With more pixels equalling more image information, and therefore greater detail and sharpness in shots, it’s no surprise that the ‘pixel wars’ between manufacturers have been waging since the advent of digital photography.
It used to be only medium-format cameras that could offer truly high resolutions – typically between 50MP and 80MP. But now technology has allowed DSLRs and CSCs to enter this lofty high-res territory, with a number of models offering resolutions of over 50MP. These cameras not only produce greater detail, but let us make larger prints and tighter crops too.
Here we take a look at six of the most affordable high resolution cameras currently available, so you can find your perfect match.
1. Pentax K-1
The Pentax K-1 doesn’t have the highest resolution of all the cameras in our round-up, but is an excellent all-rounder and very competitively priced for a full-frame camera.
The sensor offers a 36.4MP resolution, which is easily big enough to create A2-sized prints, as well as enjoying the other benefits of cameras with high pixel counts. And, like most of the other contenders here, the K-1 is free from an optical low-pass filter to maintain maximum image clarity and sharpness. If you want to capture smaller resolution files to save space on your memory cards, you can set the K-1 to shoot in the 15MP APS-C Crop Mode. Built into the sensor is Pentax’s 5-axis Shake Reduction II mechanism, so you can shoot up to 5 stops slower without encountering camera shake.
ISO & autofocus
Partnering the sensor is a PRIME IV processor, and this lets the K-1 shoot up to 4.4fps for 70 JPEGs or 17 RAW files. This burst rate is only fractionally behind the pace of the Canon, Nikon and Sony offerings. The processor also allows for an ISO range of 100-204,800, which matches the one medium-format camera in our round-up, the Pentax 645Z. To set the focus, the K-1 employs the SAFOX 12 AF system, which uses 33 points, 25 of them being the superior cross-type AF sensors.
The K-1 also lets you shoot movies, and you can record Full HD (1080p at 60fps), but there’s no 4K video capability. There is Wi-Fi though, so you can connect with your smartphone or tablet for remote operation or easy transfer of images. The built-in GPS isn’t just for location data, but works with the sensor’s stabilisation unit to follow the movements of the stars in the sky, allowing for longer and more detailed exposures of the heavens.
The body is comfortable in the hand, rugged and weatherproof, making it ideal for all types of environment. On the rear there’s a 3.2in 1037k-dot LCD which tilts away from the body, to help with more challenging compositions. All this is available for just £1599, making it a very tempting option for anyone that’s not already invested in a rival system.
36.4MP full-frame sensor
Impressive native ISO range
Slower frame rate than rivals
No 4K video functionality
Read the full review: Pentax K-1
2. Sony Alpha 7R II
If you want a big resolution, but are put off by a heavy and bulky DSLR, then you should certainly consider the Sony Alpha 7R II. It’s a CSC so is slim by nature, with a profile measuring 127x96x60mm and weighs just 582g.
Despite its diminutive casing, it features a 42.4MP full-frame sensor – the highest of any CSC on the market – and is only beaten for resolution in our round-up by the ground-breaking Canon and medium-format Pentax. Like most of the other cameras featured in this test, there’s no optical low-pass filter present on the sensor, so images are as sharp as can be. The sensor comes with a 5-axis image stabilisation system, which detects movement during the exposure and shifts the sensor to compensate. This can allow you to shoot up to 4.5 stops slower than would ordinarily be possible without encountering the blur of camera shake.
ISO & autofocus
The imaging chip is supported by the BIONZ X image processor, and this gives the Alpha 7R II a native ISO range of 100-25,600, which can be expanded to ISO 50-102,400. The processor also provides the speed, and like both the Nikon and Canon contenders the top shooting rate is capped to a respectable 5fps.
The Sony Alpha 7R II uses a Hybrid AF system to set the focus, and it features an enormous 399 AF points which cover 45% of the frame area. This makes it easy to lock onto and track moving subjects, even when set to record movies.
While all the high resolution cameras in our collection offer Full HD video recording, the Alpha 7R II is the only one here to offer 4K movie capture, which at 8MP is 4x the resolution of Full HD.
