It’s been slow coming, but we’re beginning to see some serious indications that sensor megapixel count alone is no longer the most important marketing factor for camera makers. To be fair, some manufacturers—like Nikon—have in many cases opted for lower MP counts and concentrated on other factors such as low light capability in the stunningly successful D3 (and D3S), and few, frankly, have complained. Most serious photographers understand quite well there is far more to image quality than simply a bucket load of pixels, as long as the photosites gathering light are doing so in a clean, discriminating manner.
The latest and strongest indication of this trend is Canon’s recent announcement of their newest top-shelf professional body, the EOS-1D X which will have an 18MP full frame sensor with very high frame rates and expanded light-gathering capability. While the camera will not reach the market until next spring, debates will rage as to whether this melding of the 1D series will work out in the long run. Already landscape photographers are questioning the resolution for really big prints, and wildlife photographers are decrying the loss of reach of previous 1.3x crop-factor 1D bodies. No easy answers here, of course, and only time will tell what this new body and sensor will really deliver.
Many other factors are at play here too. As the mobile ecosystem has exploded, the widespread use of increasingly good cell phone cameras for casual picture taking has somewhat removed the marketing claim that more megapixels arbitrarily make for better images. After all, how much resolution is enough? If your primary purpose is taking snapshots to post on Facebook, the sober reality is that almost anything works just fine (in terms of resolution and general quality). Frankly, large files quickly become a significant impediment when wireless transfer is primary, and there’s always the issue of eating up storage space for the casual shooter.
Even for those who make their own prints, most live with the 13”x19” format and with careful processing even modest sized image files can easily make fine prints within that limit. For those who feel compelled to make really big prints, there are lots of other options including specialized bodies with larger sensors (both in megapixel count and/or physical sensor size), or stitching together multiple frames for a much larger master file.
For Canon, I suspect the move to the 1D X is primarily a business decision (stating the obvious)—consolidate (and simplify) the professional body line, target the nearest competitor more specifically and directly (potentially awesome low-light sports capability), and provide a pro body with a high enough resolution sensor to satisfy many, if not all, users. On the other hand, I don’t for one second expect this to be the end of higher resolution sensors. Though not yet official (that means it’s still a rumor!), pointers toward a 36MP Nikon D800 are approaching critical mass, and if this body actually materializes I doubt Canon would feel they could sit around very long without answering the challenge. Might there be a significantly upgraded 5D Mark III (or 5D X), or perhaps the long-anticipated 3D (or whatever it might be called) sooner than we expected?