Small Sensor Landscape

This article discusses small sensor landscape photography. It may be a good idea to grab a cup of coffee or brew some tea, and settle in for a while… as this is a fairly lengthy article.

We typically want to achieve deep depth-of-field with landscape images. So, our choice of lens focal length, aperture and focusing distance all need to be considered. It is also important to use as low an ISO value as possible to maintain the most dynamic range and colour depth in our landscape photographs when using small sensor cameras.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 11 mm, efov 29.7 mm, f/8, 1/100, ISO-400

In the photograph above we can see that an aperture of f/8 was used to achieve deep depth-of-field. Given the shooting distance from the small waves rolling into shore, a handheld shutter speed of 1/100 was fast enough to deal with the motion in the scene.

The combination of f/8 and 1/100 allowed the use of ISO-400. This utilized 11.6 EV, or 92.7%, of the Nikon 1 J5’s available dynamic range (according to DxO Mark test data).

From a composition standpoint you can see the use of a ‘magic 7’ as well as classic elements of rule of thirds balance.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-40mm f/2.8 @ 17 mm, efov 34 mm, f/4, 1.3 seconds handheld, ISO-200

Our next composition was captured handheld during the ‘blue hour’ before sunrise using a shutter speed of 1.3 seconds and an aperture of f/4. As a result the image was able to be shot at base ISO-200, thus maximising the available dynamic range of my Olympus OM-D E-M1X.

By using a focusing point reasonably close in the foreground of the image a good amount of depth-of-field was achieved using a 17 mm focal length. Another ‘magic 7’ was used in this composition.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 79 mm, efov 213.3 mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO-800

We often associate wide angle focal lengths with landscape photography. Using a telephoto focal length to create visual compression can help add drama and impact to a composition, as illustrated in the image above.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 @ 12 mm, efov 24 mm, 1/10, f/5.6, -1.7 step, ISO-64

Incorporating a strong leading line is an important composition consideration as it helps direct a viewer’s eye into a photograph. The stone steps starting in the bottom left corner direct a viewer’s eye into the composition.

You can see how the tall tree on the right hand side intersecting with the rock ledge at mid-frame helps to push a viewer’s eye back towards the centre of the photograph.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + N.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 @ 12 mm, efov 24 mm, f/5.6, 1/2 second, ISO-200

We can use element cropping to help frame the outside edges of a landscape image as illustrated in the photograph above. The branches coming into the frame on the left, top and right edges help direct the viewer’s eye off into the distance. Strong contrast and colours on the horizon also direct eye flow to the horizon.

If you check the EXIF data you will notice that a handheld shutter speed of 1/2 second was used. Outstanding IBIS performance when using cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M1X can help a photographer use base ISO-200 on a very frequent basis.

This allows the maximum dynamic range and colour depth of its M4/3 sensor to be leveraged with landscape compositions. Excellent IBIS performance helps to level the dynamic range playing field with full frame cameras when doing handheld landscape photography in low light situations.

Deirbhile’s Twist, Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/8, 1/320, ISO-160

Using a strong corner anchor in a landscape photograph can help create a feeling of intimacy. It is important to remember to think beyond the equivalent field of view (efov) of our lenses when using a small sensor camera. While the efov in this image is 18 mm, the lens used was actually 6.7 mm on the wide end. How a lens performs optically does not change with sensor format. A 6.7 mm focal length lens is always a 6.7 mm focal length lens.

A wider angle lens will always have more depth-of-field than a longer focal length lens at the identical aperture. This mean that it will always be easier to create deep depth-of-field with a wide angle lens used on a 1″ or M4/3 sensor camera, when compared to a full frame lens at an equivalent field-of-view, and when used at the identical aperture and focusing distance.

This is one of the huge advantages that is sometimes not understood by owners of smaller sensor cameras when creating landscape images.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 12-100 mm f/4 IS PRO @ 12 mm, efov 24 mm, f/8, 1/10, ISO-200

The photograph above is another example where using a slow shutter speed handheld, this time of 1/10 of a second, can enable base ISO-200 to be used. This maximises the sensor’s available dynamic range and colour depth. Using an aperture of f/8 helps ensure deep depth-of-field.

You’ll notice how the strong right to left eye flow of the composition is created by the triangular shape of the water surface and the horizon line.

