What makes the photography world go around; is it creativity or technology? Overall, I would say it is the latter for most amateurs. One only has to look at the impact of the annual Photokina pilgrimage on blog and forum traffic, caused by the pursuit of ‘hot kit’. I only have to look to see my own blog statistics to know that people spend far more time looking at equipment than photos, or related writing. Most photographers visit shops far more than exhibitions or galleries and would happily spend money on new cameras, but not on trips or workshops that will allow them to better use them. It’s just the way it is and I am not complaining, just commenting on what I see. Its not just rampant materialism in the form of ‘mine is bigger than yours’ gear lust, however. The fact is that most people are looking at gear because they think it will improve (or make easier) their photography. I readily admin that equipment choices can make all the difference (see article) for various reasons (often with nothing to do with technical capabilities, though) and I am not immune to the lure of lighter, faster, smaller, sharper, but its appeal is diminishing every year. The question is ‘why?
Age and experience means that I am now better able to understand what impacts my photography for the better than was the case ten years ago; however, I don’t think that a 70% increase in grey hairs on my chest over two years can explain a recent and very clear sense that new equipment matters far less now than ever before (this is in contrast to my understanding of women, which is directly proportionate to the silvering of my chest wig). In fact, a recent forum discussion allowed me to form a conclusion: we are approaching an image forming technology plateau. I am not saying that technology, in so far as it relates to photography in the widest sense, is reaching a plateau; not even close. I think this area is still only just taking off, whether its in the form of now ancient stitching, or smart perspective control software that turns pineapple heads in the corner of super wide angle shots back into craniums… or all the other stuff that confuses me. WIFI… touch screen controls, smart phone control…. are just the beginning, but this is all about making the shot happen, not the inherent quality of the shot itself.
If you look at the history of photography there has been considerable development when it comes to technology and format. We can talk daguerreotypes, tintypes, albumen, salt prints and so on, before moving onto cut sheet film, roll film and 35mm film, but the one thing that binds them all together is that they were forms of chemical or analogue photography. Over 100 years later, digital hits the mainstream and in the last twenty years has evolved at a blinding speed. In the last ten we have gone from measly pixel counts and frankly hideous image characteristics at absurd prices to ‘high street’ affordable zoom compacts that produce image quality and characteristics that would have had pros reaching for 50 speed transparency film ten years ago. The rate of progress has been absolutely shocking…. until now. Have any of you noticed this, or am I losing the plot? Photokina 2014 has been called a ‘flop… a real let down’, but is this just a bad vintage for gearheads, or is it a product of the fact that technology now allows almost all of us to produce all the quality we need already and for an affordable price? I suspect it is the latter and while Photokina 2015 may me more electric, I suspect the overall trend will be towards more drying paint.
My evidence for this is where? Sure, technology continues to get better and the Nikon D810 is a great example of this evolution, with a bit more colour depth and a sliver more dynamic range than the D800 that preceded it. However, the majority of the improvements with this camera lie in the camera functionality arena and have little to do with outright image quality. AF is improved, as is live view and a bunch of other things that make it easier and more reliable to use and happier to live with. The deduction here is quite simple: if you use your camera in such a way that you do not significantly benefit from the ‘camera functionality’ improvements, there really is no reason at all to buy and many D800 and D800E owners have concluded the same.
Recent new camera improvements have been more about unleashing that potential i.e. maximising overall utility. 16 to 24 Megapixels is the sweet zone for most people, but 36 MP appears to be reaching the apex of useful resolution for most people who are using a full-frame type camera, even those with very demanding print applications. 36 MP with superb lenses allows you to make absolutely spectacularly detailed 30” prints, with tonnes of detail in grass and gravel. You can stretch to 40” if you accept a loss of definition in the finest detail when sniffing the print. If you need better – and some people definitely do – you tend to go up to medium format digital but these people are a tiny percentage of photographers.
The reason for slowing the resolution race down somewhere around where the D810 and A7R are now is not just due to what 36 perfect pixels make possible. It’s also about the compromises that come with it. Extracting 36 MP of quality pixels requires exceptional lenses. Making such lenses that are small and affordable is nigh on impossible unless they are ‘slow’ lenses, with undemanding specifications and even then, it’s not easy or cheap! We’re several years past the release of the D800 and still having trouble finding lenses that really do the business. This is not because manufacturers are lazy. Its because its darned difficult and most people only complain when they achieve a great optical result: ‘They’re HUGE!!!…. That price is a insulting!…. f4… WHAAAT?? Why on EARTH did they not make it at least f2.8!!!’. It’s only now that people are starting to accept the price of the Canon 24-70 f2.8 L II, or Sony Zeiss 55 f 1.8 FE. Its not because they are future ready, but because they can cope with the sensors of today!
