Megapixel Madness 1

Hummers AU11-214

With Sony’s release of the three 24 MP APS-C cameras (the a65, a77, and the NEX-7) has reignited the megapixel wars. Since Sony is a major supplier of sensors to both Nikon and Pentax, this new 24 MP sensor will likely wind up in the top-of-the-line APS-C cameras of each company. Thousands of photographers will condemn to hours of sitting in front of their computer while their digital files load into their favorite raw converters all because Sony believes (and apparently rightly so) that no one loses money by underestimating the idiocy of consumers.

One of the more curious developments in photography is the rift that is now developing between the enthusiasts and pro photographers. It used to be that enthusiasts wanted to use the same gear as the pros. They still do, up to a point, but only up to a point. Other considerations have begun to take on greater importance. The two big camera companies, Nikon and Canon, have begun to notice this. They realize that the enthusiasts, the amateurs, the non-pros want more megapixels and the pros don't.

If more megapixels (presumably) lead to better images, why do pros prefer lower megapixel cameras? Largely it stems from the fact that a professional is far more likely to be results orientated and less likely to obsess over minor advantages brought via costly or dubious technology. Professionals, by virtue of the fact that their very livelihoods depend on pleasing clients, rather than themselves, tend to be far more practical than enthusiasts and gear-heads. A professional will perform a rational cost-benefit analysis in which all factors that go into making images that please clients are accounted for. A professional will understand, for instance, that most of his clients probably will not notice a difference in images produced by sensors with larger pixel densities. What will be noticed is the longer post-processing times, the need for more computing power and faster, larger hard drives, and the longer upload times all associated with the larger files. If a 24 MP file takes 10 seconds longer to load into the develop module of Lightroom than does a 16 MP file, this means it will take three hours longer to process 1,000 photos and 30 hours longer to process 10,000 photos. And what do you gain with all those extra hours? A very slight increase in image quality when printing at large sizes. At more conventional sizes (i.e., the sizes most demand by clients), the advantage is nil.

If the advantages of high pixel densities on sensors are overwhelmed by the disadvantages, why do so many enthusiasts have a mania for pixel packing? What is driving the insanity of enthusiast crowd? Thom Hogan, the Nikon guru, speculates that it’s the combination of the following five factors:

  • 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 are "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.

Hogan is, of course, painting with a broad brush; but there is a lot of truth in what he has written. You will find photographers online justifying their need for more pixels on the basis of desire for more crop wiggle room. The yearning for large prints is less common, but I have no doubt that at least a few photographers desire super large prints. Marketing plays a role as well. Larger sensor sizes create demand for faster computers, more storage space, faster online connections, and better lenses. It's a big win for the electronic industry all way around.

The last two are the big ones. The obsession with testing has taken on a religious aspect among far too many enthusiasts. Test scores on cameras and lenses are regarded in the same light as holy relics were viewed in the Middle Ages. If the incendiary skeptic notes that these test scores oftentimes vary by scandalous amounts from site to site, he is sure to be looked upon as a dangerous heretic. But as deplorable as this obsession with numerical tests obviously is, the obsession with the latest technology is even worse. There are some photo enthusiasts online who appear so infatuated with the latest technological developments that it becomes difficult not to conclude that they are more interested in gear rather than in photography. Indeed, I have a conjecture about this. I suspect that a great deal of the infatuation with technology arises precisely among those photo enthusiasts who are not very good photographers and really care far more about playing with and dreaming about the latest photographic gadgetry than they do about producing excellent images. Enthusiast photography is being increasingly influenced by tech-nerds, who wish to drive the industry to places it should avoid. These are people who don't care about the actual interests of those of us trying to produce compelling images. Photography, for the typical tech-nerd, revolves almost exclusively around the experience of using the latest gadgetry. In the minds of these people, anything over two years old is outmoded and therefore crap. The tech-nerd loves to predict the demise of older technology. P&S cameras are dead; they will be cannibalized by cell phone cameras. APS-C DSLRs are dead; they will be cannibalized by mirrorless cameras. Optical view finders are dead; they will be replaced by electronic view finders. People who resist these changes are reactionary luddites who stand in the way of progress.