As this camera is a CSC there’s no optical viewfinder present. There is, however, a 0.5in EVF (electronic viewfinder) that features the highest magnification of any EVF at 0.78x and a resolution of 2359k-dot, helping the images to appear large and bright. On the rear there’s also a 2.95in 1228k-dot LCD, if you prefer to frame using Live View. The Alpha 7R MkII also comes with NFC and Wi-Fi, so you can use your smartphone or tablet as a viewfinder and remote shutter release, and one-touch sharing lets you transfer your photos and videos from your camera to your smart device, so you can quickly display your images online.
As the Alpha 7R II uses either the EVF or Live View to frame up it’s fairly power hungry, so you may need a spare battery, as it’s only set to last for 290 shots from a single charge.
Despite being reasonably petite, the Alpha 7R II is extremely solid, and has a rugged feel thanks to the magnesium alloy design. It offers some unique features and is competitively priced at £2599. While there are comparatively few lenses available for Sony full-frame CSCs, it is possible to use Canon or Nikon lenses with the aid of a converter.
42.4MP full-frame sensor
5-axis image stabilisation
Poor battery performance
No tilt or touchscreen
Read the full review: Sony Alpha 7R II
3. Canon EOS 5DS & 5DS R
The Canon 5DS and 5DS R are the highest resolution DSLRs in the world, and both offer exactly the same specifications, except the latter doesn’t have an optical low-pass filter (OLPF) on the sensor.
OLPFs are used to combat moiré, a banding effect that can sometimes occur when photographing repeating patterns, like those found in the weave of fabrics. The filters work by slightly blurring the image, and although it’s barely detectable, some photographers would prefer not to have an OLPF on their sensor to maximise sharpness, and instead run the risk of encountering moiré. Canon has aimed to please both sets of photographers with this dual release.
The sensor itself is a full-frame CMOS and offers a mighty resolution of 50.6MP, which ventures deep into medium-format territory and allows for mammoth prints of A0 size and beyond. If you don’t want to always shoot with such a high resolution – and accompanying large file size – you can select the 1.3x and 1.6x cropped shooting modes. These offer images measuring 30.5MP and 19.6MP respectively, so are still ample in their own right.
ISO & autofocus
To power the chip there’s a Dual DIGIC 6 processor, and this gives the 5DS/5DS R a top shooting speed of a decent 5fps. The camera can keep pace with the action for 510 JPEGs or for 14 RAWs. The ISO range is capped to a fairly low ISO of 100-6400, and even when expanded to its top H1 setting the sensitivity is only equivalent to ISO 12,800. This is understandable considering the number of photosites featured on the sensor, and as they are forced to be smaller they’re not as effective at absorbing light. A restricted ISO performance is one of the accepted sacrifices of having a higher resolution sensor in your camera.
The Canon 5DS/5DS R has a 61-point AF system, and 41 are the more advanced cross-type sensors for increased pace and precision. Focusing correctly is especially important when shooting with a really high resolution, as any mistakes are shown up in greater detail, but the 5DS performs well in all manner of light conditions.
Like the Nikon D810, the Canon also shoots Full HD movies (1080p at 30fps) and has a dual CompactFlash/ SD memory card slot to store more images. The body is fully weather-sealed giving you peace of mind in all manner of environments and conditions, and the battery is good for up to 700 shots. On the rear of the camera there’s a 3.2in 1040k-dot LCD, but unlike some contemporary DSLRs it doesn’t boast any touch or tilt functionality.
The 5DS currently costs £2699, and the 5DS R is priced at £2899. Considering this camera offers a super high resolution of 50.6MP, it’s a good price when a medium-format camera with a similar resolution will cost you more than double that.
50.6MP full-frame sensor
Advanced 61-point AF system
Dual card slot
Limited ISO performance
Most expensive full-frame
4. Nikon D810
The Nikon D810 builds on the success of its forebear – the D800 – which was one of the first DSLRs to enter the megapixel territory of medium-format cameras.
The FX format sensor has a resolution of 36.3MP, and this time Nikon has ditched the low-pass filter found on the D800 to increase image sharpness. The resolution, however, is actually the lowest of any of the full-frame cameras in our round-up, but still big enough to produce large prints or apply hefty digital crops. The sensor is partnered by an EXPEED 4 image processor, which allows for a respectable top shooting speed of 5fps, and you can continue firing the shutter for an unlimited number of JPEGs. This can be increased to 6fps when shooting in the DX crop mode, but doing so means images have a reduced resolution of 15.3MP. With the additional battery grip (£299), the increase in power lets you shoot at a speedy 7fps.
