I Purchased a High-Resolution Camera: Was It Worth It?

I Purchased a High-Resolution Camera: Was It Worth It?

As always, I would like to preface this article with a bit about my background in commercial photography as well as my technical knowledge, or lack thereof.

For 10 years, I shot with a 20-something-megapixel Canon full frame camera for 85% of my work. I was and still am very happy with the setup. When the jobs got really big, I rented a Phase One system. The smaller jobs started to slip away, and my new smallest clients wanted resolution, but they were not paying Phase One prices, so I looked into the Canon high-resolution system and picked up a secondhand body pretty cheap along with some lenses that would help resolve such a sensor. The majority of my commercial work is still life and food photography, and I think this is worth noting before you read the article.

For the sake of this article, I will classify high resolution as 50 megapixels or more, not for any real reason other than that is where the brands seem to be pitching. I am also not a gear-head, so I wont be using overly technical terms, but more talking about the realities of shooting with a high-resolution sensor.

Can You See The Difference?

In all honesty, no I can’t. The image quality in the real world, or at least my version of the real world, is just not there. There are more pixels, but that is about it. When printed as a full page advert in a magazine, you cannot tell the difference between the high-resolution sensor or my older cameras. On Instagram, you won't ever be able to tell the difference between various full frame cameras, and I assume this will go for the rest of the internet too. I did recently see a six sheet out in the real world, and I would say that this was ever so slightly better than my previous cameras used for this application, but at the same time, the colors were nowhere near what I can achieve for similar prints with even a 2005 Phase One back. In general, apart from the image being bigger, you don’t really get much more.

There are a few exceptions to this rule in my line of work. When shooting complicated flat lays with lots of little items, the higher resolution does render better clarity of the items. The two images below have been exported in the same way; one is from a high-resolution system and the other from a standard-resolution system.

Do You Need 50 Megapixels?

Probably not. Unless you are shooting for large prints, it is just a pain to deal with. However, I have since found that I even shoot web campaigns with it. I tell myself it is a just in case scenario, but in reality, it is my newest camera and I feel like I should use it, having spent so much money on it. I think the six sheet prints and point of sales prints are the only times I really get to using it to its full potential. I do also have the issue that art directors regally heavily crop into work, which I always managed in person before; now, I don’t worry about it, which is nice. I think it also has a strong application at weddings for those massive group portraits, but having seen the power my machines need to edit these files, I certainly wouldn’t want to shoot the entire day on them.

I was personally happy with 10 megapixels, and if the cameras from back then could still tether, I probably wouldn’t have upgraded, but Apple did something funny and it all stopped working. The higher resolution opens up a few doors to me commercially that really help, but it does come at a cost.

What Made Me Make The Purchase?

The decision to make this purchase was a mixture of financial gains and economy of time. Before this, I would make panoramic images with a tilt-shift lens if the client had low budget but big print aspirations; this actually saves me loads of time and effort being able to capture these clients' work with one single frame and not having to stitch them together in post. There is the added benefit of the live view being more accurate for the stylists, as they see the entire frame at once now. It also means that for jobs that sit in-between the midrange full frame DSLR and a Phase One, I can save my money and still give the client something that is suitable. For me, the purchase was purely business related. If this is your hobby and you love making massive prints or perhaps shoot wildlife and want to be able to make massive crops without losing resolution, this could also be a great investment for you. And finally, if you get pleasure out of zooming in to 100% to look at the detail and have an extra few thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket, go get one of these cameras; you won't be disappointed.

What Are the Pros?

In my line of work, the main pros are the efficient workflow. I save a lot of time and have far fewer worries on shoots when it comes to high-resolution prints. It also saves me thousands per year in rentals of medium format systems as well as the worry of last-minute bookings where I might need a few more pixels in a pinch. The camera will become a workhorse in my studio until it either dies or a new print requirement is invented, which is pretty unlikely considering how many decades the current crop of requirements have been around in the UK for.

What Are The Cons

File size. They are obviously big, which isn’t really an issue for color-grading or general storage costs, but when you are doing some really heavy retouching, you are going to want to look to a better editing machine. My highly spec’d MacBook Pro doesn’t cut it with these files when we are about 10 layers into an edit, which isn’t something I really thought about, until it was a bit too late. The other major point to drill home here is that the image quality of Canon sensors since 2008 really hasn’t changed a notable amount. The bodies have had some improvements that in some (mostly weddings and sports) genres make a huge difference, but for me, since 2008, nothing has really changed in terms of image quality; there is just more image.

Have you moved up to the 50+ megapixel world of photography? If not, what has stopped you?

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Previous comments

I used to run a commercial photo lab where we regularly printed images 50 inches wide by lengths up to 8 feet.
We did endless tests of resolution correlated with IQ of output and found that extra res was only minimally useful over a certain size. The printer drivers re-map the files to address native printer res and thus even low res images get an optimum signal to the printheads.
Highly detailed images benefited the most of course but then the issue was mooted by the fact that the viewing distance was usually in excess of 15 feet.

When my clients ask for high res I ask what size? And they reply 300DPI. ;(

Will Gavillan's picture

Not all high res cameras created equally. For instance, the 5DS/Rs of the world are basically just 5D3s with more megapixels, so yeah, you wouldn't see an image quality bump.

