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Shooting Professional-Looking Landscapes With Compact Cameras

Shooting Professional-Looking Landscapes With Compact Cameras - Is there such thing as the right camera when it comes to shooting landscapes? Robin Whalley gets his compact out to put this theory to the test.

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Category : Landscape and Travel
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Words and images by Robin Whalley - www.lenscraft.co.uk


For a long time, no serious photographer would be seen dead with a compact digital camera. "You need at least a 12Mpixel DSLR with high quality lenses and a large sensor to produce good images" was often the cry. Well I’m here to tell you that’s complete rubbish. I’m going to show you just what’s possible using a point and shoot compact camera and how these little marvels have some big advantages over their more expensive cousins.

First off I should explain that I am a new convert to the use of compact digital cameras. One of the reasons I was put off compact cameras was the issue of quality. The tiny sensor, the inexpensive mass produced lens, the poor noise levels and/or detail destroyed by noise reduction. All these added up to poor photographic results in my mind. I just couldn’t bear the thought of capturing a great image only to find I could never print it larger than A4. Things have however changed and I only realised how much when I recently purchased a Panasonic LX5.

What I was really looking for is a small but capable camera that would fit in my pocket and which I could carry literally anywhere. As has often been pointed the best camera is the one you have with you and most of the time I was leaving my DSLR at home because of its size and weight. As I started to look around I found more and more, high quality compact cameras from well known manufacturers. All were very capable but you need to adjust your shooting style a little to get the best out of them.

Here then are some of the characteristics of compact cameras that I have been using to great advantage:

1. The camera is very light and fits in my pocket easily. This means I can carry it around much more and take advantage of all sorts of opportunities that I was previously missing. This is particularly true of when I’m out walking in the hills. Carrying a smaller and light camera means I’m much fresher when I reach my destination and have more energy to devote to creating my work. The size of the camera also makes it much more manoeuvrable than the DSLR so use this to your advantage. Get in low, I mean very low and get right in close to the foreground details to create dramatic compositions. Try also shooting overhead so that the camera is higher than normal. Shots taken from low or high angles tend to be more engaging as we are not used to seeing these; most shots being taken from eye height.

Mountains
It’s quite a climb up Yewbarrow in the Lake District to reach this vantage point. Carrying an SLR with lens would add a lot more weight to my backpack so I really appreciate having a quality compact camera in these situations.


2. A compact camera is far less obtrusive than a DSLR and people feel less threatened by it. This makes them an ideal tool for street photography. Walk around trying to do street photography with a DSLR and you will find people spot you coming a mile away and try to avoid you no matter how you try to hide the camera. With a compact camera however people just ignore you and don’t even mind when you take a picture of a scene with them in it. This allows you to blend in with the crowds and not be labelled as a “pro”. There have been times when I have been asked not to take pictures in some locations because I was using a DSLR, yet people all around me were photographing with compact cameras and camera phones.

Rain in New York
For this picture of New York’s Time Square the man in the scene looked at me, the idiot taking a picture of him from under an umbrella then completely ignored me. I doubt I would have had the same response if I were using a large DSLR, which I probably couldn’t have used with one hand anyway.


3. Most compact cameras will have a small sensor in comparison to their DSLR cousins. What this means for in practice is that you can achieve huge depth of field at relatively wide aperture settings. For example when shooting with my camera at 24mm an aperture of f/4.5 gives me a depth of field (the area of acceptable focus) of around 3 feet to infinity. This actually makes them quite handy for shooting landscapes where you want to get in close to some foreground feature and yet keep the background in sharp focus. This is also handy for street photography. I like to set my zoom to around 35mm and my aperture to f/4.5. I then focus manually at about 6 feet. This approach allows me to snap away without needing to worry or be slowed down waiting for the camera to focus.

I shot this image on Llanddwyn Island crouched down at f/5.0 and set my focus to the rock in the foreground. This was enough to keep every blade of grass pin sharp as well as keep the distant rocks with circling birds sharp.


4. My compact camera, as is common with many, has a high quality lens with a fast aperture of f/2.0. This allows me to achieve very sharp images even when the lens is wide open at f/2.0. The advantage is a fast shutter speed which allows me to handhold shots where I would need a tripod for my DSLR. This is because I would need to shoot with a much smaller aperture to achieve the same depth of field. My favourite low light setting for my compact is f/2.8 at ISO200. This provides a fast enough shutter speed to handhold without flash and limits noise because the ISO is still quite low. At 24mm this combination provides a depth of field that runs from around 4 feet to infinity.

