Remember the old joke: “if a little is good, more is better, and too much is just right!” In June, Canon released two new cameras that address the “just right” category. The question is, from the perspective of a landscape photographer, do I need 50 megapixels and, if so, what do I sacrifice in return? Here's my take on that subject after having played with my recently acquired 5DS over the last few weeks.
You’ll read that this camera is the ticket for landscape photographers who want to produce “large prints”. It’s never clear to me just how large “large” is, but regardless, there is one fundamental fact that may make it a moot point for many photographers. The human eyesight has limited resolving power and, beyond that, more resolution simply isn’t perceived. Convention is when you view any print, from a 5 x 7 to a billboard, the appropriate viewing distance is no closer than the diagonal length of the print. You can try that out yourself and see that's a reasonable assumption. Given that premise, then you’re not likely to see much, if any, improvement in resolution beyond a very good 12-megapixel camera (or there about) no matter how large the print is.
Unfortunately, many of us love to scrutinize up close at the fine details of a print, even if it has nothing to do with its proper presentation. Then there are photographers (myself included) that find security in all that extra detail in the same way a squirrel feels secure with its stash of acorns: you never know when you might need it. Maybe someday you’ll make a wall mural or you just want the extra cropping space.
So if your “big print” is 16 x 24 inches and, instead of viewing it at 29-inches, you view it at 12-inches away (and you have excellent eyesight), you'll need the 5DS's pixels along with good optics. But that’s if you want the confidence your prints can withstand scrutiny at any distance. Otherwise, if you are content with a controlled “gallery” viewing environment, then the more common (and affordable) 20-something megapixel cameras will do just fine.
Are Inkjet Printers Up to the Task?
Can a good inkjet printer do justice to a 50-megapixel image? I downloaded DP Review's test images for the Canon 5DSr (version without antialiasing), the Canon 5D MK3, and the Nikon D810. Without any raw or Photoshop manipulation, I sized each as a 16 x 24 inch print, which is the maximum size I can print. I did apply output sharpening using Nik’s Sharpening Pro. I then configured my trusty Epson 3800 for the highest-quality print output and focused on the extremely fine scrollwork of a foreign bank note.
And by golly, all that 50-megapixel detail does shine through! Below are scanned portions of each highly-magnified banknote (shot at ISO 800) that give a fair idea of the printed differences. (Note: scan resolution was 1800 dpi and the print paper was Epson Ultra Premium Photo Paper Luster.) The 5DSr was as expected the standout, but Nikon was a respectable second, while the MK3 blurred all the fine detail. However, it took a magnifying glass to see all that! I have corrected vision but aged eyes, and without the magnifier I couldn’t see the difference. But, younger eyes that can focus closer may spot it. Of course as the print size diminishes, that extra detail loses out to the printer’s finite resolution. But if small prints are all you care about, then you obviously don’t need a high-megapixel camera. And as for viewing on a computer monitor, a 50-megapixel camera has no advantage over any 20+ megapixel camera, even on my 5K iMac (unless, of course, you’re zooming in).
|Canon MK3: Blurry, but still sharp at a proper distance.|
|Nikon D810: Pretty good!|
|Canon 5DS: Momma mia !!|
“Buddy, can you spare $3,700?”
All those megapixels do come at a price—literally. The 5DS is $3,700 and the 5DSr is $200 more—not cheap! As a note for comparison, you can buy the Nikon D810 along with a 24-120mm zoom for the same price as the 5DS. Surprisingly, Canon offered a tax-free incentive sale on the 5DS less than a month after its introduction (in the Los Angeles area), which is very unusual for a new model. That made me speculate that either everyone wants the 5DSr (which didn’t have the incentive and is harder to find), or Canon misjudged the demand for ultra-high megapixel cameras.
Teeny Weeny Pixels
50 megapixels obviously bring up the concern over noise and dynamic range. I have analyzed so many raw files from the Canon 5D MK2 (my previous camera), 5D MK3, 7D MK2, 5DS, and the Nikon D810, that my head spun. Canon is often criticized for its poorer performance in noise and dynamic range compared to Sony-based sensor cameras (including the Nikon D810)—and it’s all true to some extent. I’ll admit before buying the 5DS, I seriously considered the Nikon D810. But further analyses (including the costs of buying new lenses) convinced me the 5DS was the right choice. The convincing factor was putting noise and dynamic range into proper perspective.
For starters, I always felt my older Canon 5D MK2 was (at the time) a low-noise camera. Though I always shot at ISO 100, I hardly ever applied any noise filtering. Even when I shot at ISO 800, I only needed a little noise filtering. It wasn’t until I started doing HDR that noise became a bit problematic. But that was solved when I stopped pre-sharpening the raw file if destined for HDR (I follow the Bruce Fraser sharpening process). Furthermore, after adding just a touch of noise filtering to a 5DS test image (shot at ISO 100) it evened the noise difference with the Nikon D810 for the same image. This had to be observed at a very-high zoom level since the noise was extremely low anyway; and in this case, normally you wouldn't have bother to apply noise filtering in the first place. But the point is, afterwards I couldn’t detect any reduction in the 5DS’s resolution. Bottom line: if you always shoot your landscapes at low ISO levels (as you should), noise is simply not an issue with the 5DS—period!
