Episode 217: Have the Megapixel Wars Ended?

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Greetings, you’re listening to the Liam Photography Podcast, I’m your host Liam Douglas and this is Episode 217. In today’s episode I post the question, “Have the Megapixel Wars Ended?”

Recently Leica announced the M11, which is a 60 Megapixel successor to their M10 and M10-P. The M11’s high resolution is somewhat unexpected because it’s the highest resolution full-frame Leica ever made, but this episode is not about the M11.

Now the Leica M11 looks like a fantastic camera if you want a digital rangefinder and you have $9,000 to burn on the best, but as many people say, “unless you’re a dentist or a lawyer, the average photographer will never be able to afford a Leica.” What surprised me about the announcement was not the camera itself, but that it has such a high resolution sensor, because it reminded me of the ‘Megapixel Wars’. This was something that was such a huge part of photography, but maybe the ‘Megapixel Wars’ like the Korean War never really ended.

In the last couple of years the biggest battle between new cameras has been in the area of their autofocus tracking and subject recognition. Things such as EyeAF, animal tracking and more recently, vehicle tracking for photographing auto and motorcycle racing. It made perfect sense that companies were focusing on focus since it is such an important part of photography. Focus is a very difficult thing to get right and it had a real impact of how your images turn out. Additionally, focus was a big part of why a photography chose one camera system over another.

The ‘Megapixel Wars’ seemed to have slow down in the last few years. At one time it was a big deal if a competing company offered a 6 Megapixel sensor, to easily improve on that you could come out with a 12 Megapixel sensor and it was a big deal. Today, adding a few Megapixels here or there doesn’t really mean anything, especially since we already have enough resolution in ALL camera systems for your typical print types. Sure, if you are shooting something that will go on a massive billboard along a busy Interstate, then a really high resolution camera will make the difference, but a lot of that stuff is shot with Medium Format for the high detail and Dynamic Range.

The camera makers have seemed to realize that Megapixels don’t matter that much anymore. Nikon, for example hasn’t gone above 45 Megapixels since they introduced their D850 back in 2017. Canon still hasn’t surpassed the 51 Megapixel sensor from their 5DS and 5DS/r from 2015. Sony, for their part has been upping the resolution in their a7R line of cameras with each new revision, but the 61 Megapixel sensor in the a7R IV came out about two and a half years ago, and they are due for an update in their rumored a7R V.

Although the ‘War’ hasn’t totally slowed down, I believe some of it is entirely illusionary as most of the highest resolution cameras mostly have the same resolution they had five years ago. The difference however, is that high resolution options across the entire market has never been higher. Some examples of this are:

  1. The price of high-megapixel camera have been going down for a while now
  2. Low-resolution models are being gradually phased out of most camera maker’s lineup
  3. To achieve 8K video, like Canon first did, makes higher resolution sensor a necessity.
  4. New features like sensor-shift are pushing the resolution of many cameras beyond their “stated” specs.

Now, let’s talk about these four main points in more detail.

  1. Lower Prices for High Resolution

The pricing side of it goes without saying. When Canon announced the 51 Megapixel 5DS and 5DS/r back in 2015, it was hands down the highest resolution full-frame camera you could buy and it sold for $3,700 new. In today’s market, even a mint condition models sells for around $1,200 tops.

It is not just the used camera market. A brand new DSLR or Mirrorless camera with a high resolution sensor is less expensive than they were back then, and they are now cheaper than they ever have been before. Just look at Fujifilm, who now has a 102 Megapixel GFX100 and GFX100S Medium Format mirrorless cameras, which went for $10,000 for the 100 down to $6,000 for the 100S. The 51 Megapixel GFX 50R that I have was $4,500, but you can now find them new on sale for $3,000. The new GFX 50S II sells new with the GF 35-70mm F/4 lens for $4,500 if you want the body only then you are talking only $4,000! I am old enough to remember when a 24 Megapixel Flagship Nikon cost $8,000 and the 20 Megapixel flagship Canon was the same price. In today’s camera market, 100 Megapixels isn’t scaring people away, instead more photographers are now buying Medium Format cameras. It is also easier to go for that high resolution beast of a camera because the cost of fast hard drives and memory cards have come down a lot over the last few years. Gone were the days when the ‘Megapixel Wars’ were all about leap-frogging the competition with every new revision of a camera line, but, alas, it is still part of the overall story.

2. Phaseout the Low Resolution Models

The main reason why higher resolution cameras are the most plentiful on the market is because the companies have been phasing out their lower resolution models for some time now. Just look at sports and wildlife cameras. Just a few years ago anything over 20 Megapixels was a happy surprise for those photographers, now anything under 40 Megapixels and those shooters are not happy. Canon, Nikon and Sony ALL have sports cameras that are over 40 Megapixels with the Canon EOS R5, the Nikon Z9 and the Sony A1. The Canon and Nikon are both at 45 Megapixels and the Sony at 50.

