Resolution…Too Much Will Always Be Just Right

Canon EOS 5DS and 5DS R 50 Megapixels DSLRs
The Canon EOS 5DS and 5DS R have Canon-designed full frame 50.6 megapixel CMOS sensors. The EOS 5DS and EOS 5DS R are additions to the EOS 5D lineup. The EOS 5D Mark III remains in the line.

If some is good and more is better then too much should be just right. That certainly has been the trend when it comes to camera resolution. Canon just announced a pair of new EOS 5D models with 50 megapixel sensors. Since the Canon announcement, various rumor sites have been predicting new 50 megapixel cameras on the horizon from several manufacturers.

How much is enough? I don’t intend that to come across as curmudgeonly, but a serious question. About 18 years ago I met with executives from a camera company who were showing their latest digital camera. It was early in the days of digital and the camera had a 2 megapixel sensor. At the time there were some higher pixel counts coming out and sitting in a conference room at the office we asked if there would be a higher resolution model any time soon. The answer was something to the effect of 2 megapixels is enough for most people.

That story is reminiscent of the urban legend stories of Bill Gates saying that 640K should be enough for everyone (he never actually said this, but that hasn’t stopped it from being quoted to this day). Looking back on that 2-megapixel camera and the statement that it should be enough resolution for anyone inspires one to shake their head and chuckle. But here’s the thing…at the time it was a legitimate statement. There were only a couple of higher resolution models available and they had significant problems with power consumption (batteries that lasted about 10 minutes to a charge), on-board memory (Compact Flash was new and capacities were measured in megabytes), boot-up times (it took about 30-45 seconds from switching the camera on to being ready to shoot) and more. Also, once you had filled your memory card, you would have needed a relatively new computer with the latest processors and a lot of internal memory just to open the image. With all of that in mind, 2 megapixels was MORE than enough for most people.

Technology leapfrogs ahead and I sit here today marveling at 50 megapixel Canon DSLRs which are possible because all aspects of technology have leapt ahead. At the same time, the new Canons will have the same problems, relatively speaking. How long will the batteries last as the multiple on-board processors chug through files from a 50 megapixel sensor? If you have 64GB memory cards, they will get filled fast if you’re shooting raw files. Once you’ve filled the card you’ll feel the pain slow file transfers and the spinning rainbow of death if you aren’t working with relatively new hardware.

As nature photographers we are a primary motivation for camera manufacturers to come out with higher and higher res models. We’re on a never-ending quest for more detail in our photos and, more that any other group of enthusiasts, we like to make prints…big prints. Sure, more pixels, more problems, but thinking back to that early 2-megapixel camera from where we are today, I’m looking forward to the many technological leaps that will ultimately get us to 100 megapixels and more. Resolution will only be part of the story of photography when we get there. How else will we be able to make pictures and what else will we be able to do with them?   –Christopher Robinson, Publisher/Editor


    In reply to both comments above, film has an effective resolution of about 300 megapixels. So a good film lens will be sharp for a while yet. My film era lenses all outperform my 20mp sensors allowing the camera to resolve detail to the single pixel level.

    Realistic images are not a function of Megapixels. If you look toward the future, digital imagery will become vector based, not raster. Megapixels will be irrelevant. I think Canon made a mistake. Very few pros needs to print wall sized posters, but more importantly, there comes a point where there is too much detail and art is lost.

    These cameras are not tools of the trade, they are bragging rights to fool the unsuspecting consumer into brand recognition.

    Once resolution rose above about 16MPixels, improvements in noise performance at all ISOs became more important for me. My D800 was a revelation in the low-noise performance compared to my D300S.

    As cameras improve, especially in higher resolution, the rest of your gear has to follow along: not just the flash cards but your computer, memory, disk space and network speed. Transferring even a 16Mpixel file over WiFi is painful, a whole 32GB flash card takes forever. Your photo-editing can profit from much larger memory, faster processors and a pretty good (about $200) video card, since many photo-editing tools can use the parallel processing of six core processors and the several hundred video processors in modern video cards. Personally, I count on building a new editing computer about every four years.

