For the past few years, we have seen many manufacturers push for a lot more resolution. With sensor ISO performance pretty much leveling across the field on most cameras, manufacturers are now pushing to increase the resolution to differentiate new cameras from their predecessors and the competition. Except in some cases, as it turns out, increasing camera resolution is pretty much pointless if lenses do not have enough resolving power to be able to provide enough detail.
While testing lenses, I have been able to compare a number of DSLR lenses from Nikon and other third party manufacturers on both 36 MP and 45 MP sensors. As I expected, I found most Nikon F lenses unable to resolve over 36 MP, sometimes even over 24 MP (for many zoom lenses). That’s nothing new, considering that Nikon has previously issued different lists of recommended lenses for high-resolution cameras like D810 and D850. However, even many of the recommended lenses for the Nikon D850 turned out to be not good enough for 45 MP sensors, as I demonstrate below.
Table of Contents
Below is Nikon’s list of recommended prime lenses for the D850, along with my remarks on each lens’ performance on both D810 and D850 camera bodies:
- PC NIKKOR 19mm f/4E ED (exceeds 36 MP at f/5.6)
- AF-S NIKKOR 20mm f/1.8G ED (exceeds 36 MP at f/2.8)
AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.4G ED(resolving power less than 36 MP) AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.8G ED(resolving power less than 36 MP) PC-E NIKKOR 24mm f/3.5D ED(resolving power less than 36 MP)
- AF-S NIKKOR 28mm f/1.4E ED (sharpest Nikon F tested, exceeds 36 MP at f/2)
AF-S NIKKOR 28mm f/1.8G(unable to resolve past 36 MP) AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G(unable to resolve past 36 MP)
- AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G ED (exceeds 36 MP at f/4)
PC-E Micro NIKKOR 45mm f/2.8D ED(unable to resolve past 36 MP)
- AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G (barely over 36 MP at f/4)
- AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED (not lab tested)
AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G(resolving power less than 36 MP) AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G(resolving power less than 36 MP)
- PC-E Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/2.8D (exceeds 36 MP at f/5.6)
- AF-S NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4E ED (exceeds 36 MP at f/2)
AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED(unable to resolve past 36 MP) AI AF DC-Nikkor 105mm f/2D(resolving power less than 36 MP)
- AI AF DC-Nikkor 135mm f/2D (not lab tested)
- AF-S NIKKOR 200mm f/2G ED VR II (not lab tested)
- AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II (exceeds 36 MP at f/4)
- AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR (exceeds 36 MP at f/4)
- AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR (exceeds 36 MP at f/4)
- AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4G ED VR (exceeds 36 MP at f/5.6)
- AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR (exceeds 36 MP at f/4)
- AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR (exceeds 36 MP at f/4)
- AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR (exceeds 36 MP at f/5.6)
As you can see, even Nikon’s list of recommended lenses for the D850 isn’t ideal. Many of the lenses weren’t able to resolve more than 36 MP, with some lenses like the Nikon 24 MP f/1.4G ED, PC-E 24 MP f/3.5D and DC 105mm f/2D being quite poor in resolution, even when stopped down. Other lenses like the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G barely made it, with only one sample out of three demonstrating solid sharpness at f/4, but at the huge expense of the corners due to heavy field curvature. The exotic super telephotos obviously shine, but surprisingly, some of the older lenses like the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR, or the Nikon 600mm f/4G VR were already not good enough for 45 MP sensors.
Take a look at the below MTF charts for the Nikon 24mm f/1.8G, measured both on Nikon D810 and D850:
Note: For the above results, I provided “the best” potential results from 3 different samples when testing them on both D810 and D850 bodies. That’s why the corner results, as well as results at some apertures like f/2.8 are different.
As you can see, while the D850 has noticeably more resolution, the MTF numbers for both cameras hover around the 3300 range at f/4 and they never actually increase. This shows that the Nikon 24mm f/1.8G is simply incapable of resolving past 36 MP. So if you were to mount this lens on the D850, you would never be able to reach the resolution potential of the camera, and the camera would always out-resolve the lens.
Let’s see another example, this time from the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens. Here are the two test charts from Imatest, using the same copy of the lens:
Once again, we see a very similar situation – the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G does not improve drastically on the D850, which shows that the lens does not have enough resolving power to take advantage of the 45 MP sensor. In fact, compared to the 24mm f/1.8G, it shows inferior center performance at similar apertures, so it is not even able to take full advantage of the 36 MP sensor.
Now compare the above charts to those of the newer Nikon 28mm f/1.4E ED lens:
It is very clear that the Nikon 28mm f/1.4E is an absolute beast when it comes to resolving power. While its performance on the D810 was impressive, it was able to get much higher MTF numbers with the D850, showing that it can take advantage of a 45 MP sensor. This is the type of performance difference you want to see between 36 MP and 45 MP cameras.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for most Nikon F and even third party lenses. There are exceptions for third party lenses, of course. The exotic Zeiss Otus lenses were able to achieve exceptionally high resolution numbers, while some of the recent releases from Sigma, Tamron and Voigtlander also did quite well in tests. The Sigma Art-series primes were excellent overall when compared to other brands.
