in your photos as your depth of field will decrease, thus giving you a more isolation and a chance for better bokeh. So if you have a lens on your crop sensor that only opens up to say f/2.8, it will be like shooting at f/2.0 on your full-frame sensor for most situations. This has more to do with the distance between you and your focal point than any mechanical differences between a full sensor and a crop sensor – a photographic phenomenon that I will explain in a later article.
When you combine all these techniques, you can get an image similar to my Autumn Trail photo below:
A full-frame digital SLR is certainly more expensive than their crop sensor counterparts, but there are full-frame models that have been out for several years that rival the newer, more expensive crop sensor SLRs in terms of price. The benefits of an older full-frame model far surpass any new gadgets that the latest model digital SLR has. If you’re serious about landscape photography, a full-frame SLR is definitely the way to go.