This post is a continuation of the previous article that I wrote about resolution and diffraction. I highly suggest that you read that one first so that you will gain a basic understanding of these concepts.
One thing that a lot of people still fail to understand is the absolute effect of diffraction on image resolution. A common argument of buying a higher megapixel camera is that it would “always” resolve more detail than a lower megapixel camera. That is true but only until you hit the diffraction limit. For example, a full frame camera shot at f/16 will not resolve any detail higher than 8Mp. That is, a 36Mp D800 will not give more details compared to a 12Mp D700 when both are shot at f/16. They both will have an effective resolution of 8Mp only.
To explain this, let us consider a very simple analogy. Notice that when you are driving at night in complete darkness, it is very difficult to distinguish if an incoming vehicle is a small car or a big truck if you were to judge only by their headlights. This is because the apparent separation between the left and right headlights is very dependent on the distance of the vehicle from your position. The headlights seem to look larger and closer together the farther the vehicle is from you. If the vehicle is far enough, both headlights will seem to merge as if there is just one light and you would think it’s a bike instead of a car. The reason is simple: light spreads. Both left and right headlights spread until they seem to merge and by then they become indistinguishable from each other. Diffraction is the same. Diffraction spreads light and you lose the details. Therefore it doesn’t matter if you have two eyes or eight eyes like a spider, you still won’t be able to distinguish two separate headlights if the incoming vehicle is very far. In this case, eight eyes are no better than two eyes. Both sets of eyes still see only one headlight not two. Think of the “number of eyes” as your sensor resolution. It does not matter if you have 8Mp or 2Mp, both cameras will detect only one headlight. Did the 8Mp lose resolution? No. It remained a 8Mp sensor. Did it manage to detect two headlights? No. Therefore in our example, a 8Mp is no better than 2Mp in resolving the number of headlights.
The point is that diffraction destroys details. When there is nothing to resolve, sensor resolution does not matter. Supposing that you have two lines that are very close together, diffraction will spread both lines such that they will appear to merge as if they are just one big line. If you only have one line to resolve it does not matter if you have a 2Mp camera or a 100Mp camera, both will detect only one line. The 100Mp camera will of course have more samples of that single line but it is still just one line. Diffraction does not affect sensor resolving power but it affects how the subject is presented to the sensor. Diffraction blurs the subject in such a way that it limits what the sensor can fully detect.
With that in mind, let us look at practical examples. For a full frame sensor, diffraction at f/8 is enough to blur the subject such that anything higher than approximately 30Mp will not resolve any more details. For each stop, the effective resolution drops by half so at f/11 the limit is 15Mp and at f/16 it’s 8Mp and at f/22 a measly 4Mp. These numbers are just approximations and assume that you have a perfect lens. The reality is much lower than those values.
How about smaller sensors like APS-C or m43? The decrease in resolution is proportional to the crop factor. So an APS-C shot at f/8 will only have a maximum effective resolution of 15Mp while m43 will have 8Mp and so on.
Here are MTF graphs for a Nikon 50/1.4 lens comparing a 16Mp D7000 (crop sensor) with a 36Mp D800 (full frame) at f/5.6 and f/16 respectively. Notice that the resolution at those settings are very similar.
So what are the implications? If you are a landscape photographer with a 36Mp Nikon D800 and you shoot at f/8 or f/11 or maybe f/16 to gain enough depth of field you are basically wasting disk space. At f/8, your 36Mp sensor is no better than a 30Mp sensor. At f/11 it’s no better than a 16Mp D4. At f/16 it is no better than a very old 12Mp D700. So a 36Mp sensor shot at small f-stops is not able to capture enough details and yet the image size remains the same and consumes 36Mp of disk space. If you shoot at f/16 for example, you are better off shooting with a 12Mp D700. If you want to print as big as a 36Mp camera then upsize your 12Mp image in Photoshop to an equivalent of a 36Mp image. Of course the upsized image will not gain any details but it doesn’t matter because the 36Mp hasn’t resolved any more details anyway.
A related analogy is that of scanning photos. Good prints are usually done at 300dpi. When scanning photos, it does not make sense if you scan higher than that because you won’t gain anything. Scanners are capable of 4800dpi or even 7200dpi and maybe higher. If you scan a print at 7200dpi you will get a really huge image but with no more detail than when you scanned it at 4800dpi or lower. You could have just scanned it at 600dpi and you won’t notice any difference. The 7200dpi scan is a waste of time and disk space.
Another common argument is that a sensor with lots of megapixels allows more cropping possibilities. Again, that is true only if you are not diffraction limited. Otherwise you could just shoot with a lower Mp camera, upsize the image and then crop and it will make no difference in terms of details.
This is why I have absolutely no interest in the D800 and other insanely high Mp APS-C cameras like the D7100 and K-3 and A6000. I shoot mostly landscape. I stop down to f/11 and sometimes even to f/22. At those f-stops these cameras are just a waste of space, time and processing power. Again, a 36Mp full frame camera does not make sense unless you shoot mostly wide open at f/5.6 and wider. A 24Mp APS-C is stupid unless you mostly shoot at f/5.6 and wider. Manufacturers keep increasing sensor resolution instead of improving noise performance because most photographers are gullible. Megapixels sell.
Having said that, do not be afraid to shoot at smaller f-stops if the shot calls for it. Even 4Mp effective resolution is a lot if you print at reasonable sizes. And since most people never print at all, 4Mp for web viewing is GIGANTIC!
For a more comprehensive explanation of the effects of diffraction refer to this article: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/resolution.shtml
Shoot and shop wisely. 🙂