The Adventure

The 50 gigapixel camera - sharper vision than an eagle?

Posted by Topher Donahue on Thu, Sep 13, 2012

Since the digital revolution, we all communicate the capabilities of our image capturing devices - be it a phone, camera, or tablet -  in one, all-powerful word: megapixel.  And now there's a prototype camera capable of shooting 50 GIGAPIXELS!

Today, mobile phones shoot more megapixels than my first professional digital camera.  Does more megapixels mean better photos? Not necessarily. For outdoor photography, where nature’s unpredictable beauty pushes the world's best photographers and cameras to perform, there are much more important elements than pixel count. In fact, pushing the megapixel count without adequate improvement in things like buffer, shutter-lag, and focus capabilities results in a camera that takes really big, really lousy pictures; but the most common measuring stick for the technology of a camera is, and will likely be for some time, the mighty megapixel.

In keeping with the megapixel race, a team of electrical engineers from Duke University and the University of Arizona have developed a prototype camera that blows away all previous camera's resolution. It can capture 50,000 megapixels of information - that’s 50 gigapixels - or five times more resolution than the eyesight of a human with 20/20 vision. 

Eagles are thought to have vision four times better than a human, so the new prototype camera is supposedly sharper even than an eagle’s eye. (I'm not sure which is more impressive, that this prototype camera might compete with an eagle, or that even with todays most cutting-edge optical technology, we're just barely able to compete with the incredible resolving power of an eagle's eye.)

The prototype camera works by combining the information from 98 small cameras, called microcameras, which fire simultaneously to create an image. A single lens feeds light to all 98 microcameras, which then feed their information to a processor that combines the images from the microcameras into a single photograph. 

According to the developers the camera is fairly large, nearly a metre wide, in order to handle the control boards and the temperature control components that keep the electronics from overheating while processing information.

The obvious question is: do we need a camera that sees in gigapixels?  My gut answer is no, but after seeing what the 36mp Nikon D800 is capable of doing, I’m not so sure. You don’t NEED that many megapixels, but if you have them, it not only allows for larger printing, but also expands the creative potential of the camera.

I bought the D800 for a specific assignment to shoot a sunset landscape to be printed three metres wide. That big of a fine art print demands a resolution that, until the D800, wasn’t possible without using expensive and cumbersome medium format equipment. I began the project before the invention of the D800, and was struggling with stitching together lower resolution photos from a scene with rapidly changing light. When the D800 came out, I was able to finish the job the first time I took the camera out of the box:

high resolution landscape

Here's a crop of the tiny baby pine tree growing next to the puddle:

Nikon D800 image

So what could you do with 50 gigapixels? That’s a photograph containing 50 billion pixels. It boggles the mind to consider. At 300 dpi, the standard resolution for high resolution printing, a 50 gigapixel print could be about 90 metres across - almost the size of a football field.

Google Earth in scary detail comes to mind, and also murals on skyscrapers, airports and museums -  but even more game-changing would be the the post-production potential of the image.  Take this casual photo of a woman enjoying a cold drink on a warm afternoon at the Bugaboo Lodge that was shot using the 36mp D800:

high resolution camera
No big deal, but then look at the crop below that shows details in the image that are not even visible with the human eye from the distance where the photo was taken:

high resolution camera close up

You could read her watch if it was rotated slightly! So now imagine wildlife photography with a 50 gigapixel camera. Provided the optics are good enough, you could crop in on a tiny portion of the frame with excellent results. Imagine shooting a grizzly bear mother and cub from a nice, safe distance, and afterwards being able to crop in on her and her cub’s faces with enough resolution for a full-sized print. 

The documentary capabilities of such a camera would open the door to previously unexplored videography methods, such as panning across a video clip of a busy street scene with enough resolution to see many dozens of people interacting in intimate detail.  

For my world, often photographing people having fun adventures in nature, I'd rather if technology produced, instead of a 50 gigapixel beast, a 12mp camera the size of a deck of cards with optics to compete with the best DSLRs. Perhaps one day we'll have my dream camera too.

What about you? Would 50 gigapixels be your dream camera?

Tags: Product Information, Bugaboo Lodge, photography