As a previous large-format Velvia film user, I felt my 5D MK2 had amazing dynamic range—roughly 5-stops better! Now with my 5DS, I have verified that it has a little less noise and a bit more dynamic range in the deep blacks than the MK2, which is amazing considering it has over double the pixels. (Note, I did verify that it was ever-slightly more noisy than the MK3, which all falls in line with what Canon has stated.) In any case, from my perspective, I went from already satisfying performance to even better dynamic range and lower noise (albeit slightly), but now with tons of detail.
The Nikon D810 is a popular camera, and for good reason. Anecdotally, when viewing published photos, the Nikon D810 (and the previous D800) and the Canon 5D MK2 and MK3 seem most popular with landscape photographers. All my image analyzes did prove that the D810 does have a little less noise, even compared to the 5D MK3 at low ISOs. However, I wasn’t able to judge dynamic range to any degree. DxOMark says the Nikon D810 has 2.4-stops more dynamic range than the 5DS. However, I’m not sure what to make of DxOMark. For one, they measured a 14.8-stop dynamic range for the Nikon D810—and that was achieved with a 14-bit converter??! Given that and other considerations, I personally have a hard time swallowing DxOMark's measurements. Nevertheless, given the D810’s lower noise, and that noise and dynamic range are interrelated, it’s reasonable to assume that the D810 has an edge in dynamic range. However, I’m skeptical that the difference is that apparent in general usage (see next topic).
Dynamic Range Illusion?
It's possible that many of the anecdotal or off-handed comments made about the dynamic range differences between the Canon and Nikon are more illusional that real. I’ve discovered a noticeable difference between the way Adobe Camera Raw, and Nikon and Canon’s software render raw files. A case in point is the Nikon D810 histogram below of a somewhat wide-dynamic range image. The Camera Raw histogram shows lighter dark-tones and suppressed highlights that may lead one to think there’s a lot of headroom beyond those tonal areas. But Nikon’s raw converter instead pops the histogram to the point of clipping at both ends (see below). The Canon 5D MK3, between ACR and Canon's raw converter, showed a similar but much smaller tendency while the 5DS’s histogram was in better agreement between the two raw converters. (Note that in all cases the raw converters' tonal adjustments were zeroed out.)
|Nikon D810 Histogram in Camera Raw|
|Nikon 810 Histogram in Nikon's Capture NX-D|
So which one is right? It doesn’t matter since there isn’t any data loss, it’s just how the raw converters chooses to mess around with the image. Changing the camera profile will alter the histogram somewhat, but since part of the editing procedure is to properly distribute the histogram, it should all even out in the end.
Compared to my MK2, the deep, dark-tones in the 5DS have less noise and slightly more detail. Overall, the increase in resolution is mind-boggling. I can increase the zoom level into the “electron microscope” level that goes well past the pixelated image of the MK2. But there’s good news and bad news. The good news is regardless your lenses quality (unless they're really lousy), you will see substantially more detail; but it's likely many of your lenses (especially zooms) won’t come close to doing full justice to 50 megapixels. Canon has listed L-Series lenses they recommend for the 5DS that were introduced over the last few years (none of which I have). But if you have the “cheaper” L-Series, like the popular 24-105mm and 17-40mm zooms, you will still see definite improvement. It’s the extreme edges that will benefit the least. On the other hand, if you have L-Series prime lenses, then you’ll be in hog heaven.
Because of the histogram variances mentioned above, your first impression in the raw converter may be that the 5DS images are more contrasty. That may be good or bad, but it won’t matter anyway after you properly edit the image. Though I’m sticking with the Adobe Standard profile, if you want to tone down the highlights initially, try the Camera Neutral profile. I also noticed that the Auto White Balance on the 5DS produced a warmer image than the MK2. Of course that won’t matter since you can change the white balance in the raw converter to whatever suits you.
Best New Feature
I’m fanatical about keeping the horizon level and always had used an external level. The MK3 had introduced an electronic level that was visible in the viewfinder. Now Canon made it even better on the 5DS by providing a dedicated and less obtrusive scale (at the top of the viewfinder) instead of using the focusing points. I checked it against my Kaiser shoe-mount level and they agreed as accurately as I could eyeball it.
