Pixel Wars And The High-Res DSLR: Pay To Play

Lepp photographed this peregrine falcon (a rehabilitated bird at Central Oregon’s High Desert Museum) with the 50.6-megapixel Canon EOS 5DS. Note the high resolution of the cropped image and the photographer’s reflection in the bird’s brilliant eye. Canon EOS 5DS, Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens at 70mm, 1/180 sec. @ f/11, handheld in available light

Q Should I invest in one of the new high-megapixel DSLR cameras? What will 50 megapixels do for me?
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A Lately, this question dominates every venue where serious photographers gather to learn about new techniques and equipment to advance their photography. Several new offerings in the DSLR market challenge our prior conceptions about the limitations of digital photography. But, seriously, you ask, do more megapixels make that much difference? Does it matter for my photography? Will I have to learn new techniques? Are the results worth the hassle and the price?

Since February, I’ve been working with Canon on the new 5DS and 5DS R cameras that have 50.6-million-pixel sensors, and I’ve formed some opinions about their use and potential for the subjects outdoor photographers love: landscape, aerials, wildlife, macro, and high magnification. I’ll offer some insight on the question of the year: how high-megapixel cameras from Canon and other manufacturers might, or might not, fit into your photographic future.

What’s A Megapixel? And Why Do I Want “A Lot” Of Them?
If we can accept in the context of this discussion that a single pixel represents the smallest component of a digital image—that is, a piece of information—then it follows that the more pixels in an image, the greater the information, or resolution. A megapixel is a million pixels. You may recall that early digital cameras offered, say, 3 megapixels, far below the resolution capability of 35mm film. But, in my opinion, by the time DSLRs achieved 12 megapixels, they had matched the resolution of SLRs, as evidenced by higher resolution at 100% on a monitor display, “cropability” and higher-resolution, larger prints.

Now, while 8 MP phone cameras are the norm, several DSLR cameras offer 36 MP and more to give us the option of high-resolution capture. Medium-format digital camera manufacturers gave us the first look at this potential; they lead the field with cameras having digital backs up to 80 MP. Hasselblad has camera combinations from 40 to 60 MP. The Leica S offers 37.5 MP, the Pentax 645Z has 40 to 51.4 MP, and the Mamiya 645 with a Leaf Credo Digital Back Kit maxes out at a whopping 80 MP. There is no question that these medium-format digital cameras offer great resolution and can be excellent landscape tools offering huge files, but they are very expensive ($8,000-$32,000), heavy, have low capture rates, and require dedicated lenses that also are very dear. For the discussion here, I’m going to focus on DSLR bodies with full-frame (24x36mm) high-res sensors in the 36-50 MP range, the lighter weight and faster capture needed for many outdoor photographic endeavors, and prices ranging from $3,000-$4,000.

Here’s the field at the moment: From Canon, the EOS 5DS and 5DS R; from Nikon the D800, D800E, and D810; and from Sony, the Alpha 7R II. Most likely you’ll stay with the brand you brought to the dance; you’ve already invested in lenses and previous DSLR bodies from that maker. I often hear photographers talk about changing systems because another manufacturer has introduced more MPs or a higher dynamic range. If that’s your strategy, you’ll be changing camera partners for some time to come!

The Pros And The Cons
Let’s look at what these new cameras are really good at: producing large image files, excellent for detailed landscapes, aerials, macro, and high-magnification subjects. Big files are good for two reasons. The first is high resolution to make very large prints or other outputs that demand lots of sharpness that doesn’t disappear as the image is enlarged. I have a 44-inch printer and often make large prints, especially panoramas, so MPs are important for me. The other benefit of high MP counts is the ability to crop. Back in the film days, you had to fill the frame because cropping wasn’t an option. And, in the early stages of DSLRs, at 6, 8, 12 MPs, cropping wasn’t advised because the image would fall apart and become pixelated. Even at 20 MP we don’t do very much cropping. But at 36 to 50 MP, cropping is viable, especially if your output is a projected or online image. Think of what this means for approaching nature subjects such as birds or wildlife—you can stay back and still get the close-up portrait.

