The number of things I have learned, unlearned, and relearned all over again along the road from hobbyist to professional photographer would require something of a short novella to recount in their entirety. So today, I want to share just one of them.
Before I start, I’ll mention the usual disclaimer that this discussion is based on my own experience, my own style of shooting, my own clients, and my own peculiar set of tastes. So, since no two photographers are the same, no single piece of advice can ever be one size fits all. That, by the way, is also one of the things I’ve learned along the way. It’s not what I’ll be discussing today. But, it still bears repeating. As for what I actually do want to talk about today, let’s get right to what I've learned.
We are photographers. We love cameras. It is highly likely that our infatuation with the art form began sometime around the first time we held one of those strange combinations of metal and glass in our hand and heard that distinctive sound of the shutter as it went click. As we journeyed towards our new passion in earnest, we obsessed over every new camera body that arrived in the marketplace, each more beautiful than the one before. We committed manufacturers' spec sheets to memory. We’ve probably gotten into more than one unnecessarily heated argument over why our chosen camera brand is better than that other one.
Part of that eternal debate very often centers around the ever increasing number of megapixels in your camera versus the other guy's or gal’s camera. One of you may argue that 100 megapixels is far too many. Another may argue that 20 megapixels is too little. It’s quite possible that a somewhat sophomoric quip about someone overcompensating might even be thrown in there at some point.
I get it. I’m in the same boat as everyone else. I have cameras ranging from 24 MP to 102 MP. I’ve spent hours in front of a computer pouring over the “image quality” of each camera, going over the files with a fine-toothed comb to parse the differences. And there are differences. But, often along the way, I also tend to conveniently forget that I began my career on the back of a 10 MP camera. It was enough to get me published in major international magazines and get the ball rolling on a portfolio. Yet today, the idea of buying a 10 MP camera likely wouldn’t even occur to me.
To be sure, the images I take today with higher-megapixel cameras are far better than the ones I took with my old Nikon D200. But I hasten to say that the improvement is more the result of me being a better photographer now than I was 15 years ago, rather than just an upgraded sensor.
Case in point, about a year ago, I bought a 102-megapixel Fuji GFX 100 after a career using Nikon DSLRs, most recently, the 47.3 MP D850. I’ve written extensively about the GFX 100 previously, so I won’t rehash that here. Long story short, great camera, but perhaps not the best fit for my shooting style. It produces amazing image files, but with a tendency to frustrate the heck out of me along the way. Without question, I can do everything with it that I can do with my D850. But, in practice, it takes a lot longer to do the same things, and the process of doing them is a lot less fluid. With that said, I invested a pretty penny in the system, so I’ve put in every effort to make that investment pay off.
Ironically, 15 years in, that effort started back at the beginning. It’s been a long time since I first learned the very basics of photography, but the downside of having a lot of experience is that while you get more efficient over time, you can also unconsciously bake in bad habits as well. It’s like doing a sit-up. If your abdominal muscles aren’t strong enough, the rest of your body will find a way to compensate and fool you into thinking you are performing the exercise correctly. You might manage to get yourself fully upright, but in truth, you’re not nearly as strong as you think you are. The same type of effect can occur as a photographer, especially when you’ve shot with one brand so long that you instinctively know how to hide your weaknesses. Certain shortcomings of the GFX 100 highlighted certain gaps in my technical knowledge that I never had to address before. So, I had to do an extended amount of research to strengthen those muscles just to be able to use the GFX 100 properly.
Yet, a funny thing happened. Rather than my newfound technical knowledge causing me to fall in love with the GFX 100, I instead found myself applying those newfound skills to my trusty old Nikon. Suddenly, a camera that I was giving serious consideration to leaving behind was again staking its claim as my favorite camera. Without a doubt, shot in a vacuum, the sheer image quality of the GFX 100 was still a cut above the rest. But, by applying those new skills that had been forced upon me by the new system back into my old system, I was realizing that my existing lower-megapixel camera was perfectly capable of producing files that looked just as good. Some benefits that I had been ascribing to high megapixels were really just a matter of technique.
Even more unexpected, after a decade and a half of asking how I could get more megapixels, I instead found myself looking for every opportunity to use less. The D850 still ruled the roost, but I added a 24 MP D750 to the lineup for personal use. Applying the same lessons I’d learned while battling with the GFX 100, I soon found myself getting files out of the D750 that, on screen and in smaller prints, were the equal to any other camera in my collection. And I was doing so with a camera body that I personally found more efficient and enjoyable to use.
