Update: 3/2017. As memory continues to get cheaper and new computers are coming with 8-16 gigs or ram memory and a 1tb + HD memory and storage is not an issue anymore. With the newer generations of processors along with SS HD and better preforming standard HD + upgrades to PPCC we now see that larger files don’t have near the slow down effect they did some years back.
24mp -36mp sensors are here to stay so we might as well get used it. Right now though you might cringe at the thought of how long it will take to process all those huge Raw files. If you are a Jpeg shooter you have options for smaller file sizes so this probably does not affect you much, Raw shooters on the other hand do worry about dealing with such large files. Well things are not really that bad and are likely to get even easier as software like Adobe Lightroom comes out with more import options for us. In the mean time I suggest you download sample images (raw) from some of these cameras and see for your self. Right now unless you upgrade you computer etc you will see an increase in import and export times into and out of Adobe Lightroom but since LR applies virtual adjustments and does not actually apply the changes until export you will hardly notice the difference in using the software. If you need to use an external editor like Photo Shop you can choose to export the file as a small size. For example you can export a file as a 16bit Tiff and dimensions to match a 12mp camera file so that you won’t notice any difference when working in PS. The only issue here at this point in time is that LR does not have editing photos in a plug-in (exporting to) setup to allow you to change the dimensions, so you have to export to another folder and access the plug-in from there, not a big deal with PS but for some other editing software that might pose an issue for you. What you can do is export all the shots you want to edit at smaller sizes back into the working folder, then you can send to an external editor. The point is, it does not take 3x longer to process a job with a Nikon D800 36mp camera than it does with a 12mp camera except for the import export times (just go get a cup of coffee or do something else). Of course upgrading your computer will make the transition that much easier. I would like to note that I have at times experienced slowness with using LR but it does not seem to matter what the file size is, I have had small web sized files give me a lot or trouble when large Panoramas have not. Again you will notice a large increase in importing times and some increase in preview rendering, otherwise you shouldn’t notice any difference using LR4. I would suggest though that lens correction profiles be added last in your work flow and that adjustment brush usage be done just prior to lens profiling/correction. Faster computers may not have any issues here but some slower computers will benefit from an altered work flow.
Lightroom 4 also has a nice option right now for raws imported as DNGs (which I am not a fan of doing) and that is the ability of the DNG to be read as sections / tiled so the computer can process it using multiple cores/threads, this should greatly speed up the responsiveness of the larger files, see the article here: http://news.cnet.com/8301-30685_3-57371809-264/adobe-offering-new-reasons-to-get-dng-religion Nice but not really the solution I want.
Update: I have been using a Nikon D7100 for about 3 weeks and except for import / export I really don’t notice much difference in processing my photos in LR. Plug-ins take a bit longer but not too bad and if I export to PS or PSP I can downsize to what ever size I like. So 24mp is not bad at all. Just don’t apply the lens corrections in LR until your done editing.
I expect to see more import options for Raw files in future LR updates to address the large MP issues, this makes more sense then having the options in camera as we could decide later what files need to be larger and which ones to import as 12mp files or what ever we need. We could save a copy of the originals as well in case we need more resolution later. If done smartly importing to a smaller file size should give the benefits of sharper images and less noticeable noise in the files. I’m sure the software engineers at Adobe have already been discussing or working on this. These types of import options will really take care of any complaints we might have now. More import option will probably become common place eventually.
If your only using something like Photo Shop without the latest ACR or Paint Shop Pro it is going to slow you way down unless you run a batching program to reduce the file sizes. With modern Raw converters like Adobe Lightroom and Capture 1 pro 7 (which is said to be much faster than LR) its going to be easier than you think. Try it yourself, download some raw files and duplicate them to match the number of files you might have for a job and then put them on a card and start out like you would with any photo job and see how much longer it actually takes, then you can make an informed decision.
As time goes by and computers get faster and faster and the software gets improved this file size issue will be put to rest and those using the D800 will be glad they have that camera. Dealing with high MP files is not that bad right now if you use the right software and have a recent computer chip. I use a 3yrs old quad core which works fine (could be faster of course).
The cropping possibilities, Higher DR at base ISO, higher resolution , better high ISO and apparent sharpness when downsized makes the new high MP sensors like the one in Nikon’s D800 & D5200/7100 open new possibilities for our photography. This next generation of 24+ DX and FF sensors should provide enough IQ benefits to entice many folks to upgrade. Even Jpeg shooters will benefit using smaller files sizes ( as long as the in camera processing is good enough). If you’re a diehard low MP fan and don’t want video then you can just continue to use your current gear or other last generation camera bodies for many more years, even when the shutter wares out it can be replaced. To increase your DR you can set your in cameras settings (for Jpeg) to Portrait mode and contrast/brightness to minus 1 just for those times you have really high contrast scenes.
By the way if you just occasionally need high MP/resolution files you can try stitching together multiple shots like you would with making a panorama. You need to know what you’re doing to make it work well though. Or you could just rent a high MP body. Or you could pick up a Nikon D3200 24mp camera for low to medium ISO use, in that case there is a definite increase of usable resolution.
Another option is to use software like www.Photoacute.com with this software you take several photos exactly the same with a tripod then the software increases resolution by a form of stacking, see the examples they really do have more resolution. These files will taking uprezing far better then without. These option can of course be applied to high MP files to get even more detail or print really large while retaining most of the detail that would have been lost otherwise. With stitching you don’t lose any detail except for a small amount from lens geometry corrections on some areas of the file while stitching.
Personally for me,the biggest temptation for newer sensors is the Dynamic Range. The difference of 2-3 stops of the newer sensors over previous models is a huge improvement that will be noticed by all who use one. It must be seen to be believed, see this link http://www.fredmiranda.com/5DIII-D800/index_controlled-tests.html . Now that you see the advantage DR can give you your going to want the D800 or D600 or in the case for DX shooters the D7000/5200/7100 for certain types for photography like Real Estate.. I also think 24mp is the current sweet spot for file size for a high rez work flow on your average modern quad-core computer, 36mm is pushing it a bit unless you have the latest in speed. Get the free Geekbench computer speed score app and see where you stand. My current rig scores about 4,600 while high-end systems get close to 18,000. My 10yr old laptop scored under 900 (now that was slooooow). http://www.primatelabs.com/geekbench/ if your rig scores below 3,000 you might need something faster for a high rez work flow..
So for large MP files your best performance is probably going to be Capture one Pro 7 and PS CS6 and as fast of a computer as you can afford. Older conputers and software will frustrate you. Even 24mp files will slow you way down if you don’t reduce the file size for PS work or layer work.
Note: If you find your cameras sensor gives banding or pattern noise when pulling dark shadows you can get rid of then using Nik’s (Google now) Collection of plug-ins, specifically Define 2 or Topaz’s Denoise 5 both have debanding tools that don’t require you to apply any noise reduction.