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New Year's Resolution (Here's to Many More Happy Pixels)

In digital photography, it's the pixels that count. The more the merrier, as the saying goes. But it's actually what you do with that resolution that counts even more. Happy New Year.

I'm old enough to remember the era of VGA computer monitors that ran at a whopping 640 x 480 pixels. That works out to somewhere shy of half a megapixel. My how times have changed. Early digital cameras were equally limited. The flagship Nikon D1 DSLR debuted in 1999 featured only 2.7 megapixels and sold for $5000. Ouch. The first generally practical Nikon DSLR was probably the 6-megapixel D100 that listed for $2000. When I bought my second D100, the price had dropped to around $1500. Today, the D100 sells used for under $100. Yes, times have changed. No one wants a lousy six-megapixel camera these days.

But back in the D100 era, we used to have long debates about whether those measly six megapixels were enough resolution to create real images. After all, a slide scanned on my Nikon CoolScan 4000 contained more than 20 megapixel values. But a film image consisted of irregular grain particles that had to be oversampled with the scanner to avoid loss of detail. Think of it as looking at an image through a window screen. With its horizontal and vertical wires, a screen chops your view up into a grid of squares. If each one of those squares (pixels) had to be rendered as just a single RGB value, you need quite a lot of little squares not to sacrifice meaningful detail when some object would otherwise fill only half a square. Detail was already lost based on the size and irregular arrangement of film grain, yet more would be lost still based on the forced but regular arrangement of scanner pixels. With a camera, while we still have that regular window screen grid of pixels, at least digitally captured images only suffered this loss once over. No more film grain. But a scan was a picture of a picture, so it underwent too stages of capture loss.

The consensus came to be that, for most images, you could get away with printing a six-megapixel digital capture for anything up to around an 8x10 print. But we often kept our fingers crossed and pushed things, printing larger and taking care to do everything just right. Of course, all bets were off if you needed to crop an image for any reason.

We all wanted to feel justified in switching to digital because of all the other benefits digital offered, but it took a leap of faith to feel good about images that small. Thankfully, times have very much changed, and nobody worries about this sort of thing much anymore. Today, even a 20+ megapixel prosumer camera has enough resolution for most folks to print as big as they want, and the latest Nikon D850 and the new mirrorless Z 7 weigh in at 45.7 megapixels. And the more pixels the better, right?

Up to a point, more is certainly better, even if bigger files do bring with them increased difficulties with working on and storing files so large. Thankfully, computers keep getting faster, better and stronger too. But there is a point of diminishing returns. You can't keep fitting more and more photosites (pixels) on a sensor of some given size. In order to fit more and more, each one has to get smaller and smaller, and the smaller photosites are, the less accurate they can be. Make them small enough, and the likelihood of many photons landing on each one during an exposure goes down accordingly. We're reaching the limit for 35mm digital camera sensors even now. The megapixel wars of the past have been slowing of late, and camera makers have been competing more on other features. Like better high-ISO performance, and now mirrorless.

This brings me to the wonders of the larger diameter of the new Nikon Z-mount and why it's so exciting for the future. In additional to making it possible to create larger aperture (faster) lenses as well as potentially heralding a new generation of tilt/shit lenses and other goodies, a larger lens mount would make it possible to eventually fit in a larger sensor. And a larger sensors mean more real estate to cover with pixel photosites, and thus higher resolution images while keeping noise levels low. This won't happen overnight or anything. Making bigger sensors will remain cost prohibitive for at least a few more years yet, but they are coming. Take out the mirror to make the camera lighter weight, then load it up with a bigger sensor. Sounds like a plan to me. Resolution is good.

But simply having more megapixels than the next guy doesn't mean your images are any better. If it did, I could have had the best images possible by merely upsizing my 6-megapixel D100 captures in Photoshop to any size I wanted. Even with one of the various, exotic software programs that attempt to tell you they can do the impossible, it really never was possible to create detail where the camera didn't capture it in the first place. There are indeed limits. So simple pixel counts can't possibly tell the tale. In the end, what matters is what you do with the pixels you do have. Are they quality pixels? Because if they're not, there's only so much you can do with that image. Just having a lot of resolution isn't worth much if there's nothing there to be resolved.

In many ways, good lenses matter more than a good camera. Even the best camera can't take an image that's better than the lens mounted to it. And I'd argue that good technique matters even more. A poorly focused image will be blurry. This much remains as true as ever. And a poorly composed but sharp image will fail to attract much attention no matter what. That is, unless you happen to be the lucky photographer who snaps the latest purported image of Bigfoot or something. People are still trying for that one. See, some things never do change.

So here we are now in 2019, the start of another year. Time for a different kind of resolution. It's now that we make commitments to do something in the coming year, something good, that is otherwise difficult to do. People make resolutions to exercise more or to eat better, you know the drill. As photographers, we should make a New Year's resolution to take better images, to pay attention to the details and make the most of the pixels we do have. Back when I was shooting with a lowly 6-megapixel Nikon D100, there was little room for error. I had to make those pixels count. And this too remains true today for all of us. Camera resolution may have increased since back then, but has your resolve to get good images kept pace, or are you just making bigger files? Regardless of what camera you are shooting with, it's up to you make the most of what you have.

Here's to wishing you many happy pixels in this new year.

Date posted: January 13, 2019


Copyright © 2019 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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New Years Resolutions for Photographers
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