Today, Leica announced the M11, a 60-megapixel successor to the M10 and M10-P. The M11’s high resolution is a bit unexpected: It’s the highest resolution full-frame Leica ever. But this isn’t an article about the M11.
Don’t get me wrong – the Leica M11 looks like a stellar camera if you want a digital rangefinder and have $9000 to spend on the best. But what strikes me the most about its announcement is not the camera itself, but that the impressively high resolution is so reminiscent of the “megapixel wars” that used to be such a big part of photography. Maybe the megapixel wars never stopped at all.
Recently, the biggest battle among new cameras has been in the area of autofocus tracking performance and subject recognition. It makes sense that companies would focus on focus; it’s a tricky thing to get right, especially with fast-moving subjects, and it has a tangible impact on which brand a photographer will choose.
The megapixel war seems to have slowed down in the meantime. Gone are the days when your competitor only had 6 megapixels and you could easily improve your brand’s reputation by bumping up to 10 or 12. A few added megapixels here and there don’t make much of a difference any more, not to mention that we already have enough resolution for typical print sizes without a problem.
Camera companies seem to have taken that to heart. Nikon hasn’t gone above 45 megapixels since the D850 in 2017. Canon still hasn’t surpassed the 51-megapixel 5DS from 2015. And while Sony has been bumping up the resolution of their a7R lineup steadily with each model, the most recent a7R IV came out 2.5 years ago and is due for an update (the very similar a7R IVA doesn’t count).
But even though the war has apparently slowed down, I think some of that is illusory. Yes, the highest resolution cameras mostly have the same resolution they did five years ago. However, in other ways, the prevalence of high-res options across the market has never been higher. To be specific:
- The price of high-megapixel cameras has been going down
- Low-resolution models are being phased out of most companies’ lineups
- To reach 8K video, higher resolution sensors are increasingly necessary
- Features like sensor-shift are pushing the resolution of many cameras beyond their specs
Let me explain those four points in a bit more detail.
1. Lower Prices for High Resolution
The price side of things should go without saying. When the 51-megapixel Canon 5DS was announced in 2015, it was the highest resolution full-frame camera available and sold for $3700. Today, mint condition copies sell for $1200 and less.
It’s not just the used market. New DSLRs and mirrorless cameras with high resolution are less expensive than ever. No truer is this than for Fuji, who now has a 100-megapixel medium format camera for $6000 (the GFX 100S) and a 50-megapixel medium format camera for $4500 (the GFX 50S – and it’s sometimes on sale for $3000). I remember when people were paying $8000 for a 24-megapixel Nikon D3X! These days, 100 megapixels isn’t scaring anyone away.
Because the prices for high resolution cameras are so much lower, more photographers are using them than ever. It’s also easier than ever to justify high resolution in the first place thanks to fast, inexpensive hard drives and memory cards. That’s a bit different than how the megapixel wars looked in the past – when it was all about leapfrogging the other companies with each new release – but it’s still part of the same story.
2. Phaseout of Low-Resolution Cameras
High-res sensors are also more prevalent simply because companies have been phasing out their lower-resolution models. This is especially evident in the area of sports and wildlife cameras. Just a couple years ago, anything more than 20 megapixels was a welcome surprise; now, anything less than 40 megapixels is an unwelcome one. Canon, Nikon, and Sony all have sports cameras that surpass that threshold thanks to the EOS R5, Z9, and A1 respectively.
Most areas of the market haven’t jettisoned their low-to-mid-resolution cameras quite as quickly as sports and wildlife, but it’s still happening. Sony just bumped their newest A7 camera – a series that’s been at 24 megapixels since its inception – to 33 megapixels with the A7 IV. Meanwhile, Canon has also been pushing up their crop-sensor cameras from 18 to 24 megapixels, and even 33 megapixels with the EOS 90D. Nikon has been done with 16 megapixel sensors for ages.
This is similar the steady progression that we were used to in the past. It slowed down a bit in recent years – again, aside from sports cameras – but it definitely never stopped. It’s actually going to get worse once Canon, Nikon, and Sony realize that Fuji is pressuring their landscape audience from above with 50 and 100 megapixel medium format.
3. Eventual 8K Video Requirements
It hasn’t been the main force pushing sensor resolutions higher, but it will be soon: 8K video.
Only a few cameras today have built-in (non-timelapse) 8K video, including the Canon EOS R5, Nikon Z9, and Sony A1. The baseline resolution needed for 8K video – at least on a camera sensor with a 2:3 aspect ratio – is 39.3 megapixels. This allows you to crop to a 16×9 aspect ratio with 7680×4320 8K resolution. (Meanwhile, 8K DCI resolution is 8192×4320, which requires a 44.7-megapixel sensor.)
