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.