When do I need more? Why should I shoot with the D800e instead of a D700? Do Megapixels Matter Anymore?

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.


  1. It seems that not many people are aware of the Faustian bargain society has struck with the cell phone, at least with regard to photography.

    Which is that what the cell phone gives to us today, it will almost surely take away from us tomorrow.

    As photography becomes more fully integrated into the fabric of our lives, thanks to the existence of compact, affordable, do-it-all cell phones, with which we can now capture, post-process, and display our photos more easily than ever before and with image quality that far exceeds that which was possible from the disposable cameras and machine-made prints we relied upon previously, it's also becoming vastly more ephemeral, too.

    That's because prints-on-paper have the potential to remain readily visible to many future generations yet to come, whereas most cell phone photos will almost certainly disappear and be lost forever within a decade of being taken, if not even sooner.

    And yet, we're happily and voluntarily moving away from the former -- and as you've pointed out, we're collectively doing so at a rapidly increasing pace -- and embracing the latter, simultaneously increasing our exposure to the permanent loss of our photos, not decreasing it. This is because, generally, the more we have of any thing, the lower the value we place on them.

    Do even photographers look after their cell phone photos with as much care as they do their "real" photos, backing them up regularly to a different device and then making multiple copies of their backups, just in case? I doubt it. Making multiple backups costs both time and money and who is willing to expend very much of either to preserve something they perceive as not being very valuable?

    As the late, great Pogo once observed, "We have met the enemy and he is us." The cell phone has simultaneously been both a great boon to photography as well as, it appears, the harbinger of its ultimate death. 8_^(

  2. This D700 resurgence has arrived in my household too, deep in rural England.

    I realised I still had a 70-210mm and a 50mm 1.4D in the drawer from back in my past Nikon days.

    Courtesy of everyone's favourite on-line auction site, a minty D700 is arriving today at my home with only 8000 clicks on it.

    I am giddy with anticipation.

  3. We have post processing software Lightroom Photoshop etc that make images readibly available to print. The delivery medium has become your smart phone. With images "living on my phone" as my daughter says rairly do we look at the finished product. Occasionally I cast images from my on line account to show grandparents the grand kids images. No one is printing much at all.

  4. In answer to Kirk's question, I think the simple answer is that if the resolution of the big megapickle camera is not needed, then use the D700 if the files are nicer.

    Another option of course is to throttle down the D800 and shoot smaller files, 16mp maybe. But I don't think that would yield the same image quality as the fat pixels on the D700.

    On Wally's comments about printing - it is true that people do not print much anymore. This will prove to be a major tragedy in generations to come. Images will be lost to the ether. Printing is not just something fun to do, it is important.

    In celebration of printing, I have created something of a domestic disturbance by purchasing a huge Canon pro-printer. I intend to print as if I was the last bastion of the printed image alive. I am going to paper the house with prints. I am really looking forward to it over the winter months.

  5. If more research were devoted to lower pixel count, deeper well, better ISO chips, I think the trade off would be amazing. I dont need low-light images that look like crap. I want them to feel smooth and tight. The megapixel race has been run... can we be done with that now?

  6. I wonder what you have on your walls at your home or office. Do you have one of those LCD's that rotates digital photos? Is that what you have on your desk? Or do you have a photo you really love printed out as best that it can be? My guess is that you have the photos printed out both on your walls and on your desk, and if you take something new that you really like, you get that printed for your wall or desk. So I think that you are misstating the obvious....Printing matters to every photographer...or at least it should, and that would include a commercial photographer as well. just saying.

  7. The WWW really plays to graphic composition (Jay Maisel comes to mind) and portraits (your work). Landscapes are a natural for big prints. But there are other examples. I have a large format shot of an ornate church interior, from the back, looking toward the altar. On a www view, you just see the graphic lines of the church. On a 17x22 print, you see that there is a woman on her knees, praying, in front of the altar, which humanizes the composition. In another case, I have an exterior shot of the cathedral at Jackson Square in New Orleans, at dawn. In a WWW view, you see a white blur in front of the church. In a big print, you see a ghostly group of nuns in white habits, slightly blurred by their walking, going to early mass. In both cases, subtle details that enrich the image are lost on the WWWW or on phone views.

    When I moved from the D700 to the D610.D750, it was because I was looking at these sort of images on 16x20 or so prints. But few people see these. I bet that even when you are making a big poster, it is intended to be viewed at a distance, thus lessening the advantage of the D800 over the D700.

    Had I not been accustomed to making large prints from 4x5, I would likely have stayed with the D700, at least until the better focusing of the D750. (I like to shoot live music, which usually has movement and limited lighting.) When I stitch, the only advantage of 24mp is the ability to use a slighly wider lens and fewer images. I doubt I would see much improvement with a D850, because I do could not use an even wider lense without getting into POV problems. Plus stitching is not perfect, so making use of those extra pixels would be a pain.

