Seeking the Ultimate Resolution Pt 1

From the earliest days of film there has been a never ending quest for greater and greater resolution in the finished photographs.  Why?  Simple: greater resolution yields more and finer captured detail.   In the quest for greater resolution we saw larger formats of film being employed. And now, more and more pixels on the image chip is seen by some as the great goal for digital cameras.  But it is not so simple as it once was.

But with greater pixel counts comes a cost.  For a given, inflexibly sized image chip, the math is inescapable: to cram more pixels into the same space then each element must be smaller.  And that creates several problems, some a perfect reflection of issues in film and others unique to electronic media.  In the film realm, larger film grain allowed more photons to strike each grain and therefore had the effect of elevating ISO or film “speed.”  So there was competition between film speed and film resolution/granularity.   The only way to get more gains to capture a given field of view without lowering the film speed was to make the image capture area bigger.  And that, of course, had a logistics impact (it was more difficult to handle medium and large format than miniature 35mm format cameras) and it had a budgetary impact both for the camera platforms and the films.

Now, firmly in the digital realm, we face similar issues in trying to improve resolution.  Technology is allowing greater and greater miniaturization so making photo sensors smaller is possible.  But the issue of the photo sensors’ surface size remains and greater processing capability is needed to process the weaker signals and deal with the attendant noise generation.  And that has a major budgetary impact.  But as important is that we long ago passed the ability of traditional photo lenses to resolve the pixel sizes.  And, just to add to the issues, the interpolation process of converting monochromatic sensors into a color image degrade the actual capture resolution by at least a third OR MORE even though pixels are then re-created in the processor to appear to give you full advertised resolution.

So we are back to where we were in the film world: to gain both resolution and maintain image “speed” we need larger image chips leading us, once again, to medium format capture and along with that an enormous increase in cost.  And there are even very high resolution backs for large format cameras.  Bring the title to your first born and you too can have one…

A Swiss company made the Seitz panoramic camera that captured a 160 megapixel file from a 6 mm x 17 mm back.  But it was huge, heavy, came with its own computer for processing, I really wanted one until I actually got one in my hands and discovered it was like “crew served” artillery and not really for the lone photographer trekking out in the wilds for the ultimate mountain shot. And it was actually a scanning back so was not good for moving subjects either.  The photos were stunning.  But… But…

But lets get “real” here… who truly needs all that resolution and who doesn’t?  Despite what the sales folks tell you, unless you need to make larger prints with incredible detail, you can produce stunningly successful images with no more than 20 megapixels.  Output for websites, email, social media, in fact most print publication appearing in magazines and newspapers, etc. which are at relative low resolution and small sizes simply, will not be noticeably improved with greater resolution capture. If that is what you shoot then save your money and invest in top quality glass… you’ll get more out of it than you will out of more resolution.

However, if you are a fine art photographer needing large prints to sell or display, or if you are a commercial photographer who may be producing images as posters, magazine covers, high-end catalog covers, full-page and double-truck ads and illustrations, then now, higher resolution can make a valid competitive difference.  But when you really think about it, those genres also do not commonly need to photograph moving subjects; most landscapes and most product subjects will patiently sit there for you. (If the mountain is moving as you try to photograph it the resulting photo is the very least of your worries…)  And that subject stability and lack of movement turns out to be an important element in our discussion because it opens the door to another means of your gaining nearly unlimited resolution with very little equipment costs.

You can, in fact, create virtual medium format or even large format chips by the technique known as “stitching.”  The concept is simple: you break the scene into blocks, photograph each block separately, and then join or “stitch” these blocks together for the final image.  For example, a scene that is captured as a single image of 20 megapixels with a 50mm lens, might be broken into 12 parts with a longer lens, then joined for a combined resolution of 240 megapixels (minus any overlap).  Now THAT is some serious resolution.  And modern photo editing tools can join those images easily unlike the “old days” of a few years ago when you would have to do the joining manually.  The key now, is in the shooting.

Fortunately, there are some pieces of equipment that make the shooting easy and fairly quick despite how complex it might appear.  The first is a panoramic head (for single row wide and narrow shots) or a “spherical panoramic” head which allows you to take multiple rows of multiple frames each row for a “mosaic” of frames.  The key is being able to pivot the lens both horizontally and vertically on the lens’s optical axis to avoid distortion and ghosting of image elements that do not perfectly overlap.

Those spherical pano heads (check out Nodal Ninja by Fanotec – or to get your feet wet in the process, the Panosaurus ).  This type of head will (allow for virtually unlimited resolution depending on lens availability.  It is astonishing to see the detail available, but the problem is it takes a large print or special computer programs such as the Zoomify plug-in in Photoshop to zoom in where the amazingly fine detail is buried in the shot.  I’ve taken shots where on close examination I’ve discovered things in the print that my eyes could not optically resolve when I was standing there taking the photo.  It was not a problem to produce a shot of the Grand Canyon that with no enlargement, measures 180 inches across at full printing resolution (300 ppi).

That is incredible to see, for sure.  But, realistically, where would you be able to take advantage of that sort of print size?  Who has a wall for that?  (As an aside, one answer is corporate art but that is another subject).  But what if a resolution of, say, 120 megapixels (or 6 frames) would give you the shot quality needed for a poster or double-truck advertisement?