If the tech-nerds have their way, many photographers on limited budgets could be squeezed out of photography altogether. That may not be the intention of the tech-nerds; but when false-ideals are thoughtlessly pursued, good intentions can easily lead to bad consequences. Technology can greatly enrich human life, provided that it remains subservient to vital human needs. When it becomes an end in itself, it can turn pernicious. The development of APS-C DSLRs was a tremendous boon to amateur photographers. It made the wonderful technology of digital imaging accessible to millions of photographers around the world. Now this technology is threatened by tech-nerds who wish to replace it either with big, heavy expensive “full-frame” DSLRs or tiny, ergonomically-challenged mirrorless cameras. For inexplicable reasons, some tech-nerds despise APS-C DSLRs. Such cameras are declared either too big (and therefore ought to be replaced by mirrorless cameras) or too small (and ought to be replaced by FF). But why should this be so? What are the millions of photographers who have invested in APS-C SLR lenses supposed to do? Many shutterbugs struggle to maintain their hobby in the face of the rising costs of SLR photography. They can’t afford to replace their lenses with a new set of mirrorless or FF glass. Are the camera companies really going to abandon these penny-pinching APS-C customers?

Unfortunately, the tech-nerds have a solution to this problem. I say unfortunately, because as usual with solutions of this sort, it only pleases those who are not affected by it. The solution is this: for those who wish to use their APS-C lenses on full-frame cameras, there will be a special “crop-mode”; and for those who wish to use APS-C lenses on mirrorless cameras, there will be adapters. The problem is that very few photographers are going to wish embrace either solution. Nikon has a crop-mode on their FX cameras, but hardly anyone uses it. Why would anyone pay over $3,000 for a FF sensor camera if they can only use a little more than half the sensor? Except for a few eccentrics, no one is going to want to do that. Nor are the majority of photographers going to want to use their lenses on mirrorless cameras via adapters. Larger APS-C lenses (i.e., mostly zooms) are not going to balance well on these tiny cameras, particularly when extended via adapters. Worse, these cameras (despite all the propaganda to the contrary) will cost more the APS-C DSLRs. The basic camera may cost less (after all, it’s merely an over-glorified point-and-shoot), but once you add the adapter and an EVF, the cost can easily push north of $1,500. Sony’s adapter for screwdrive A-mount lenses costs $400. Sony’s only camera with an EVF costs over $1,000. Samsung sold an accessory EVF for their APS-C mirrorless cameras for $200. This technology is not cheap. Most photographers with APS-C lenses would be better off using those lenses on APS-C DSLR bodies. It’s techno-narcissism to think otherwise.

We can only hope that the camera companies are wise enough not to be taken in by all the hype for FF and mirrorless technology to the extent of abandoning their APS-C customers. However, in one respect, one sees the beginning of a betrayal. This brings me back to the issue of pixel-packing mentioned earlier. The new Sony 24 MP represents a bigger threat to APS-C DSLRs than either FF or mirrorless. As yet, this sensor is only being used in Sony’s mirrorless and SLT cameras. But inevitably it will wind up in Nikon and Pentax DSLRs. The tech-nerds will be ecstatic, and their joy, by a kind of demented contagion, will debauch the judgment of more serious photographers, who will buy these cameras under the false assumption that more megapixels will improve their photography. If they rely heavily on post-processing, they will soon discover otherwise. The problem is not processor speed or even necessarily amount of RAM (although RAM is important), but the hard drive. Those who wish process files this large really need to have a computer with a solid state drive. In fact, you’ll probably need multiple SSD drives: 24 MP files take up a lot of space. New camera purchases will necessitate a new computer and new hard drives. This is not good news for the millions of photographers struggling to pay for their hobby. It already costs a fortune to buy a digital camera, quality lenses, tripod, ball head, flash, filters, etc. What’s the point of making it even more expensive to gain a slight technological edge? In terms of cost-benefit analysis, it simply does not compute.

What would be a good development in 2012? Poor sales for all cameras using Sony’s 24 MP APS-C sensor. That would send a message to the camera companies and the tech-nerds: stop the nonsense. I fear, however, that this 24 MP could reignite the MP wars, which would be a rather distressing development, particularly in APS-C space. In the FF space, I’m a bit more optimistic. I have more confidence that the rumored 36 MP Nikon D800 will not do as well as the camera it replaces, the D700. Indeed, I’m willing to go out on a limb and predict that either (1) the Nikon D800 won’t sell well at all; or (2) there will be a huge amount of buyer’s remorse related to this camera. 36MP is way too many pixels for most people (although how many photographers appreciate this obvious fact is an open question). There will be a handful of professionals and deep pocket enthusiasts who will use and appreciate the pixel density of the D800. Everyone else who buys it will likely become disenchanted. This will be particularly true for those foolish enough to upgrade from the D700. Anyone who goes from 12 MP to 36 MP is in for a rude awakening when they begin trying to load those 36 MP files into their favorite raw converter.