Is 12 Megapixels Enough? Sony a7S III Print Comparison

Is 12 Megapixels Enough? Sony a7S III Print Comparison

With the release of the Sony a7S III, many people are asking the question: is 12 megapixels enough resolution? Can you shoot client work or make large prints if you only have a 12-megapixel sensor? These are important questions for the photographer or videographer seeking the perfect camera. 

The video specs are impressive, but I wanted to know how this camera holds up when creating large prints. When you don’t know the answer, it’s time for an experiment. In this case, all it took was a simple print comparison to see if the 12-megapixel print would measure up.

The Investigation

Although I would primarily call myself a photographer, I have been shooting more and more video content over the last few years. Clients are asking for it, and it is becoming more and more valuable in the market. I would argue that the low and midrange markets for photography are becoming more commoditized each year and that video can add a lot of value. 

With the release of the Sony a7S III, I was very excited about the video-centric specs, but it left me wondering how it would perform when it comes to my photo work. In an ideal world, I would love my gear to cross over seamlessly. Otherwise, I’d need twice the gear.

To put things to the test, I went out one evening to replicate an image I had shot previously with my Sony a7 III. This would give me a side-by-side comparison to see how the quality compares between 12 megapixels and 24 megapixels. Additionally, it would allow me to test out the low light capabilities of this new sensor. After the shoot, I edited the images to be similar and ordered a 20x30-inch print of each. When the prints arrived, I sat down to compare them and made a video summarizing my thoughts:

The Analysis

My main goal was to figure out if I could count on the Sony a7S III to make high-quality enlargements. I wondered if I was making a mistake by shooting stills with this camera because of the reduced resolution. Does going from 24 megapixels to 12 megapixels produce substantially different results in a large print? When shooting run-and-gun photo or video projects, you don’t want to hassle with switching cameras!

Additionally, I wanted to know if I could use the exceptional low-light capabilities of this camera to shoot astrophotography with minimal digital noise. I imagined cranking up the ISO to shoot star images at much faster shutter speeds. This would be an awesome feature, but I wanted to make sure that I could still make enlargements of these images.

The Results

After reviewing the results, I found that 12 megapixels are completely adequate. The prints were nearly identical in quality, and only a closeup look revealed slight differences. The reduced pixel density made the prints look slightly less crisp, but I only noticed a difference when examining them very closely side by side. Most people hang a 20x30 print on the wall because they want to be able to view it from a few feet away or across a room. 

Sure, you might not want to make a 40x60 print, but in 10 years as a professional photographer, I have printed fewer than 20 images over 20x30. For the type of work I do, I’d much rather have awesome video specs and amazing low-light performance over high resolution. 

Below, you can see the image from the Sony a7 III (15 sec, f/2, ISO 3,200) on the left and the a7S III (15sec, f/1.8, ISO 6,400) on the right.

Sure, there are cases where shooting at 60 megapixels is necessary or requested by the client, but it is rare, at least in my experience. But hey, maybe walls are smaller where I’m from. 

The other big advantage of having a 12-megapixel sensor is the reduced file sizes. Having previously worked with the 42-megapixel Sony a7R III, I am aware of how quickly hard drives fill up when you’re shooting thousands of high-resolution raw files. 

One last thing to consider is how much cropping you plan to do with a photo. If you want to substantially crop a 12-megapixel photo, you’ll quickly run out of resolution, but I am a big fan of framing a scene in-camera instead of in post-production, so this isn’t an issue.

Other Creative Solutions

All debate aside, Adobe just released a product making the megapixel debate a non-issue. The Super Resolution feature just incorporated into Adobe Camera Raw allows you to quadruple the resolution of an image: think 12 megapixels to 48 megapixels with the click of a button. 

This impressive new feature makes the low-light performance even more of a priority because having a clean file to start with results in a better output when upscaling the image. Now, you can get all the benefits of a 12-megapixel sensor (excellent high-ISO performance and small files) with the ability to enlarge files on an “as needed” basis. That tool will save a ton in storage costs by keeping raw files small and only enlarging the photos that need to be printed large (very few in the digitally focused market).

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking for the perfect hybrid photo/video camera, I highly encourage you to check out the Sony a7S III. I believe it is one of the best cameras on the market when combined with the impressive features Adobe is offering. When the Super Resolution feature comes to Lightroom (hopefully later this year), it will be the perfect combination!

If you're passionate about taking your photography to the next level but aren't sure where to dive in, check out the Well-Rounded Photographer tutorial where you can learn eight different genres of photography in one place. If you purchase it now, or any of our other tutorials, you can save a 15% by using "ARTICLE" at checkout. 

