Small Format—Photographing the Landscape with a Point and Shoot Camera

by | February 15, 2011

© Darren HuskiAsk a group of photographers what is the best camera for photographing the landscape and you will probably see a Canon vs. Nikon debate erupt. If they agree on anything it is probably that you “must” have a full frame DSLR to be a landscape photographer, cropped sensor cameras and anything smaller are just not good enough. They would probably laugh at the idea of a using point and shoot.

Well undoubtedly when it comes to landscape photography, bigger has always been better – that’s why people used medium and large format back in the film days. 35mm was often thought to be too small for the landscape, you needed big film and a big camera like Ansel Adams used. Still that did not stop the likes of Galen Rowell from using 35mm to photograph the landscape. What he may have lacked in film size, was made up in packing a small kit that allowed him to get places others couldn’t. The images he brought back spoke for themselves.

Technology has made some big changes in photography and the digital wave has altered the industry and the art of photography. That technology has made a DSLR better than medium format film and old film cameras only fetch pennies on the dollar at auction sites. Today, some still hold out with large format (count me as one of them) but it seems that the full frame DSLR has become the de-facto modern standard for landscape photography.

Grand Canyon © Darren Huski

However, I kind of scoff at the notion that you have to have full frame DSLR to photograph the landscape. Those same advances in technology that made DSLR’s so good have also made point and shoot cameras as good as 35mm used to be (maybe better). Just as Galen could travel lighter with his old Nikon compared to hauling large format, a modern point and shoot digital camera can put an amazing amount of photography capability into a pocketable body, more than ever before.

Think of it as small format.

To prove that point I often carry and work with a point and shoot camera in the field. That’s right, a pocketable point and shoot with a sensor that is only about 1/20th the area of a full frame sensor (approx 48 sq mm vs. 864 sq mm). Sure, I use other cameras too. I usually take my Canon 50D and/or my Arca-Swiss 4×5 with me when in the field, however, each of these kits fill a backpack. My point and shoot fits in my shirt pocket.

A modern point and shoot can easily produce a 12×18″ print that rivals anything you could have done with 35mm film. I have some images I have even taken to 20×30″ although 16×24″ seems to be the maximum output I am comfortable with. That may not be as large as you could print with a full frame or as large as I can take a 4×5, but I have to ask, how often do you really print bigger than 16×24? For web or electronic presentation the megapixel race is pointless as images will all look pretty similar at 1400 pixels wide anyway.

Rather than look at what the file might not do in print size, I look at what the camera can do for you.

North Window © Darren Huski

My small format camera is a Panasonic LX-3 and I think of it as a photographers point and shoot. It has many of the capabilities/features you are accustomed to in an SLR, albeit in a small body with a tiny sensor.

The feature list of the LX3 is a long one. It is small enough to always be carried and therefore to always be with you (that is something you cannot say about all cameras). It has a tough metal body that can help it survive the outdoor life of the landscape photographer. It has the PASM modes allowing creative control. It has a true wide angle lens that is 24mm on the wide end-making it the widest lens you can get on a point and shoot camera. It is also a fast lens that is f/2.0 on the wide end. It can create a RAW file so you can coax the maximum quality out of the image (I often use it in RAW + JPEG with a b+w). It has fantastic 1cm macro capability, and it is my main macro camera. It has easily switchable aspect ratios of 3:2, 16:9, and 4:3 (the 4:3 is almost perfect to preview a 4×5 composition). It has a hotshoe so I can trigger a remote flash for those times I want to light paint or to hold a bubble level when I have it on a tripod.

When I want to travel light I tuck the LX3 into my shirt pocket and put a tiny table top tripod in my pocket. On an ultralight hike or when I pedal my bike it is my go to camera.

In Big Bend I was doing a hike through a small unmarked canyon that I knew likely contained some water obstacles that I would have to climb around or go through. By taking my LX3 I have enough camera to bring back a great image but now I can carry just an Osprey Daylight pack instead of a bigger, heavier and bulkier pack. That allows me to travel quickly and be unencumbered moving over rocky terrain. For this type of canyon hike, small format is perfect.

Sand ripples © Darren Huski

When I am out with my large format camera and heavy backpack full of gear, I take my small format LX3 with me to scout out locations and preview potential compositions. The LX3 is worn around my neck with the camera tucked in a chest pocket of my shirt or jacket. This allows me to move a little quicker, scout locations, and preview a potential composition, so now I can only need to set up the big camera for the right image. If you have never used large format before you do not realize how time consuming it can be to set up, make, and break down the camera to move to the next location, which is often just 50 feet down the trail. By using my small format camera to scout I save time and get great images. It gives me something handy for those fleeting moments I would miss while setting up the 4×5 or for what is happening behind me while I wait for the light on my chosen composition.

It is an everyday camera that I tote to the office. A DSLR is not fitting in my briefcase, but my small format camera does. Now I always have a camera with me so when the opportunity for an image happens, I have the tool to get the shot.

Even when I am out with other cameras, I often have the LX3 with me as a backup. That backup has paid off many times and since the LX3 is so small it is an easy addition to another kit. I was out in west Texas photographing a desert landscape of rocks and mountains beneath a great sky one afternoon. I had the image set up with camera on tripod, grad filters in place, mirror lock up engaged, cable release, etc – you know that standard landscape photographer procedure. That was when several horses wandered into the scene presenting a whole new opportunity. What I found was I could not operate the camera fast enough for the constantly changing dynamic of the horses. The tripod was awkward to move, set, compose, and still get an image before the horses had moved again. I just pulled out the LX3, went handheld, started moving and making images. Now I was able to capture that decisive moment when horses and mountain lined up perfectly. Without my small format camera I simply could not have gotten the image.

Monument Valley © Darren Huski

I usually use the LX3 handheld; with its fast lens and image stabilization it is easy to get the shot while handholding. The camera also works well on a small pocket sized tripod. I set up the composition, engage the self timer and can get the image vibration free.

With the PASM modes it allows me to go to a narrow aperture or into shutter mode for a longer exposure. I have creative control that even includes manual focus. I can treat it like I would any other camera I would photograph the landscape with.

The in-camera black and whites it does are really nice. I often find the results are good enough right out of camera to not even try to convert the RAW file. That is a plus when I am out shooting black and white large format film as it also helps me preview things in monochrome. People will often express concern about high ISO images from such a small camera, but in my experience I have seen decent noise to ISO 400 and at least in black and white, higher than 400 where it takes on a Tri-X kind of look.

So now I am always with my small format camera. It allows me to bring back the big image with my small camera.

If you want to get a small format camera there are many point and shoot models, but when one wants to be able to use RAW the list gets very short. The Panasonic LX3 along with its successor LX5 are joined in this niche with the Canon G12, Canon S95 and the newly announced Olympus XZ-1. These are still point and shoot models but they pack quite a punch.

If you want to travel light and still take great images then small format might just be the thing you are looking for.

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