I suddenly found myself in a position where my most expensive and impressive camera in terms of specs was the one I least enjoyed using. And while, if one were to put the files from all three cameras side by side, there would be a definite difference in quality when pixel-peeping, when I stepped back and tried to just judge the artistic merit of the various images I was creating, I found I was still creating better work with the Nikons. Of course, this is purely subjective and impossible to quantify. I think it was simply something in the working methods encouraged by the design of each camera that allowed me to be a bit more “me” with the Nikons. That could simply be a result of having so many years of experience holding them. That could be the fact that, try as I might, I still don’t particularly love electronic viewfinders. Again, completely subjective, and not an official review that should sway your opinion one way or another. But, for me, the differences felt real and were having an actual effect on my ability to achieve results I was happy with.
But I’m a business man and can’t rely solely on my feelings. I wanted to dig deeper and see if I could apply some more objective logic to which camera I was using and when, so I could make better investment decisions in the future. Like every good education, there was a lot of math involved.
I am an advertising photographer by trade. So, my choice of camera is not based solely on my personal enjoyment. My clients need image files that can be cropped multiple ways, blown up large from all the various crops, be viewed up close, and still retain their sharpness. So, there is a practical reason why I tend to invest in higher-megapixel cameras and medium format systems.
In fact, part of almost every bid I submit for major ad campaigns is a line item for rental of a medium format system. Generally this is the Hasselblad or Phase One system. The costs of the rental comes from the overall budget provided by the client, so I’ve never felt the need to own these cameras outright. The purchase of the GFX 100, in fact, was partly driven by a desire to retain some of that rental income myself by renting the system to my own productions. But, one way or another, when shooting major campaigns, I’m dealing with major megapixel demands.
But, here’s where the math comes in. While delving deep into my re-education, I decided to do a bit of research to find out exactly how many megapixels were required to make various sizes of prints. This led me to various online calculators that allowed me to put in the megapixels associated with each of my cameras and find out what the largest print was that I could make from that camera using 300 dpi as a baseline. Of course, you can lower your dpi to make larger prints, but I wanted to base my analysis on the highest quality possible.
What I found was this: A 102 MP image in the 4x3 aspect ratio of a medium format sensor could print natively at 300 dpi an image of 38.9×29.2 inches. My 47.3 MP D850 can print a 2x3 full frame aspect ratio print up to 28.1×18.7 inches at 300 dpi. And my 24.3 MP D750 at the same aspect ratio and dpi can print 20.1×13.4 inches. That, of course, assumes no cropping is involved.
So clearly, as expected, the more megapixels you have, the larger you can print before you have to start decreasing the dpi. That’s to be expected. That is what you are paying for when you opt for a high-megapixel camera. And that is why one might want to invest in a camera with more megapixels if they have clients who require their images to be printed large. Or, as is often overlooked in the discussion, if one has clients who want to crop heavily into that image and still be able to print large.
But, I wasn’t ready to put away my pocket protector just yet. Like I said, the majority of my income is derived through commercial photography aimed at advertisers. However, that doesn’t mean that everything I shoot is going to end up printed on the side of a bus. A large percentage of it will also end up in the digital world, in the editorial world in a magazine, in a print for a fine art exhibition, or simply printed for my portfolio. So, I wanted to go back through my work over the last several years and do an analysis of where the vast majority of my images actually did end up being printed, if they were being printed at all. And how did that jive with the amount of money I had invested in increased megapixels?
What I found was that for the bulk of jobs that did require higher-megapixel counts to suit advertisers needs, I was renting medium format Hasselblads or Phase One cameras with higher megapixel counts. Even now that I own the GFX 100, I still generally prefer to rent the Hasselblad or Phase One if the client’s budget will allow it. They just feel more stable when big money is on the line to me personally. And because the type of clients that actually need that level of quality usually accept the fact that they will have to pay for it, it is a financially neutral situation from a business standpoint.
When it comes to the editorial world, the budgets are far more lean. So, while some editorial assignments do come with an equipment budget, many will not. But, if we use our calculations, we can see that a less expensive 24 MP camera or even one with less megapixels is still going to provide more than enough megapixels for your images to look great in a magazine.
