Why your camera megapixels are ruining your pictures: the secret of the Sony a7s

on September 27, 2014

The megapixel cold war is finally starting to come to a halt thanks to the clever design of the Sony a7s.
Yes- a Sony.

I rarely tout the Sony cameras because I have a philosophical bone to pick with a manufacturer that makes every accessory proprietary.
I realize that Apple does the same thing- but the difference is that there are enough third-party manufacturers of Apple parts and accessories, and they have such a STRANGLEHOLD on that niche of the market, that it works. (Still, I feel the sting of the “Apple Tax” whenever I buy one of their products. (See my article on Hackintoshes for more info.)
Apple also builds a superior product compared to the rest of the market. And by superior, I mean in terms of User Experience. The individual features in the iPhones are things that Android phones have done for some time now, but the INTERFACE of the iPhone beats out android any day.
Likewise, there are many Sony products that I adore- the NEX series is one of them. But their proprietary Hotshoe means I have to dedicate a whole new legacy of flashes just for Sony- something that I’m not willing to do- especially after my experiences with the Memory Stick.

But the Sony f55 is a beautiful production camera. It just handles the image and delivers. Yes- it uses very expensive SxS Pro and AXS memory cards- but when everything is rented and it’s part of a production budget, that sort of stuff doesn’t matter.

When it comes to what you BUY and OWN, it’s a completely different story.

I’ve always thought about camera systems in terms of lenses. Dedicate yourself to a lens system and let the camera body follow.
I love Nikkor Lenses. I grew up looking through my father’s Nikon cameras, and thus, inherited quite a bit of Nikon glass.
It was natural that my first camera was a Nikon D40.
Then I discovered vintage lenses. The beauty of vintage lenses is that almost anything can be adapted to almost anything else.

Almost.

The flange distance for Canon is a little bit longer than Nikon. That means that I can adapt a Nikon Lens to a Canon- but not the other way around- at least not without putting a diopter lens in between or risk losing focus to infinity.

Mirrorles cameras don’t really have this problem, being that the whole mirror assembly is removed, you have plenty of wiggle room to fit an adapter on and use whatever lens you please. This is part of the appeal of the Micro 4/3 cameras that tend towards mirrorless.

So now you have all these camera systems trying to get you to jump on board- because they know if you buy one lens- you’re are now a lifetime customer and FORCED to buy more.
So they started touting megapixels.
5mp.
8mp.
11mp.
18mp.
22mp.
32mp.

And the list just keep going on an on.
Yes, more megapixels means you can do more pixel punishing, and sometimes you just want to be able to crop an image and know that you have the quality there.
But all these megapixels are COSTING YOU.

Sure- if you are doing a Major Product Campaign, and the image is going to fill the side of a building- you are going to want to use that 40mp Medium format, and probably even stitch and composite that image together.

But for almost EVERY OTHER instance- the price of those megapixels is costing you more than you know.
Each pixel in the camera has to go through a photosite that records the information onto the sensor.
The more megapixels, the smaller the photosites have to be to fit on the image, or the larger the sensor has to be.
These photosites are what capture the light and tell your camera what kind of picture to make. If you have too many, the photosites are tiny and your low-light performance suffers.

The Sony a7s did an about face from it’s brother- the a7r- and decidedly had a LOW megapixel count- just 12.
The advantage of this on a full-frame sensor mean that light sensitivity is amazing, and the camera can practically see in the dark. The iso can be pumped up to almost HALF A MILLION.

Sony took a risk by creating a camera that was touted less impressive specs in order to create better performance. In an age where everyone wants a 4K video camera and no one has a 4k TV, a 12MP camera is a serious risk. (The camera DOES shoot 4k, by the way- although you need an external recorder to get the image out of the camera.)

Someone just the other day tried to convince me of the superiority of their Nokia Smartphone over DSLRs because it has 41mp.
I looked at the pictures. It looked good- for a phone. It still records all that information to a sensor that is 2/3rds of an inch. (The Nokia Lumia- for the record, does not have a “true” 41mp sensor- but rather up-samples from a 5mp sensor and stacks them to produce a 41mp image.) Don’t get me wrong- these pictures looked good. Better than a lot of Point and Shoots, but in no way did it compete with DSLRs just because it had more “megapixels”. The sensor size just doesn’t match up.

That’s not to say that sensor size is everything. Too much emphasis is placed on Full Frame vs APS-C, and the differences- while relevant, are not nearly as substantial as people make it out to be. For Video- I’ve always preferred APS-C because it is that much closer to Super 35. The biggest instances where I can see a Full Frame really edging out a crop sensor would be in Wide Angle landscapes (although keeping everything in your DOF becomes a huge challenge with full frame), or using slower lenses.
I know many 5D owners that live with their 24-105 f4 on their cameras and love it. Ask any APS-C owner about an f4 lens and they don’t get that enthusiastic about it- there’s just not enough bokeh at f4 on an APS-C camera. But compare BOTH of these sensor sizes to a Medium format- or even a LARGE format, and you see how much you’re splitting hairs.
So forget the megapixels.
If you can’t get it beautiful with 5mp and say you need 22, that just means you’re going to have 22 million ugly pixels.