Or what if you needed a large, high res shot but with the optical corrections needed to be done by a view and technical cameras.  For those needs then the company Fotodiox (  ) provides adapters to allow you to connect your digital DSLR or mirrorless camera to a real view camera or to medium format lenses and allow you to make a multi-row panoramic shot with perfect overlap although with limited numbers of frames. This avoids any parallax problems of the spherical pano head because all of the frames are coming from the same, non-moving, projected image. It also uses more of the frame since less overlap is needed.

D2 on wista 02 from side for blog

Canon 5D on Wista 4×5 Technical Camera from the side.  This allows for optical movements suitable for most shooting.  For extreme movements the same back attaches to full view cameras. I refer to this rig as my “digiview” camera.

If you do not need the optical movements of the view or tech camera, the Rhino Adapter from Fotodiox uses medium format lenses (in this case Hasselblad Zeiss lenses)  and connects to a Canon EOS mount.  They also make adapters for other brands of cameras.   It is   limited to 6 frames (for a full frame camera)  in a 3×2 mosaic and results in a roughly square stitched image  that would give you a 120 megapixel final image from your 20 megapixel camera.  (For my 5DSr the stitched image is over a gigabyte in size (about 1.2 gb) or roughly the equivalent of a 400 megapixel sensor.)

rhinocam front for blog

The “RhinoCam mount from the front showing a Hasselblad Zeiss 150mm lens being used. For this shot the sun was close to the lens axis so this bellows hood with “eyebrow” front attachment really protects the lens from flare.

On Monday a friend and colleague accompanied me to the Antique Gas and Diesel Engine museum in Vista to re-acquaint myself with the Rhino “Medium Format” adapter since I’d not used it in a while.  While wandering around she noticed a museum volunteer using a disc harrow on a field to break up the heavy clods left behind by the bottom blow that turned over the soil in preparation for this year’s wheat crop.  Here is a picture of her taking a shot

Lauralee at museum field

And here is one I took that I thought might make for an interesting poster layout.

Angelo Discing field 02

Museum volunteer Angelo is discing one of the museum’s wheat fields with a 1940s vintage Caterpillar D4 tractor.  The Field has already be turned over with a Bottom Plow and now the disc harrow, followed by a tines harrow  breaks up the large chunks to prepare the field for seeding of this year’s crop.

But I was here to test out this Rhino adapter.  Here is a shot of it set up and ready to go

rhino adapter from front

Here is the adapter.  The lens is a Hasselblad Zeiss V series.  The sliding back has the camera positioned over the lens here and you can see the viewfinder port slid out of the way to the right.  In operation you slide the viewfinder over the lens, compose the shot, then slide the camera in place where indicator marks and detentes allow you to line up the six shots (3 across and 2 vertically.)  Note the camera is mounted in the vertical position.

The camera and adapter in the shot above were set up to shoot the Museum’s Blacksmith shop.  The finished shot was chosen not for composition but to be able to capture near and far detail (the weeds in the middle ground and the shop in the background).  Here is the completed (stitched) shot.  The out-of focus tractor in the foreground seemed like it would be a good test of how this rig would render smooth tonalities such as on the tank.

Blacksmith at antique gas and diesel museum

Unfortunately the only way to really see the incredible resolution and smooth tones is to see a full sized print.  THe wind was blowing the trees a bit and this is a slow shutter shot so there is some blurring in the tree.  But it would be there with a single frame shot.  The native size of this image without enlargement but at printing resolution of 300 ppi, is approximately 45″ x 45″  Except for stitching and then lowering the resolution for the web, this is an unedited image.

Here is how the individual frames are assembled for the shot above.  Each of these frames starts out as a 50 meg capture by the 5DSr but then the slight overlap and a final image crop reduces the full resolution image to about 1.2 gigabytes.

Blacksmith at antique gas and diesel museum

To make the assembly easier for the software the frames are arranged “cartoon” style, left to right and top to bottom.  For this adapter you have to remember that the projected image circle is upside down and backward so you have to think about the order of the shots with the sliding back remembering up is down and left is right…

Now I wanted to take a more serious shot and all of the museum’s equipment presented some great details.  While there I spied what seemed to be an interesting detail shot to capture the complexity of a colorful old diesel engine.  This engine is still working.  The shot is, again, a stitch of 6 frames in a 3×2 mosaic.

Diesel Engine Detail 02

When you zoom in on this  stitched image, you can see the individual dust specks on the plug wires.  I can live with that level of detail…

The result is a smoothness of tone and sharp detail far more reminiscent of a large format transparency shot than the medium format shot it represents digitally.  To attain this level of resolution in a single frame is going to cost you a LOT of money, indeed many multiples of the cost of the Rhino adapter.  Now what this all means is that you can create images with incredible resolution without spending a lot of money and effort.  It will require a little practice to get speedy with them, but no more than it would take to learn to use Medium Format and Large Format gear in the first place.  So the only question remaining is… “are your images worth the effort?”

It made me wonder why I had put this adapter away.  It will now occupy a more standard place in my photo arsenal for anything needed resolution that does not move during the shot.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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