Marc Bergreen's picture

Marc Bergreen is a colorado wedding photographer and adventure photographer based in Evergreen, CO with a passion for human powered adventure sports. When not shooting photos or creating youtube videos you can find him climbing, running, and skiing in the mountains.

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Twelve megapixels gave me hellatious hair moire in half-length portraits. Twenty megapixels cured that problem.

I'm not a professional. Just a long time (since late 70s) hobbyist. So maybe you can answer this question. From my readings the A7S to A7Siii were aimed at better high ISO images. Its reason to exist along side the A7 and A7R series. I see it as a camera for low light images instead of one aimed at portrait photographers. Wouldn't the hair moire be a problem for somebody who does a lot of low (mostly natural) light portraits? I'm thinking along the lines of boudoir where low light is used for a romantic mood. Most other portraits are done in moderate to bright light (natural and/or strobes), so those photographers would be looking at higher resolution cameras.

Moire occurs when a repeating pattern in the subject is reproduced on the sensor right at the cusp of the system resolution. It's partially resolved, partially unresolved. Changing the magnification of the pattern on the sensor so that the pattern is either fully resolved or fully unresolved will remove moire. But also, reducing or increasing the system resolution will remove moire (all presuming the subject remains the same). What this means is that any system will produce moire if all factors intersect at the right point.

So then, greater noise at higher ISO could affect moire by slightly lowering the resolution at the sensor.

Wouldn't moire more have to do with lack of anti-aliasing (low pass) filter? I've never heard of moire occurring because of low megapixels.

It's not precisely the number of megapixels. As I said, there is a point at which all factors can converge to create moiré on any's just a matter of whether all the factors place a particular pattern on the cusp of resolution on the sensor in that particular situation.

When all factors converge to cause moiré at a specific moment, then change one of those factors to get off the cusp: Move closer or zoom in (to increase magnification of the pattern on the sensor) or step back or zoom out (to reduce magnification of the pattern on the sensor). Or do something to reduce resolution just enough to drop completely below the cusp of resolving the pattern. That's what the anti-aliasing filter does.

Maybe it's enough for a print, but definitely not enough for a 6k or 8k monitor :(

Which leads logically to the next question: is 4K enough?

Depends on the size (and personal preferences of course)... For a 27" screen or under I think 4k is enough. Over 30" I wouldn't mind to have 6k or 8k.

The voice of reason.

I figure my 24mp sensor gives me a 100% margin of safety.

People were selling BIG digital prints 10 years ago and more. They look fine.

People don't really care about sharpness. They want what's in the picture.

I'll never give my 16MP D4 away (wouldn't get that much money for it either). The MP number is misleading. A 12.1MP Sony A7S III has a resolution of 4240 x 2832 pixels. Its sibling, the 42.2 MP A7R III got 7952 x 5304. That looks like a three times better resolution but it is not even a doubling.

That is true. Another factor is hoe many „effective“ megapixels the lens can resolve at the given aperture and light conditions. Any lens will reduce the amount of actually captured detail per pixel by a certain extent, this is why expensive glass con outshine cheap glass on a better camera. Ive done tests with many dofferent brands and cameras, and to my eye, the actually resolved detail of an image will only ever start to dwindle when reducing resolution by 1/3 or even half. Most lenses seem to resolve around 60-90% of the sensors true resolution, so they hamper the potential upgrade a little more the higher res a body is.

Just to point out the math, 7952 x 5304 is indeed (more than) three times 4240 x 2832.
(What you meant by "not even a doubling" is perhaps because you saw each number side by side - I agree with your stance but the math is wrong)

The point is: It is all about resolution (horizontal, vertical or in any other direction). LPI do matter and not a misleading square number.

People who do know any better.

I disagree that "...Super Resolution feature just incorporated into Adobe Camera Raw allows you to quadruple the resolution of an image: think 12 megapixels to 48 megapixels with the click of a button."

Super Resolution is just smarter sharpening. There's no AI yet that adds splinters and nailheads to an image of an old barn wall or spells out the letters of the tattoo on Sophie's shoulder in that bridal group portrait, if the lens and sensor has not resolved those details into the image.

Short answer: YES

Most of the time, extra megapixels are just considered room for cropping. I'm actually hoping manufacturers make a 16-18 MP sensor with really great low light capabilities and dynamic range.

I am not a professional (I have a printing background), but I print very often. My 16MP Olympus OM-D E-M1 allows me easily to print up to A2 with enough detail in hair and eyes for the normal viewing distance and even for "dot peeping". Megapixels are great for cropping.