    I would really like a Sony RX100 with 12mp.

  8. I think megapixels still matter to fine arts and landscape photographers. The BIG prints sell.

  9. I have never printed more than now. It is so cheap and the quality is fantastic from companies like Pixum that prints on very high quality photo paper. So I have large and small photos hanging on the walls all over the house.

  10. If you don't mind an opinion from an old amateur, as the acknowledged shutterbug in the clan, and the paterfamilias, I'm not seeing a lot of demand from relatives for prints, large or small, even of our 8-month-old great-grandson. I was going to invest in a good Canon or Epson printer, but I can take care of all my needs with the HP Photosmart all-in-one, or just order a big print online as needed. One close relative is loaded and hires a pro whenever they're about to have a big family related event. They like large black-and-white prints and have the space to display them properly. When I'm taking shots of the kids, etc., I send the family downsized files and retain the raw files in hard drives or on CDs. Almost always, they don't need anything but the downsized files to share on social media, etc. As to megapixel wars, I've been a non-combatant for years. I recently supplemented my favorite old 40D with a little-used 70D, but only because I've taken to hummingbirds and there's more room to crop from 20MP than 10.

  11. After putting on my crystal ball enabled Google glasses, I can report that indeed, in the not too distant future, prints will be going away, except for as Kirk says the "hard core". In the future due to falling prices of large, flat screen monitors, photos will be displayed on those around your house instead of matted prints in frames. We will be seeing more and more museums displaying photographic images from younger and young photographers in the same fashion. Gen-X and younger people have grown up looking at a screen. Grown up with Photoshop and Lightroom and optimizing their images for their on-line portfolio. It's too much of a learning curve to optimize images for print. I'm guessing that currently for most professional photographers, print sales make up a very small percentage of their revenue. Do we need 48 megapixels to create images that look good on a large flat screen monitor?

  12. Well.. I have been shooting my fun work with a GX7 for a while now and have never even moved beyond the kit lens.
    I DO print and frame my work for my home. I have some 20x20 inch prints that cannot be distinguished from other FF high res cameras. Granted, they were relatively unchallenging landscapes but the principle remains.

    I am seriously looking at transitioning to µ43 Olympus or Panasonic bodies because the IQ is everything I need. The only thing that keeps me in FF Canon is the architectural work I do that I would argue can realistically be handled by the lenses available on µ43.

  13. Hi Mark, I will say that the 8-18mm on the Panasonic GH5 is a sweet combination. I've shot some interiors with it and they were everything I wanted.

  14. Hi Russ, You've pretty much made my case again. In addition to the idea that we don't need massive pixels for work on large flat screens to look I'm also believing that there is a difference in color quality between large and small pixel sensors. I'm not convinced that you can have both super high res and super good color simultaneously. I'm open to learning that I could be wrong. I'm only relying on the anecdotal evidence of my own eyes.

  15. I vistited the Vermeer centre in Delft last week and one of the things I noticed is how small his paintings are. The Girl with the pearl earring for example, is smaller than 0.5mx0.5m. Of course that's a portrait but even his View on Delft is no larger than 1.2mx1.0m. Those are sizes I can easily reproduce with my 20mp camera...

    Now of course I know that Vermeer's paintings are more about the light than the fine details, and I know that a photo is not a painting (and I'm certaimly not Vermeer), but it made me think anyway. Why would I deliver 50MP pictures to a client by default? Why not stick with a lower MP camera that delivers the look I want? Why worry about the 100% view on a screen instead of the other qualities an image has?

  16. It was Ken Rockwell that said 6mp was enough, it was Kirk Tuck who ask "how many mp do we need, as most of our stuff is shown on the internet not prints." I thought about Kirk's question a lot, a whole hell of a lot, it haunted me, so I'm glad this post came back around. I'll take is 6-12 CCD sensor in a point an shoot like my Nikon P7100, it does great. I don't worry about buying lenses or a flash system. It just works, it's quite, although it needs to be faster for my taste. So for me I'm going back to film for my important work. Work that I want to be remembered for. I don't believe you'll be able to see our digital dust work in a few years, but positive/negative film can be printed from a light source or viewed.

    I'm now looking for the best scanner and did you know all scanners every the best of the best use CCD sensors to scan you film? It's true they do. That's why my next came purchase with be a CCD sensor, maybe I'll have the AA filter removed, or the Nikon D70s, it has a very weak AA filter.

    So any way I'll looking for the best Point and Shoot with the fastest lens and fastest AF and the best scanner. We've reached the point of enough. Why waste my resources on nothing, on gears that can't give any more than what I already have? I don't need it or want it. I'll be selling off thousands of dollars worth of gear soon. It's time to return to my roots.

    There's a lot more to my choice, but I have go.


  17. I print my best stuff once a year during ~Black Friday sales.
    The D600 has been more than enough for the sizes I've printed so far


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