Pros on Megapixels


In an earlier post, I inveighed against the new wave of megapixel madness that has swept over photo enthusiasts. Nikon’s brilliant (from a marketing standpoint) but deeply cynical (from a moral standpoint) release of the 36MP D800, followed by the release of the 24MP D3200, has stirred up the megapixel madness to a fever pitch. As a counter-poise to the insanity, I thought I would quote what several professional photographers think about the megapixel madness. I’ve already quoted Thom Hogan, but it’s so rich I can’t help quoting it again:

Why are we getting more amateur-oriented equipment that pushes the pixel counts up and up, but pro gear is being more modest?

Because enthusiasts are asking for it, mostly. I suspect that it is a combination of factors that come into play:

  • Crop happy. Amateurs tend not to get the image right at acquisition. They'll take the image and hope they can crop it to something satisfactory.
  • Overly ambitious. Enthusiasts think that if they take a great picture every once in awhile and can blow it up to a 36" print they can wave in their friends' faces, that their friends will now think they "professional."
  • Driven by marketing. 24 is better than 16, 36 is better than 18. More is always better in the marketing world, which apparently doesn't play much golf.
  • Obsession with testing. While I advocate everyone, even pros, test their equipment to know what it can and can't do, the enthusiast crowd has spawned sites and communities where testing is pretty much the sole pursuit. They get caught up in the details and miss the big picture.
  • Technology always moves on. This is related to some of the previous points, but there's an underlying sense that products that don't increase key metrics are somehow behind the technology curve. I thought the D3/D700 disproved that with their 12mp sensor magic, but the thought lives on in a lot of users.
  • Yes, my tongue is a bit in cheek here. As I often do, I'm exaggerating details a bit to make a point: Nikon and Canon clearly think of dedicated pros and serious enthusiasts differently. They've been prioritizing design decisions accordingly, and that includes sensor choices.

...Personally, I use my 24mp D3x much less than I thought I would, and my 12mp D3s more than I thought I would. Both are fine cameras, but "more resolution" turns out to be less important to me than other factors at the pixel level, and to some degree, most pros seem to voice the same thoughts (though we always say "I wish I could have more resolution with the same underlying pixel tendencies.”).

Scott Bourne:

Unless you’re going medium format – i.e., a Mamiya RZ-22 or something similar, you don’t need and cannot take proper advantage of many more pixels than you already have. In fact, almost everyone reading this has more megapixels than they need to produce a salable image. Here’s how I know that.

Way back in May of 2000, Canon announced the D30 (not the 30D.) It was a superb camera. I had played with many previous digital models, but this is the camera that got me to “go digital.” I bought several of them. I used them for all sorts of work and during that camera’s run I sold hundreds of images to clients made with a 3.1 megapixel camera. Yep, just 3.1 megapixels. I sold images that were used on television, in books, magazine and newspapers. I sold prints. You name it, I sold it and all from a 3.1 megapixel camera. Now I am not saying that 3.1mp was enough. But it was enough to get by. When we got to 12mp I stopped worrying about having enough. I knew the sensors were getting packed to their limits.

Scott Bourne redux:

[To camera companies:] Stop the megapixel madness. In the old days your marketing departments were able to convince camera buyers that bigger was better. Then you wised up and saw that wasn’t working and you went to video. You added video to cameras and that was your hook. Then you got lazy and said “well let’s go back to megapixel madness again – there are a bunch of newbies who won’t realize we’ve already used this trick!”

12-14 megapixels is plenty of resolution for MOST shooters, especially with the compact camera sensors. 18 should be the top end for all but 98% of the shooters out there. Stop pretending that you’re doing us a favor by doubling the pixel count on the same old sensor. You’re not.

Tony Bynum:

...even though I’ve sold files for many billboards – some up to the size of entire city blocks, huge wraps for buses, and simple 60 foot highway billboards, the D800 file’s are huge! I shoot about 100,000 frames per year – almost 10k per month, there’s no way I could store that much data – and that’s not counting video.

