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 2016.
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 a 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: The Sony RX100 V is a feature-packed point-and-shoot that pretty much does it all. We also like the new Panasonic Lumix LX10, which has a faster lens and is cheaper. The Ricoh GR II in an interesting option with its extra large APS-C image sensor (the equivalent to most DSLRs) but has a fixed 28mm lens with no zoom. It's the ideal compact camera for street photography but a little narrow for landscapes. Finally, keep an eye out for the soon-to-be-released Nikon 18-50mm DL. This new line of point-and-shoots from Nikon was designed for professionals and includes three camera models. For landscape photography, we absolutely love the wide-angle capability of the 18-50mm DL, which at 18mm is wider than any camera from Sony or Panasonic.
Top Mid-Range Point-and-Shoots: We like the Sony RX100 here, which is less than half the price of the RX100 V above. Keep in the mind that the zoom range is 28-100mm instead of 24-70mm (Sony changed this with the third version), which is 4mm narrower and therefore less optimal for landscapes.
Top Budget Point-and-Shoot: The Canon PowerShot SX710 HS has a huge zoom range at 25-750mm, is easy to use, and relatively cheap. The biggest downside is the small sensor, but that's an issue with just about every point-and-shoot in this price range.
More: See our page on the Best Point-and-Shoot Cameras of 2016
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 $300 for an entry-level model to over $3,000 for the full-frame Sony a7R II.
Top High-End Mirrorless Cameras: It isn't even a conversation: the full-frame Sony a7R II is the best mirrorless camera on the planet.
Top Mid-Range Mirrorless Cameras: Sony keeps coming strong with the new Alpha a6500, which includes weather sealing, 4K video, built-in image stabilization, and some of the fastest autofocus in the business. And we’ve always loved the Olympus OM-D E-M1—particularly paired with the 12-40mm Pro zoom—but it is a couple years old and counting.
Top Budget Mirrorless Cameras: The Sony Alpha a6000 currently is a steal with the recent release of the a6300 and now a6500. With a kit lens it costs less than all of the high-end point-and-shoots above and will produce far better images.
More: See our page on the Best Mirrorless Cameras of 2016
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.
2016 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 24-megapixel Nikon D5500 is a powerhouse mid-range DSLR, and the Nikon D3300 is an outstanding budget DSLR. We also like the 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. For a simpler and cheaper option, the Rebel SL1 is the lightest DSLR Canon makes at 13.1 ounces.
More: See our page on the Best DSLR Cameras of 2016
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 a 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-frame 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 offers a whopping 20.1 more megapixels than the Canon 5D Mark IV and a healthy 14.3 more than the Nikon D810. This camera is built for still photography with fewer video options than 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 Canon EOS 6D and Nikon D750. 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.
Lenses: See our article on Lenses and Focal Lengths for Landscapes
More: See our page on the Best Full-Frame Cameras of 2016
Lenses for Landscape Photography
Don’t make the mistake of focusing too much on the camera itself while overlooking the lens. For landscapes, you’ll want a lens with strong wide-angle capability, which isn’t as easy as it might sound. Point-and-shoots tend to be around 24mm to 28mm at the wide end, which is serviceable but not optimal for big landscape shots (24mm is much better than 28mm). Mirrorless cameras and DSLRs are offered with kit lenses that usually are around 27mm to 29mm at the wide end. These kit lenses are decent but not professional grade and you’ll likely notice some distortion and softness, which is why we recommend adding a specific wide-angle lens for landscapes. To help clarify this topic, see our helpful guide on lenses and focal lengths for landscapes.
Landscape photographers inherently spend most of their time outdoors, and therefore weather sealing is an important consideration when making a camera purchase. This technology isn’t an exact science and manufacturers aren’t as transparent about weather sealing as we would like, but the process generally involves adding rubber around the joints and buttons to prevent moisture and dust from entering. This won’t necessarily protect your camera during an extended deluge, but it does offer piece of mind during light to moderate precipitation and exposure.
Weather sealing unfortunately increases the price of the camera and this technology is most often found on enthusiast and professional models (Pentax is one exception to this rule with entry-level DSLRs like the KS-2). With Nikon, for example, you’ll have to spend up for the D7200 or D7100 to get weather sealing. For Canon, it’s the 80D or 70D. For a complete list of current options, see our articles on weather-sealed DSLRs and weather-sealed mirrorless cameras.
Landscape Photography Is About More Than Your Camera
The header image for this article was shot years ago with a cheap Nikon point-and-shoot that was all this author could afford at the time (we keep it up there for sentimental reasons). It’s definitely not a perfect photo—a tripod would have helped in these early morning hours as would a higher-end camera and lens. But I was out there at sunrise in breathtaking Yellowstone National Park, with freezing hands, taking photos while others were sleeping. You can spend as much as you want on camera gear, but a common thread of great landscape photos is being in beautiful places at the right time of day. Quality cameras and lenses certainly will help your cause, but you can capture memorable landscape photos on just about any budget.
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.