In recent history, 4K video had a rapid rise from just a few flagship cameras to almost every camera today. For example, Nikon’s first 4K DSLRs were the D5 and D500 announced in 2016, and now it’s in everything from the 20-megapixel Z50 upward.
How many years until 8K is as prevalent as 4K is today? Even if the timeline is a bit slower, there’s no getting around the 39.3-megapixel floor when it happens. And if companies start competing to release 8K video across their lineups, it will happen sooner than you’d think.
4. Sensor Shift to Increase Resolution Further
A feature that has been surprisingly absent from Nikon and Canon – but that feels inevitable as companies face fewer and fewer ways to compete with each other – is sensor shift photography.
Sensor shift is a feature that takes advantage of the in-body image stabilization (IBIS) feature found on most mirrorless cameras today. It moves the sensor fractions of a millimeter at a time and takes multiple photos in sequence, merging them into a higher resolution result. The output is generally 4x the resolution of the sensor.
It’s found on some cameras from Sony, Pentax, Olympus, and Panasonic. In the most extreme of cases, it boosts the Sony a7R IV’s sensor to a whopping 240 megapixels. And as I showed in my Panasonic S1R review, the detail gained by the sensor shift mode is real and genuinely useful.
If this feature makes its way to Nikon and Canon – as well as Sony’s non-a7R lineup – it won’t be long before almost every camera on the market can shoot at quadruple the sensor’s actual resolution.
Sensor shift has issues of its own (especially when shooting handheld or capturing a moving subject), but it’s still a good way to boost the detail in certain kinds of images. Landscape and architectural photographers especially may find it useful.
A camera’s resolution has always been one of the headline numbers that matters the most when people see the camera. That’s why I’ve been encouraged to see recent cameras improve so much in other areas – especially buffer and autofocus gains – that aren’t as easy to put in a headline but make a bigger difference in photography.
Make no mistake, though: The megapixel war is still happening, even if it looks a bit different than it used to. Leica’s announcement of a 60-megapixel camera shouldn’t feel like a surprise so much as a return to normal.
When Nikon, Canon, and Sony’s sports cameras are all above 40 megapixels, what will the market look like when they start focusing on landscape cameras again? For better or worse, it will look like it did about ten years ago: a constant leapfrog of companies angling for the megapixel crown.
That feels like something I should be annoyed about, but at the end of the day, I’m not. Hard drives are so much larger and faster that they can easily handle 100+ megapixel resolution. Not to mention that sRAW and mRAW are available for those who want to opt out. Maybe 24-45 really is the sweet spot, but certainly some photographers who print large would be happier with more (and not want to jump to medium format to get it). There’s no doubt that today’s best lenses are built to resolve more than today’s typical sensors.
The only thing left, and the most challenging part, is to take photos that make the most of the extraordinary number of pixels and incredible technology at our disposal.
After a long time I have found such a clear technically strong written matter s for Megapixel confusion. It will guide to new commer in different photography fields keep it up Brother s Dr Ànand Baranwal India
I find that some folks who are proponents of lesser megapixel count sensors simply just have those devices and are happy with them. Seems natural to me. But I personally need more data than that. More megapixels means that I can crop and pixel-peep more freely. It is not just about enlarging what you have in the entire frame to a perceived useful size (like poster size). It is about so much more. A couple of additional things are discovering what was actually in the frame that may have been imperceptible to the human eye, or testing various aspects of different optics until you find the ones that give the most bang for the buck.
Agreed. For me the real advantage is the ability to crop without as much degradation to image quality….which allows me do do more with fewer lenses and less weight to carry and with a bit of compositional forethought I can use the centre of the lense circle where performance is maximized.
If a camera like a Sony α7IV comes with capable AF system, some of the pictures taken by skilled photogs will suddenly show details in moving objects we’re currently not used to. So, for a brief moment in camera history we have another “stunning” thing to talk about. Whereas high-res landscapes are at the edge of becoming boring if HR is the only feature of an other wise dull or poorly composed image.
I think, high res sometimes is useful and other times just overkill. And it’s creating subsequent costs: bigger harddrives (and bigger backup harddrives, too), better lenses, more RAM, better graphics… I’m just saying it’s not the 60 MP sensor alone…
Things like shutter shock, wobbly tripods, poor technique, better and more precise focusinh also need to be addressed. Contrary to you, Spencer, I don’t see so many benefits in the HR mode of the S1R. Tried it a couple of times, various ocassions . Because of it’s sensitivity of movements and many systemic limitations I find it overrated.
