This is a photography story. If you expected something else, maybe you’ll stay anyway. Here goes. Not so long ago, Richard Butler suggested we had reached “the end of the 24MP APS-C era”. That was because Canon, in the fall of 2019, had introduced a camera with a 32 megapixel sensor. At that point, the only available APS-C sensor beyond 24 megapixels was one that wasn’t really 26 megapixels.
Traditionally, full frame sensors have more megapixels, on average, than APS-C cameras. To a first approximation, that was because they were bigger, and for a given degree of miniaturisation, more could be fitted on a wafer. The second aspect, though, is that they resolve greater detail more easily, even without very large lenses and painstakingly well-corrected glass. You can get away, in essence, with less perfection in manufacturing of lenses and still produce a fairly good image.
(There are other implications of “pixel pitch” (the size of a pixel aka sensel) that I shan’t dwell on here.)
So this year, the same Canon that reportedly said nay to 24 megapixels for APS-C cameras, is saying yay to a 20 megapixel sensor in the full-frame Canon EOS R6. “What?”, I hear the masses scream as they grab their pitchforks. Wait, no. No pitchforks? No angry peasant mob? So far, the brawl surrounding the EOS R5 and R6 has been concerned with (1) the extent of overheating issues in the R5, in some modes and not others, (2) whether room temperature is a reasonable expectation of shooting conditions, (3) what duration of pauses between takes is tolerable, and (4) whether a camera for the photographic market should offer 8k resolution at all.
What’s more surprising, perhaps, is that Canon has tried this same “trick” before. It was 2012 and we witnessed the birth of the Canon EOS 6D, a full frame camera with only 20 megapixels. It didn’t seem so unreasonable back then, perhaps, as some 16 and 18 megapixel APS-C cameras were also still knocking about, and indeed the twelve-megapixel Sony A7S and S II had not been born yet (until 2014 and 2015 respectively).
Never mind the fact that for all this time, all the way since late 2007, Canon’s flagship 1D line has dawdled around 20 megapixels, while Nikon’s flagship line did not meet that line in the sand until as recently as 2016, preferring previously to sit first at 12, then at 16 megapixels.
A certain portion of photography forum attendees might characterise that as a shocker, but apparently professional users know something about megapixels that the rest of us don’t.
Sony, meanwhile, has a 61 megapixel flagship camera, and a matching line of “GM” aka Gold Master lenses that, one may assume, one requires to really get the best out of the 61 megapixel sensor. I don’t recall the source now, but there was once a back-of-an-envelope calculation suggesting that the theoretical physical limit of resolution attainable with a full frame sensor is around 180 megapixels – beyond that, diffraction eats you. With a bit of super-resolution magic, Sony can allegedly get you close to that limit.
So what are we all doing, cheering this 20 megapixel camera? Has the 20 frames per second full-resolution continuous raw capture gotten to our heads? Do we suddenly value performance beyond pixel counts, or (gasp) ergonomics and build quality? Haven’t we recently gotten the memo that companies like Olympus who provide good customer service, die? (Ooh no, wait, Olympus hasn’t died, it’s just changing owners… but seeing how poorly Pentax is doing, 14 years and two ownership changes later, death must be around the corner? Making a profit, you say? *incredulous look*)
Yeah, here’s my confession. I don’t recognise us. We used to pixel-bash so hard, but that’s apparently all moved to video now… cropped 4k, oh no… overheating 8k, oh no… only full-sensor pixel-binned FullHD? Not suitable for video, at all, ever. Ahh, I feel better now.