Also, while my business is driven largely through commercial commissions as opposed to fine art print sales, I do occasionally exhibit my work. When it comes to prints, I’m a bigger is better kind of guy. So, this is one area where I feel like more megapixels really do pay off. Now, whether or not that payoff is worth it to you is a matter of opinion. As I’m typing this, I’m looking at a print of mine that was exhibited in multiple shows a few years ago, even winning best in show on more than one occasion, and was printed at 24x36. It also happened to have been shot with a 12.1 MP Nikon D700. To be fair, sharpness is not the defining characteristic of this particular image, but of all the responses I got during the shows, no one ever commented on the image not being sharp enough.
I just made two prints for a fairly prestigious show here in Los Angeles in April. One image was shot with a 50 MP Fuji GFX 50S. The other was shot with an APS-C-sized 24.3 MP Fuji X-T2. Both were printed at 16x20. Laid side by side, both prints look pretty darn good.
So, is it worth it to invest in more megapixels? I would say yes if my primary business objective was to regularly exhibit and sell large prints, especially if I was a landscape photographer, for example, and wanted to show every detail of a wide expanse. But as only a small percentage of the personal work that I do (work not commissioned by a client) ends up in fine art exhibitions, and since I’ve already exhibited multiple times with lower-megapixel cameras, is it worth the added expense both in costs and storage space to shoot everything at high resolutions?
The one area where almost everything I shoot has a shot at being printed is in my print portfolio. This is one of my main sales tools and absolutely has to be at its best. People’s portfolio sizes vary. My own print portfolio contains prints that are 11x17 inches. Among those prints are images that were created with everything from 102 MP cameras to 24 MP cameras. There are images shot with Nikon, Canon, Fuji, Phase One, and Hasselblad. They all live together in relative harmony. There are differences in the images. But, I’d say those differences have less to do with sharpness and more to do with variations in my artistic approach based on subject matter. Again, going to the calculator, at 11x17 inches, the distinct advantages of the larger sensors haven’t really begun to kick in yet. If one were to look really hard, you might notice subtle differences in sharpness between images. But, as I learned during my period of re-education, most of that would be due to technique as opposed to megapixels.
So, what is the perfect megapixel count to invest in? Like I stated at the outset, you’ll have to answer that question for yourself based on what type of work you do and where your work will end up. Personally, through this process, I’ve come to think that 24 MP may actually be the best megapixel count for an owned camera system. The files are plenty big enough to handle 99% of editorial assignments, personal portfolio shoots, anything online, and pretty much anything that won’t be heavily cropped and then printed large to be viewed up close. From a business standpoint, you also will save money on upfront costs for the camera body as well as backend costs related to storage. I don’t personally shoot weddings or events, but if I did, I can’t imagine ever wanting more than 24MP considering the sheer number of images you would need to find storage space for at the end of every shoot.
When it comes to personal work or work created for my portfolio, 24 megapixels seems to be plenty, considering that the majority of that work probably won’t be printed larger than the 11x14 to 16x20 range. Again, that’s a generalization. You may print everything and print it all at much larger sizes. I’m just basing that estimate on my own workflow. But, if your own print needs fall into that range, it’s unlikely you will really experience the benefit of more megapixels outside of late night pixel-peeping sessions.
Where you will realize the benefit, however, is shooting client work that might be heavily cropped and/or printed large for up-close viewing. Personally, despite my growing affection for 24 MP, I still continue to shoot most of my images at around 50 MP. Largely, this is because I like to crop and create multiple versions of each of my images for use across various platforms. And, if I am doing a shoot for a client where I’m not 100% sure that they won’t change their mind later and want to order additional and larger usages, it can sometimes be safer to have a bit more megapixels than you need.
The more I consider the question, the more I wonder if, from a business standpoint, it might make even more sense to limit investment to 24 MP or 50 MP cameras and only rent larger systems on a job-by-job basis. This minimizes your upfront costs while still covering you print-wise for 99% of your personal portfolio, event, wedding, or fine art printing needs. Furthermore, when a client comes around that does need to print in a larger format, you can always rent the necessary camera for that job, bill it to the client, and come out the other side even without ever needing to make a big investment. That way, you can ensure you can meet your client’s needs without overspending on equipment for your personal use or for the clients that don’t need the extra pixels. You can reduce upfront costs and financial risks while still delivering the high-quality photography your clients deserve. The only thing you miss out on is the fun of endlessly zooming into your images in Capture One to marvel at the fine detail. I'll admit that is fun. But, is it the best investment?
So, what are your thoughts? What do you feel is the ideal megapixel count for the type of work that you do?