Advantages and Disadvantages of Low vs High Resolution Cameras

This article is meant to be an extension to the Camera Resolution Explained article that I published back in February of 2015. With the release of high-megapixel cameras such as the Canon 5DS / 5DS R and the Sony A7R II, more and more photographers are getting interested in these tools. They want to understand the advantages and disadvantages that such high resolution cameras bring and what changes they can anticipate to their workflows. In this article, I want to address these concerns and talk about pros and cons of low versus high resolution cameras. Please keep in mind that the term “low resolution” refers to the least resolution we see in modern full-frame cameras. Just a few years back, what I refer to as “low” in this article was considered state of the art. Hence, such terms are relative to the highest resolution sensor available today.

When looking at cameras today, we see a number of different options, with camera’s ranging from 12 megapixels to a whopping 50. Why would one choose 12 MP and why would one choose 50 MP? What are some of the concerns and issues one needs to understand and take into account? Let’s analyze these in more detail.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Low Resolution Cameras

Lower resolution comes with a few advantages, as well as disadvantages. First, it results in smaller files, which are easier and faster to post-process. You can continue to rely on older computer hardware and even some of the lightweight “ultrabooks” can handle such files with ease. Second, smaller files also reduce the overall need for storage – you can use smaller capacity memory cards and smaller backup storage (whether local or online). Third, lower resolution images typically do not need to be resized / down-sampled – they look pretty clean “as is”, so if you need to quickly process and provide them to someone, you can do it with ease. Fourth, smaller files also make it possible for cameras to push higher frame rates, allowing them to be used for such needs as sports and wildlife photography, where fast frame needs are often needed to capture the right moment. Smaller files also put less strain on the camera buffer, allowing more images to be captured continuously at high frame rates. Lastly, lower resolution cameras are more forgiving on focusing errors and lens resolution – slight focus errors will rarely be noticed in images and if a lens is not capable of resolving a lot of detail, you will not see it in images anyway. Hence, for photographers who work with clients that do not require high resolution images, cameras with large pixels (and hence lower resolution) are quite advantageous.

What about disadvantages? Lower resolution cameras translate to lower image dimensions in pixels, which means that you do not have a lot of pixels to start with. So if you need to crop an image heavily, you are basically out of luck – your will lose a lot of resolution and your images will become much smaller when doing so. This obviously limits further opportunities for resizing / down-sampling (see more on down-sampling below) and limits your output size, i.e. how big you can display images on a screen or in print. While there is software out there that can up-sample images, as we’ve talked about here, one cannot create more details when they simply do not exist.

Example of photography that can rely on low-resolution cameras:

So what type of photography would require high resolution cameras then? Let’s talk about the pros and cons of high resolution cameras next.

Advantages and Disadvantages of High Resolution Cameras

The biggest advantage of a high resolution camera and why people choose them is larger output size – when you want to make a huge print, or display all the intricate details of an image on a high resolution TV / monitor or on the web. With 4K TV screens (equivalent to 8.3 MP) and monitors already hitting mainstream and with 8K devices on the horizon (equivalent to 33.2 MP), we can see that the future technology is clearly in favor of higher resolution cameras. When stores showcase 4K TV screens today, they load special footage that was captured with high-resolution cameras to showcase the intricate details that a 4K TV screen is capable of displaying. So high resolution cameras automatically imply higher amount of details in images and video footage. The next advantage is “down-sampling”, a resizing technique sometimes also known as “resampling”, which basically uses software algorithms to reduce pixel dimensions. Down-sampling has a lot of advantages, because it effectively reduces noise in images and hides those slight focusing errors I’ve mentioned earlier. In essence, this means that high-resolution cameras do not necessarily mean more noise in images (in fact, in good light, you will find little difference in noise performance between low and high resolution sensors). But when dealing with low-light situations, when an image is reduced to the same print / output size, noise is also subsequently reduced. Another advantage of high resolution cameras is cropping options. Since you start off with a lot of pixels, you could crop images (sometimes aggressively) and still end up with plenty of resolution for high-quality print / output.

However, high resolution cameras have their own list of disadvantages, some of which can be painful and expensive to deal with. First, the higher the camera resolution, the bigger the image dimensions in pixels and hence overall file size. This not only puts a strain on storage, requiring larger memory cards, hard drives and backup storage, but also on processing power – you will need a computer that can actually handle such large files at acceptable speeds. Second, it effectively restricts camera’s frame rates and its buffer, because there is only so much bandwidth and data that the image processor can handle at a time. Third, high resolution cameras require high-quality lenses capable of resolving a lot of detail. If you own older lenses, you might find them to be inadequate, particularly when it comes to yielding good details in the corners. Fourth, if you want to be able to get superb pixel-level details when looking at images at 100% zoom, you will need to pay much more attention to your focusing techniques – even a slight focus error will show. And lastly, you will need to pay more attention to camera shake and potentially go beyond the reciprocal rule recommended norms. As a result, you might find yourself using a tripod more often than you would like.

Examples of photography that require high-resolution cameras:

I suggest that you take all of the above advantages and disadvantages into account before deciding what camera to purchase for your needs.

Hope you enjoyed the article – please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below!

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