Ultra High Res

When size matters for huge prints or creative cropping flexibility, these cameras deliver massive image files
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Canon EOS 5DS & EOS 5DS R
The Canon EOS 5DS and EOS 5DS R are fraternal twins, sharing the same body, 50.6-megapixel sensor, 61-point autofocus system and an ISO range of 100-6400. Externally, they’re identical, and internally, they’re virtually identical, with the difference being that the Canon EOS 5DS R cancels out the camera’s anti-aliasing filter—the optical element that reduces the chance of closely spaced parallel lines seeming to blur together (or moiré), but also reduces sharpness—to create an image that’s slightly sharper than the 5DS, but has greater risk of suffering from moiré. List Price: $3,399 (5DS); $3,599 (5DS R). usa.canon.com

Ansel knew that if you wanted to capture an incredibly detailed image of a subject, you needed incredibly high-resolution equipment. In his time, large-format film photography provided the ultimate in image resolution, thanks to both the massive size of the photographic negative and the resolving power of the lenses. These combined to create a resolution of unmatched fidelity, even by today’s standards.

Digital photography has its own advantages, however, and photographers now can capture incredibly detailed images without having to carry around suitcases full of wooden-framed cameras and glass plates. Ultra-high-resolution sensors, boasting previously unobtainable pixel density, are now commonplace, and cameras with nearly unimaginably high-megapixel sensors are just around the corner.

Resolving Power
Due to some limitations of physics, increasing the number of pixels on a sensor without improving any other light-gathering technology on the sensor or in the camera results in a more detailed, but lower-quality image. Sure, you’ll get more information about a subject with a higher megapixel count, but that information is likely to be clouded by noise and color artifacts, especially when used in low light.

Each pixel on a sensor represents a snippet of data that can be sampled from a scene. The bigger the pixel, the more light it can collect. The smaller the pixel, the less light it can collect. Put more pixels on a sensor, and you can get more samples of the subject, but less information from each sample.

Hasselblad H5X
The Hasselblad H5X is the company’s newest body, a system designed to provide SLR-like functionality with autofocus and an integrated leaf shutter, and that connects to the company’s digital back. It’s the modern replacement to the H5D cameras, and is compatible with all the H5D backs, plus Phase One backs and certain Leaf backs. Estimated Street Price: $6,200 (body only). hasselblad.com

For the time being, the go-to resolution for everyday “professional” cameras hovers between 12 and 20 megapixels, which is sufficient for most photojournalistic, commercial and fine-art uses, as it nicely balances the trade-offs between resolution, dynamic range and accuracy of reproduction.

But sometimes that resolution isn’t enough, and that’s when ultra-high-resolution cameras come into play. These systems, which we’ll define as any camera with a sensor above 30 megapixels, provide an image that has plenty of headroom for needs ranging from post-shoot cropping to large-format output.

Bigger is Sorta Better
Nature and wildlife photographers, in particular, often can benefit from ultra-high-resolution images because it gives them the ability to crop images after capture to achieve ideal compositions without treading on protected land or encroaching on wildlife, and still have plenty of information left to output the image at large sizes. Just as using a teleconverter allows you to get reach with your lens that’s otherwise impossible, the large resolution of some cameras allows photographers to get to a subject without having to extend their gear.

Mamiya 645DF+
Mamiya and Leaf joined forces, and the Mamiya 645DF+ is designed to work with the Leaf Credo 80, 60 or 40 backs, giving you 80, 60 or 40 megapixels of resolution, respectively. The body features newly designed autofocus and metering systems, as well as 35mm styling. The new battery pack gets 10,000 shots on a single charge, and the body works with Mamiya lenses, in addition to numerous others via adapters. Estimated Street Price: $5,999 (body only). mamiyaleaf.com

Every time a high-resolution camera is released, we hear cries of, “Who needs that many pixels?” and then within a few years, that “overkill” resolution becomes the new standard. The fact is, higher resolution—as long as it comes without sacrificing other aspects of picture quality—is a benefit to photographers.

