High resolution sensors: are lenses up to the task?

When discussing the future of full frame sensors, it is often argued that lenses are not up to the task of resolving 36MP, let alone 54MP or 72MP. Having measured more than 135 full frame lenses, we feel confident in saying that this is not true. The vast majority of lenses in our database are capable of taking advantage of a 36MP sensor at some combination of aperture and focusing distance, even low cost kit lenses.

Obviously, working with a lens that can only make use of a sensor's potential under ideal conditions is not very desirable. So what about higher grade lenses? Let's have a closer look at our current number 1, the Zeiss Apo Distagon T* 1.4/55 Otus. Maximum resolving power is just a little bit under 100MP at an aperture of f/3.7, at f/1.4 it's still 79MP. This lens could make use of a 72MP full frame sensor wide open, and it would easily outresolve a 54MP sensor, as would most of the Canon and Nikon super tele primes.

Stopping down to f/4.0, the number of lenses that could make use of a 54MP full frame sensor increases significantly. It's safe to say that most current f/2.8 and f/4.0 constant aperture zoom lenses and almost all current f/1.4 and f/1.8 primes would - to some degree - profit from a 54MP sensor. However, less than two dozen lenses in our database could make full use of such a sensor. Thus, as full frame cameras go beyond 36MP, lenses have to become better. Fortunately, that is happening. The four Zeiss ZE/ZF.2 primes released since 2011 are clearly a step up from most previous lenses, as are some of the latest Sigma and Sony offerings.

In conclusion, one can say that full frame sensors are still far from outresolving high grade lenses. Based on our measurements, the reasonable maximum resolution for full frame sensors is probably somewhere around 100MP. Above that, lenses would have to be significantly better than the 55mm Otus. Such lenses would most likely be even more expensive than this outstanding but pricey Zeiss prime, putting them out of reach of most photographers. Size and weight would probably be an issue too, as all current top performers in the LenScore™ database are on the large and heavy side.



The current LenScore™ top performers

On the left: Zeiss Apo Distagon T* 1.4/55 Otus on Nikon D4S
On the right: Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200mm f/2.0G ED VR II on Nikon D3X