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 31.9 mm, efov 86.1 mm, f/5.6, 1/40, ISO-160

Effective landscape images are not limited to grand vistas. Gnarled trees can emote strong character. When they are placed against an algae filled pond in the background, a compelling photograph can be created.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 17 mm, efov 46 mm, f/8, 1/1250, ISO-400

Incorporating interesting feature elements in the foreground of a landscape composition can help give background elements context and accentuate a feeling of depth. Even when a mid range equivalent field-of-view is used. The photograph above is another example of using the advantages of a wide angle focal length (i.e. 17 mm) on a small sensor camera to create very good depth-of-field.

As a sample re-creation of the shooting parameters in the image above I ran the following specifications through an on-line depth-of-field calculator. Using f/8, with a Nikon 1 18.5 mm prime lens (efov 50 mm) and a focusing distance of 4 metres, creates nearest acceptable sharpness of 1.91 metres and furthest acceptable sharpness of infinity.

Let’s compare this to a full frame camera used at the exact same shooting spot, with a 50 mm full frame prime lens, an aperture of f/8, and a focusing distance of 4 metres. Using these shooting parameters, the nearest acceptable sharpness is 2.85 metres and the furthest acceptable sharpness is 6.72 metres.

To achieve the same furthest acceptable sharpness of infinity as a Nikon 1 camera shot at f/8 in the scenario above, an aperture of f/22 would need to be used with a full frame camera. This would put the full frame camera clearly into diffraction territory, and the ISO used would likely need to be 2 stops higher to get a good exposure (assuming that an identical shutter speed was used).

What’s the difference in dynamic range when shooting a Nikon 1 J5 at ISO-400 compared to a Nikon D850 at ISO-1600? 11.16 EV compared to 11.63 EV… a difference of 0.47 EV. According to DxO Mark this would be barely noticeable for most people.

Obviously under the scenario noted, the full frame photographer would need to find another, more acceptable way to replicate the Nikon 1 composition. This assumes that the photographer can move physically closer to achieve a shorter focusing distance, and has an appropriate wide angle lens with them.

Some new photographers do not understand the effects of lens focal length, aperture and focusing distance. Sometimes they make the erroneous assumption that all they have to do is shoot at f/8 or f/11 to achieve a furthest acceptable sharpness of infinity, regardless of the lens they are using.

They are often disappointed and frustrated with the results of their landscape photographs. In my experience, this sometimes includes photographers who have recently become first time owners of full frame cameras. Many bought in to the ‘bigger is better’ sensor mantra . They did not understand how their photography technique would need to change to use full frame gear effectively.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm @ 10mm, efov 27mm, f/8, 1/50, ISO-400

Thinking about landscape compositions in terms of geometric shapes can help create powerful visuals. Notice how the strong triangular shape of the water helps to accentuate the stand of white birch tress on the left hand side of the image.

Kaka Point, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 10mm, efov 27mm, f/8, 1/1000, ISO-800

Simplicity and strong contrast can help create compelling landscape images. It is always important to consider wave movement and strong winds when selecting a shutter speed.

Nelson – Tahunanui Beach, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 10mm, efov 27mm, f/5.6, 1/640, ISO-160

Remember to change the position of your camera when composing landscape images as this can help create a feeling of more depth. When composing the image above I held my Nikon 1 J5 quite low to the beach. The low shooting angle, combined with using a wide angle of 10 mm, allowed me to create deep depth-of-field with an aperture of only f/5.6.

Purakaunui Falls, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 6.7-13 mm, f/3.5-5.6 mm @ 8 mm, efov 21 mm, f/8, 1/4, ISO-160, tripod assisted

This image of Purakaunui Falls in New Zealand is another example of shooting from a low angle. A smaller sized travel tripod was used to create this particular photograph. If I would have been using my Olympus OM-D E-M1X or an E-M1 Mark III, I could have easily captured this image handheld using a slow shutter speed and Live ND technology to create a blurred water effect.

Lindis Valley, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/200, ISO-160

There is no debate that a full frame camera’s sensor delivers more dynamic range, colour depth, and better low light performance when compared to a 1″ or M4/3 camera.

These full frame advantages can be reduced to some degree. This can be done  by effectively leveraging the depth-of-field characteristics of wider angle lenses associated with smaller sensor camera systems. And, by shooting at more open apertures while still achieving the desired depth-of-field with these wide angle lenses.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-40mm f/2.8 @ 12, efov 24mm, f/4, 4 seconds handheld, ISO-200

Technology, specifically with Olympus OM-D E-M1X and E-M1 Mark III cameras, can also reduce, and in some specific situations eliminate, full frame sensor advantages when shooting handheld landscape photographs.

Outstanding IBIS performance with up to 7.5 stops of image stabilization can make handheld long exposures of several seconds or more a practical reality. Under identical handheld shooting conditions this can cause a full frame camera to be shot at faster handheld shutter speeds, which in turn can necessitate higher ISO values.