ISO & autofocus
The D810 also offers the ability to shoot smaller-sized 12-bit RAW files. One criticism of high resolution cameras is that image files are so large, they take up a lot of storage space and processing time. Also, such large files just aren’t necessary for many scenarios. With the D810 you can select RAW size S in the Image Size menu options and shoot smaller 9MP files.
The D810 has a native ISO range of 64-12,800, which can be expanded to ISO 32-51,200. One of the advantages of having fewer pixels is a better low light performance, as each individual photosite is bigger, thus increasing the light-gathering potential of the sensor. And the D810 does do a good job of restricting noise when shooting at high sensitivities.
The D810 uses the same 51-point Multi-CAM 3500FX AF system found in the D4S. This was Nikon’s flagship DSLR in 2014, and is testament to the speed of the focusing system in the D810. It offers Group Area AF for easier focusing on smaller subjects framed against distracting backgrounds. The AF system also includes single-point, 9, 21 or 51-point dynamic-area, 3D-tracking and auto-area.
On the rear there’s a 3.2in 1229k-dot LCD, which can be used when capturing Full HD (1080p) movies at 60fps. The body is sealed, making it both dust- and weather-resistant, and inside the deep finger grip there’s space for both CompactFlash and SD memory cards. The battery offers the best performance of any in our countdown, rated to last for 1200 shots from a full charge. In our own shooting experience with this camera, the battery keeps going for over 2000 frames.
Priced at £2139, the D810 is one of the more affordable high-res cameras in this round-up, and if you’re already a Nikon user it’s definitely worthy of your consideration.
36.3MP full-frame sensor
Fast AF performance
Lower resolution than competitors
Fairly low native ISO
Read the full review: Nikon D810
5. Pentax 645Z
If you’re tempted by the benefits of a medium-format camera, then the Pentax 645Z is the most affordable option on the market.
It boasts a 51.4MP medium-format sensor, and the chip measures 44x33mm – making it 1.7x larger than a full-frame sensor. A larger sensor means the individual photosites are bigger, which gives a better low light performance. There’s no OLPF (optical low-pass filter) on the chip either, which maximises the image sharpness of the 645Z.
The sensor is powered by a PRIME III image processor, giving an impressive ISO range of 100-204,800. The top shooting speed is a pedestrian 3fps, but that’s because the camera is tasked with handling enormous volumes of data, and that’s one of the sacrifices you make when choosing a high resolution sensor. To focus there’s a SAFOX II AF module with 27 points, 25 of which are the more advanced cross-type. The body is weather-resistant, and on the rear there’s a 3.2in 1037k-dot tilting screen. The 645Z is heavy though, at 1470g, so you’ll need big, strong muscles or a sturdy tripod.
Weather & dust- resistant design
Slow top shooting speed
Read the full review: Pentax 645Z
6. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII
Although this CSC isn’t a ‘true’ high resolution camera, it does allow you to capture 40MP high-res files while keeping your financial outlay low.
This seems surprising when you consider it only sports a 16MP Micro Four Thirds sensor at its core, but it uses the built-in image stabilisation to expand the resolution. It works by shifting the sensor between each frame in an eight-image sequence. It then uses on-board processing to ‘stitch’ the files into a single high resolution photo. There are, however, a number of drawbacks, as it only works effectively on subjects that don’t move, and also requires the use of a tripod.
The E-M5 MkII is also the fastest, lightest and smallest camera in our high resolution round-up. The sensor is paired with the TruePic VII processor, and this gives it a top shooting speed of 10fps for 16 RAWs. The 5-axis image stabilisation system keeps shots steady up to 5 stops slower than would ordinarily be possible, and the ISO spans 100-25,600. On the rear there’s a 3in 1037k-dot vari-angle touchscreen, and the battery is good for 750 shots.
40MP high resolution mode
5-axis image stabilisation
16MP Micro Four Thirds chip
Contrast-detect AF system
Read the full review: Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII
This group test was first published in the August 2016 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.