Buying a camera for landscape photography can be overwhelming, but the process should be fun and not just a leap of faith. First, choose among the three main tiers of cameras: point-and-shoots, mirrorless cameras, and digital SLRs. Then do some research based on your price range and specifications. The good news is that you can find reasonably priced cameras in all categories that capture quality images, and many are light enough that they won’t be much of a burden to carry. Below is what you need to know, and all of the information is current for 2015.
Option 1: Point-and-Shoots
Point-and-shoot cameras are about the size of a notecard with an attached zoom lens and mostly automatic features (hence the name). Don’t be fooled: technology keeps advancing and these cameras capture great images, are easy to use, lightweight, and relatively cheap. They also run the gamut from cheap models that barely outperform some smartphones to compact cameras built for professionals with large sensors and impressive lenses.
The point-and-shoot has experienced a resolution explosion and superzooms (with a 30x zoom or more) are increasingly popular. The reality is that the small sensors and lenses on most point-and-shoots can't capture as much light or sharpness as bigger cameras. If you want large, professional-grade prints, consider a mirrorless camera or digital SLR camera below. Otherwise, point-and-shoots have a lot of advantages. When making prints, an average point-and-shoot should produce an 12” x 18” print without a significant drop-off in quality. For larger prints, consider a point-and-shoot like the Ricoh GR II that has an APS-C image sensor, the same as many DSLRs.
Pros: Cheap, easy to use, lightweight.
Cons: Mostly automated, struggle with large prints.
Things to Remember: Don’t be overwhelmed by features—focus on fundamentals like sensor size, megapixels, zoom, battery life, cost, and reputation.
Price Range: $100-$950
Top High-End Point-and-Shoots: Ricoh GR II, Sony DSC-RX100 IV
Top Budget Point-and-Shoot: Canon PowerShot SX700 HS
More: See our page on the Best Point-and-Shoot Cameras of 2015
Option 2: Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Cameras
Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras are a relatively new addition to our list of the best cameras for landscape photography. Built entirely for digital, this modern breed of compact camera foregoes the internal mirror system of a DSLR; instead, light passes through the lens directly to the image sensor like a point-and-shoot. This build allows for a large image sensor in a relatively small camera body.
For landscape photographers, mirrorless cameras are a very intriguing option. Sony leads the pack with its full-frame a7 series offerings, but there are a number of great options from brands like Olympus and Fujifim. It’s worth noting that good wide-angle lenses for mirrorless cameras can be pricey, and a full set-up can easily end up costing more than a comparative DSLR. However, we love the lack of bulk and many professional landscape photographers are making the switch.
Pros: Lightweight, easy to use, great image quality.
Cons: Lenses can be expensive, particularly wide-angle lenses.
Things to Remember: Sony, Olympus, and Panasonic dominate this sector, not traditional powerhouses Nikon and Canon.
Price Range: From around $400 for the Sony Alpha a5100 up to over $3,000 for the Sony a7R II.
Top Budget Mirrorless Cameras: Sony Alpha a6000
Top High-End Mirrorless Cameras: Olympus OM-D E-M1, Sony a7R II
More: See our page on the Best Mirrorless Cameras of 2015
Option 3: Entry-Level and Mid-Range DSLRs
Digital SLRs—bigger camera bodies with interchangeable lenses—take professional grade images and foster the greatest photographic expression. Cameras of this type have considerably larger sensors than do point-and-shoots and capture fantastic detail and color. They also operate with less automation, allowing for adjustments in shutter speed, ISO, and aperture, among others (some point-and-shoots offer variations of these adjustments but it's not the same).
The downside of the digital SLR comes with a higher price tag and increased size and weight. These cameras are considerably bulkier than a point-and-shoot and you will need at least one lens and a camera bag to protect your gear. You will also be carrying a much higher dollar value. But on the whole, the image quality produced by the digital SLR is substantially better than the point-and-shoot and generally worth the extra bulk (consider it a form of cross-training). These photographs can be enlarged and hung on the wall for a lifetime.
Pros: Less automation (more room for creativity), professional grade image quality, great for large prints.
Cons: Less automation (more room for user error), size and weight, cost.
Things to Remember: Get to know the camera before your trip by reading the manual and going out for some test shoots. Many digital SLR’s have automated settings such as ‘landscape’ and ‘portrait’ but you will want a baseline of familiarity.
Price Range: Budget DSLR camera/lens kits start at around $450; high-end set-ups can cost $3,000 and up.
2015 Market: Things can change quickly, but Nikon cameras currently dominate the entry-level DSLR market with more megapixels and lower prices than their Canon counterparts.
Top Cameras: The Nikon D7200 is the best DX camera on the market. The 24-megapixel Nikon D5500 is a powerhouse mid-range DSLR, and the Nikon D3300 is an outstanding budget DSLR. We also like the new Canon Rebel T6i, but that camera has a number of video-centric features that drive the price up and many landscape photographers won’t need.
Top Lenses: The Nikon 10-24mm is the company's leading wide-angle lens, and the Nikon 18-300mm VR is an excellent all-purpose lens for everything from grand landscapes to wildlife close-ups. From Canon, the 10-18mm IS STM is a great value but can struggle in low light. The Canon 10-22mm has a faster maximum aperture but is pricey for our tastes.
More: See our page on the Best DSLR Cameras of 2015
Option 4: Professional DSLRs (Full Frame)
The critical distinction between entry-level and professional digital SLRs is the jump to full-frame—professional DSLRs have extra large sensors that take full-frame images equivalent to 36x24mm.
In the image to the left, the inner box represents a DX photograph and the outer box is an full-frame or FX photograph. The difference is rather astounding: full-frame images contain substantially more visual information.
Full-frame cameras are phenomenal, the best of the best, and if you can afford one it will not disappoint. There are few deals in the full-market market and lenses are particularly pricey—the extra large sensors require extremely precise (and therefore expensive) glass.
There are only a handful of full-frame camera models to choose from, but a new release stands out from the pack: the Canon EOS 5DS R. With a whopping 50.6 megapixels of resolution, the 5DS R is more than double the megapixels of the Canon 5D Mark III and a healthy 14.3 more than the Nikon D810. This camera is built for still photography with fewer video options the competition, but we appreciate the split from the hybrid model at this end of the spectrum.
The cameras above not named the Canon EOS 5DS R certainly aren’t slouches, and you can even explore some budget full-frame options like the Nikon D750 and Canon EOS 6D. All offer impressive resolutions for landscape photography and are among the best cameras out there.
Pros: Exceptional image quality (the best), high resolution prints of any size.
Cons: Cost, learning curve, size and weight.
Things to Remember: With a full-frame camera you should be prepared to invest in quality full-frame lenses (some smaller lenses are compatible but the images will be cropped).
Price Range: The camera bodies start at around $2,000; lenses are $1,000 and up.
Top Models: Canon EOS 5DS R and Nikon D810 For lenses for the D810, the Nikon 14-24mm and Carl Zeiss 21mm both are phenomenal for landscapes.
More: See our page on the Best Full-Frame Cameras of 2015
Shutter Speed: How long the shutter stays open and exposed to the image (usually a fraction of a second, but shutter speed can range from 1/8000 of a second to minutes in certain low light situations)
ISO: The measure of sensitivity to low light (the higher the ISO the less grainy photographs will be at low light)
Aperture: The size of the opening in the lens when the picture is taken, similar to the iris of an eye. Aperture is measured in f-stop (lower f-stops mean a wider opening for better low-light photography)
Sensor Size Comparison
Most consumers look at megapixels first when buying a digital camera, but the sensor size actually is a more important factor. See our sensor size comparison for digital cameras for more information.