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Archive for March, 2022

0.3mp Ricoh RDC-2 circa 1996

In the early days of digital photography resolution was the primary focus and a major delineator of quality. This was mostly due to the very low resolution limits of most of the early cameras. The very first digital camera I ever owned was a Ricoh RDC-2 with 2MB internal storage and a whopping 640×480 resolution for about 0.3 megapixel. I used this camera exclusively for small images destined for my website. There was no way to get a real quality image out of that camera for anything more than thumbnail size images.

That little Ricoh served me well giving me the small accent photos for my online presence in the early days of the World Wide Web. But in the early 2000’s mainstream digital cameras would finally begin to offer more than just thumbnails and wallet sized prints. This was where the race for resolution was at a feverish pace and the ‘megapixel wars’ in advertising followed in the mid 2000s.

My very first DSLR was a used Canon D30 I picked up around 2003. Not the 30D but the D30. I was still using my EOS film cameras at the time but scored a good price on it at PhotoFair and thought it would be fun. It was already two models back in the lineup but it worked. This was only a 3.1 mp camera. It made surprisingly good images with an image size of roughly 2160×1440 pixels. With our latest modern software and printing capabilities today, you can make good 5×7 inch prints from these and even decent 8x10s. Here is the evolution of Canon prosumer APS-C DSLRs starting with the D30. Other brands had a similar evolution scale.

  • D30, 2000, 3.1 mp, 3 fps 8 jpeg burst, fixed 1.8″ screen 114 kdots, ISO 100-1600
  • D60, 2002, 6.3 mp, 3 fps 8 jpeg burst, fixed 1.8″ screen 114 kdots, ISO 100-1000
  • 10D, 2003, 6.3 mp, 3 fps 9 jpeg burst, fixed 1.8″ screen 118 kdots, ISO 100-1600 ex 3200
  • 20D, 2004, 8.2 mp, 5 fps 25 jpeg burst, fixed 1.8″ screen 118 kdots, ISO 100-1600 ex 3200
  • 30D, 2006, 8.2 mp, 5 fps 30 jpeg burst, fixed 2.5″ screen 230 kdots, ISO 100-1600 ex 3200
  • 40D, 2007, 10.1 mp, 6.5 fps 75 jpeg burst, fixed 3″ screen 230 kdots, ISO 100-1600 ex 3200
  • 50D, 2008, 15.1 mp, 6.3 fps 90 jpeg burst, fixed 3″ screen 921 kdots, ISO 100-3200 ex 12800
  • 60D, 2010, 18.1 mp, 5.3 fps 90 jpeg burst, articulating 3″ screen 1040 kdots, ISO 100-6400 ex 12800
  • 70D, 2013, 20.2 mp, 7 fps, 40 jpeg burst, articulating 3″ screen 1040 kdots, ISO 100-12800 ex 25600
  • 80D, 2016, 24.2 mp, 7 fps, ? jpeg burst, articulating 3″ screen 1040 kdots, ISO 100-16000 ex 25600
  • 90D, 2019, 32.5 mp, 10 fps, ? jpeg burst, articulating 3″ screen 1040 kdots, ISO 100-25600 ex 51200

Each of these cameras saw other improvements to dynamic range, shooting modes, video, improved AF and other innovations beyond the stat lines I hi-lighted above. But this article is about resolution and whether it is that important anymore.

As far as making big prints goes, I can tell you I made a print 20×30 inches from a Canon RAW file made in a Canon G9 compact camera that had a 1/1.7″ sensor and 12.8 mp. I cropped the image to a resolution of 3000×2000 pixels or 6 mp. That 20×30 inch print viewed from a standard 3 foot distance looked fine. I received many compliments on it when it hung in my office. Frankly you can get gallery quality images at 24×36 inches from a full frame 24 mp camera. So these modern cameras from Nikon, Canon, and Sony with 45-61 megapixels are they really necessary? Maybe.

There are pros and cons to high resolution these days. The way I see it there has been three phases of resolution as an issue in digital photography.

Phase 1: This was the easiest to understand, because as the resolution went higher the image quality was noticeably better. Seriously bigger was better in those days. From my perspective as a Canon shooter, this phase lasted until the 5D Mk II full frame and the 50D APS-c cameras and their equivalents from competitors around 2008-2010. More pixels equals more details. Too easy.

Phase 2: As resolution continued its climb higher and higher a new issue became more apparent. This is the issue of dynamic range, photo sensitivity, and pixel size. Higher resolution cameras often suffered from reduced dynamic range. I did an article on it here. They also routinely were limited on maximum ISO as well. This is largely due to the smaller size of the pixel and its ability to gather light. Remember the sensor size is fixed. Full frame sensors are 24x36mm imitating the size of a 35mm film frame. This was the main advantage of full frame sensors during Phases 1 and 2. Smaller sensors like the 4/3 and APS-C had higher pixel densities and tended to suffer more from the small pixel issues of ISO performance and dynamic range. The more pixels you stuff into the chip space the less room there is to hold them so the actual size of each pixel is smaller and thus more limited in its ability to absorb light. The higher resolution was also a limiting factor in shooting speeds as the camera’s processor has to work much harder with the larger file size of a high resolution image. The professional grade Canon EOS 1Dx series of cameras have typically had a lower resolution than the 5D series to allow for much faster shooting speeds and longer bursts in the buffer. But dynamic range is something that effects the ability to manipulate the image in post to pull details out of shadows and highlights or make major creative alterations to the image. This can be very important to some photographers including me.

