For photographers producing large prints like I do, resolution is easily the single most important factor of a camera system. The higher a camera's resolution, the larger prints can be made while still retaining sharp details. There are two main factors that determine resolution: the film size or digital sensor size/megapixels, and the optical sharpness of the lenses used.
When I first started to sell photo prints back in the early 2000's, I was using the cutting edge digital camera technology of the time - a 6-megapixel Nikon D100. Unfortunately 6mp is barely enough resolution to create a decent 16" x 24" print if you push it. But I wanted to make huge 50"+ prints like I'd seen in galleries! I waited patiently for the D200 to come out, but was sorely disappointed that it only had 10mp - still not nearly enough resolution to make big prints. Clearly it would be many years before digital sensors would evolve to the resolution capabilities I wanted.
So I dove head first into the world of large format 4x5 film photography. The 4-inch by 5-inch film size offered plenty of resolution for giant prints, with native resolution that completely blew digital out of the water at the time. But large format photography involves a steep learning curve - not only learning how to use a field camera with its complex camera movements and upside-down ground glass focussing, but also just to figure out what equipment to buy! Thanks to the generous guidance of some local photographers (shout out to Scott Bacon and Rich Voninski!) as well as QT Luong's infinitely helpful LargeFormatPhotography.info website and forums, I was up and running fairly quickly. I bought a Tachihara field camera and scoured ebay and obscure camera dealer websites to collect some lenses, film holders, dark cloth, light meter, and all the other pieces of gear for the system.
In retrospect, moving to the 4x5 large format camera system marks my transition from serious amateur photography to a more professional approach. Not only could I now start producing and selling high quality huge prints, but the large format field camera taught me a lot about camera optics as well as the craft of pre-visualizing compositions in the field (a necessary skill when using a field camera since it's so time-consuming to set up and focus). I dedicated myself to the large format system for about 4-5 years, hauling the 25-pound camera case and film with me on multiday treks and international travels.
Finally around 2009, I realized that carrying the weight of the 4x5 system with me on hikes and backpacking treks was crushing my body, wreaking havoc on my knees and spine. Not to mention it's just not enjoyable to hike when you feel like a pack mule. Since most of my photography is done on backpack trips, something had to change. Fortunately by then, Canon had released the 21mp 5D Mark II camera along with some new wideangle tilt/shift lenses which would offer the lens movements I'd become accustomed to with the field camera. While 21 megapixels still didn't compare to the resolution of 4x5 film, at least it was enough to make 45" prints, and that was good enough for me to make the switch back to digital. The 4x5 camera went into storage, and I've been shooting digital ever since.
By 2021 digital cameras have evolved and we now have a plethora of high resolution cameras from nearly every major camera brand. Not only has digital sensor technology improved by leaps and bounds, but lens development technology has also made great progress and modern high quality lenses are incredibly sharp. For the first time, I suspect that my current camera, the 61-megapixel Sony A7Riv, provides as sharp or possibly even higher resolution images than the large format 4x5 film camera did. I thought I'd do a side by side comparison to see if this is actually the case!
Below I've posted various image detail comparisons between a 4x5 image versus a Sony A7Riv image, upsized to various large sizes. Keep in mind I'm only doing a pure resolution comparison here, not a full-on film vs. digital battle.
Resolution comparison: Sony A7Riv (61mp) vs. 4x5 Large Format Film (Drum Scanned)
I know doing technical comparisons always invites flack from gearheads, so here are a few caveats and details:
- This is clearly a lazy-scientific comparison; I know there are many, many uncontrolled variables here, including lenses used, sharpening methods, scanning methods, etc.; plus I'm only comparing one single set of photos. That said, I have worked with many 4x5 and A7Riv files while preparing them for printing, and the results here do reflect my real world experience.
- I have sharpened the images with my normal sharpening techniques, how I would normally sharpen my images for printing. This is just basic Lightroom sharpening, usually approximately: Amount: 75, Radius: 0.5, Detail: 25.
- Upsized screenshots were resized in Photoshop with basic bicubic setting.
- The 4x5" image was shot on Fuji Provia quickload transparency film with a Tachihara camera with a 120mm Schneider APO-Symmar-L lens, then professionally scanned with a Heidelberg Tango Drum Scanner.
- The Sony A7Riv image was shot with the Sony 24-105mm lens, at 52mm.
- All magnified crop screenshots were taken from near the center of the frames for ultimate lens sharpness.
First let's look at the native image file sizes, including the old Nikon D100:
Looking at the comparison above, it seems that the 4x5 drum scanned film image will still trounce the 61mp Sony A7Riv image in useable resolution. But wait, not so fast...
Let's look at some screenshot crop details showing how the native image files look when viewed at 100% in Photoshop:
First, here's the full 4x5 image for reference since it's covered up above:
When viewed at 100% size, you can see that the Sony image is actually quite a bit sharper at the pixel level. So even though the 4x5 image has larger pixel dimensions, the Sony image is sharper which means that the useable resolution is actually closer than it seems when simply comparing the pixel dimensions.