I realised that there’s another world out there when I sat next to a chap in a hide who had a 5D Mk 3 or 4 and a 300mm/f2.8 and a 500mm/f4. About $20k I reckon. I had 1/10th of that in my D7500 and used 300mm/f4. His computer and monitor will no doubt have cost multiples of mine.
(They’re always ‘he’s’ aren’t they – not many ‘she’s) …
I suppose I approach this world on an 8 yearly basis when I update a vintage MacBook and reckon I might as well update some other stuff too (welcome, Z5, supplementing and not replacing said D7500).
Now I need to retire from it gracefully …
Side track: Just feel sad seeing Hong Kong in its …
I share your opinion that AF war is slowly ending. I have a Z9 and honestly, when it comes AF speed, the bottleneck is not the camera but the photographer ability to follow the action. In this context, AF speed comparisons become more and more irrelevant.
Resolution could become the new thing
First I haven’t read any of the comments.
But two things are making the best use of these high megapixel sensors.
1) Image stabilization
2) super accurate autofocus
And these are the result of one thing so actually a third and that is the Mirrorless Camera Body design .
I’ve been a fan of it since it’s conception and just got one this past summer. It wasn’t even a high megapixel sensor either but the 12mp Sony a7siii.
First I’m finding it’s not the camera I thought it would be or raved to be . I’ve shot Nikon dslrs and always been at the push of more megapixels . Not that I’m a megapixel snob . I am not by any means .
When I got the d7000 people were saying it was too many mp for an apsc camera hand held . It was equal to a 36mp ff ya know .
Then the d810 came out and I got it .
Same story and I did have some low light macro blurring of images. Then the d850 and it was worst . I still struggle with not getting that for my live music photography.
And I own the 20mp d500 .
I love the grain structure at higher mp of the d850.
First thing when I got the Sony a7siii and compared some photos right off the back of the camera I noticed even at iso 800 I had ugly noise on the Sony .
I mentioned that on day one off the backs of the cameras the the d850 at iso 6400 looked to me way better than the Sony a7siii and the allotted and famed 12mp low light king . I took bad comment after bad comment telling me looking at the rear lcd meant nothing. So I put it on a big screen and things really showed their ugliness.
All of a suddenly articles about how high mp sensors were better at high iso than low mp sensors. This was after the huge push and test after test showing how the 12mp Sony a7siii was King of low light .
I even fell for the hype and lies .
Or to me the better dynamic range and small grain structure of my d850 and older dslr sensors was proof of what I thought all along .
That said the video at 12,800 iso on the Sony a7siii is nice .
We that’s my story and I’m sticking to it y’all
This was an interesting and enjoyable read; thank you. The emergence of new technology is always fascinating to me and as a hobbyist I’m undoubtedly wondering if I need or want the latest and greatest. I rarely feel that I’m missing anything that my 24mp Z6 can’t do. The one exception is when I’m shooting air shows, where I’ve used an AF-P 70-300mm. To better fill my screen and get further reach, I’ve needed to crop and despite that, have found that at 300mm I wasn’t getting close enough and relying on a softer portion of the focal length. Switching to my Z50, I got better reach but still hit the limits of the lens at long focal lengths. I’m awaiting the Z100-400 which I should get before the next flying season..
In the end though I think there will be a higher pixel camera in my future but I honestly can’t see needing or wanting anything more than 45-50mp, especially when combined with the excellent Z lenses.
“The only thing left, and the most challenging part, is to take photos that make the most of the extraordinary number of pixels and incredible technology at our disposal.”
It is only so that I do not take pictures to take advantage of my pixel count. I do that for completely other reasons.
Thanks for your thoughts on increasing MP.
Posing a couple of queries, from a hobbyist. With increasing MP on 35mm equivalent sensors (aka Full Frame), does that increase the manufacturing tolerances needed for mount and lens design, to take full advantage of the MP, and does that increase cost (I’m probably getting theoretical at this point)?
I imagine the new lens mounts for mirrorless bodies allow for lens designs that support increased sensor MP.
This reminds me of when Nikon started the D8XX series, and they published a list of recommended lenses needed to see the benefit of the higher MP sensors.
The other query is in relation to technique. Admittedly, I’ve never shot with a Fuji GFX or any other medium format body – but does technique need to improve to take full advantage of higher MP?
No doubt there will be those who need the higher MP, and there will be those who can take advantage of it. I’m wondering if it will eventually price hobbyists out of the market.
Update – the website includes this as a related article, which touches on the concerns of increasing MP sensors.