Choosing a Camera for Wilderness-Mountain Photography: Part One

Image Quality

Sunset, Steamroller Pass, Chugach State Park (not in the Alaska Range)

Sunset, Steamroller Pass, Chugach State Park (not in the Alaska Range)

There are plenty of factors to consider when choosing a camera for remote wilderness photography, the first and foremost is image quality.

Since the early days of mountain and wilderness photography, from Vittorio Sella to Ansel Adams, maximum image quality has been the goal. The old rule was “carry the largest negative possible”. Today we could argue the motto should be” carry the highest resolution you can afford”.

One of the most frequent questions I get is “Does the number of mega-pixels directly translate to high image quality?”  If we had two cameras that were created equal, with the same processors, dynamic range, ISO performance, but one had a higher pixel count, then in theory the camera with the more pixels would produce an image with more information and essentially higher  image quality. But not all cameras are created equal. Each manufacturer has their own designers and engineers, some are just better than others. I would go with the most you can afford as long as the mega pixel count doesn’t affect the other important qualities like dynamic range and noise (which I will discuss later).

What about sensor size and its relationship with mega pixels and image quality? In the early days of digital photography, image quality was all about pixel size, the bigger the sensor, the lager the pixels and the higher the image quality. Those days are slowly coming to an end. We must remember that we are dealing with programming and with each new year programmers and engineers create new processors that work more efficiently and create better images, regardless of the size of the pixels.  There is also the issue of depth of field, the larger the sensor, the narrower the depth of field, something that is critical for portrait and video work, not so much for landscape and mountain photography.

Another factor that controls image quality is noise performance. Modern digital cameras are truly amazing  when it comes to low light image taking. Noise and other  artifacts are rarely present under ISO 800 on most high quality DSLRs. Some look great even up to 3200. Just the ability to change ISO whenever you want seems like a miracle to anyone who has worked with film. But why would a wilderness photographer need a high ISO anyways? While it is true that I almost always use a tripod and rarely shoot over ISO 200, there are times when having the ability to switch to a higher ISO is essential. The two most common times are when photographing in high winds when either my camera is being blown around(even on the tripod) or my subject is (flowers, grasses, leaves…). The other time is on the flights in and out of locations.  I also use a higher ISO for those needed expedition shots of people.

Dynamic range is another factor of high image quality. In layman’s terms, dynamic range is how much detail is recorded in the highlights and shadow areas. Unlike the fake looking HDR images that have taken over the photo world, in camera dynamic range is a gradual, nature, smooth transition between tones. A camera with good dynamic range will allow you hold highlight detail while at the same time be  able to pull shadow detail without those shadows getting noisy and full of artifacts and that terrible HDR glow.

What about that AA (anti-aliasing ) filter? The highest quality digital cameras, medium format, don’t use them and I don’t think DSLRs should either. On rare occasions, cameras without them can produce a moire effect when photographing certain patterns. That is what the filter is there for, to remove the moire effect. But that filter slightly softens the image. The AA filter is just not needed for outdoor photography, I would prefer to get maximum sharpness right from the start.

The higher the resolution, the more attention we must pay to craftsmanship and technique. Photography and photographers have gotten lazy. If you aren’t willing to take the time and photograph with patience and attention to detail, there is no reason to purchase a high image quality camera. Wilderness and mountain photography demands high image quality and solid techniques.

 Next Post Part Two: Camera Durability and Essential Features

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