DPP Home Gear Cameras Will The Megapixel Wars End?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Will The Megapixel Wars End?

As resolution climbs into the stratosphere, pixel counts aren’t necessarily the most important specification in a D-SLR

This Article Features Photo Zoom

To handle the 21.1-megapixel, full-frame images turned out by the EOS-1DS Mark III, Canon gave the camera not one but two DIGIC III image processors. Top processing assures top image quality and allows shooting the big files at 5 fps.
In the past 10 to 12 years, the overall digital camera situation has changed dramatically. D-SLRs have gone from esoteric pieces of equipment that required the presence of a full-time digital technician to mainstream cameras that every “soccer mom and NASCAR dad” could operate. In the professional realm, today’s bodies are rugged and reliable, and they can keep up with even the most demanding professional.

Resolution has climbed steadily in that time frame, as well. Two mega-pixels has blossomed to more than 20 megapixels on some models. While some people continue to make comparisons to film, that discussion has died out almost completely. Today, if you want to shoot film because you like it or you think you get better results, so be it. You like the look and the workflow, and it’s working for your photography, so more power to you. But film versus digital really isn’t much of a battle to see which technology will win out anymore. That war is over. Manufacturers like Kodak and Fujifilm make some fantastic emulsions, and we hope they’ll continue to do so for many years because there continue to be photographers who want to shoot film. But digital sensors are so good now that the meaningful debate about which yields supe-rior images is done.

So today we have a plethora of D-SLRs that have sufficient megapixel resolution to handle any output need. Models with 12 to 24 megapixels dominate the market for ad-vanced amateurs, as well as professionals. If you do the math, you’ll see that there are output-size limitations at these resolutions, which seems to imply that even higher megapixel counts are necessary, since a professional never wants the use of his or her images to be limited. This is a legitimate question if one is simply examining native resolution, but the native resolution isn’t necessarily the limiting factor. There’s the possibility of interpolating up to a much greater resolution.

Phase One’s P40+ is a 40-megapixel, medium-format D-SLR with the company’s Sensor+ technology, which lets you switch between 40 megapixels when you want extra detail and 10 megapixels with excellent image quality, up to ISO 3200, when you need more sensitivity.
Interpolation Possibilities
Just about any professional cringes at the thought of interpolating an image to a higher resolution than the native dimensions. The very word “interpolation” is imbued with a derogatory connotation, but let’s discuss why that’s so. Interpolation’s bad reputation stems from the period when sensors had a fraction of their current resolution. A 3-megapixel sensor might yield a 10-megabyte image file. If you tried to boost the resolution with software, you could get a much larger file, but at some point, the interpolation software just didn’t have enough data to work with, and so the resulting image began to break apart, and you ended up with an unsatisfactory image. Pros who have grown up, profession-ally speaking, with digital technology recall only too well how clients and stock agencies refused to accept interpolated images because of the risk of poor image quality from the interpolation process.

If we look at interpolation in terms of a modern high-resolution D-SLR, it’s a different story. At 12+ megapixels, digital image files that come off the camera open to about 40+ megabytes. That’s a lot of data. Assuming you’re shooting RAW, the image files should be almost completely free of artifacts (even RAW images go through compression and processing, which can lead to some, albeit minimal, artifacting). With that much distinct image data to work with, interpolation software can do a much better job. Essentially, interpolation software likes to work on data. The more data it has, the better the results. Furthermore, the scale isn’t linear. Having four times as much raw image data will yield much more than four times as large a final file if pushed.

So we can see that, by all accounts, it’s difficult to characterize today’s megapixel counts as lacking. Still, many manufacturers have been loath to slow the progression. On the marketing side, megapixels still give the camera a focal point and a well-established specification that most buyers understand. Especially in trying economic times, it’s not easy to make the argument that the megapixel race should be reconsidered, but there are some good reasons to do just that.


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