MegaPixel War Madness and the Consequence – Quick Look at EOS 5DS/R

When digital photography just got out of its infancy in the mid 2000s, there was a bout of MP madness then when buying a 12MP camera was the epitome of technological nirvana. When most people have only 1024×768 resolution monitors (translate: less than 1MP) then having a 12MP camera would mean you are a professional in need of shooting to print. Somehow, all the tech writers and photographers thought about the whole thing and decided that it is getting ridiculous and it became a concerted effort to educate the public that one don’t really need high megapixels to have good quality output from printing (super 8R size prints only need 10MP to be excellent and 6MP is more than enough for 4R print).

Soon, people realised their folly and camera manufacturers have to hanker down and improve on their offerings via better feature sets. Unfortunately, history is now repeating itself in the form of Nikon D800’s 36MP. DigitalREV’s Kai even ask what’s the problem with having more MP then? More on that later.

True to my initial fear, Canon has responded to Nikon’s challenge by upping the MegaPixel count to a whopping 50.6MP in their latest flagship cameras. If you think 36MP image files is going to freeze your PC intermittently, then files from the red camp would definite be twice that of the yellow badge and freezing the PC is as good as a given. Imagine the largest Nikon D800 file I have encountered is 70MB, can you imagine what 50.6MP would look like? All of a sudden your uber expensive USHIII 64GB memory card will seemed to be like a 2GB card with this machine.

So to most people if the smartphone can have 20.7MP, then why make so much noise when 35mm sensor size has 50.6MP. Okay I am going to put forth my arguments from another perspective.

Old 5D versus New 5D

Here are the main specifications from EOS 5DS/R that I am looking at:

  • 50.6MP sensor
  • 5 frames per second
  • 61 AF points
  • Full HD video recording
  • Dual DIGIC 6
  • Native ISO 100-6400

Have you realised that this specification list seemed odd in 2015? Have a look at 5DMarkIII that was introduced in 2012, 3 years ago:

  • 22MP Sensor
  • 6 frames per second
  • 61 AF Points
  • Full HD video recording
  • Single DIGIC 5+ processor
  • Native ISO 100-25600

So from the above list what has improved? Sensor resolution that has increased more than twice from 22MP to 50.6MP and there are now TWO processors in the camera.

What has stagnated or didn’t improve?

  • FPS has decreased from 6 to 5
  • 61 AF points remained
  • Full HD video recording
  • Decrease in the ISO range from 25600 maximum to 6400.
  • Increase in power consumption because of dual processors? (speculation)

The conclusion of having 50.6MP on the sensor means a new camera is actually worse off in most areas than the model it is replacing. Even when there are now TWO dedicated processors to handle the increase in file size, it is still not enough to increase beyond 6 fps.

New 5D versus Competition 

And there are also other things to consider too, most importantly the market that Canon is now operating in. I will use the 3 most notable cameras that are launched recently to see how the 5DS stack up against.

Nikon D810 / Sony A7ii / Samsung NX1 (APS-C)

  • Sensor – 36/24/28MP
  • FPS – 5/ 5 / 15
  • AF Points – 51/117/209
  • ISO – 64 to 12800 /100 to 25600 / 100 to 25600
  • Video Recording – Full HD / Full HD / 4K

All points to the fact that 5DS will have its work cut out for it to convince that having 50.6MP is worth having when competitors are either edging out some of the features out or even knocking it out of the ball park especially from the mirrorless camp.

Not only the 5DS is going have a tough fight on specs alone, it also has introduced a time lag mechanism that enables the camera to take a photo only after the mirror is flipped up proper and not moving. The settings can be anything from 1/8s to 2 seconds. It is basically the same reason why we put a timer for 2 seconds and attempt a mirror lock so that the darn camera don’t shake when the picture is taken. So if you are thinking of using this camera for event work, then it is only safe to assume you won’t be getting tack sharp images on close inspection if you are the run and gun type.

Can it take tack sharp images? Oh definitely…put the camera on tripod or ensure you have sniper breathing technique when you use this camera. Like one of my pro friend says “it forces you to slow down” Hey wasn’t that the same as using the Nikon Df with its wide ranging types of locks?

The Simple Conclusion

Of course not everything in the specification sheet is important. It really depends on what and how the camera is used and then matched the camera to its strong points. So this is how I see the Canon EOS 5DS.

The bombshell: The Canon EOS 5DS is NOT the successor to the 5D Mark iii. Much like how the D800 is also not the successor to the Nikon D700.

