Camera resolutions are soaring in recent years, with Canon unleashing a 50-megapixel DSLR and Phase One showing off the new XF 100MP back. The unending argument of why manufacturers bother with such resolution swirls around one thing: printing. Photographers argue that a higher resolution camera will produce a better print with more detail. Technically, that is absolutely true, but most photographers aren't printing much these days.
In fact, I know photographers that have likely never seen their work in print, just scattered around the Internet and social media. While that's all completely ok, those photographers would be fine with an Sony a7S II and not the a7R II or a Canon 6D instead of a Canon 5DS. Resolution is, in a sense, relative. Yes, at 200% magnification in Photoshop, a 50-megapixel file will look much cleaner and more detailed than a 20-megapixel image. 99.99% of the people viewing the image will not being looking at such a tight crop of the image ever. If you put it on Instagram, the resolution is wasted. Even on smaller print sizes like 11"x14" and down, anything more than 20 megapixels won't make much of a difference.
The Internet Is Very Low Resolution
I have two images that illustrate this point fairly well. These are scans of Ilford HP5+ film shot at its box speed of 400 and developed for print. They were scanned with an Epson v600 flatbed scanner at 6,400 DPI.
The first image has a resolution of 13,208 x 15,850 pixels. The scanner has certainly interpolated some data at the 6,400 DPI setting, so it's not truly a 209-megapixel file as the math suggests, but there's still an incredible amount of detail. The bottom image has a resolution of 1,928 x 2,314 pixels. That's not even four -and-a-half megapixels. However, the second photo is an extreme crop of a photo with a near identical original resolution to the top photo. When I went to print these images at a size of 20"x24", the first image was going to the printer at a 660 PPI resolution, whereas the bottom image was only 96 PPI.
My colleague was concerned about the low resolution of the second image and how it would look against the first image, as was I. We printed them anyway to see what they would look like, and the situation perfectly illustrated the point that I hope many other photographers come to soon understand. As I looked at them side by side, my face a foot away from the prints, the difference was obvious. The almost blurry look of the second image paled in comparison with the ultra high resolution print of the first image. I took several steps back and looked at them again; that's when I saw it. Or didn't see it really, as they looked identical. At the viewing distance that people would be seeing these exhibited in their frames, the 96 PPI print seemed to have all of the detail and luscious tonality of the first print. I told my colleague that it looked great and that I would keep and include it in the exhibition.
Had these prints been a larger size like 24"x36" or 40"x60", the second image would likely have fallen apart due to banding and the printers inability to find enough information to print. While I unfortunately can't show you all the prints in person, you can see how negligible the difference in resolution is on your screen. I hope that, combined with my experiences, inspire you to print your work more and see it the way that it's meant to be seen without worrying about your camera's resolution. More resolution won't make your pictures better, better lighting and post-production techniques will.