Absolutely. Ive switched from an A7r2 to the a7s3 because i do 90% video work. When looking through the r2 images i found that maybe 1 out of 20 was actually filling the extra resolution (so no slight motion blur, no noise, no slightly missed focus...) and maybe 1 out of 100 where it actually mattered (usually a landscape).
So now im doing more panos on landscapes and for all the other shots the lower noise sometimes even means better detail resolved than just bloated files...especially for portraits...but then again im not mainly taking pictures to pixelpeep

For pin sharp results I print at 300 pixels/inch of linear image length and width. My 20”x30” are 54 Mp files. Yes I can see the difference. I do have use Gigapixel AI to enlarge smaller files than 12 Mp to get there with excellent results in landscape images.

But if the images are to be seen exclusively as digital media it is different and I don’t need nearly as much data.

I notice that in the two comparison images one is shot at 3200 and that other at 6400. That alone will make a difference when comparing the images as far as detail goes!

I just got the a7siii mainly for video but also photos . I’ve shot the d810 and d850 by Nikon for years. I have rarely needed the big megapixels of those cameras like it thought I would. I will keep them for nature and landscape but I mainly shoot live music photography and videography. Most everything shot is on social media and cd covers , some small posters and magazines. I come to the realization 12mp is all I need and low light performance is paramount. I’m really liking the Sony a7siii. The build quality and physical handling in the live music world is not as good as the big old DSLR’s . Nikon just makes a grip on their cameras that’s second to none . But the 12mp, very light system, insanely accurate eye and face tracking and then the phenomenally good lenses available make up for the lack of a good grip and larger real estate of the big dslrs.

First good you are using Lr or Camera Raw to start for lens correction and camera profiles are best in them. Also photos should have been at the same time also SS is different with that lens on each camera NPF Accurate Siii 7.36s 7iii 5.69s default Siii 14.72s 7iii 11.37s. As far as ISO noise both are ISO Invariant, noise is equal across ISO's just Siii has a second level at 12800 and up. As far as noise and sharpness first always use in camera NR for the dead and hot pixels (yea it can be done in Ps but start good), Lr/Raw NR will soften image but better over the years. The best for the last couple years is Topaz Denoise AI, you have four to choose standard, clear, low light and severe noise all with sharpness also. For enlargements or reductions Topaz Gigapixel will give you a +300 MP image with again NR and sharpness also can crop a landscape in it and make a portrait view within enlarging to any camera MP size. But Print companies have a way to get you your enlargement size also!
Have been using the 7Siii this MW season with the 1224 f/2.8 GM and 20mm f/1.8 G and clarity and detail both night and day are impeccable. For six years have used 7S, 7iii, 7rii and worked noise with most every program. I got the Siii because Sii's were no longer available new, was waiting for price to go down. Not into video but big pixels and brightness. The Siii will amaze any still photographer and with a GM lens it will exhaust a pixel peeper. Just throw away the magnifying glass and enjoy the capture story at any size!!!! Today's digital you need to thank every programer and computer maker for it will get better even!!!

why are we talking about megapixels again ?
Photography (and perhaps editing) skill is still the most important factor
Glass quality is more important IMO

One tip for those using smaller MPs :
Use raw capture -- when editing in PS or Affinity [ ;) ] use 16 bit when there is lots of similar colour like blue sky.
I find 8 bit enough for most of my 12mp and 16mp happy snaps . My first pro camera was 6 MP

True ; pros may have different needs for more MPs but I cannot understand some sensor sizes today. . It's a bit like comparing 10 x 8" negatives with 35mm negatives . Or look at my BIG camera!!

You make a print size statement from my heart !
I'm a retired photographer and can look back at a well spent career behind the camera.
In my film days - staring in the 1970 - we were forced to crop 'in camera' , there was little room or time to crop via the photo lab. So that issue is out of the way. 12 Mp sensors allow for indeed 95 ++ % of all prints. In my portrait studio I rarely delivered larger as 30 inch on the long side , my architecture work sometimes up to 60 inch on the long side but that was it. When digital entered my life I was very confused. Thinking in film formats 35mm up to 4"x5" did not convert to sensor sizes. Recently re edited a shot from my long gone Nikon D2X and indeed 'threw' it in Adobe PS enhancer. Nothing short of blown away.
Currently I make Landscape panoramas, the majority sells as luxury greeting cards , every now and then a large print of up to 50 inch long. My camera? A Fuji X-Pro3 with some prime lenses. When I know the photo I make will be a 'seller' -- trust me after 40++ years you know -- I shoot a tiled panorama with say my 50mm f2 and end up with a stitched pano of 20000 pixels wide. plenty of room for enlargement for the largest billboard. It keeps me smiling with very portable and affordable camera kit.

Here is an example of a bad writer trying to justify their purchase by writing bad articles.

Your walls are smaller? Total inanity.