Landscape Photos - Small Sensor


Fall Colors
Ever wonder how to get those white clouds, blue lakes and darker foregrounds in the same landscape shot on a small sensor camera without using advanced high dynamic range (HDR) and digital blending techniques?
There's an easy answer and it doesn't involve spending $5,000 on the latest and greatest 20+ megapixel full frame DSLR and another $1,500 on the latest wide angle lens to take advantage of the resolving power of that sensor. More importantly, for me, I can use my lightweight micro 4/3 camera kit (the Panasonic GH1 with a 14-140mm lens) on my hiking and mountaineering adventures instead of a much heavier full frame system and still get photographs that I can sell or hang on my wall. These techniques have been used be me on everything from a Sigma DP1 to a Canon G9 to an Olympus E420 - any small camera can be used much more effectively for landscape photography if you use the following advice.

(Mount Temple | Photographed with Panasonic GH1 + Singh-ray 2 stop filter and polarizer)
I own a full frame camera too but I can't carry it comfortably while hiking 15km and 1500 vertical meters in a day! Even if I could carry my expensive camera up a mountain, I would be too concerned about dropping it or scratching the lens to fully enjoy using it. Carrying a cheaper and lighter system makes good sense for many hikers and climbers. The issue we run into as photographers is that even though we get to see some of the most gorgeous landscapes on earth it's very hard to take advantage of these views on a small sensor camera without blowing highlights or clipping shadows. What's the solution?
Filters. More specifically, graduated neutral density (GND) filters. Sound too easy to be true? Well it's not. Read on.
Before getting into details I want to make a point on quality. There are many different choices for GND filters on the market today. Very few deliver enough quality to be worth your hard earned money. I have experience with one of the best brands on the market, Singh-ray filters. The difference between a quality filter and a cheap one can not be understated. Don't cheap out on filters because you'll end up with one set of cheap filters and another set of good ones. This will obviously end up costing you money and pride! Cheap filters scratch easily, aren't quality controlled and will produce odd color casts in your photographs. Trust me.

(Pine Lake | Photographed with a Panasonic GH1 + Daryl Benson 2 stop reverse ND filter)
So how does a GND filter help a small sensor camera achieve less highlight and shadow clipping? It doesn't expand the dynamic range of your sensor, but it does do the next best thing. It shrinks the dynamic range of the landscape before it hits your sensor. How does it do this? Very simply, a GND filter serves as a bright light 'dimmer' so that bright areas of the landscape appear darker to your camera's sensor. This allows your camera to expose the foreground properly, giving the shadows enough detail while still capturing the much brighter sky without blowing it out.
You may wonder if this will produce a fake looking or strange looking photo but in most cases it won't. Your eyes do the same thing when you look at a scene with many different levels of brightness and usually with a little bit of post processing the scene will still look very natural without having blown out areas. There are some tricks to getting it right: 
  1. Expose for the foreground and then use the 'auto exposure lock' on your camera to keep that setting while you re-compose the scene properly.
  2. Use the 'live view' feature on your camera to determine what strength GND you need (1, 2, or 3 stops of light blocked) either by guessing or trying them out (start with the 2 stop filter). Simply hold the filter (or use a filter holder) and slide it down till the sky starts showing details on the live view image. When you're happy with the sky and foreground detail, take the photo. Try a few different exposures if you have the time.
  3. Hard edge filters are better for scenes that have a natural line on the horizon such as lakes or tree lines and soft edge filters are better for more gradually transitioned horizons.
  4. You should start with a 2 stop hard edge and a 2 stop soft edge filter first and then add to your collection after that as you are able. The 2 stop filters work good enough in most cases. 
  5. You don't need a filter holder but it makes it easier to stack filters and to use other types of filters such as a circular polarizing filter (CPL) with the GND filters. I use Cokin 'P' size filters with the Cokin wide angle holder.
  6. While not strictly necessary, a tripod can make things a lot easier, especially in low light situations. I don't usually bother lugging one up a mountain but occasionally I do wish I had.
  7. For sunrises and sunsets try the more specialized 'reverse' GND. This filter holds back the brightness from the middle of the composition and then graduates to the top of the filter instead of the other way around so that the sun doesn't overpower the scene. I use the Daryl Benson 2 stop reverse ND filter from Singh-ray.
I know this all sounds very technical and time consuming, but in reality you will get very quick at slapping a GND in front of your lens when the situation calls for it. I usually don't carry my camera around with the filters pre-mounted on it - they're expensive and they get caught on things. I snap pictures without the filter until I encounter a scene where I know I want to get it 'right'. Then I slow down, take out the filters and go to work. Usually it's about a 2-5 minute stop and I end up with some great shots. Another key ingredient to most great landscapes is the polarizing filter. I use the color combo polarizing filter from Singh-ray but any CPL is better than none!
Here's an example of a blown sky, it's a nice image but the clouds have lost some of their detail and the shadows are too dark (I'd be really disappointed if this was the best image I'd captured this day):

(Storm Mountain | Taken with the Panasonic GH1, no filters)
The following image was taken on the same day from the same location but after I realized that I needed a GND to stop my sky from blowing out. Notice that the shadows are still retaining detail but the sky isn't pure white (blown out) anywhere:

(Storm Mountain | Taken with Panasonic GH1 + Singh-ray 2 stop GND filter)
One other hint for getting huge prints out of a small sensor camera is to not only use GND filters but also use stitching software to greatly increase the number of pixels you capture for a given scene. I've printed pictures from my micro 4/3 sensor at 2x4 feet and they look great using this combined technique.
Here's a picture that I've printed very large and is hanging on my wall that was taken with my GH1 and GND and polarizing filters. Notice the blue sky and white puffy clouds that wouldn't be possible on this shot without the filter and the CPL. Even with a GND the clouds on the left side of the photo are almost blown out, without the filter this shot would not be on my wall!

(Mount Coleman | Taken with the Panasonic GH1 + Singh-ray 2 stop GND filter and CPL)
So next time you're wondering whether or not you should get a bigger format camera to capture the dynamic range of your landscapes, remember the much cheaper GND option and try it out. Your wallet and your legs will thank you for doing it at the end of that hike or climb!

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