ISO Revolution Replaces Megapixel Race for Good

Sony’s new high ISO king A7S — and the Nikon D4s for that — bring us the most revolutionary innovation in photography for some time: ISO sensitivity in the hundreds of thousands. An expandable, mind-boggling ISO 409,600 to be exact, meaning up to ISO 25,600 these cameras will churn out absolutely noise-free, clean images. Plain insane.

How about seeing in the dark? Sony A7S at nearly half a million ISO. The black inset window shows the same scene at ISO 1,600...
How about seeing in the dark? Sony A7S at nearly half a million ISO. The black inset window shows the same scene at ISO 1,600…

See what can’t be seen… This new A7 sibling doesn’t make life easier for current A7(R) owners, guess many tinker with the idea of trading it in. The A7 lineup must be a winner. Sony wouldn’t offer three of its kind otherwise.

These new, next-generation cameras are able to see in the dark, surpassing the human eye’s sensitivity by far. ISO 102,400 look like ISO 3,200 of only recently released APS-C cameras.

And you know what, the 12.2MP resolution is good enough for me — to speak with Ken Rockwell’s meanwhile famous Megapixel Myth:

The megapixel myth was started by camera makers and swallowed hook, line and sinker by camera measurebators. Camera makers use the number of megapixels a camera has to hoodwink you into thinking it has something to do with camera quality. They use it because even a tiny linear resolution increase results in a huge total pixel increase, since the total pixel count varies as the total area of the image, which varies as the square of the linear resolution. In other words, an almost invisible 40% increase in the number of pixels in any one direction results in a doubling of the total number of pixels in the image. Therefore camera makers can always brag about how much better this week’s camera is, with even negligible improvements.

This gimmick is used by salespeople and manufacturers to you feel as if your current camera is inadequate and needs to be replaced even if the new cameras each year are only slightly better.

One needs at least a doubling of linear resolution or film size to make an obvious improvement. This is the same as quadrupling the megapixels. A simple doubling of megapixels, even if all else remained the same, is very subtle. The factors that matter, like color and sharpening algorithms, are far more significant.

The megapixel myth is also prevalent because men always want a single number by which something’s goodness can be judged.

Unfortunately, it’s all a myth because the number of megapixels (MP) a camera has has very little to do with how the image looks. Even worse, plenty of lower MP cameras can make better images than poorer cameras with more MP.

12MP are good enough for most jobs, even for glossy magazine spreads, not to mention most photojournalism, street photography and even studio tasks. And who doesn’t love smaller files and needs image stabilization anymore…

But see for yourself what seeing in the dark means — here’s an official Sony video which shows how the A7S performs in low light from ISO 1,600 to the maximum. Pretty impressive, to say the least:

The Sony A7S’ price is not yet know, but be notified when it’s in stock…

(via Sony Alpha Rumors)

  • Mike Randolph

    12 megapixels? Heck, that’s four more megapixels than Steven Winter needed to shoot a double-page spread for National Geographic. I wrote a post about this a couple of weeks ago on my blog, check it out.

  • Excellent must-read link Mike, thanks for posting. Heck my trusted old Oly E-1 was good enough. Images shot with its five million quality pixels quickly earned enough money to pay for the camera plus a bag of lenses plus plus.

  • Rich Owen

    From 2003 to 2013, I used a pair of 4.1MP Nikon D2H bodies for newspaper work. They were more than adequate. I also used the same cameras for commercial work on the side. I had images from those 4.1MP cameras blown up and used on billboards for real estate developments ads. Again, more than adequate…..

  • Thank you, Dan. I really enjoy your blog, too. I don’t want to shower your comments with my links (so I won’t), but I do have another post on my site that’s relevant, I think. I recently shot an entire magazine feature with nothing more than a Sony RX100. I guess the point of all this is that you can get ‘pro’ results from just about any camera available today. And even many of the cameras that were available years ago. I still sell stock from images taken with a 6MP Canon 10D, and it’s no problem at all.

  • Bengt Nyman

    An A7s with a Sony/Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 is to me a very tempting street and underground tool.

  • Never fear to post a quality link!

  • One More Thought

    One has to wonder, though, at what point will the ISO race become like the megapixel race…more of a marketing ploy than meaningful statistics.

    Some may argue that with these nosebleed ISO’s that we are already there.

    Of course, I still wait with fascination to see the performance of the new Sony A7s…

  • Andy Umbo

    12 megapixels is plenty, 24 is fantastic…I’ve done double page magazine spreads with 12 megapixel APS-C Nikon sensors, and they’ve been fine. I think about getting an additional Nikon body at 24 megapixels, but not because of lack of quality, but because it’s just out there as “normal” now (and I need another body). Interesting that Nikons “retro” camera is “only” 16 megapixels (which when you think about it, is an APS-C sensor at about 12 megapixels).

    The big future change, as stated here, is going to be low noise at high ASA, AND 14-16 bit color. I’d rather see 35mm styled DSLR’s freeze the megapixels at 24, and start pushing the color “bits” up to 16, and the noise to be what it is today at ASA 200, all the way up to ASA 1600 or 2400.

    BTW, had a buddy go on a Central and South American excursion by car about ten years ago with a Canon 10D, which at the time was 6 megapixels, and saw some blow-ups a few years ago, in black & white, he made on 11X17 paper, and it looked better than 35mm b&w and almost as good as 120. Proof positive not to worry too much about the megapixel count.

    Also read recently that the JPEG people in Leipzig are now pushing a new JPEG standard (9.1) that has both loss-less compression, and supports 12 bit color. I’m probably not buying another camera body until that stuff start showing up…