What are the high-res cameras not so good at? Higher ISOs, for one thing. If your landscape venues include the night sky, or you’re a photojournalist who works under low-light conditions, a lower-res camera with noise-controlling properties might be a better choice. The lower frame capture rate also can be a drawback in certain situations. For example, at 5 frames per second, the EOS 5DS R is not my first choice for photographing flying birds, even though I like the ability to crop to bring the subject closer. For active bird photography, I usually use the less expensive Canon EOS 7D Mark II, with its 10 frames per second. Its autofocus matches the exceptional capability of the EOS 5DS R and the 7D II’s APS-C sensor has a cropping magnification of 1.6X. But with bird and wildlife portraits, I’m back to using the EOS 5DS R to capture the highest resolution.

Working With High-Resolution DSLRs
Technique always matters. But with 50 million pixels, controlling camera and subject movement is really critical. One reason for this is that our expectations for high-megapixel performance are understandably greater. We look more closely at the final prints, from inches away. We make bigger enlargements, or crop out a section and blow that up even more. When I’ve got a 50 MP image on my monitor, enlarged to 1:1 as I work on it, any element that isn’t “on the money” in terms of sharpness raises its ugly head immediately. If you have a low tolerance for random unsharpness, as I do, a greater effort must be made at capture to achieve everything a high-res DSLR has to offer: sturdy tripod, higher shutter speeds when handholding, and a conscious determination to minimize any camera vibration, especially in long exposures. To eliminate camera vibration, I use Live View and Mode 1 Silent LV on my Canon cameras whenever possible. In an aerial shoot with the EOS 5DS R, I used Image Stabilization and a Kenyon Gyro, and got superb results at an elevation of 500 feet with a 400mm lens and faster shutter speeds.

I seldom photograph at ISOs over 1600, but have been known to go to 6400—the upper limit of the EOS 5DS R—in a pinch. My clients and large-format printers don’t like noisy files. There are a number of cameras in the 20 MP range that have better ISO capabilities than the high-res cameras, and they might be a better choice in low-light or fast-action situations. But in my macro, high-magnification, and some wildlife imaging, I add flash to augment light, so the ISO limitations of the EOS 5DS R are not an issue for me. There are rumors of new generations of cameras coming that will have fabulous high-ISO capabilities, but my guess is that they won’t be high-MP cameras.

Here’s the escalation clause: I’ve heard from enough of your spouses to know that you often blame the expensive facts of digital life on me, but it really is not my fault. I’m just delivering the message. While any of your lenses will perform better with a higher-resolution camera, be aware that they also can be limiting if you are looking for the very best resolution possible versus just better resolution. And, finally, no technological advancement exists or functions unto itself, so you may need to improve your computer power to manage the mega-files that high-megapixel cameras produce. A 50 MP camera produces a finished 16-bit TIFF or PSD file in the 200 MB area. Bring it down to 8-bit and you’re still at over 100 MB. You know you shoot hundreds of images every time you go into the field. You say you do composite panoramas? High-res cameras will do an awesome job, but you should anticipate considerable increases in file sizes, processing power, and storage space. I have one of the fastest Mac computers available (the little black trash can), but I can see a noticeable slowing of my workflow with these files.

So, Should You Do It?
I have to tell you, for much of the photography that I love to do, a 50.6 MP sensor makes a huge difference in quality and creative options. But you’ll need to go through the same process I did before you decide to spring for a new rig and possibly better lenses and more computer power to process those huge files. Consider the subjects and the environments in which you work, your tolerance for precise technique, and your need or desire for high-resolution/large files and prints. Then, whatever your decision, just go take pictures. In today’s photography, the photographer is the limiting factor, not the equipment!

For more examples and discussions, including video of George Lepp‘s work with the new Canon EOS 5DS and 5DS R, see his website at www.GeorgeLepp.com and Canon’s Digital Learning Center (www.learn.usa.canon.com). To watch a video of George’s recent day-long class on Creative Live, “Innovative Techniques for Outdoor Photography,” visit www.CreativeLive.com.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.