Pixel wars

I swear. Just as ice cream is cold, when it’s not all melty, that just about every time I’m shooting out in public somebody asks me “How many megapixels has that got?” I tend to reply “More than I need” and with that I leave it to his imagination. It’s usually a guy who asks and we all know that guys love numbers that define things. Horsepower sells cars, torque wins races – we used to say. Pixels is the modern photographic equivalent to that adage. Pixels gives those who often don’t know better the impression that they are getting more for their money. But “we” know otherwise.

Or do we? Canon, not to pick on them, have just announced their new flagship camera the EOS 1DX. Unlike their prior line up there is no “s” model that will be a higher resolution version that is best described as a studio/big print camera. Up till now the non-“s” was designed with sports, news and general professional use in mind where higher ISO and frame rate performance was more important than pure “does that have a Hemi?” pixel horsepower. But no more. Well I won’t bother you with that rant as I’m sure that there are hundred of writers out there spouting a much more empassioned appeal to one direction or the other. Nope not here. What I have to say is:

“How many megapixels” matters less now than ever before. Huh? Let’s fire up the Wayback machine again and I’ll show you. Boy I love this device; picked it up on E-Bay for a pittance! Click! Whirrrr-ZoooM!

My first digital camera was a Nikon D1x and it’s file output of 5.74 megapixels was pretty darned high resolution for the time. Ok, ok, stop giggling, it’s true! The ground breaking D1 was barely 3 meg and the improved D1h, the “news/sports” version was faster than the original but the D1x was the “magazine/studio” camera. Well I had one, then two then briefly three but again I digress. Ok so there I was cranking out nearly 6 meg files and I had my newspaper editor freaking out telling me to crop these massive files or I was sure to clog their wire service and archiving systems. Really! But they had a point. A clean 3 meg file was almost overkill on newsprint being printed at 75dpi so they could print BIG and it would hold up. In their mind my D1x was insane! Who needs that kind of camera?

Then I ditched the D1x for the smaller, faster, better D200 when it came out. 10 meg capture baby! Again the newspapers and even some magazines told me to give them smaller files because again that kind of resolution was far more than they needed. Heck National Geographic with their great reproduction is only 135dpi! They were running double trucks from D1x files what the heck did they need almost twice the file for? Are you crazy? Yep.

Thus I was waiting for Ralph Nader to walk on stage when he was on the campaign trail in 2004 and was equipped with dual D200 rigs and got to talking to Steve Groer from the Rocky Mountain News. He noticed my cameras and said something to the effect of “Nice, but what do you need 10 meg for? A nice clean 4 meg is plenty for our work. Why do they keep giving us pixels that we throw away?” He was using two Nikon D2h which were 4 meg capture and yes that was for his purpose just dandy. He was a news paper dude but I submitted to magazines and did commercial work on my D200 so the higher resolution made sense.

But now? What is the paradigm? Not print. And except for large “point of purchase” displays in stores just about everything that you are reading or looking at is either magazine sized or more and more likely on some kind of screen. Who needs super high resolution cameras for a major advertising campaign when those images are only shown on TV and the web? Wha? The final output will be 450 pixel sidebar ads? Do we honestly need the new 80 meg capture back from Phase One to do that? Nah! I can dust off my old D1x and still crop the heck out of it and it will look just great!

Pixels and horsepower sells product to a degree. But the money that is made from photography that is not of the art or personal memory making (read as essentially wedding photography) all comes from advertising. Magazines and news papers survive not by the quality of their reporting but by their ability to sell advertising to the people who want to read the articles. Advertising is getting smaller and smaller not just in terms of budget but also in terms of reproduction size and in terms of how long they can have a campaign be out there. As a result of their target markets being found more and more on the web and the 700+ tv channels out there the demands upon us photographers to have cameras that produce wall sized prints has turned upside down. Maybe Canon figured this out and they are trying to stop the megapixel madness. Maybe Canon turned their backs on a small but very real market for their products. I dunno.

What I do know is that I don’t print my own photos and haven’t for a very long time. By that I mean I don’t print photos to look at them. I print the occasional image for my folio or for promo use. The rest stay on the hard drives. Those prints that I have made are not gi-normous. How many people do you know that actually make physical prints of their photos anymore? There are more photos being made now than ever before by a huge margin and most of them are going on to Facebook. No joke. Facebook is the largest depository of photographs in the world right now. How big are they displayed? 600 pixels wide? Oh you certainly need 20 meg capture for that masterpiece! That’s why soooo many people just take the photo with their cellphone rather than a “proper” camera. No need for more.

When you consider that many commercial photographers ditched their medium format film cameras, like Hasselblads, when the Canon 1Ds came out with it's "huge" 11 meg capture because it provided equal or better image quality then what I run around with, my Nikon D700, is essentially a tiny Hasselblad that shoots @ 8fps and gives totally pro quality up to ISO4000. That's pretty amazing. Why do you or I need much more than that?

Now for the ironic wrap up: I’m working on making huge prints. I’ve been fiddling with a project where big prints are the result. I’m still shooting with my beloved Nikon D700 but using the multi frame stitch panorama approach to achieve the needed buckets of pixels necessary. It’s easy, it works and I don’t have to spend a bunch of cash on a super high resolution camera that is even more overkill than what I currently have.

Given that here is a simple four frame stitch that I did at night with my D700 using my AF-S 28-70 f/2.8 with a 30 second exposure at ISO1600. It will make a seamless and grainless 16×20 inch print. It's about the same as a 24 meg capture but because my camera makes ISO1600 look much better than the "big" capture cameras in essence you couldn't get this shot with a D3x or 1Ds III and the medium format cameras are even more useless in this application. For things like this loads of pixels is awfully nice to have but for everything else, why are we all worked up? Stop worrying about pixels and spend more time making the pixels that you have fufill your needs.

Pano