Phase 3: Today cameras are sporting some advanced technology and incredibly fast processors. Many of the problems associated with high resolution cameras are all but eliminated in this modern world. Canon really made that a point with the R5 in 2020 that offers 45 megapixels with shooting speeds on par with the top line EOS 1DX Mk III at 20 fps electronic. The 1Dx mk III is only 20.2 megapixels. Now the buffer on the 1Dx mk III is much greater in fact some reviewers said they could not run it out. But the point is that the silicon guts are so good many of the problems with dynamic range and ISO are nearly gone. My 45 megapixel R5 has better dynamic range than the 30 megapixel EOS R I had before it.

So with this modern tech is resolution still an issue? Well the pros and cons still exist, but they are not as big a deal as back in the day.

Humming bird taken with R5 and 70-300 L

Pros to higher pixel cameras: Higher pixel counts give the shooter a few advantages in general. The image can be cropped without giving up pixels versus a lower resolution sensor. Using Canon as an example, the EOS R6 has a 20.2 mp sensor and the aforementioned R5 has 45 mp. Let’s look at an un-cropped photo of a humming bird. The image shows the full un-cropped area but has a brighter cropped area which represents the amount of cropping you can do on a 45 mp R5 and still have 20 mp left over. This photo is a throw away without the crop but with the crop it is usable. Had that been shot on the 20.2 mp R6 camera the remaining image after the crop would have 9 megapixels. Still usable but not as nice as 20 mp. Larger files also have the advantage of absorbing spatial and geometric alterations such as straightening convergence or distortion. Pixels tend to get destroyed when these types of corrections are made. Higher res cameras have more pixels to work with in these situations. In addition to these favorable advantages higher megapixel images can lead to superior details in landscapes and other detail centric imagery and these details can be seen in large reproductions. Higher resolution images tend to look better even when downsampled to lower resolutions in post because our modern software is very good at choosing optimal downsamples.

Cons to higher pixel cameras: Yes there are cons. One is file size. Those 45 mp files coming out of the R5 are more than twice the size of the R6 and that means you will need more than double the storage to hold all your images at full resolution. Long term storage devices or cloud space will fill up at more than twice the rate. You need larger memory cards in your camera and those tend to be more expensive as well. Another side effect of higher resolution images is that post processing them requires a more capable computer with more RAM and processing power. This can be expensive. One might suggest a solution is to store the files and post process the files in a lower resolution, but why buy a more expensive 45 mp camera only to shoot at reduced resolution? Seems pointless if you think about it. Speaking of expenses, these larger resolution cameras are typically more expensive. The EOS R6 is $2600 while the R5 is $3900. In all fairness the R5 does have additional features beyond the resolution as the camera has an ultra fast CF Express Type B card slot alongside its more pedestrian SD slot. The R6 has two SD and no CF Express. The R5 has some other features that are not on the R6, but nothing that warrants the huge price difference. The high resolution sensor and the processing to back it up are the primary drivers of the price difference. Another potential issue for high resolution cameras is lenses. Yes you need lenses that are optically sharp enough to render the extra detail. I have found some of my Canon L series lenses from the film era looked really crisp and sharp as a tack on my 23 mp EOS 5D Mark III and even the 30 mp EOS R but on the R5 seemed less crisp. What gives? Well those older lenses just can’t resolve at 45 mp and the camera shows the limits of the lens’ sharpness. I upgraded a couple of the my old lenses to Mark II versions and found a noticeable improvement. But with the 20 mp R6 I would have been fine retaining those older lenses and been none-the-wiser. Perhaps a bit richer in the wallet as well. Yet another issue that is minor but real none-the-less is high ISO performance. The issue of pixel size and light gathering has been largely overcome, but the physics are still the same. The EOS R6 has a native ISO range of 100-102400 expandable to 204800. The R5 is 100-51200 expandable to 102400. That is a full stop of performance advantage to the lower pixel camera. Testing from pro reviewers has shown at the critical high ISO range of 3200-12800 the R6 does produce a little cleaner results than its big brother the R5.

Whether one chooses to buy an R6 or an R5 or a Nikon Z6 vs Nikon Z7 or Sony a7 IV vs Sony a7R IV is entirely up to them. There is a considerable savings on cost buying the lower pixel versions in all three of these scenarios. You may get better results with older lenses on the lower res cameras and will save money across the board. Enough perhaps to buy a professional grade lens from any of these manufacturers. An EOS R5 body only, is $300 more than an EOS R6 with an RF 24-105 L lens!

In the final analysis the answer to the title query is this: No, resolution is no longer a “critical concern.” It still matters but not critically. 20-24mp is more than enough to make great images that can produce gallery sized high quality prints. The higher resolution in my opinion is worth the extra money, but you still have to spend the extra money and that is up to you to decide. If you have the means I believe you will be satisfied with the expense for the extra performance advantage. If you are trying to get the latest tech but a nearly $4000 camera body is off the table, then by all means get the 20-24 mp camera and make great images. Remember this: Canon’s venerable EOS 1Dx series cameras have sold for nearly two decades in the $6000-$7000 price range for the body only and feature sensors at 20.2 mp or less! Sony’s a9 and a9 mark II have 24 mp, and Nikon’s last DSLR flagship, the D6 is only 20.8 mp. These are cameras that have been used by world famous sports photographers at the Super Bowl and the Olympics and all over the planet. If 20-30 mp is good enough for them, it is probably good enough for us. That said if absolute resolution is your angle you do what you got to do and get a high resolution camera. On a budget you can find brand new, 50mp EOS 5Ds cameras for $1200 as they are being closed out. The DSLR may be dead, but they still work 🙂

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