How much is enough - Have we reached the Peak of the Megapixel Bonanza in cameras?

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The other day I read a post on one of the Facebook forums for Commercial Photographers that someone was selling their Nikon D800 because it had too many Mega Pixels. The post got me thinking. Too many megapixels? I thought I never would hear this.  For those Non-Nikonites the D800 is the first full frame DSLR that has well and truly broken the Megapixel barrier offering 36 mp. You can read more about this truly fascinating camera on Dpreview.com or at Nikon itself.

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In the past it was enough for the Camera manufacturers to bring out a new generation of their flagship and up the megapixels to excite the consumers. But have we now reached a point where adding more megapixels is just not practical for the average user? The issue is that more Megapixels come with larger file sizes. The file size of a raw file for the D800 is on average about 50MB and a Jpeg is about 20MB. Just for comparison the D700 predecessor to the D800 averages around 15MB for raw files.

Speaking as a Wedding Photographer I am not sure whether the benefits of the high Megapixels will outweigh the disadvantage of the file handling. In wedding photography we tend to shoot hundreds of exposures and the work flow is such that we copy the files first on the hard drive and later on a backup drive. I am not so concerned of the storage requirements. Storage is cheap these days. What would concern me is the time it will take me to copy the files from the card to the computer.

On the other hand the advantage of having larger files is that we have much more information stored in the file which increases accuracy in post production. Very important in Fashion photography and beauty shots where larger file sizes means we can zoom in and retouch down to the hair level. Fashion photographers and Advertising photographers are using large file formats for years and the industry kind off expects large files for better retouching ability.

The Medium Format market has dominated the realm of High megapixels so far with Phase One offering the IQ180 that has 80 megapixels. Interesting enough the file size for IQ180 is also “only” 54MB with small compression and goes up to 80MB for the large compression setting.

So do we really need this sort of megapixel bonanza? It really boils down to what we are shooting and what our clients expect. Wedding customers want HiRes images these days, but no one has really defined accurately what that means. I don’t think any wedding client would want 20-50MB files.

For shooting portrait the high resolution is also a bit of an overkill. So who really in the current market needs a 36 Megapixel camera? Fashion shooters usually use Medium Format and so do most product and advertising photographers. For those shooters who cannot afford Medium format cameras the D800 is a good budget solution to get the detailed files needed in some shooting scenarios. Given that a comparable medium format system will cost about 10 times.

One product photographer on the Google+ Studio Photography forum suggested that having the large file size allows us to crop without losing print quality. It is true that in some product shots of smaller items such as jewellery going close up with the camera means that the depth of field is very shallow. We have to use Depth of Field stagging to solve this issue today. With large mega pixel rates we can just shoot from further away and crop to size which is kind off a cleaner and much faster approach. Not sure I like the idea of using the camera this way as it doesn’t make sense to get a large file only to reduce to a small one.

With all things technology the perception changes over time. Today we might find file sizes of 50MB excessive because our computers are not keeping up with processing such files in reasonable timeframes. If we are working with large files we will need faster more expensive computer, massive storage units, bigger and better backup and blah blah blah.

Buying a camera today is not all about the megapixels. There are other features that make good business sense for the purchase a particular camera. For example when Nikon introduced the high ISO settings a few years ago I jumped on board buying a D700 straight away. Wedding Photography happens in churches with low light and Priests that do not like flash. A camera that gives us short exposure times in a church is worthwhile. These days all cameras have video capability and I believe that the market for visuals will change dramatically in the next few years to more video being required than today. The D800 is according to all reviews that I read the most awesome video camera. Does that require high megapixel rates? Not at all!    

I tend to agree with the photographer who is upgrading to the D4 (16MP) with lower megapixels, but with much more features and higher speed. In a nutshell in the future I don’t think it will be enough to just increase megapixels to excite consumers. Camera manufacturers will have to come up with clever solutions to problems that we did not even know we have.    

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