What about Nikon’s classics? I tested a few Ai-S lenses, such as the 28mm f/2.8 Ai-S, 35mm f/2.8 Ai-S, 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S, 50mm f/1.4 Ai-S and NOCT-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 Ai-S, as well as some very old Nikkors. Most of them did not do well. The exception were the 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S, 50mm f/1.4 Ai-S and NOCT-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 Ai-S lenses that resolved past 36 MP, but would probably struggle with anything over 45 MP. This means that some of the very finest classics should be able to provide enough resolving power to exceed 36 MP, maybe even 45 MP. However, most of them were designed for film cameras and look quite bad in the corners.
Next, we will take a look at zoom lenses. Here is the list of recommended zoom lenses from Nikon for the D850:
- AF-S Fisheye NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED (not lab tested)
- AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED (exceeds 36 MP at f/4 @ 14mm)
AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR(resolving power less than 36 MP)
- AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED (exceeds 36 MP at f/2.8 @ 24mm)
- AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR (barely exceeds 36 MP at f/4 @ 24mm)
AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR(resolving power less than 36 MP) AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED(resolving power less than 36 MP) AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II(unable to resolve past 36 MP)
- AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR (exceeds 36 MP at f/4 @ 135mm)
AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR(resolving power less than 36 MP) AF-S NIKKOR 80-400 f/4.5-5.6G ED VR(resolving power less than 36 MP) AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II(resolving power less than 36 MP)
- AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR (barely exceeds 36 MP at f/5.6 @ 300mm)
As you can see, the list of zoom lenses is even shorter, and many of the recommended lenses did not make the cut. Not sure what Nikon was thinking while including the 16-35mm f/4G or the 24-120mm f/4G – neither of these lenses can resolve even 36 MP, let alone 45 MP.
Nikon included the older 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II in this list, which couldn’t resolve past 36 MP, whereas the newer 180-400mm f/4 VR did much better, clearly providing more detail than its predecessor, even wide open at 180mm. Nikon should update the above list (last updated in August of 2017) and include the newly announced lenses, including the AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR and the AF-S Nikkor 120-300mm f/2.8E FL ED SR VR. Both should provide sufficient resolving power over 36 MP.
Third party lenses also did poorly, with most lenses (even high-end Sigma Art series) failing to provide sufficient resolving power to take advantage of over 36 MP of camera resolution. There were some exceptions though – the Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 and the Tokina 24-70mm f/2.8 AT-X PRO FX did quite well, although just barely over 36 MP. Sadly, most others that I tested resolved below 36 MP.
Compared to Nikon Z
Nikon has been quite busy in the past couple of years making lenses for the new Nikon Z mount system. As expected, each one of the Z mount lenses has been specifically designed to yield very high resolution. Based on my lab tests of the current Nikon Z lenses, every single one of them (including zoom lenses) can resolve up to 45 MP and beyond. This shows that the newer lens designs have been specifically optimized to provide exceptional amount of detail, something most Nikon F lenses cannot do. This has to do with modern vs older design – new lenses for both mounts are specifically made to take advantage of high resolution, whereas any lenses released prior to the Nikon D810 are going to suffer.
With less than 30 total Nikon lenses that are actually able to take advantage of the modern 45 MP sensor on the Nikon F mount, one would wonder why Nikon should even try to go beyond 45 MP sensors at this point. In fact, although a number of lenses in the above lists were able to resolve more than 36 MP of detail, some of them did that barely, only at very small apertures. Zoom lenses were mostly poor, only shining at very specific focal length and aperture combinations. If I were to exclude those lenses, the list would have been even smaller. Some of the modern third party lens options can surely fill the resolution gap, but that’s for those who are willing to do the research in order to find the very finest, or alternatively, shell out a lot of money to get the exotic Zeiss Otus lenses.
Sony has released its A7R IV with a 60 MP sensor, but the company has more glass that is optimized for such high resolution, because it is simply more recent. Whereas Nikon (and I am sure other companies like Canon and Pentax) have many older lens designs that are simply not good enough to take advantage of modern high-resolution cameras.
Personally, I see no reason for Nikon to continue the megapixel race for its DSLR cameras. Even 45 MP is overkill with the current stable of Nikkor lenses, as evidenced by this article. This is another reason why Nikon is pushing for its Z mirrorless cameras, since it is developing each lens from scratch, specifically aiming to create lenses that can take advantage of the latest high-resolution sensors. Whether we like it or not, Nikon will be forced to transition to the Z system in the future, if it wants to stay competitive with other camera manufacturers…
To me, going with ultra high-resolution sensors is not very meaningful when there is limited glass to support it. Instead of the next 60 MP sensor on the next Nikon DSLR, I would love to see a camera with a 36-45 MP sensor, but have the ability to stack and average images in-camera. A camera that can properly do focus stacking, pixel shift and other important advancements that are actually useful for us in the field. These to me are far more meaningful than another bump in resolution.