8.15.2012

A strange confluence of sensor resolutions. Bizarre fun with high resolution.


I was sitting at my desk this morning finishing up the final touches a self-promotional folded card with images of food on it and I was browsing through a recent collection of food images I'd taken. As I looked through some of my most recent favorites I checked the exif info and was mildly surprised to find that I had candidates from three different cameras taken within the same month. The thing that struck me as funny and strange is that all three of the cameras, the Sony Nex7, the Sony SLT a77 and the Nikon D3200 use the same size and same resolution sensor.  All three are 24 megapixel sensors with at least two of them being absolutely identical. So, within the last six months I've gone from a bountiful selection of  cameras with sensors that range from 12 megapixels to 21 megapixels straight to situation wherein my highest resolution camera sensors and my lowest resolution camera sensors are....identical.

I love using the two Sonys. I think EVF's are the way the entire camera industry will go for the mid to high end prosumer and professional cameras and I think the changes will happen faster than anyone imagines. I like the Nikon because it's silly good and silly cheap and that makes it the perfect knock around camera to keep on the floor of the car for all those times when you want to shoot spontaneously, in fast breaking muck,  but don't want to risk a more expensive unit. The D3200 would be perfect if Nikon had replaced the small optical finder with an EVF but at $699 for the kit I won't argue.  The camera makes great files, works without a hitch and can sometimes be....amazing.

So here I am. All of the micro four thirds inventory is gone. All the sub 24 megapixel cameras are gone. The 16 megapixel a57 is in Ben's hands now. When I go out to shoot it's all big file stuff now.  Not big like a Nikon D800 but twice the resolution of the nifty Nikon D700 I was carrying around only four years ago.  And all of them at half the price of a D700, or less....



The big question is: Do I see any real difference in the files versus the stuff I was shooting with last year?  And the wishy-washy answer is "yes and no."  If I'm out walking around and handholding my cameras pretty much every camera from 12 megapixels up looks pretty much the same in terms of overall quality. I think my ability to handhold a camera steadily is really the deciding difference in perceptions of quality we have between cameras.  That and the quality of the lenses that we use.  Of course there are more dots in the files with a higher resolution sensor but are the dots anything particularly useful or are they just there to take up space when we shoot handheld, or in low light?  

Where I do see a difference in sensor resolution and it's impact on quality are situations were I am using the camera on a tripod and practicing good technique. On a recent product shoot I tried to pull out all the stops and do everything by the "high quality results" book.  I used a heavy tripod, focused carefully with the focus peaking in the a77.  I used a known to be good lens and I used it at what I knew to be its sharpest aperture range (5.6-11) and I even used a wired, electronic remote release.  The ISO 100 raw frame, ministered to in Lightroom 4.1 was stunning for the sheer amount of detail presented in the product image.  Was it necessary detail?  Hardly, the images will be used on packaging and will run half the size of the original files (or less).  Was it observable detail with real information?  Yes.  You bet.  Was this a make-it-or-break-it parameter for the product shot or the client? Gosh no.  We could have done files with an older Kodak 6 megapixel camera that would have satisfied the final use but it sure was fun, given where we've been in the digital spectrum, to see just how much resolution the "normal" camera of the day delivers.


In my mind the benefit of all those megapixels comes into play when you're looking for tonal smoothness combined with a high impression of sharpness, delivered by endless layers of detail. For me it's in the studio portrait. Shooting at 24 megapixels gives me files that have so much detail and so little "grain" that the skin tones take on the smoothness that we used to associate with medium format color negative film and that makes it a whole different look.  And the funny thing is that all three of these cameras can deliver that.

Another benefit of the newer sensor technology is the increased dynamic range in the files. If I shoot everything at ISO 100 (or even ISO 50 in the a77's) I see a definite difference in the range from light to dark vis-a-vis my EP3 or GH2 files.  The newer cameras also do a better job on the light to dark tonal transitions than did my Canon 5Dmk2.

I thought I'd have more use for the Nikon D3200 camera than I've gotten so far. Its files are no better (and probably not quite as good) as the stuff I'm getting out of the Sonys but I am very comfortable about tossing it into a bike pack or the aforementioned car floor, or even in the swim bag and expecting it to work without a grumble when I get to wherever it is I'm going.

While I think the 24 megapixel sensors work well for a guy like me who doesn't give a rat's ass about shooting at 6400 ISO I don't think it's a magic metric or indispensable. In fact, the 16 megapixel performance of the Sony a57 is largely indistinguishable under all but the most controlled circumstances.  The same is true, I am sure, of the Olympus OMD.  Oh, but wait.  That's a Sony sensor as well.  Has Sony become the digital equivalent of Kodak from the film days?  

