Texas Hwy. 165. Nikon D700. Nikkor 35-70mm f3.5 ai lens.
I got curious about how people are using their cameras these days. Back when the megapixel race in DSLR cameras really took off (2004-2013) a lot of well-heeled photo enthusiasts were coming to the market having learned their skills making photographs of film, and, more importantly, sharing the results almost always on prints. If you remember the early days at the crest of the impending acceleration from 2 megapixels to 4, to 8, to 10, and finally to 12 and 24 megapixels the internet was still mostly molasses slow and there weren't anywhere near the photo sharing sites available, or even accessible, to most. I mean, really; think about it, Instagram didn't launch until late 2010 and back then it was limited to cellphone users. In the early part of this century people were carrying over practicing from shooting film and having prints made.
That's why the early years of this century were the boom years for ink jet printers. People thought they still would be sharing via prints and for the first time they had access to their own wide carriage color printers at affordable prices. We all printed. I printed on printers that I converted to pure black and white inks and I had an unstable genius printer for color in the (never reliable but sometimes brilliant) Epson 4000. That rat bastard of a printer seemed to require a big gulp of pricey ink to clear clogs before almost every printing session.
After spending thousands of dollars on ink and paper and many more thousands of dollars worth of time I suddenly realized that prints were no longer important to commercial photographers. I only wish I'd paid attention to the signs a few years earlier.
But as long as we continued to accept the printed print as the gold standard of photography the stridently defended need to put high resolution down on big paper drove us mercilessly to assume that more detail in a camera sensor was always a better thing.
So, here's the funny thing; as far as I can tell people are printing less and less each quarter. I talked to a couple national labs and their sales have been flat, kept alive by lower and lower per print prices and more product extensions (photo books, coffee cups, refrigerator magnets). It's unusual for me to meet a commercial photographer who is still feeding his ink jet printer for anything more than printing a portfolio and almost every aspect of sharing and utilizing photography has rushed to the web. We can thank iPhones and Android phones for training a whole new generation in a whole new way to enjoy/use/share photographs.
And, of course, with ubiquitous sharing on phones and a general decline in detail intensive final usage the rationale for ever growing megapixel counts is falling apart. It's pretty easy for me to see that while current cameras can beat the crap out of lower resolution, older cameras they seem to have gained resolution by shrinking pixel size and lower color discrimination. Basically, it's harder to do Bayer overlay screens as the sizes drop and it's harder to deliver convincing color too. So we were willing to give up very pleasing color in order to look more closely into pores on people's skin. But now we're sharing on laptops and phones and no one sees the detail with the same rabid compulsion as the small cadre of large screen pixel peepers who seem to be aging out of the market altogether.
Someone had it right once upon a time. It may have even been Ken Rockwell. They posited that with the exception of traditional, large four color printing and giant wall photos the majority of people could buy a six megapixel camera and be happy forever. For aspiring pros and ardent (non landscape) hobbyists I'd realistically put the number at 12 megapixels. For the nervous, and those unsure of their own skills the safety blanket metric might extend to 20-24 megapixels. Anything above that and you go into weird trade-off world. If you think you need more pixels then you might as well also step up your search for the ultimate lenses. You'll need them in order to see any difference at all.
I've been going back and forth between the D800 series cameras and my two D700 series cameras and my color/file/look preference lies with the D700s. The D800s are really good cameras and they resolve more than I usually need, but the D700s generate files that look like what I think photographs should look like.
I know this is pie-in-the-sky wishing but I would love to see Nikon come our with a camera that uses the absolute latest BSI chip technology on a sensor that's only 12-16 megapixels. I'd love to see just how well they could deliver perfect (happy) color in the files. And I'd bet we'll still be able to make good and convincing prints when we need to. You know, to show the hard core.