The great megapixel race.
It seems like only yesterday the 1 megapixel $10,000. camera I owned was considered cutting edge. Yes, those two numbers are correct. I am astonished and amused by that figure. Technology moves at an incredible pace. It's jaw dropping when you look at something as complex as the International Space Station and remind yourself the command module used to land a man on the moon had a navigational computer with less processing power than a microwave oven.
When discussing pixels the one question that always comes up is how much is enough? It's a very good question. My answer is always, "It depends". To help explain my take on the debate I should tell you about a few of the cameras I own and rent.
Though I have shot on a couple dozen different cameras over the years these days 90 percent of my work is done with 35mm cameras. The remaining 10 percent of my work is for commercial clients requiring very large image reproduction. Specialized medium format systems are used to capture these images.
My current workhorse camera is a Nikon D800 DSLR. It is a full frame 36 megapixel 35mm camera. An absolute joy to use and by far the finest all around shooter I have ever owned. 8 years ago I could only dream of 36 megapixels in a 35mm format. Pixel rich sensors like this were reserved for ultra expensive medium format camera gear. Back then I was more than happy with 12 megapixels in my old Nikon Dx2 35mm camera. For almost any job I point it at, the D800 can produce stunning image quality.
The Nikon D700 is often seen slung around my neck and is another excellent all around shooter. This camera tops out at 12 megapixels. The fact that it is only 12 megapixels may raise a few eyebrows for some but it is more than adequate. Many of my clients require images exclusively for electronic use. I'm going to be throwing out a lot of that 36 megapixel information for a job such as this using my D800. The RAW files can be as large as. 75MB. Working with multiple images of this size in Photoshop at one time can put a serious strain on a laptop. Though knocking these images down to a working file size for electronic delivery is easily automated in Photoshop, converting 500-1000 images per job is an extra step and time better spent editing. For me, 12 megapixels is a great compromise for quality, image size and low light sensitivity when delivering files for electronic display.
The Nikon D80 is a 10 megapixel camera. Though it was introduced in 2006 and considered a dinosaur by today's standards, it is my go to camera for our open air green screen photo booth business. The photo booth will print images up to 5"x 7" and anything larger than 10 megapixels is not only wasted resolution, It slows down processing of the image. Slow in the photo booth business is bad for business. Another advantage of the D80 is that the camera is inexpensive and easily available on the secondary market.
For my commercial clients that need the highest resolution and color reproduction nothing comes close to the image quality of the Phase One medium format digital camera system. At 80 megapixels this camera produces stunning images with file sizes that can bring even a fast computer to it's knees. With a price tag rivaling the cost of a Mercedes, this system is rented as needed.
What can get lost in the numbers game is pixel size. It is not only the number of pixels but also the size. Larger pixels can capture more light and can provide better color reproduction. The diagram to the right shows the extra real estate available for increased pixel size on a 645 medium format sensor vs. a full frame 35mm sensor and a APS-C sensor. The majority of you are shooting with cameras utilizing a APS-C sensor. These sensors are now being produced as large as 24 megapixels. Spreading that 24 megapixels across a 645 medium format sensor gives you an idea of the size pixels available in medium format sensors. There are 20 megapixel medium format cameras that will produce images of a quality beyond the same megapixel configuration of a 35mm full frame sensor.
The megapixel race will continue as technology races forward. Higher resolution sensors with quality color reproduction are the Holy Grail. The bottom line is creativity. Thoughtful composition and emotional impact has always trumped technology and it always will. Grab a camera, any camera, and let the pixels fall where they may.