Formats and Resolution

Packshot on 14/05/2013

Here at The Packshot People our reputation rests on the quality of the images we produce for our clients and to achieve the desired level of both quality and consistency we use a range of professional cameras from leading manufacturers including Nikon, Hasselblad, PhaseOne back and Canon.

We choose the camera for each commission depending on the nature of the shoot. In this test we have taken four cameras and produced images under identical conditions using the same software – Capture One Pro 6 from PhaseOne to process the RAW images.

It used to be so easy with film, the bigger the size of the negative the better the quality of the final image, size mattered, but with the introduction of larger sensors and higher pixel number the results achievable with smaller format digital cameras have become blurred.

If you were shooting an advertising campaign where the image was destined to appear as a 48-sheet poster most photographers would choose to use sheet film either the 5” x4” format or for the highest possible quality 10” x 8”. It was not unusual to use 5 x 4 for portraits often in black & white because the resolution of the film and the range of tones were so good. Medium format – 6 x 6 (2 ¼ square) and 6 x 7 were the favourites of wedding and magazines photographers – 6 x 7 because it enlarged nicely to fit the standard magazine page while 6 x 6 was considered the perfect size for portraiture. The 35 mm SLR format was the choice of news and sports photographers. Thirty-five millimetre cameras went to war; the majority of the images produced were taken on SLRs. lighter, faster and with a wide choice of lenses they were perfect for the photographer on the move.

Today everything has changed; in the studio we now shoot exclusively on digital using DSLR (35mm equivalent) and 6 x 4.5 medium format. The 5 x 4 and 10 x 8 film stocks have almost disappeared and with them the camera used. The demise of film has had a detrimental effect on the fortunes of companies like Kodak and Ilford.

As with film there is a perceptible difference in the quality of the image largely dependent on the size of the sensor and the quality of the lenses used. Here we enter the difficult world of pixels.

When digital cameras first appeared the sensors were 1 or 2 megapixels. Today it is possible to have an 80 mega-pixel sensor (Phase One IQ280 back), Hasselblad’s top of the range HD5 boasts a 60 mega-pixel sensor both are medium format 6 x 4.5 cameras. The majority of DSLR cameras have between 16 and 23 megapixels sensors although Nikon surprised the market in 2012 by introducing the 36 megapixel D800 and D800E, Sigma has the 46 megapixel SD1 using different type of sensor. The question is does the number of pixels directly equate to the quality of the end result?

In short no, there’s rather more to it than that. As the number of pixels increases the quality of the lens is more and more important, a rubbish lens on a 36mp camera will produce poor images whereas a really good lens will extract the absolute maximum possible from a 12mp sensor. The latest Nikon D4 professional camera has just 16.2mp but produces superb results, in the right hands. Less than half the number in a D800, there are many reasons why the truly “pro spec” D4 has less pixels but as already suggested pixels are not the complete answer.

To try and dispel some of the hype and misconceptions we have shot four images for comparison. Using the D4 & D800, a Canon 5D MKII and a Phase One P30 (30mp) back on a Hasselblad H2 we shot a jar of instant coffee. This is fairly typical of the type of product shot produced in the studio. We have both the latest technology from Nikon and some older, now superseded medium format equipment. The images were all shot at the same exposure settings and ISO with identical lighting.

The first image (1) is the coffee jar lit by two softboxes on a white background. All the pictures were taken at ISO100 using zoom lenses set to 70mm focal length. Shutter speed and f-stop are the same in every exposure; each shot had a corrected white balance using an X-Rite colour chart and they were processed in Capture One 6.


The second and subsequent images are cropped to show just the label for easier comparison.
All of the images are very acceptable and show good colour rendition and a high level of detail. Looking at the images on a large calibrated screen at full resolution it’s clear that despite its age and not having the highest pixel count the Hasselblad P30 combination produces the better image. Look at the white line of text, premium blend etc. in image 3 this appears to be more clearly defined, it stands out from the background and there is more detail in the coffee beans.

This is not a scientific test, there are no resolution charts measuring lines resolved and if you search the Internet you will find reviews and test reports advising on the merits of different cameras and formats. But in our studio based test producing the type of shot our clients want it would appear that the larger sensor in the P30 back can still hold its own against the latest spec cameras.

There are a couple of other factors to consider, there is an increase in dynamic range with a larger sensor and the quality of the lens. In this test all images were produced using zoom lenses, a prime or fixed focal length lens might have produced a sharper image.

(2) Nikon D4

(3) Canon 5D MKII

(3) Hasselblad & P30 back

(4) Nikon D800

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