Regardless of sensor size, higher ISO values mean less dynamic range, less colour depth, and more noise.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8 @ 14 mm, efov 28 mm, f/4, 0.6 seconds, ISO-200, Hand-held Hi Res Mode

In specific situations where there is very little subject movement, HandHeld Hi Res technology can be used with the E-M1X or E-M1 Mark III. This feature produces a 50 MP RAW file, and also significantly improves the dynamic range performance of the M4/3 sensor in the two Olympus cameras mentioned.

It may be surprising to many photographers, but in situations where shooting with Handheld Hi Res is possible, the Olympus cameras noted have equivalent, and sometimes even better dynamic range, than full frame cameras.

Let’s have a look at one of the best performing full frame cameras in terms of dynamic range, the excellent Nikon D850. According to test data done by photonstophotos here are the dynamic range scores for the D850 at various ISO values.

ISO-63: 11.63 EV
ISO-100: 11.08 EV
ISO-200: 10.13 EV
ISO-400: 9.81 EV
ISO-800: 8.86 EV
ISO-1600: 7.85 EV
ISO-3200: 6.87 EV
ISO-6400: 5.93 EV

Now, let’s look at the performance of the Olympus OM-D E-M1X (the E-M1 Mark III is almost identical) when using the Handheld Hi Res mode.

ISO-63: 11.41 EV
ISO-100: 11.52 EV
ISO-200: 11.54 EV
ISO-400: 11.05 EV
ISO-800: 10.32 EV
ISO-1600: 9.77 EV
ISO-3200: 8.95 EV
ISO-6400: 8.03 EV

Even when we account for differences between the two cameras in terms of their manufacturer stated ISO versus measured ISO performance (where the D850 has about a 2/3 of a stop advantage), we can see that the two Olympus cameras with Handheld Hi Res technology hold their own against the D850 at lower ISO values. And, surpass the full frame camera at high ISO values. It is also important to note that when using Handheld Hi Res mode at ISO-6400 there is scant little noise.

Obviously this Olympus technology is limited to scenes with very little subject movement. Having said that, Handheld Hi Res mode is truly wonderful technology to use in specific situations.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 10mm, efov 27mm, f/8, 1/200 sec, ISO-160. Monument Valley, Utah.

Working with small sensor camera RAW files in post requires a different approach when compared to full frame files. I’ve found to squeak the most out of my Nikon 1 files I need to ‘double bump’ highlights and shadows in post. This ‘thickens up’ the file, so I can adjust it further, then brighten it as a final step. I call this process ‘TAB’ (thicken, adjust, brighten). I use a somewhat similar, but less aggressive approach, with my Olympus files.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/8, 1/160, ISO-160

Another assumption that is often made is that one must start with huge, full frame  RAW files in order to print good quality enlargements of landscape images. When shot at base ISO, files from the Nikon 1 J5 20.8 MP BSI 1″ sensor can produce excellent 16″ x 24″ (40.4 x  60.9 cm) prints.

The files from my 20.4 MP M4/3 sensor E-M1X can be used to create excellent 24″ x 32″ (60.9 x 81.3 cm) enlargements. Larger prints are certainly possible. My in-house printing capability is limited to 24″ (60.9 cm) roll paper.

Glengarriff Blue Pool Walk Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 7 mm, efov 18.9 mm, f/8, 1/80, ISO-160

For some time now, some photographers have assumed that full frame cameras must be used to create good landscape images. This is simply not true.

While there can be some trade-offs, smaller sensor cameras bring some real advantages to landscape photography. The challenge for the owners of smaller sensor cameras is to understand how to effectively use their gear to leverage its advantages to the fullest. When they do, they discover that it is actually easier to use smaller sensor cameras for this genre of photography, and still achieve their desired results.

Fundamental to all good landscape photographs is composition. A poorly composed image will not be be magically improved by capturing it with a more expensive camera with a larger sensor.

Technical Note

Most photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. The image of Purakaunui Falls was captured tripod assisted. All Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.

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2 thoughts on “Small Sensor Landscape”

  1. Thank you for highlighting that micro 4/3 can have advantages that are never mentioned by the full frame evangelists.

    1. You’re most welcome Robert!

      The key is for each of us to use the camera format that best meets our needs. I’ve found that M4/3, and specifically my OM-D E-M1X, has some amazing technology that can be successfully leveraged to handle the photographic challenges I face. I sold all of my full frame gear back in July 2015 and have never regretted that decision for even a second.


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