Lighthouse in Anglesey
This shot of Penmon lighthouse in Anglesey was taken handheld about 30 minutes after sunset. I used ISO80 at f/2.8 and a shutter speed of 1/15”. The cameras image stabilizer ensured the shot was sharp even at this relatively slow shutter speed.


5. Many compact cameras, especially the higher end of the market have the ability to select the point of focus. This is a feature that has only really emerged onto the DSLR market in recent years. When I shoot landscapes with my compact (yes I really do) I like to set the point of focus manually on a clearly defined object, such as a rock in the foreground. I then set the aperture to give me depth of field through to infinity. Hopefully the aperture will be around f/4.5 to f/5.6 as this seems to give the sharpest results for my camera. Setting the point of focus in this way can emphasise the sharpness and detail in the image and give it a real feeling of depth.

Penmon Lighthouse in Anglesey
In this sunset shot of Penmon Lighthouse in Anglesey I moved the point of focus to select the pebbles in the foreground whilst using f/4.5 to give me enough depth of field to keep the lighthouse and island in sharp focus.


As well as the advantages of the compact camera you also need to be aware of some of the limitations so that you can avoid or work around them:

1. My camera has a small 10Mpixels sensor, which seems to be the standard for many of the high end compacts produced by leading manufacturers. The reason for this is the need to control noise. Cramming too many pixels into such tiny sensors gives rise to noise, especially at higher ISO levels so the manufacturers have limited (at least for the time being) the pixel count. From a photographers point of view this provides 2 limitations:

A. The first is the relatively low ISO level that noise becomes a problem. Personally I try not to shoot above ISO200. ISO400 is acceptable but beyond this I find the noise makes the images unusable.

B. The second concern is that of print size. If you only have 10Mpixels then your native print size is a little larger than A4 at 300dpi. From my own printing experiments however I don’t believe this is such a problem if your camera has a quality lens and you have good technique. I recently resized one of my prints (the Llanddwyn Island shot earlier in this article) to 24” x 18” at 300dpi and printed out a section of the image on A4 paper. The detail in the shot is very good and was perfectly acceptable even viewed close up. I then resized the image to 30” x 20” at 300dpi and printed the same area on A4. This time I could tell there was a fall off in sharpness and detail but when viewed from a couple of feet the image looks great. To prove this point further to myself I have quite a few A3 prints from compact cameras that I show when talking at camera clubs. I like to challenge people to pick these out from those shot on a 14.5Mpixel and 21Mpixel SLR. People can’t pick out the compact camera shots.

New York
When people see this image printed at A3 they just can’t believe it was taken using a 10Mpixel compact camera hand held. The detail and sharpness across the entire image is superb and this isn’t just a one off example either.


2. Related to the last point is that some cameras use quite aggressive noise reduction and sharpening in camera to make the image look good when printed at its native size. This leads to a serious loss of detail and sharpening artefacts which will prevent you from printing large quality images. The best option is to shoot in RAW if your compact camera supports it as you can control the levels of noise reduction and sharpening as part of your post processing. If however you can only shoot in JPG format check the cameras menu to see if you can switch off or reduce noise reduction and sharpening. You might find this better to apply yourself in post processing using tools such as Lightroom or Photoshop.

3. One of the most useful accessories I have in my camera bag is the ND graduated filter. In fact I would say these are absolutely essential when I shoot landscapes, especially at sunset or sunrise. This also applies when using a compact camera yet these cameras don’t have a lens thread where you can use to attach filters. There are however other solutions which you should investigate. For my camera there is a threaded sleeve that covers the lens and attached to the camera body. This will then accept a 52mm filter ring so I can attach my filter holder (although they do look a bit daft, being bigger than the camera). Another option is to tripod mount the camera and then hold the filter against the front of the lens. Because compact cameras use live view you can easily position the filter and take the shot.

You may feel there is a lot of information to take in here but it comes down to two simple rules:
 

  1. Compose and shoot pictures that take advantage of the characteristics of compact cameras
  2. Know the limitations of your compact camera and how to avoid them


If you can follow this you will achieve stunning results with your compact camera and possibly enjoy it more than your SLR.

Words and images by Robin Whalley - www.lenscraft.co.uk

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