Gary Silverstein:

You don’t need over 12 megapixels for anything under 30X40 (and you might even be able to push it to 40X60). Most images are printed smaller, and even wind up on the web, where a sub- one-megabyte image has sufficient size. The only photographers who need such a large megapixel camera are those who produce images in excess of 30X40, or severely crop an image from the original size. An 8X10 from a D800 won’t necessarily be better-looking than one from a D300!

Let’s also look at logistics. A 12.2-megapixel D300 Nikon produces a tiff file around 35-megabytes (8-bit). A D800 is said to produce a tiff image at around 76-megabytes (8-bit). In Photoshop, professional photographers regularly make layers to enhance their images. Each layer adds multiples to the size of that file, and unless you have a pretty robust 64-bit computer system, it may create delays in workflow, or even give you dreaded “out of memory” messages.

I can think of other reasons why more megapixels than 12 (or 18) is not needed by most photographers. Gary Silverman, for example, understates the problems related to post-processing. Even viewing files on Lightroom can become deeply problematic unless you have a the latest high-end system. While my desktop system is hardly state-of-the-art, it’s not exactly antiquated either. I have a two year old iMac with a 3,06 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 4 GB of ram. Yet raw files from my 16 MP Pentax K-5 can take forever merely to load for viewing; and even longer for pixel-peeping. I’ve taken 25,000 images in the last 15 months. I’ve thrown out about 10,000 of these images. Just going through the images from my K-5 to decide which one’s to keep is a daunting task. The notion of trying to sift through 25,000 images from the Nikon D800 is the stuff of nightmares for me. Why would anyone want to do such a thing when they don’t actually need the extra pixels?

Then there’s the problem of storage. Yes, I know, storage is cheap. But it is not just the issue of the cheapness of storage. Storing digital files is a precarious business. Some people believe that unless the file is stored on at least three separate drives, it doesn’t really exist. Handling the back-ups of large amount of files over multiple hard drives is itself an immense task. Yes, there are technologies such as DROBO that make it easier. But I’ve heard horror stories about DROBOs and wouldn’t want to rely on them for more than one of my backups. The real issue is one of anxiety: the more you have to store (as a result of file size), the more anxiety you’re likely to feel. Of course, if you’re not taking excellent images in the first place, the issue of storage is not going to seem all that important. But if you’re not taking pictures worth saving and being anxious about, why do you need a 36 MP camera?

I also can’t help commenting on the whole issue of cropping. When challenged whether they really need 36 MP, many megapixel maniacs confess that, at least as far as printing is concerned, they don’t need the extra pixels. What they want is more pixels for cropping. It appears that Hogan was right: many enthusiasts are incapable of getting the image right in the camera, so they need to crop in post. Often, they get things so wrong they need to crop a whole lot. Now as someone who learned SLR photography shooting slide film, this mania for cropping strikes me as evidence that many enthusiasts haven’t learned their craft. While most photographers, even professionals, may need to crop here or there, if cropping is so much a part of your photographic style that you need a 36 MP camera, you would really be better off learning how to use the right lenses for the subject at hand and thereby getting it right in the camera. Cropping is not a substitute for bad technique. First, improve your technique; then decide whether you need that 36 MP camera.

And really, the bottom line with all this megapixel madness is this: it shows that far too many enthusiast photographers are way too obsessed with gear at the expense of their photography skills. You don’t need a 36 MP camera to take great photographs. On the contrary, the large file sizes that come out of the Nikon D800 will more likely detract from the photographer’s development, as they will discourage post-processing and responsible storage habits. Cameras like the Nikon D800 should only be purchased by those who have mastered their craft, who have the computing equipment and storage strategies to handle the large files, and who need to print large sizes. For any photographer who doesn’t meet these criterion, the Nikon D800 is an unwise purchase. Buy a used D700 or stick with APS-C. There are much better cameras out there for learning one’s craft than the D800.