It is to me, a niche camera that is trying to outdo a medium format camera just like what the D800 was meant to do in the first place. It is basically a studio camera or a camera meant for the tripod so landscape and studio photographers would love to have this, much like how the Nikon D800 entices these photographers. To buy or not to buy, that depends on why you need that 50MP in the first place and also if there’s lens in the lineup that can maximise the quality of the sensor. So leads me back to talk about the stupid MP war all over again.

MegaPixel War Talk (again)

Online consumption of images do not need 50MP.

Fast forward, most of us now have 1920×1080 monitors (translate: 2MP screens) and even a smartphone such as my Samsung K Zoom has 20.7MP on its teeny weeny sensor (I took the shot of the camera with the K Zoom). I now have to get a 32GB microSD card just to ensure I can get some breathing space when I am using my phone. In the end, even a simple 13MP sensor is more than enough for tablets, smartphones and most of our monitors and my 20.7MP phone is to me an overkill and that caused me to have a higher overhead in terms of storage needs.

So most of our Facebook images + Full size on screen viewing via flickr is definitely LESS than 2MP. Even if you go buy a 4K screen now, the maximum MP you need is around 10MP. Would the extra MP mean anything? Yes in some ways as the computer has more data to determine correctly what is the resultant colour for a pixel when it shrinks the image down. But when there are just too many MP, the resizing algorithm would just discard them anyways. So it is good to have more than enough pixels to get a good estimate but not too much that you are spending money to save unnecessary amount of data. There should be a good balance and to me 20MP on a camera, be it full frame or APS-C is definitely more than enough.

Archiving will be a pain in the posterior

At the current technology when it comes to archiving, we are now relying ONLY Hard Disk as the only viable option when it comes to onsite back up. Of course we can make use of off-site back up solution such as paying for space with Flickr or having a file server to transfer the files. The only thing is that when files got bigger, the uploading speed has to be much faster so you need not wait the whole night just to save some (not all) the photos online.

So if you want to save the photos on-site (that means the photos stay at home), then it would mean that you should have 4TB hard disk at the very least. If you want to ensure there is some sort of redundancy then you would have to think about making copies of the 4TB hard disk. Those who are a bit more savvy will think about having RAID HDD array to ensure the images are safe.

Printing Posters/Books do not need 50MP

For good image quality of posters, one would need a dpi of at least 150 or at the minimum of over 130 dpi for a given size. The reason is that most commercial printers can print up to 150dpi anyways. So those extra MPs that you painstakingly saved so you can print big are not going to be used effectively since it would be merged as part of the printing process.

Just to give you an idea, 30x45inch is just slightly larger than the biggest IKEA frame you can buy at 70x100cm. Even if you have ‘only’ 22MP like most mid to high end cameras, at 138dpi, the quality is still considered very good. Question: Do you ALWAYS print IKEA poster frame size?

Question: Wouldn’t more pixels mean you can get more representation and get a smooth graduation?

Oh definitely. When you have more pixels to represent the transition from dark to bright areas, the image would look smoother as a result. The key thing to note is WHEN would the eye couldn’t distinguish the minute transition? What’s the point of having so many lines when the eye can only see a fraction of it anyways? Besides, when you make the image smaller to fit for online consumption, these lines are merged to maintain the graduation effect. So most of it are going to be ‘deleted’ anyway to save on transferring the data from your PC to the online server.

What’s important when it comes to Image Quality

Having megapixels is only half the battle won. When there are not enough pixels to represent an image, the image becomes boxy. So when the image is very lifelike, it is as though as you would have seen it with your own eyes, then image quality is considered as very high.

However having a lot of pixels doesn’t mean the image will turn out well. It also depends on how accurate the colour is represented at the pixel level. How is the intensity of light being measured accurately (too dark or too bright?) etc.

There’s another thing we need to take care is Dynamic Range (DR). In other words, the range from the darkest part to the brightest part of the image can be recorded and this is where HDR is born. HDR wants to record details in both the dark and bright parts of the image and merge them together to get an evenly exposed photo. Having more MP do allow more such details to be captured. Still having a very high DR is not about the number pixel but the QUALITY of the pixel…i.e. the pixel is correctly representing the light intensity and colour of that pixel and that boils down to how the image processor works too.

Here is a simple representation of the size of photosite. Imagine two containers representing photosites, one being smaller because it was squeezed and one has ample space so is larger. As seeds, light photons, drops into the containers, more seeds means a more accurate reading. Once it is filled, more seeds will over flow the container hence we have a problem called ISO noise.

