Larger images provide a world of options for photographers, but if you're not careful, more pixels could mean more problems. If you're one of the many photographers finding yourself with a new high resolution camera after the holidays, here's a guide to wrangling that newfound resolution.
High resolution camera systems are becoming more and more ubiquitous. Not long ago, 30-50 megapixels sounded like an impossibility for 35mm camera systems. That kind of resolution was squarely on the hollowed ground of medium format digital backs. Of course, that barrier has since been shattered with 35mm camera systems now regularly weighing in in the 50-megapixel range. Meanwhile, medium format systems have moved up into the realm of the triple digits.
And there's good reason for the desire to increase resolution. The world we live in is continuously moving towards higher resolution displays that have the capability of delivering content at ever increasing quality. More resolution, more information, more detail, more impressive.
However, as just about anyone that has recently moved to a higher resolution camera will tell you, things change as you move up the megapixel ladder. A high resolution camera resolves greater detail, but as we'll get into, this can be a double-edged sword.
Inspect Your Lenses
As we increase the resolution of our sensors, we also have to consider the amount of resolving power our lenses have. Not all lenses are created equally. Your favorite 50mm that has performed exceptionally well for years on your 24-megapixel camera may not be able to deliver the same crisp image quality on a 50-megapixel camera. This is because your shiny new 50-megapixel camera can resolve more information than your lens may be able to deliver.
Many photographers that move up in resolution also find they need to adjust their lens lineup so they can take full advantage of their new sensors. You may not need to do this, but it may be a good idea to test your full lens lineup to see where they stand.
There's Less Usable Depth of Field
All else being equal, we can start to pick up on changes in depth of field as we increase resolution. Because higher resolution cameras are able to resolve more detail, we can see the gradual change in depth of field much more easily. Put simply, as resolution increases, apparent depth of field decreases.
The subtle transition from out of focus areas to in-focus areas are made more obvious with higher resolution camera systems. For those coming from lower megapixel camera systems, this ability to resolve more out of focus areas than before can be disconcerting. At lower resolutions, this transition in depth of field may not have been as clear, so to our eye it appeared as more or less "in focus". Put simply, with higher resolution cameras, there's less in-doubt between in-focus and out-of-focus areas.
Depending on how much greater the new camera's resolution is, what was once possible with, say, f/5.6 now may require a smaller aperture to achieve the same apparent depth of field.
Optical Defects Are More Obvious
If you're using a lens with tendencies towards chromatic aberration or other optical defects, you'll see a lot more of it when you move to a higher resolution camera body. If a given lens's image quality is unusable wide open on your 24-megapixel body, it's going to be even more so on a higher-resolution body.
Soft lens now? Expect an even softer with a higher resolution body. Higher megapixel count sensors simply ask more of the lenses they're being used with.
Vibration Is a Big Deal
A significant consideration for photographers with any kind of camera system, high resolution camera operators have to take extra care to ensure vibration doesn't play an unwanted role in their image quality.
Because high resolution cameras resolve greater detail, there's less wiggle room for camera shake. Subtle vibration not noticeable on a 24-megapixel camera system at 100 percent might be painfully obvious on a 50-megapixel system. Depending on the resolution, shooting handheld may not even be practical. Often times, you'll see medium format photographers shooting exclusively on a tripod. While this isn't necessarily a requirement, it is certainly good practice if you want to be sure your photo is tack sharp down to the pixel.
Sometimes, a jump in resolution may even necessitate a different, heavier weight tripod or tripod head. Typically, heavier tripods are preferred as they tend to vibrate less when bumped or when exposed to wind. Image stabilization can certainly help, but shouldn't be completely relied on for perfect pixel-level sharpness and may not even be available in the highest resolution lenses.
None of Those Should be a Dealbreaker
Yes, as stated, there are special considerations required to take most advantage of high resolution camera bodies, but that shouldn't dissuade you from using them. There's nothing like looking at a brand new, tack sharp, high-resolution image at 100 percent and seeing that you nailed it. Not only is just that experience alone visually satisfying, but you also have the benefit of knowing that the images you've taken are as useful as they can be. Posting online? No sweat. Selling a large print? You're covered. In a hurry? Shoot wide and crop in post. Supplying to a client? They have options.
Resolution is a wonderful thing. I've found that when shooting medium format systems and especially when photographing landscapes, I get a greater appreciation for the scene, as I can examine minute details I may not have been able to see in the field. I've found wildlife I didn't even know was in the frame after close inspection. Textures take on a new significance. Little things like that enhance the photograph and can lead the viewer on a treasure hunt.
It might take a little more care, but it's worth it.