Megapixels, Sharpness and Landscape photography

Panasonic GH3 14-140mm zoom

'Its so sharp you can see every blade of grass.'
'This camera has lots of megapixels and no AA filter, suitable for landscape photographers.'
'Most people don't need cameras like the Nikon D800E except pros and landscape photographers.'

Some 'generic' statements you see from time to time. Indicating that for landscape photography especially you need high resolution, high definition and the sharpest lens you have. Its a commonly held belief and one that gets repeated ad nauseam. But does it have any validity? Is it important in the picture above to see 'every blade of grass'? If you can pick out incredible detail in the farmhouse in the distance, does that make it a 'better' example of the genre?

I've been shooting pictures like this for a long time, on film and now on digital, and I've always been somewhat puzzled as to why these commonly held beliefs about resolution and sharpness are in fact, commonly held. Now I'm not advocating using soft-focus for landscape, far from it. In fact I wouldn't advocate soft-focus for anything, and I've always been keen to get the best resolution and sharpness I can for my landscape photography. But then I'm keen to do that for any picture I take.

Are my landscape pictures printed larger than my other picture? Well no.
Are my landscape pictures scrutinised more carefully than my other pictures? Well no.
Are my landscape pictures cropped and blown up larger than my other pictures? Well no.

So should my landscape pictures be sharper with higher resolution than everything else I take? Well no.

I can see why satellite images taken from space, images that have military, medical, scientific or forensic significance need to be as sharp as possible. In fact any image that is taken to gain information is more useful the sharper it is and the higher the resolution. But is that essential for a view over a Cotswold landscape. I'm not sure it is, since I can't really see a reason for it,

Now this isn't some pitch for how wonderful m4/3 is, since that's what I took the picture at the top of the page with, as opposed to a DSLR with more MP's. Plus it isn't some justification for out of focus, unsharp images taken with a Lomo masquerading as art, again far from it. But there is a question here. Would the above picture be any 'better' or more valid, if instead of shooting it hand-held with a m4/3 camera and a zoom, I had used a D800E, expensive prime, heavy tripod and constructed it from 100 images stitched together in software? I'm not sure it would. The image is already capable of being reproduced in print at a very large size. I have sold images that have literally been printed the size of a wall using cameras with less MP's than this, and they looked spectacular. I'm also not sure that huge reproduction serves much purpose. 

Of all the photographic genres, to me landscape photography is the one where its important to take in the whole image. I generally have no say in whether or how my images are cropped, but I'm certainly unhappiest when this happens to one of my landscape pictures. What I include (and leave out) is done for a reason and the shape and / or orientation is also selected for a reason. This is what I saw and this is what I wanted to record and preserve. I also don't particularly want people going 'into' the picture. If I think what's in the distance is as important as the 'whole' picture, then I'll take another shot with a longer lens, which in fact is what I did with the picture above.

So the whole issue of Megapixels, Sharpness and Landscape photography to me is defined by the fact that I see no special reason to have better definition in a landscape shot, than in any other. I always try to get the same quality for anything else I take, a portrait, a building or a domestic interior. Yes I like my landscape images to be sharp and capable of large-scale quality reproduction, but I see little point in hauling a medium-format camera, heavy lenses and tripod about. And yes I know that Ansel Adams carried heavy pieces of kit up mountain ridges to take one picture of Half Dome in Yosemite, but then he didn't have access to what we have access to now. I've always wondered what he would think about a m4/3 body and a zoom lens and the quality (and depth-of-field) he could get from that. One of the reasons he is so revered is of course that he didn't have the kit we have these days and the wonderful, evocative images he produced of nature's glories were achieved with considerable difficulty and a very slow process. But its 2013 and we don't have to do what he did or work in the same way to produce high quality images that others enjoy.

To conclude, I should make it clear that I'm not arguing for any kind of 'sloppiness' in photographing the landscape, I'm simply saying that the standards that I apply to own work are the same no matter what I'm photographing. When I worked with medium-format film cameras I didn't use them just for landscape work and leave 35mm for everything else. I expect all of my cameras to perform the same no matter what I'm photographing and more importantly I see no reason to use something with higher specifications as soon as a spectacular view appears before me. If I don't respect whatever I'm photographing in the same way as I respect the landscape, then there seems little point to what I do.


N.B. to see more on the cameras and lenses featured in this post click on the relevant labels (tags and keywords) below.

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