Now there’s a range of supersized sensors that have some incredible benefits, but that also come with some disadvantages that should be considered.

On the Downside
Increased pixel density comes with an associated trade-off. A good, and familiar, analogy is to think of pixels as buckets that capture “drops” of rain. (Please don’t send emails about this; it’s a crude and not entirely correct analogy, but it makes a point.) The number of buckets is the resolution. Place one bucket outside that’s the size of your whole yard, and you’re only going to get one measurement for rain across your yard. You’re sampling rain at one bucket.

Put out two buckets and you know how much it rained in two different places, so your resolution has increased to two buckets (you know what rain patterns look like in two places), but now there’s some space between the buckets for you to run between them (that’s the wiring on the sensor). So you’re not gathering all the rain—some runs off between the buckets.

The buckets are smaller now, so each holds less rain. That means it takes less water to fill them up, so there’s less of a range of volume between empty and full. In digital imaging, this translates to the fact that more pixels on a sensor means less dynamic range.

It also takes more work to count the rainfall in two buckets than in one, so you have a lot more work to do before you can empty the buckets and start counting rain again.

At some point, as buckets become plentiful, the counting becomes incredibly hard. The buckets of rain begin to spill water between them. The pathways that separate them to enable reading the buckets block some of the rain. It’s a mess. Adding more buckets might give you a better picture of how many drops of rain are falling, but it also adds a sloppiness to the process that results in a loss of the very accuracy you’re trying to add.

As a result of this, with super-high-resolution sensors, we should see terrible image quality in several common shooting conditions, including low light, scenes where moiré is common and high-contrast areas. But we don’t see that, or certainly not as much, with today’s ultra-high-resolution cameras as we did with those of just a few years ago.

So how is it that we can have cameras with 30, 40 or 50 megapixels and have images that not only are good, but are even better than the systems that came before them and which they replace?

Nikon D810 & D810A
The Nikon D810 has a 36-megapixel sensor, an ISO range of 64-12,800 and an electronic front curtain option, which reduces camera shake—especially helpful for long exposures. The Nikon D810A is based on the D810, and is directed at the small, but passionate astrophotography market. This unique camera has a modified infrared filter, which allows more sensitivity in the wavelengths that are typical of what come off of stars and nebulae. Since this camera is aimed at the long-exposure crowd, it has a shutter speed range from 4 to 900 seconds. List Price: $2,799 (D810); $3,199 (D810A). nikonusa.com

The Nikon D810 is a perfect camera to look at to explain the process. The body has a 36-megapixel sensor and a claimed usable ISO from 64-12,800. It replaces the Nikon D800, which had the same-sized sensor and a claimed ISO of 100-6400. That’s a full ƒ-stop improvement in one generation in their claimed numbers, but in real-world testing, the D810 is more than one stop better than the D800—it’s at least two or even three stops more usable in low light.

So what happened? The same pixel count, but better images.

Even though we often think of a RAW file as being data straight off of a sensor, that’s not quite true. It’s data from a sensor that has been fed through the camera’s internal processing. This processing removes a lot of the errant signals caused at a pixel layer from all the electronics on a busy image sensor bumping up against each other. There’s an incredible amount of math going on inside a camera—math to turn the analog signals on an imaging sensor into numbers, math to turn those numbers into other numbers that represent RGB values, and math to figure out how to make some numbers that should result in an image with “noise” instead produce a clean image with smooth tones.

That means that camera companies can significantly increase the resolution of sensors without a corollary decrease in image quality by increasing the sophistication of how they massage the data coming off of the sensors. Longtime Photoshop users who gasped at the miracle of the program’s addition of Content Aware tools are familiar with the power of software applied to image enhancement and how it can revolutionize a cumbersome process.