This may matter only to MK2 users since I’m not sure what the MK3 did in this regard. I always shot bracketed frames (for either exposure insurance or HDR) using the 2-second self-timer and mirror lockup option. That allowed me to avoid, in most cases, a cable release with the added insurance of no mirror shake. Plus, all three frames fired automatically. The 5DS introduced a new feature that allows you to select various shutter delays after the mirror locks up. You can still use the self-timer and mirror lockup, but in all cases the camera no longer fires the bracketed shots automatically. Instead, you have to fire them individually. In my book that’s plain stupid! However, if you skip the mirror lockup and just use the self-timer, then it fires all the frames automatically (go figure). I can live with that only because the new motor-driven mirror is unlikely to cause any problems except maybe with a super telephoto lens with razor sharp optics.
Based on anecdotal usage (and supported from what I’ve read in a few user reviews), the 5DS definitely burns more battery power than my MK2. My experience may be skewed somewhat since I’m doing a lot of menu surfing as I go through all the camera's features. Regardless, you’ll want backup batteries when out in the field. I have shorten my LCD display time and time-to-sleep settings. I also recommend you avoid, or at least minimize, using Live View.
I’ve seen a few reviewers complain about this. I bought the fastest CF and SD memory cards from SanDisk: the Extreme Pro. My 5DS is configured to record redundantly to both cards. From shutter click to LCD display, it takes almost 2-seconds versus 1.5 seconds compared to my old MK2 (using admittedly slower SanDisk Extreme III cards). Unless you’re hyper Type-A, I don’t think you'll notice much difference. The real issue is with post-processing, and of course that depends on your computer configuration. I recommend you download some 5DS raw image files and run benchmarks to make sure you're not blind sighted by agonizing process times.
Here are a few “relative’ comparisons based on my 5K iMac with 16GB memory and an i5 (4-core) Intel chip. These are based on my MK2's 20-megapixel files. The first time is the MK2 and the 5DS is the second time. All times are approximate.
- Launch raw file from Bridge to Camera Raw: both were too short to measure
- Transfer from Camera Raw to Photoshop: 5 sec vs. 9 sec
- Launch three raw images from Bridge to Nik’s HDR Efex Pro (to the edit page): 42 sec vs 92 sec
- Time to transfer from HDR Efex Pro to Photoshop: 12 sec vs. 28 sec
- Time to perform a Tonal Contrast midtone change in Nik’s Color Efex Pro: 8 sec vs. 10 sec.
Buy, Don’t Buy, or Wait?
This may depend on which direction you’re coming from. Most likely, anyone buying a high-end camera is already committed to that brand. But if your are starting from scratch or have little invested in legacy lenses, then let me state up front that it’s hard to argue that the Nikon D810 isn’t the top choice just based on value alone. One caveat: that opinion may change after more is learned about Sony’s new A7rII. But if you’re a dedicated Canon user and have legitimate need for more resolution that doesn't compromise noise or dynamic range, then the 5DS or 5DSr is just the ticket.
If you have either the 5D MK3 or older MK2 (or any APS models) and are satisfied with your 8 x 10 and occasional 11 x 14 prints, then save your money. The same applies if you do a lot of video or rely on high ISOs. The argument changes only if you do a lot of 11 x 14 or 16 x 20 prints and occasional custom poster-size prints, then it boils down to mainly if you want to spend the extra cash.
There are two good reasons to wait. First, I have noticed with Canon, Nikon, and even Sony, that their new model cameras often have teething problems. Remember the light leak issue with the 5D MK3? Sometimes it’s just a firmware upgrade. Other times you have to send it back for repair, which is a bummer for a brand new camera! So far, I haven’t experienced any problems and nothing has popped up in any reviews; but these problems can be subtle and take some time to surface. If you’re not in a rush, wait 6-months and then check user reviews for any signs of trouble.
The other reason concerns the next generation 5D MK4. Before the 5DS popped out of nowhere, I expected the successor to the MK3 would rival the Nikon D810. That now doesn’t seem likely, so based on the Canon Rumor website and my own crystal-balling, this is what I predict. The big market discriminator between the 5DS and 5D MK4 will probably be 4K video. Assuming that, pixel count may go up slightly (probably not above 28-megapixels) and actually may drop to 18-megapixels. Dynamic range and noise are likely to be better than both the 5DS and MK3. I don’t think you’ll see this camera until early 2016 at the soonest. Now take all this with a grain of salt, but if 4K video is high on your wish list, I’d wait for the MK4.
5DS or 5DSr?
The 5DSr cancels out the antialiasing filter and I can detect a very slight increase in sharpness. But it’s so subtle, I feel the difference is insignificant. Plus, since I use zoom instead of prime lenses, I doubt I’d realize any benefit (assuming there was any real benefit to be gained). As for moiré patterns with the 5DSr, judging from what B&H and Amazon reviews have said so far, that seems to be a rare problem, especially with landscape photography. To me, the decision boils down to the $200 difference. If you want the warm fuzzy of microscopically better resolution, then get it; otherwise, save your money.