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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

When pixel count is more important than shooting speed, medium-format is best. The 56x36mm sensor in Leaf’s AFi-II 10 provides 56 megapixels. The camera can shoot the 9288x6000-pixel images at one per second.
Will ISO Replace Megapixels?
As pixel counts go up, so does the amount of noise and other quality-damaging artifacts in the image. Also, the ability to capture colors becomes more difficult. The image sensors have more heat (which needs to be dissipated), and power consumption increases dramatically. To assist with these problems, the manufacturers have developed incredibly impressive processing engines. Going by names like DIGIC (Canon), EXPEED (Nikon) and Bionz (Sony), the processing engines do a phenomenal job of mitigating the problems associated with packing ever more pixels onto a sensor. In fact, sensors and processing engines are becoming so good that recent announcements from Canon and Nikon have set the ISO bar above 100,000, which is astounding.

Sony’s DSLR-A900 has a 24.5-megapixel sensor like the D3X, but Sony’s own Bionz image processor—two of them in fact. This results in a different “look” to the images. Sony’s new DSLR-A850 provides the same sensor and image quality in a lower-priced package—the first full-frame D-SLR to sell for under $2,000.
We have to ask, what if, in place of high megapixel counts, manufacturers shifted their emphasis to creating the cleanest, lowest-noise, best color images? Please note we don’t mean to imply that the manufacturers don’t care about such things. We know they care deeply, which is why they continue to develop the remarkable hardware and software solutions both in the camera and for postprocessing. But what if the conversation were to be shifted from megapixels to something else?

In the automotive industry, there are two key specifications that manufacturers use to differentiate their products: horsepower and miles per gallon. When gas is cheap and times are good, you see no end in horse-power figures in automotive advertising. When gas is expensive and times are more lean, horsepower figures fade away in favor of mpg.

To date, the camera industry has relied primarily on megapixels. It’s analogous to horsepower. With new advancements that enable maximum ISO ratings above 100,000, we’re hopeful that the industry finally has its mpg specification.

Will the megapixel wars end? We don’t know. To be sure, we’d all love to have as much resolution as possible, but a high-resolution image file that’s full of noise and digital artifacts isn’t of much use to anyone. As we approach the limits of lens-resolving power, as well as the difficulties of noise on the sensor, the timing seems to be right for a shift away from the megapixels to low-noise, high-ISO, artifact-free images. At current pixel counts, if noise levels can be further reduced, even larger image files can be gener-ated through interpolation.

It looks like the manufacturers are already making a shift. As of this writing, the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV and the Nikon D3S are the only two D-SLRs with an ISO rating above 100,000. We expect to see more models with that capability soon. We also expect to see lower noise, better on-camera image processing and continued advancements in image sensors. The D-SLR is entering its renaissance.


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