What is it about the huge pixel size cameras that makes me want them? Instead of the high resolution/tiny pixel cameras I've owned?

Shot with a Nikon D2Hs many years ago.

I've been digging through my archive of digital files lately and appreciating the search options available in programs like Adobe's Lightroom. Over the past few days I've been researching the work I did in the past with big pixel cameras. Cameras like the Nikon D700, the Kodak DCS 760, the Kodak DCS SRL/n and the Nikon D2Hs. All of these have pixel sizes that are at least twice as large as the high resolution cameras we are served up today. 8 microns across instead of 4 or 3.8 or 2.5. It's obvious that the higher res cameras can resolve a lot more detail and can be blown up to larger sizes in a way that's more convincing (for highly detailed subject matter) but are there image qualities that the bigger pixels give that smaller geometry pixels have taken away? 

Once I started looking I started seeing that in portrait work in particular the smaller file, bigger sensor-ed cameras of yesteryear had a look that I really, really loved. It's hard to put into words exactly but it's a feel of there being a natural and defined edge between tones. Not a hard edge that comes from over-sharpening but a natural looking edge that more closely resembles the look of the acutance in film files. A look that may just appeal to people who cut their teeth on the older film technology.

At any rate I'm sourcing some of the cameras that I abruptly discarded in the mindless pursuit of endless consumerism to see if they still hold sway in the way I see them reflected in the work I'm looking at. With well over half a million images in my libraries there is a lot of material with which to do direct comparisons. I'm not saying one technology is clearly superior over the other but there may be visual differences that trigger different responses from viewers across the spectrum.

I'm jumping down another rabbit hole so I guess we'll see. Beats talking about cars again...


  1. Thank you for this post.
    I have noticed this phenomena in the past but could not put it in words.
    Now you got me looking up all kinds of cameras with their pixel pitch.

  2. I am having so much fun with my old Nikon D70s. The files are SO juicy! Almost makes we want to pick up a used D300. Even my old D700 in my opinion has nicer files than the newer DSLR's.

  3. What about the obvious choice of Sony's A7S series? Or are those pixels still too small?

  4. Ignoring semiconductor processing improvements, large pixels tend to have greater
    dynamic range than small pixels (the bigger the "bucket" the greater range of
    photons it can capture). So maybe what you are seeing is smoother pixel-to-pixel

  5. I don't know exactly yet, but I'll find out. I'm now officially hoarding a camera I once accused of being soul-less. At least they are cheap to buy...

  6. Isn't this also a comparison between FF and small sensor? Maybe even of older, less well corrected lenses with those happy aberrations that smooth tones?

  7. I'd guess that a lot of what you're seeing is the greater bit depth of large format cameras, which gives smoother gradations in color. Another feature of the older cameras is better color discrimination owing to CFAs that aren't biased towards greater light transmission and lower selectivity. You might want to run a test on a low - and high resolution camera of the same generation, same format. You might see less difference than with a small and large format camera of comparable resolution.

  8. BW from a 5D1 at 100 ISO can be pretty special...

  9. The original Nikon D40 delivers a stunning “look” not only because of large pixel pitch but also its less common CCD sensor. Now there’s a veritable rabbit warren for you to explore!

  10. Kirk wrote, " It's hard to put into words exactly but it's a feel of there being a natural and defined edge between tones."

    I've been looking for edges and places where there are not edges after reading this from Walter Isaacson's Leonardo da Vinci ...

    "Understanding that light hits multiple points on the retina, [Leonardo] wrote that humans perceive reality as lacking razor-sharp edges and lines; instead, we see everything as sfumato-like softness of the edges. This is true not only of the misty landscape stretching out into infinity; it applies to even the outlines of Lisa's fingers that seem so close we think we can touch them. We see everything, Leonardo knew, through a veil.

    I'll admit it. I had to look up "sfumato."

    NOUN art
    the technique of allowing tones and colors to shade gradually into one another, producing softened outlines or hazy forms.

    Technically, this would argue for more pixels to achieve smoother and more gradual transitions of color and shading rather than higher definition or "sharpness."

    I doubt that engineers at Canon or Nikon or Sony are told to amp up the "sfumato."

  11. What Rokrover said: the CCD sensors were superior to CMOS in some measures (noise not being one of them). The original Olympus 4/3 bodies, the D2 series of Nikons, of course the D50 and D70 (between which I must have created tens of thousands of images).

    The pixel size (or pitch as everyone likes to call it now) is also huge part of it.

    One area that I cannot seem to substantiate one way or the other is in the formulation of the color filter arrays (CFA) over the sensor. Some claim that they used to have sharper cutoff rations at the top and bottom of their response, and that modern CFA designs overlap more in order to let in more light and reduce the signal to noise ratio. Curious if anyone more educated in such things than I am has any opinion there?

  12. The cameras of old still produce excellent images. They have a deep rich look to them, they have a fullness, a........ I done know for sure how to explain it, but they're still excellent image makers. Is it Nikon's color/B&W pallet ? Is it the CCD sensor (that Nikon use to make) Is it that the CCD sensor trumps the CMOS sensor? The size of the pixels? You can get more out of the larger pixels? Is it the lenses? I do not know, but I believe they have a much better look, a fullness to them that the new stuff doesn't have, and they cost less.


  13. A Canon original 5D with its 12 large megapixels and the Canon 100mm f2 lens make a formidable portrait combo.

  14. Interesting article:

  15. Kirk,

    while I love my Olympus MFT cameras I have to admit that my Nikon D750 delivers more natural, film-like images. It's hard to describe in words. At the other hand MFT is much more fun to use and much easier to handle...


  16. I've actually gone back to Nikon after years of Fuji and Micro 4/3. It started when I picked up a used D300 and really enjoyed how that larger camera and very familiar external controls felt. So much so I took all my mirrorless gear put it in a bag and brought it to your favorite camera store. From that counter I had a voucher that I bought to Ian and we figured out what I could trade the voucher for. Well I walked out with a nice looking D800.

    Funny the d300 is getting a fair amount of shooting time as I don't mind taking it everywhere as a "user", leave it in the car etc. No live view but a nice glass finder, solid pro build (actually better than the D800) and despite it being just 12mp it still takes the same nice photos as it did years ago.
    The D800 when shot properly has a wow factor to the images. So smooth.

    Hey I am not a pro so I really don't need to follow trends and video is what I watch, not shoot. Have a great day.

  17. Great. I’ve kicked and screamed to avoid accepting “ bokeh” as a thing and now you folks hit me with “sfumato”. Maybe we should all start using sfumato liberally and somehow act smug and photographically superior to see how long it takes for the term to catch on in the mainstream pixel peepers’ lexicon. Headline: “Winner in DXO Sfumato Shootout!”

    My D700’s and their fat sensor sites produced files that I adored after a post production massage. I only replaced them as they wore out, buying D3s’ that were cast off as obsolete since the D4 had arrived. Continued to adore that sensor technology across multiple D3s bodies. They produced not only fine high iso files but in a few different lighting scenarios they produced a beautiful file, the likes of which I haven’t seen since. Maybe it was the sfumato after all.

    The D3s’ were only retired when an art director insisted I couldn’t possibly work for her trade magazine, tasked with creating half page photos, by giving her 12 MP files. The second time I heard it, there began my conversion to the D750, which I have quite enjoyed since. But have always felt a tug when I look at those D700/D3s files when I run across them in my library, the perfectly adequate 12mp not even registering as a flaw since “upgrading”.


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