Did Something Change?

It used to be that the pro sports photographers and photojournalists all used Canon or Nikon DSLRs with single digit numbers in their name. Then Sony came along with the A9 in 2017 and joined the party. 

bythom sony a9

The thing that distinguished all those cameras is that they were optimized for speed and low light, not pixel count. The Canon 1DX Mark III and Nikon D6—the current models in a long lineage—are 20mp, while the Sony A9 Mark II (also current model) is 24mp. The Nikon D6, in particular, has sensor design that particularly suits high ISO work, to the point that it actually impairs dynamic range some in the lower ISO range.

Rumors—and not just about the upcoming Sony A9 iteration—seem to indicate that the days of low pixel count but high speed are nearing an end. Nikon's upcoming high-end mirrorless camera is also rumored to be a high pixel count camera. Meanwhile, the recent Canon R5 will happily fire away its 45mp at 20 fps. 

What happened?

Three things are driving the trend line now:

  1. With BSI and other advances, the light collection on a full frame sensor is about the same whether the sensor has 20, 24, 36, or 45mp. If you're talking about output that isn't stretching pixels out into visibility (e.g. almost all news reporting and even sports photography such as the Sports Illustrated magazine spreads), then the visible noise is the same. But what about cropping to get the sports image, you ask? Same thing applies, as if you don't have enough lens, you'd be cropping both a 20mp and a 45mp image.
  2. With copper, stacked silicon, and smaller process size, among other things, bandwidth has improved and will continue to do so. Add in faster and better SoC (Bionz, Digic, Expeed) and sometimes dual SoC, and you can handle that bandwidth just fine.
  3. The overall market collapse coupled with the pricing pressure on photographers has made the "just buy every model you need for specific purposes" notion fly out the window. Not many are buying multiple cameras now, and the ones that are tend to be looking at video features, not still features. Meanwhile, camera companies can't afford to have huge model lines where every specific need is filled.

So while the top of the DSLR market maxed out with the 20mp Canon 1DX Mark III and Nikon D6, the mirrorless market is likely to top out differently, with the Canon R5, Nikon Z9, and Sony A9 Mark III all around the 45mp mark. It's a good thing we've moved to the faster CFe cards, as we need big cards that perform really fast, particularly on ingest to our computers. And yes, that means that your old computer might not keep up and you'll need more storage and backup for it. The price of progress.

But this trend isn't going to stop with just the top-end cameras, either. I think the mid-level cameras will rise up in pixel count, too. The Sony A7 Mark IV is rumored to be coming in at 30-32mp.  I'll say this, too: the only thing I don't like about the Canon R6 is that it's just 20mp. It's the highest priced in the "basic" full frame model competition (R6, Z6 II, S5, A7), and it has the lowest pixel count. That will work against it over time, I think. 

Yes, I know some of you are saying "stop, I don't want more pixels." But the other trend dedicated cameras are fighting against is that smartphones are adding pixels, too. In order to stand out, there's a delicate balance where the ILC is going to have to be clearly better than 20mp with a 20-100mm lens (which is about where the middle of the smartphone market seems to be headed). 

Moreover, I've written it before: more sampling is always welcome. My goal has always been "optimum capture with optimal processing," which is basically the Ansel Adams thing stated a different way. 

Those two things taken together mean that there will be fewer of us in the future, but we'll be asking for "more." Those that don't need "more" will more and more find that their smartphone is all they need. 

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