Last month we had the three highest megapixel cameras by Nikon, Sony, and Canon in our office, and we filmed a pretty polarizing review pitting them against each other. Many viewers pointed out an unfair bias in our studio test so we redid the test again using the same lens on all three cameras. We then asked our readers to pick the best looking image from the 3 cameras without telling them which camera took which photo. The results from this test were pretty alarming.
Below you can see the results we gathered from our "Which Image Looks the Best" poll. With over 2,500 votes, the overall conclusion is that most people cannot tell the difference between the three cameras when they are pitting against each other in a real world studio setting. What is even more shocking is that the Nikon D810 camera with the lowest megapixel count of 36mp actually received the most votes for having the best image quality. If you haven't seen the studio test setup where we fitted all three cameras with the same Tamron 24 - 70 2.8 lens and reshot the baby turtle in the studio, you can view that video immediately below.
The argument that most photographers cannot tell the difference in image quality without zooming into the individual pixels has been around for a long time. Most images are displayed on the web at a fraction of their full resolution, and nuance differences in image quality such as ISO noise is almost completely lost when files are actually printed. Since we uploaded high resolution files for this test, these results cater towards those who really love to "pixel peep" and make arguments that might not stand up in the real world. If anything, if you were to take these files into real world post-production editing, large scale printing, and online web displaying, I bet even fewer people could distinguish the differences in each file.
Obviously each of these cameras have unique features that make them desirable (or undesirable) other than strictly image quality alone. However, for many studio photographers who specialize in beauty, fashion, and product photography, image quality is of the upmost importance. As this test demonstrates, image quality among manufactures has reached an unbelievable milestone. Image quality is so good now that even the educated, tech savy photographers who took this test could not accurately distinguish one brand over another. Imagine what the results would have been if this poll was sent out to the general public! Image quality at this tier of camera has become a game of diminishing returns. How much more detail does a photographer need when very few of them are actually printing billboard sized images viewed up close in subway stations or in fine art galleries? Don't get me wrong; I love the feeling I get when I zoom into 36+ megapixels and see razor sharp nose hairs or can read the imprinted logo on a pair of contacts, but for almost all practical purposes this does not change the actual monetary or creative value of the photographs I am taking on a weekly basis.
Not everyone will agree with me, but I believe the success of future high resolution cameras is not actually going to be based on image quality as much as it will be based on new and innovative features. Despite what you think of the new Sony and Fuji mirrorless systems, there is something to be said about camera manufacturers who have thrown out traditional design in hopes of creating something new and innovative. In a previous Fstoppers article called Why Do Our DSLRs Not Have These 12 Features Yet I outlined a few simple and extreme innovations I would love to see offered in the next breed of digital cameras. For me personally, marginally better image quality is not something that makes me excited anymore; instead I would like to see features that either make my job easier or allow me to create images more consistently (think better Autofocus and in-camera radio flash triggering).
With ridiculous 250 megapixel cameras already on the horizon, I have no doubt that this resolution game will continue to play out. Image quality arguments will continue to rage on, and basic consumers will continue to fall for the gimmick mantra that says "more megapixels means better photos." But in the end, none of this really matters. Your images aren't going to suddenly become world class because you have indefinitely more detail. You will not have more clients lining up to pay you for your work because "OMG you shoot with a 100mp camera!" Of course your sense of style, mood, and creativity will also not be affected by this increase in resolution either. Unfortunately for many aspiring photographers who like to bicker about this sort of thing, all they will be left with is mediocre photographs that take up even more space on their hard drives.The general public won't be able to distinguish these images from those shot on more "obsolete" cameras, and ultimately your wallet will be thinner after selling all your gear to "upgrade to the latest and great technology."