So, why my ongoing fascination with the Sony cameras? Especially when I can get the same practical level of performance out of a $600+ Nikon?  It all boils down to the finders.  Once you've done EVF (Sony style) you'll never want to go back. Even if someone comes along with a lot more megapixels.  It's nice to be ahead of the curve once in a while.



16 comments:

Wataru Maruyama said...

Seems like it would make the most sense to have another a57 as your car floor cam as it's price is not very different from the D3200 and you'd get an EVF to boot. Not to mention sharing the same spare batteries as your a77.

John - Visual Notebook said...

Not sure I agree with the EVF statement in the last paragraph - I pretty much avoid using my Nex 5n because of the EVF (or the external EVF, which I find to be a $300+ waste). I agree EVFs are the wave of the future, and they'll get to an exceptable level of image quality, but not yet - at least, not yet for me. As they say, YMMV.

Don Schulte said...

Did someone confirm the Olympus OM-D is a Sony sensor??? I am shooting the camera right now and I figured it was but saw no confirmation anywhere in the industry sites.

Don Schulte said...

Nevermind. Just did a google search and saw Oly president confirmed it. Just goes to show I should read more websites and do less shooting. ;-)

kirk tuck said...

Life doesn't always make sense. I'll try to do a comprehensive spread sheet for 2013 and we'll see if we can make everything much more logical and rational. It would just require me to totally change my core personality.

kirk tuck said...

I'm going to bet you are a long time camera user, training in the ways of the OVF. Try using nothing but the EVF for a week and see if you change your mind. Some people don't like them because it's not exactly how life looks through an optical finder but it might be more like what life looks like to your camera...and at least you'll better know what you're going to get.

kirk tuck said...

If Sony ends up making the majority of the sensors for digital cameras it will be just like when Kodak had like 90% of the U.S. market for film back in the 20th century. Hope they do a better job predicting the future. But I guess predicting the past is a lot easier...

kirk tuck said...

Note: my response should say, "trained in the ways of..." rather than "training.." Sorry about that.

Keith I. said...

I tried the NEX-5N EVF and was amazed. It is the same unit as the A77/A65 and NEX-7. Using that certainly boosted my excitement for the ever delayed NEX-7.

Keith I. said...

I am in the same boat, but with only two cameras now. I have been using my A900 since it was introduced almost four years ago, so I was already used to the file sizes. I missed the quicker processing times of my NEX-5 files but the NEX-7 is well worth it. Now we'll see if the A99 maintains that 24MP spot.

Gene Baucom said...

I have to agree about the subtle tonal differences, the EVF and focus peaking. I use an A77, but my walk-around lens is a Sigma 120-400 because I mostly shoot wildlife. A completely different subject, but one where the same factors make all the difference. When your subject is moving all the time, the ability to see the data in the EVF is just wonderful. You can adjust the aperture a bit for depth of field, see the exposure time right there. Fast enough? Yes shoot. The focus peaking shows you exactly where you are.
The possibility of going back to an ordinary / conventional camera? Zero.
Some images to prove the point are here
http://preferredaperture.blogspot.com/

Steve J said...

So what you are really saying is that for spontaneous street shooting, 12MP will probably get you where you need to be?

kirk tuck said...

Yes.

Huw Morgan said...

My head is spinning. I was enjoying your journey through micro four-thirds and was poised to buy an OM-D, but you've sold your M43 stuff already. I can't keep up!

Maybe I should just buy your cast-offs :-)

Seriously, I was in the camera store and had the OM-D in my hand and my Visa card ready. At the last minute, I asked the guy if I could try the Nex-7 and that was it. It just felt so much better in my hand. I'm a bit disappointed with the lens selection, but it looks like there are several new ones coming down the pike on August 28th. So far, I'm delighted with the image quality and the ergonomics of the camera. My Canon lenses are on Craigslist.

Steve J said...

Thanks Kirk, I had kind of reached the same conclusion. I'm making 13X19" prints from a 16MP Xpro1 and even if you could see more detail with a loupe, it wouldn't add much to the picture provided you sharpen it appropriately. What seems more important is micro contrast, which a lack of AA filter and nice glass helps with somewhat.

12MP images from the X100 are really not far behind. The main difference seems to be dynamic range, which for a lot of informal work is far more important. Luckily the "new generation" of Sony sensors seem to have taken a step forward in that area as well.

D&E Photography said...

For me the D3200 rang all the right bells on my budget. If the files from the D3200 are on par with the pricier Sony offerings then that's a pretty good recommendation (if budget is a consideration). For my the EVF makes a much bigger difference for video than stills, for which I can use either technology and to me that's a pretty big recommendation for EVF. I understand the sex appeal. For the moment though the D3200 is an enigma. A small(ish) camera that can deliver big, big results at a bargain(ish) basement price. My GH2 will likely head to the big auction site this week-end.