A lot of landscape photographers prefer a maximum depth of field when photographing wide landscapes. They love to use small apertures in combination ultra-wide angle lenses, making use of hyper focal distances or even focus stacking to achieve their goal. But not many have ever considered using a camera with a crop sensor for that goal.
Except extreme wide angle landscapes and a depth of field that runs from a few centimeters up until infinity, landscape photographers often love a full frame sensor camera of course. At least, that is the feeling I get when listening around. Some landscape photographers even have made the choice to use the new generation medium format cameras from Hasselblad X1D-50C or Fujifilm GFX-50S. These amazing cameras — I have reviewed them both — can deliver a maximum amount of detail. But there is a downside: it will be much more difficult achieving the extreme large depth of field most of us seem to prefer in our landscape photos.
The reason for choosing a larger sensor for landscapes is obvious. The spacing between pixels and/or pixel size give these cameras a good signal to noise ratio. That makes it possible to use extreme high ISO values without the penalty of too much noise. And there is of course a large dynamic range, which is in a lot of occasions much better compared to the smaller size sensor cameras.
But a larger sensor does not always mean a larger resolution. Small size sensors can also have 16 megapixels, or 24 megapixels, or even more. Although I must admit you won’t find a crop sensor with 50 megapixels or more at this moment.
When shooting landscapes we almost always try to use an ISO value as low as possible. Therefor the risk of noise is very low and for that particular reason it is not necessary to use a larger sensor.
Concerning dynamic range, a lot of landscape photographers love using filters to decrease the dynamic range of our scenery. And for those who don’t see the need for filters, there is always the possibility of using exposure bracketing. Thus the dynamic range of a camera for landscape photography is not really necessary (I know, I know, this is a tricky thing to say, because a larger dynamic range can make the use exposure bracketing or filters unnecessary).
Except maybe a high pixel count, these two arguments for choosing a large sensor seem not really that important. So you can wonder what the benefit is of using a large sensor size for landscape photography? Why not using a smaller sensor?
Let go back to my previous article about the influence of sensor size on depth of field. If you haven’t read it, then perhaps it is good to have a look at it. I explained how a small sensor size increases the depth of field when you try to achieve a similar photo made with a larger sensor. That is because you need a shorter focal length to have the same field of view.
Let make an example. When you have made a composition with the subject at 1.5 meters distance, and you use a full frame camera with 24mm wide angle lens and an aperture of f/11, you will have a depth of field that runs from 0.8 meter up to 10.7 meter.
If you would trade the full frame for a 1.6 crop camera, you will need a 15mm wide angle to have the same field of view. When the aperture and distance to the subject stays the same, you will have a depth of field that runs from 0.62 meter up to infinity.
The difference in depth of field increases when using longer focal lengths and decreases with shorter focal lengths. At some point the difference becomes almost too small to notice, except maybe for the landscape photographer that is searching for the absolute maximum depth of field.
For those who have one of those beautiful medium format cameras will suffer even more when trying to achieve a maximum depth of field. Compared to full frame these cameras have a crop that is 0.7 times the full frame sensor. Trying to get the same image as a full frame they need to have a longer focal length and thus decreasing the depth of field when keeping distance and aperture the same. Getting everything in the scene within acceptable sharpness will be more difficult. You need to use even smaller apertures with the increase risk of sharpness degradation (due to light refraction).
Of course, you could use a lens with the same focal length that we used for comparison on a full frame, but it means the medium format will end up with a wider field of view. For a lot of landscape photographers that will be not much of a problem.
When you love to use a small depth of field for landscapes, a larger sensor can help achieving your goal. But if you love using a maximum depth of field, you can have benefit from a smaller sensor size.
A final note on maximizing depth of field. A short focal length will help, together with a small aperture. But the shorter your distance to the subject in the foreground becomes, the more difficult it will be to get everything within acceptable sharpness. If you cannot achieve the depth of field you need, you can always try out focus stacking. Some modern cameras even have that functionality build in.
But perhaps you don’t need that maximum depth of field at all. Have you ever considered that?
Please let me know in the comment if you always want a maximum depth of field in your landscape photos and how you accomplish that goal.