Richard Bradbury's picture

I thought about pulling the trigger on a 5Ds /5DsR for a while but ultimately grabbed a 5D Mark IV. It's the beter camera for a varied workload.

Now running the 5DIV and 3 5D II bodies. 21 to 30mp is not a huge jump but I can see a difference, the biggest change/improvement has been colour. The sensor on the 5DII has been great but the 5dIV is more colour accurate to my eyes.

It's also provided an improved workflow at camera for some work. I could of waited a little longer but jumped on a good deal/offer at The Photography Show whilst working their this year

I need to sell one of the 5DII bodies off this week as well... having 3 of the things is not needed. :)

The client request for resolution is yet to happen to me but I can't see needing more than 30mp any time soon.

Joel Manes's picture

A high resolution camera will definitely show any weakness that a lens might have, however, I have one because it allows me to crop my raw file and still have nice resolution to make a large print.

I got the 5DS because I was shooting photos that were going to be printed floor to ceiling in hallways of my institutional client. I've had 20 MP shots that big, but up on billboards where the viewer was not right up close to it.

I use it a lot, but downrez my work to 20 MP before sending to my clients. That's still plenty of resolution (and of course if I need more I don't downrez), and it allows me to up my ISO even more than I might normally use, since any noise or grain shrinks during the downrezzing process.

So I guess the answer it that I'm glad I have it, but if I hadn't had the original requirement for it, I would not have acquired it just for the sake of having it.

Another note: Pete Souza has marketed himself very well as Obama's official presidential photographer and people understandably are very impressed with his work he shot during those eight years. But if my information is correct, he used only the Canon 1Dx 16 MP and the Canon 1Dx2 20 MP cameras, proving that resolution isn't everything.

Chad D's picture

preaching to the choir but the MP once close to each other canon vs nikon etc..

I would rather have a better sensor more dynamic range etc..

this is where some might see more but even then look how popular McDonalds and Charbucks as I call starbucks horrid swill they serve and yet folks love them and they are all over

I shoot for what I see and like and figure clients like my work and me doing what I like is what counts :) if someone is happy with more or less and they are happy that is what counts IMHO :)

I would be curious to see if Fuji comes out with the 100MP beast that rumors have what it would be like to shoot with for larger prints etc.. some work I would like to shoot loose and wider and have the ability to crop with certain animals :)

98% of the benefit I have is more resolution for post production, masking is easier looks better when downsampled. but the files are pain in the ass.

Blake Aghili's picture

I have a 50 Meg Fuji and a 100 Meg PhaseOne .... Actually thinking to downgade the IQ3 100 to maybe a IQ 60 back, because each high end skin retouch on these 100 mega byte files is taking me 5 hours at least and each Hair retouch can take me five DAYS ... I want my life back lol

Vaidotas Darulis's picture

I crop my photos a lot and am very happy with my 42mpx Sony. 1/8th size and image still looks so sharp, like shot with a very long lense. That's ideal for instagram and other online things where it doesn't really matter.

Sally Siko's picture

I absolutely love the Canon5DS for portraits and wildlife work. A steady hand is required but oh my, the details are breathtaking.
Am very, very happy with the purchase :)

Thanks for a good, mature, level-headed, practical point-of-view essay on the topic of high-res camera practicality, Scott. Any full-time commercial photographer must certainly view such an acquisition with a primary view towards the added-value it brings to your business. In most cases, as in yours, the value is questionable, although you did buy 2nd-hand which lessened the pain a bit.

One area where medium-format high-res imaging is virtually a fundamental requirement is any work that requires great reproduction fidelity for high-frequency details. Photography of artworks or historical documents/materials comes to mind most immediately from my own experience. These are images that will often need to be studied in high magnification. I've been using PhaseOne's IQ systems for such high-frequency work for nearly 10 years and haven't found anything better. I will say, however, that my Fuji GFX50s is an admirable stand-in (and is much more flexible to use), with my Sony A7R3 also in the running.

Today, more than even a few years ago, the need to spend 5-figures to achieve outstanding imaging has largely disappeared for most applications.

I too bought a 5DsR. It was a decision brought about by a belief that my architectural clients would appreciate.
I can zoom in and see additional detail but even when some of my clients enlarge them to 8 foot wide displays for their offices I can only see a slight improvement in IQ.
An improvement, I might add, that is invisible to my clients.

What is interesting is that I have recently been doing tabletop product photography of liquor and the clients love the resolution. They have dreams of billboards and POP yet I had splendid results with my old classic 5D at 13MP.

I currently also use a 5DmkIV and an EOS R both at 30 MP and I have re-sized the files to the same dimensions as the 50MP body and the files are virtually indistinguishable.

I toyed with the idea of the Fuji but the fact that it has less DOF is something I find a drawback as when shooting product and architecture I want MORE DOF.

As someone who used to shoot 35mm/6x7/4x5 film I knew there was a different look from with each different size, and not just the detail (resolution) MF lenses have a different look, or draw as my old photo instructor called it. Isn't using a high res DLSR camera the same as using finer grain film, since you are stuffing 50mp into the same real estate as a 12mb or 20mb sensor?
I have rented MFDB and the difference was not mind blowing I realize the MFDB are not 6x6 but more like 645 size so maybe optically there's not a huge difference like in the olden days between 35mm and 6x7.

Do the folks who have both 42-50mp DSLR compared to 50+ MFDB see something more in the files than just finer "grain"?