The problem with technology is that it can look dated the older it gets. How good does a VHS tape look on your 4K TV? The same thing can happen with cameras. While 24-megapixel cameras are making great pictures, what they are going to be compared to is about to change… radically. You need to understand how the next generation of digital cameras will affect you, especially if you are a pro or serious amateur.
We’ve had a long run with 24MP as a standard acceptable resolution for many photographic needs — it has been a sweet spot of cost and performance. It’s a great fit for full-page and double-page magazine reproduction. Fine art prints look as good, and usually better than, the 35mm and medium format film it replaced. In fact, wedding and portrait size prints have never looked better. And It’s even a good fit for video since HD/1080p screens only need ~2MP (and even 4K tops out at ~8MP.)
Amazing work can be made with 24MP cameras, but its dominance has already started to erode. Most pros I work with are regularly using 36-50MP cameras from Nikon/Sony/Canon, and you can see the difference.
As a fine art printmaker, I spend a lot of time evaluating print quality up close, and I’m seeing better prints than ever from high megapixel cameras. And it’s not just more pixels. Better glass is being made to take advantage of these large sensors, giving us the best quality ever from the DSLR/mirrorless form factor.
While the differences are noticeable, it’s not that 24MP looks bad — it’s just that large prints from 36-50MP cameras can look better.
But in my crystal ball, I see what we’re going to expect from our cameras in 2024 is going to be very different than what we expect today.
Resolution is a big part of this.
Sony recently announced the a7R IV, which offers up 61MP. With 60-70MP 24x36mm sensors in production, I suspect the other manufacturers to soon follow suit. Fuji has shaken things up with 50MP medium format for about the price of top mirrorless bodies, and even Hasselblad is offering a 50MP camera under $6,000. 100MP is now $10,000 instead of the $30,000+ it has been.
If I were to predict the near future, I’d say that 36MP will replace 24MP in the prosumer mirrorless/DSLR line, and 50-70MP will be standard in the higher end pro bodies. 100MP+ will likely continue to be the realm of medium format digital for a couple of years, but no guarantee on that.
We’re going to see the higher resolution result in better print quality. We’ve enjoyed a long run of printing with ~200-300 ppi files as the standard, and even lower resolutions are deemed acceptable for larger prints. But modern inkjet printers are capable of much higher quality. Using files higher than 300 ppi with a Canon or Epson printer produces astounding quality, and allows fine detail that is a quantum leap over the Chromira or LightJet.
A 24MP camera will only give you ~200 ppi at 20×30, where a 45MP camera will give 275 ppi. Even with the current generation technology, that difference is apparent, but it’s about to get much larger.
Pixel shift technology is going to widen the gap between 24MP and the high end even further. Pixel shift is a technique that moves the sensor slightly between exposures to create the effect of a higher resolution sensor. The Panasonic SR1 is capable of 187MP with pixel shift, and the files I’ve seen from it look astounding. From what I can tell, it will equal or better 4×5 film resolution. Surprisingly, on the Panasonic, it even works with some motion, which will make it viable in the field for some landscape situations.
Pixel-shift is a real game-changer, and within a couple of years, I suspect every pro body will offer some form of it, and have the bugs (mostly) worked out. That means the new paradigm isn’t how 24MP looks compared to 50MP, it’s how 24MP looks compared to 187MP, at over 7x the resolution. (or 240MP in the case of the Sony a7R IV!)
You know how the screen on your smartphone or tablet looks so much better than your 1080p desktop monitor? That’s the kind of visual difference that higher MP sensors and pixel-shift technology will create.
On the print side, the quality of these new files will consistently produce results previously seen only from large format film.
61MP will allow 20×30 inch prints at nearly 316 ppi. The Panasonic SR1 at 187MP will allow 30×40 inch prints at 372 ppi and 40x60inch prints at 279 ppi. High-resolution prints at these sizes are simply breathtaking, revealing incredibly small details. For people who exhibit and sell prints, this will be a very exciting development.
Don’t print large? Our expectations of digital display are changing too. 8K displays are already on the horizon, and more and more we’re looking at our photos on a screen instead of in print. While I don’t expect prints to go away, I expect screen viewing to become more popular. We’re ahead of the curve on 8K displays but that’s the point of future-proofing.
8K displays require ~33MP of resolution. With high-resolution screens everywhere, this is an important consideration. Just as you can see the difference between your VHS tapes and HD video, or between HD and 4K, you will see a difference between 4K and 8K. An 8K panel displays 4 times the information as a 4K display or 16 times the information of 1080p.
The coming transition to 8K will drive client and viewer expectations. Shooting for 8K or greater now helps future-proof your work, ensuring they will still look great with upcoming standards.
But the biggest game-changer is yet to come. Our cameras are basically mini computers now, and computational photography is just starting to take advantage of this. Things like PhaseOne’s Frame Averaging gives the ability to decouple exposure time from shutter speed, and this is just the beginning. In the next few years, we’re going to see a lot more intelligent cameras capable of doing things that we never dreamed off. The “killer feature” is not just going to be resolution, but the high-end cameras doing these fancy tricks will likely also be high resolution as well.
But will any of this matter to you? That’s something for you to decide based on your use case and your aspirations. And it will come at a price beyond a more expensive camera body. The need for better lenses, larger file sizes, slower processing, and more storage space for everything will cost time and money. But it will open up possibilities in the DSLR/mirrorless form factor you probably never dreamed of.
Whatever you decide, don’t get too attached to your current camera because some amazing new options are just around the corner for everyone.
About the author: Rich Seiling is a photographer, workshop instructor, and fine art printmaker who has worked with top photographers, the National Park Service, and the Smithsonian. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Check out his workshops and blog at CraftingPhotographs.com
Image credits: Photo in header illustration by ssutton77