Sony a7R II
The Sony a7R II is a 42-megapixel mirrorless camera that uses a new Sony-designed Backside Illuminated (BSI) sensor that boosts sensitivity in low light. The camera has an ISO range of 100-25,600 and captures 4K video at up to 30p at some of the highest quality available in a full-frame-sensor camera. List Price: $3,199. store.sony.com

Catch You on the Backside
Another recent technological improvement has just landed in the full-frame-sensor space, and it’s likely to have implications for years to come. Sony’s new a7R II took that wiring on the front of the sensor—the connectors between the buckets that block some of the space—and moved them to the back of the sensor. Called Backside Illumination (which has been used in security cameras for years), in the a7R II, Sony moved it into the higher-end professional photography market.

The result is a 42-megapixel sensor with an ISO range of 100-25,600, which I routinely shoot indoors at ISO 6400, with as little noise as the Nikon D810 at ISO 1600.

BSI technology will move through the industry and will usher in a whole new era of ultra-high-resolution cameras with better image characteristics than previously thought possible. It will allow for ISO 3200 shooting tomorrow that looks like ISO 200 today.

Medium Format is Dead, Long Live Medium Format
Industry pundits have proclaimed the death of medium format since the first digital camera rolled off the assembly line. For film photographers, medium format provided a larger film size and, therefore, a higher-resolution image without the bulk and complexity of a large-format camera setup. Adaptable to studios and location shoots alike, medium-format cameras were the choice when large-format prints needed to be made or when the utmost detail was needed for catalogs or fashion shoots.

The death of film-processing labs caught up with medium format, and as film started to vanish, the companies that made the bodies started to bleed money, get acquired and get acquired again. It didn’t help that the digital solutions for medium-format cameras were clunky, slow and incredibly expensive. I once did a review of a medium-format back that cost quite a bit more than the BMW I was photographing to test it.

The format isn’t without its merits, however. The sensor is larger (120mm diagonal versus “full-frame’s” 35mm diagonal), yielding a surface area that’s up to four times the size of 35mm. That gives a lot of additional space for more and bigger buckets.

The slow transfer speed that was an issue for data coming off a medium-format back when tethered to a computer a decade ago now seems trivial, thanks to faster interface standards like Thunderbolt and faster computers to process those files. The only barriers to entry are the high prices of cameras, lenses and accessories relative to 35mm equipment and the availability of that gear.

Pentax 645Z
The Pentax 645Z is one of the more affordable medium-format solutions, with a body designed to look and feel more like an SLR camera. It houses a 51-megapixel sensor with an ISO range of 100-204,800. List Price: $6,999. us.ricoh-imaging.com

The Pentax 645Z, about the least expensive medium-format system you can get, is around $7,000, but 200-megapixel Hasselblad systems break the $40,000 mark, without lenses.

A Bigger Day is Coming
Last September, Canon announced development of a 120-megapixel still imaging camera that will yield, according to the company, incredibly high detail with compatible EF lenses. They haven’t announced specific products or dates, but this demonstrates that the big players aren’t looking to make incremental steps here, but exponential ones.

Canon also announced a more theoretical product, the development of a 250-megapixel imaging sensor that likely will be used in surveillance and scientific fields, at first, but like BSI sensors, could be used at some point to increase resolution dramatically in the still and video imaging spaces, as well.

Size Almost Does Matter
The problem with the resolution debate is that photographers often don’t know if they need an ultra-high-resolution image until they have captured it. Is today’s wildlife shot going to turn into the once-in-a-lifetime image that sells catalogs and launches galleries? If so, it would be great to have a camera with a sensor big enough to make a billboard-sized print.

If you’re never displaying a photograph larger than your monitor, then having a massive sensor will provide you little benefit, other than the ability to crop to your liking, but if you’re looking for the flexibility of after-capture image adjustment and a broad range of possible output scenarios from print to poster, ultra-high-resolution-sensor cameras may be for you.

You can follow David Schloss on Twitter and Instagram @davidjschloss.