    I just wish the manufacturers would devote far more money into increasing the signal-to noise ratio on sensors, so you get far less noise ‘leakage’ between each photosite, (which in turn would deliver even ‘sharper’ images) than continually racking up the megapixels. However, I suspect doing this, is a darn sight more difficult thing to do.

    I admit, that such insane resolutions will be useful for some. But for the rest useful limit was reached long ago. You have to remember, that megapixels basically are about the print size. Today’s “standard” 24 mpix already give ~33×50 cm print at the highest quality. How much of us print such sizes? Even 24 Mpix is already demanding for shooting technique – shutter speeds have to be shorter, focusing – more precise to achieve best sharpness. What’s the use of these megapixels, if You can’t shoot handheld even in decent light?

    And by the way – film resolution is MUCH lower than 300 mpix as someone was saying here. I’m digitising my old films using 24 mpix dslr and a slide duplicator. Effective resolution of a common 35 mm film in my case is somewhere about 12 mpix or even less. Comparing the sharpness of the image itself and the defects of the film I can’t blame the equipment – it can resolve much more. If I was shooting with the very best equipment on a very best films – I’m sure resolution could be higher. But not 5x (that would be linear resolution difference comparing 12 mpix vs 300 mpix).

    I am awaiting the first detailed test reviews of these cams with mixed feelings. I come from a 5D Mark II right now, which at 4 years of age now shows a marked increase in noise all of sudden (even at ISO 100 in broad daylight). So it’s time for something new and here comes Canon with these big tankers (the R is of no interest to me though)

    I shoot mainly architecture, sometimes landscape and travel, still life and the occasional portrait. I’m thinking the TS-E lenses for instance should hold up to that kind of resolution, as well as the good primes.

    Though the price makes me quake in my shoes, I think I’m a pretty good candidate for a 5Ds (the Mark III is, well, old. It might be the better allrounder once it comes out as a Mark IV) – yet Canon itself seems unsure about the whole idea, by making it a cam for “specialists” and doing weird things like limiting the ISO range to 4600. Incidentally I have never gone above 3600, but you sort of want to know you could, if you had to.

    I think right now ppl look too much to “can the lenses handle that and do we need 50MP” – the most important question for me is noise performance, dynamic range of the sensor, and can the AF handle non-immobile objects (like a running pug, as I like to take pics of mine and the 5DII has a hit rate of 10% on an even walking dog) Do 6pics per second (Mark III) make the difference to 5/s?

    As to 50MP as a number – I think it’ll hold up (again, you can “tone it down” anyway but it’s nice to know you have it). Customers will want it, if you offer it. And stock photo agencies will want it.

    I shoot freelance for Getty, and you bet they will want it if they can get it. It will set the bar higher for all pros and semi-pros. From the business side, there won’t be any discussions about resolution.

    Personally I think the whole obsession with MP is, well, just that…an obsession. We often get so wrapped up in the fancy tech numbers but what does it amount to in real world situations and do we need it? If there’s another way to take more of our money to buy things most of us will never need but think we do companies will convince you that a 1000 MP camera is the way to go.

    Since I do not shoot much action in low light, I really do not mind that the 5DSR ISO is limited at 6400.I believe that I can get sharp images with good techniques using low ISO and a sturdy tripod for stills. A 5DSR with high MP will definitely work fine for me.I rarely shoot action at low light so I do not need the higher ISO and higher frames per second performance of the new 5D mark 4.If I have to, my older 1DX inspite of the newer 1DX Mark 2, still is a very capable camera for action in day or night time. I suspect that Canon will add WIFI,GPS, touchscreen and possibly a retractable LCD screen in an update to the 5DSR. I liked these features in my old 70D which was Canon’s first experiment with these features. Adding these features to a later version of 5DSR will make me spend the extra on a 5DSR which I will devote to mi/(a)cro photography. A LCD with a touchscreen for focussing will be ideal for focus stacking either in mi/(a)cro or landscape photography. For now my general all purpose cameras are the Canon 6D and Nikon’s D7100 with nikon’s 18-300mm F3.5-5.6 VR DX lens and. My collection of Canon L zoom lenses from the range of 16mm to 600mm + Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 Lens with adaptor for Canon cameras have not disappointed me with their image quality.

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