Most photographers haven’t ditched their low resolution models as quickly as the sports and wildlife shooters, but it is happening. Sony recently bumped up their a7 series, which has been at 24 Megapixels since it was first announced to the new model sporting s new 33 Megapixel sensor with the a7 IV. Canon has also been pushing theirs higher in their crop sensor bodies from 18 Megapixels to 24 and now even 33 in the EOS 90D. Nikon has been done with their 16 Megapixel sensor for ages. We are seeing a similar progression to what we saw in the past, sure, it slowed down a bit, but now Fujifilm is pushing the issue once again especially with landscape photographers by offering extremely affordable Medium Format cameras with 50 and 102 Megapixels sensors at full-frame prices.

3. Eventual 8K Video Needs

The one thing that hasn’t been pushing sensor resolution higher was video, but now with all companies offering 8K video after Canon unveiled it in the EOS R5, that will now be an underlying factor. Only a small handful of cameras today offer non-timelapse 8K video like the R5, Z9 and the Sony A1. The starting resolution for 8K video with a 2:3 aspect ration is 39.3 Megapixels, which allows you to crop to 16×9 ratio with 7680×4320, 8K resolution. But, the newer 8K DCI format is 8192×4320, which demands a 44.7 Megapixel sensor. In the past 4K rapidly caused a rise in sensor resolution from a few cameras to pretty much ALL models being capable of it today. Nikon’s first 4K DSLRs were the D5 and the D500, which were announced in 2016 and now 4K is in everything from the 20 Megapixel Z50 upwards. How fast will 8K video be prevalent? Well even if the timeline is a bit slower than the rise of 4K, you cannot get around needing at least a 39.3 Megapixel sensor to do it, so that size and larger sensors will be in ALL cameras eventually.

4. Sensor-shift to Increase Resolution Even Further

A newer technology that has come about in the last few years that Canon and Nikon are still absent from is sensor-shift technology and it’s odd given that it seems to be a new reality in camera technology. The reason for this is there are fewer and fewer ways for companies to leap-frog each other in technology.

Sensor-shift is a new feature that uses the camera’s IBIS or In Body Image Stabilization to move the sensor a fraction of a millimeter at a time and takes multiple photos in sequence, and then merges them into a higher resolution final image. As a general rule, it results in a resolution four times greater than the sensor could do without sensor-shift. For example, the Fujifilm GFX100S you end up with an image that is 408 Megapixels instead of 102. Sony, Olympus, Pentax and Panasonic all offer cameras with this feature, so I would assume Canon and Nikon will follow suit soon.

If Canon and Nikon do soon offer this capability, it won’t be long before EVERY camera on the market can capture four times its native resolution. Now sensor-shift has issues of it’s own such as you cannot shoot it handheld or when capturing moving subjects as the camera itself has to remain perfectly still for the technology to work. Any movement in the camera or the subject will render the sensor-shift null and void. It is however, a great way to dramatically increase details in images, so it works well for landscapes and architecture.


My Conclusion

Sensor resolution has for a long time been one of the main selling points for ALL camera makers and it’s what matters most to people buying a new camera. For me personally, I have been much more interested in the advancements in other technology such as low light performance and AF systems. Another thing I like to see is the ever increasing size in the camera’s buffer, or how many shots it can take in Continuous shooting modes without slowing down as it writes them all to the memory cards.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the ‘Megapixel War’ is still raging on even if it’s a slightly different battle than it was a few years ago. With Leica’s M11, 60 Megapixels shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone as it’s more of a return to normal in the camera wars.

Since Canon, Nikon and Sony all have 40+ Megapixel “sports” cameras what will the market look like next when they return to focusing on landscape cameras again? I suspect we will see more of the old leap-frogging of a decade ago while they all fight for the highest Megapixel title. Canon has already had a 100 Megapixel sensor in the works for a few years now and rumors are it will be in their Mirrorless replacement for the 5DS and 5DS/r, which will double the sensor size of those older DSLR models.

The ‘Megapixel War’ is something that I am sometimes annoyed by, but given that larger and faster hard drives are becoming cheaper and more readily available to everyone handling 100 Megapixels images is no sweat. Apple made it even easier to process these huge files when they switched to their own M1 processors. And for those that want to opt out of the 100 Megapixel images, they can always buy those cameras for their value and use sRAW or mRAW instead. Many people say that the “sweet spot” of Megapixels is between 24-45, but of course, some photographers will need to be printing massive prints for jobs they are hired for so these higher resolution sensors are becoming the norm. One last point, the new, best in class lenses from each company whether it’s Canon, Nikon, Sony or Fujifilm are ALL capable of resolving higher resolution than their current sensors can even do, which for us as photographers is a good thing. It means our lenses are even more of a worthwhile investment than ever before.

Also be sure to join the Liam Photography Podcast Facebook Group https://www.facebook.com/groups/liamphotographypodcast/ You can reach the show by call or text @ 470-294-8191 to leave a comment or request a topic or guest for the show. Additionally you can email the show @ liam@liamphotographypodcast.com and find the show notes at http://www.liamphotographypodcast.com.

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