Everything boils down to how the photosite of that pixel is performing. If the photo site is not able to get a good accurate reading, then the data it produces will suffer and the pixel quality drops thereby affecting how the whole image looks. Photosite size is usually very important. For example, even though Sony A7s has only 12MP, each pixel is given enough space to capture as much light reading as possible and have fantastic ISO performance. Images from Nikon D700/D4/Df’s 12/16MP sensors are renowned because their quality at the pixel level is outstanding even though they have less than 20MP.

That’s not all, the lens should also be resolute the imagery it picked up and project it correctly on the sensor. If the lens is not sharp enough, a high MP sensor can pick up the lack of sharpness. That’s why when we buy a high MP sensor, the lens must also be able to perform and help the sensor get a sharp image. Is it little wonder why Medium Format Lens are more expensive?

So having sharpness with good DR and no or low ISO noise is what we should aspire to if we are given limited resources.

You can read more here.

The danger of engaging on yet another MegaPixel War

Why are we having this MegaPixel war again since having so much MPs doesn’t really help vast majority of the photographers out there? Consumers are already given as much help from the computers within the camera. We now do not need to make mental note how the light affect exposure since there are already light meters in the cameras. We do not need to do manual focusing now and most cameras, even compact cameras can do face detection and focus very quickly. Most sensors are already performing very well with good colours. Even white balance is more or less pretty accurate. We so many automation going on, all the critical skills of yester-years will be gone for good if we don’t use them.

So for the camera manufacturers, there is really not much to improve on, especially for DSLRs…or so they think.

Mirrorless camera up to middle of last year is still not as good as typical DSLR until Samsung NX1 comes to the scene and improved virtually all the areas that mirrorless are found lacking when compared to a DSLR. Samsung NX1’s appearance in some ways has shown what DSLRs are still lagging in.

To me, when live view is switched on, it is as though the camera has become a 2nd rated product and became super slow because only contrast detection AF was used. Only recently did hybrid AF detection was introduced but is the AF any faster?

There are still problems when putting AF points closer to the edge of the optical view finder, something that I find irritating when it comes to Nikon D600/D610/D750 because Nikon uses AF module meant for DX cameras so most of its AF points are concentrated in the middle of the frame unlike Samsung’s that covers over 90% of the EVF.

So what this MP war does is to take away the focus on what is REALLY important and then we, as consumers, have to spend money or lower the capability of the camera to tame the explosion of resource overheads associated with huge image files.  That’s why fps drops to 5 fps, that’s why the camera can only do Full HD, that’s why the ISO cannot go beyond 6400 because the sensor photo-site is not efficient enough to get good data. In short it made both Nikon and Canon DSLRs look bad when placed against mirrorless cameras….and they are heavier too when the market is asking for lighter cameras.

In the end, these two big companies are looking at each other and shooting each other with things that are not important when more nimble competitors are doing much more with mirrorless cameras with a lot of people, especially women and the elderly, are growing fond of. If Fujifilm XT1’s trend is anything to go by, even Pros are taking up mirrorless and eschewing that sensor size may take a hit when it comes to absolute image quality (IQ), that level of IQ is actually more than sufficient for most uses.

So are you saying we won’t get to see 60MP cameras in the future?

On the contrary I won’t say no. Technology in the archiving sphere will become more efficient. However what I am still not convinced is the longevity of Hard Disk Drives. How long can we keep our images in HDD? Is cloud archiving our only way? Can we do online archiving more efficiently? Only when these questions are answered, having ever high MP sensor can only hinder the average hobby/semi-pro photographers and create unnecessary anxiety and spend unnecessary monies. Once we solved the archiving issues, only then getting high MP cameras make more sense.

At the moment? No and having anything more than 25MP is to me overkill already…even for Samsung NX1’s 28MP it is overkill.

The main reason why high MegaPixels war can’t last is because our eyes can only take it so much information and anything more, our brain won’t process it anyways. After all, when you look at a beautiful woman, do you see her entirety or just one strand of her hair (zooming into 300% of your photo to check sharpness don’t make your picture as a whole any better)?

So what should we do now?

I would say we shouldn’t just blindly go buy the latest camera just because it is new.

Understand why  you would buy a certain camera and what are the feature set you would need to allow you to enjoy photography. Next is to determine what is the minimum set of features you would want. For example if you hardly print A4 size prints, then getting anything more than 22MP just doesn’t make sense anymore.

In the end, when we as consumers are educated enough not to buy new things just because they are new but understand what features are more important, the manufacturers will then shift their focus and resources over to more important aspect of their tools, including making it smaller, lighter, with better image quality without breaking buckets load of sweat just to haul the cameras around for our trips, photo walks and events.

It is time to stop this MegaPixel war madness (AGAIN!!)

If you think I am crazy not to have so much MPs, even Fstoppers are singing the same tunes in 2013!!

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