Upsized to 48" height, viewed at print size:
Now let's look at some screenshot crops of both images upsized to 48" tall, then viewed at print size in Photoshop. (Learn how to configure Photoshop's "View Print Size" feature here).
I chose 48" height for this test since that's the largest short-side length that my print shops can print on one single panel.
Note that these images may display at different sizes on different screens, so I've included the ruler scale for reference. For best analysis, view this page on a larger desktop screen.
When upsized to 48" tall, both images are still sharp and detailed. They look about equal to me.
Just for kicks, here's a screenshot of the 6mp Nikon D100 image upsized to 48":
As expected, a 6mp image is total garbage at 48" height. Not gonna happen!
How big can they go?
Since the 48" upsize comparison is about equal, let's see how far I can push both image files.
Upsized to 80" height, viewed at print size:
Upsized to 80" height both the 4x5 and Sony image details still display similar sharpness viewed at print size, though we're pushing the limits of what I personally would consider selling as a "fine art" print. Both would still look fantastic at normal viewing distances, though slightly soft up close.
Upsized to 120" height, viewed at print size:
Upsized to 120" tall (10 FEET TALL!) both images have become too soft for a "fine art" print, though they'd still work great for a mural or a print hung up high on a huge wall. Perhaps a more advanced sharpening algorithm could improve perceived detail as well.
At this huge upsizing amount, the detail of both images still looks pretty similar, though perhaps the 4x5 image has just a touch sharper detail? Or maybe what I'm seeing is that the Sony image is showing a bit of sharpening artifact harshness while the 4x5 looks a bit cleaner in the details. In any case, it's so close it's almost impossible to judge. Definitely in the same ballpark, though.
4x5 Large Format Film vs. Sony A7Riv : Resolution Comparison Verdict
Looking at results of this comparison, I think it's pretty much a draw! As far as I can tell, the 61mp Sony A7Riv image offers a roughly equal amount of apparent resolution as the drum scanned 4x5 large format film image.
Which, in a sense, is a huge win for the Sony, since this camera is a fraction of the size and weight, is far more versatile as a photographic tool (with a much greater variety of lenses), has much better dynamic range, and offers all the conveniences of digital workflow.
Also worth considering is that with the Sony (or any digital camera) you can easily create stitched panoramic images - in which case the resolution would absolutely blow the 4x5 away. Additionally, the Sony A7Riv camera has a pixel-shift feature which boosts resolution even higher and possibly into a clear lead over the 4x5... but that test will have to wait for another day.
4x5 still has some advantages:
Regardless of how far digital camera sensors and lenses have evolved, large format cameras still have a few inherent advantages when it comes to image resolution.
For one thing all large format field cameras have the advantage of lens/camera movements (tilts and shifts) which allow you to adjust the focal plane such that the foreground and background are simultaneously in sharp focus, without needing to stop down to a tiny aperture (which reduces sharpness due to diffraction), or without messing around with sloppy and tedious focus stacking.
Another advantage of lens shift movements is the ability to keep perspectives straight. For example, with a normal fixed lens, if you pointed it upwards in a forest, the trees would appear to converge towards the top of the frame. If you wanted to correct this in Photoshop you might be able to apply a perspective adjustment, but then you will lose some resolution since parts of the image are severely stretched. But with a field camera you can keep the camera straight and flat while shifting the lens upwards, thus keeping the trees perfectly straight in the frame while preserving all the native resolution of the image.
Once you know about lens movements and are used to using them in the field, it feels incredibly limiting to go back to fixed lenses. Fortunately there are tilt/shift lens options for digital cameras, such as the fantastic Canon 17mm and 24mm TS-E lenses, though they are very expensive!
Finally, as every large format film photographer knows, there's something super special about viewing the transparencies on a light table - when looking at them through a magnifying loupe, it is really like you are there viewing the scene in person again. The analog nature of film transcends the pixelation of digital images, providing a special lifelike experience.
Go even bigger
I haven't discussed the big daddies, which would include 8x10" (or larger) film or 100+ megapixel large format digital backs, both of which would provide an insane amount of resolution for enormous, highly detailed prints. For me these aren't practical options due to the large size and weight, the absurd costs, and the fact that most of the print options I produce and sell only go up to 48" x 96" anyways, for which the Sony A7Riv (or 4x5) resolution is already sufficient.
Big Prints are Awesome!
Landscape photographs are meant to be printed BIG. The bigger the better. Huge prints and murals better convey the grand impact of the scene and provide an experience much closer to actually being there in person.
To make big prints it certainly helps to use a camera with lots of resolution (along with sharp lenses). What my quick tests here have shown is that modern high resolution digital cameras like the Sony A7Riv do finally provide single-shot resolution on par with drum scanned 4x5 large format film.
I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments below!