A 36MP camera system, with a range of lenses that can really match that sensor, is surprisingly more expensive, larger and heavier than the same kit worked around 24 MP. For most people, this leap just isn’t worth making, despite the large number of people who rushed out and bought the D800 when it first came out. The suggestion that this will all be fixed with ‘new technology’ is clearly false, because the response has been larger, more expensive lenses due to matters of physics! I get the impression that a lot of people are now more aware of the trade-offs and so happier with a lower pixel count, more performance from their computer in editing, more space on their hard drive and less trouble getting pixel-sharp shots at low shutter speeds.
As for dynamic range, I just cannot see much need for anything more than 15 stops, which is about where the D810 is now. Frankly, I find the 14 stops on the A7R plenty and it just hasn’t come up as an issue. The 11.7 stops of the Canon 5D III is most definitely a disadvantage under harsh lighting conditions for many photographers, whether shooting landscapes or weddings. This is why we have seen so many manufacturers move up into the 13 to 14 stop range. Its because those few stops are gold, whereas after 14 stops its getting into the ‘Oh, OK, I will have it if its free’ arena, rather than ‘I’ll sell a kidney’ level of desirability. The Sony A7R caused such a stir because it offered all that we have come to recognise as the apex i.e. 14+ stops of dynamic range on a 36 MP sensor, in a tiny package.
What I see is manufactures producing either a range of products (such as Canon and Nikon and to a lesser extent, Sony), which vary in pixel-count, or those choosing position (M43 at 16MP, Fujifilm also at 16MP). The reason for the latter group being ‘stuck’ at 16MP is not due to technology preventing them adding Megapixels. Its because doing so would come with certain disadvantages which are not worth it in light of the fact that most consumers don’t need more than 16 MP to make the prints they desire. Just look how many people are singing the praises of their 16 MP cameras on the forums, talking about enormous prints that they are ‘thrilled with’ and shaking their heads in dismay at those who think 24 MP or ‘chasing the full-frame unicorn’ is anything other than daft. Fuji and M43 manufacturers have not chosen 16MP arbitrarily. They do not have the resources of Canon, Nikon and Sony and so, have chosen to put all their eggs in the most profitable basket and it is profitable for the reasons mentioned: it gives most people most of what they want while making the most money. Sure, Fuji may well move up to 24 MP with the X-Pro 2, but that’s after five years or so at 16MP, after which the jump should be relatively painless (for us and for them), technologically speaking.
Another, easily overlooked points is the size of prints and the size of our homes! Unless you are selling large prints, the average castle would soon run out of space should you print your best 36MP prints to their full potential. Pumping out A3+ prints at home, slipping them into portfolios, throwing a few at the wall and exhibiting a few at the camera club is an entirely different proposition. Ever tried moving framed 40” exhibition prints around? I have and I had a Volvo V70 to do it, due to the vast, flat load space. Sadly, it made me sexually undesirable to women in the process, so we can add that to the list of factors weighing against huge pixel-counts. If you are a Volvo estate/station wagon owner in your thirties or forties, single and have a desire to meet women, forget going to the gym and working off that paunch, or visiting one of those charlatan hair farm clinical sideshow places. Just sell your car. Better still, avoid huge pixel counts and you’ll never have to buy one and suffer the humiliation of pressing the key fob bleeper in a well lit car park, after an evening of lingering eye contact. It’s a hairpiece on a windy day moment.
So, if you are still with me, I’ve suggested that for the 16-24 MP is the end zone for consumers and prosumers and 24-36MP is ‘it’ for prosumers and most professionals, give or take a bit of evolution, ignorance and ‘eyes bigger than stomach’. Sensors offering 13 to 14+ stops of dynamic range are making pretty well everyone happy, with the odd serious technophile wanting (and being able) to milk a little bit more quality from a sensor with 14.8 stops, or whatever the D810 has. What is clear, however, is that the leap from 24 to 36MP is nowhere near as useable or important as the leap from 10 to 16. Equally, jumping from 11.5 stops of dynamic range to 13 is much more important than from 13 to 14.5.
So am I making the bold statement that digital imaging technology close to its apex for the average consumer? No. I am going further and that is to say that in many respects it has already sailed over many of our heads and that we now have more than we need or desire. That’ll be the topic of part two and it will be interesting to see if I can convince you!