Are More Megapixels Better or Is It Just Marketing Hype?

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Is it worth paying more for extra megapixels? Or are you being taken in as a sucker by the marketers? Read on to find out…

Camera A has 37 megapixels. Camera B has 21 megapixels. Will Camera A produce better photos that Camera B?

Sales people will always exploit our weaknesses and a lack of knowledge is right up there on their list of things to exploit. When it comes to megapixels, let’s fix that today.

It’s All About What We Do With Our Photographs

I’m going to suggest that most people (even keen amateur DSLR users) don’t need any more than 6 megapixels in total! (Okay I know that, for some of you, that statement has just made you go back to Google and find a site that agrees with what you want to hear.)

Above 6 megapixels, all those extra megapixels do for most of us is to cause us to spend more and more money on cameras, computers and storage.

Let’s think about what we do with our megapixels.

Some people print but most people display them on screens.

The most popular screen size for viewers of this website (May 2016) is 1280 x 1024. That’s not quite 1.4 megapixels. The biggest ever Desktop computer monitor resolution to view this site was only just over 6 megapixels. An iPad is just over 3 megapixels. Okay, so a 4K (ultra high definition) TV is 8.3 megapixels; and an 8K screen has 33.2 megapixels. But wait until a bit further down before you decide that those make a good argument for spending more.

Who Needs More Megapixels?

In my opinion, there are only two circumstances when a typical photographer needs more than 6 megapixels:

  1. If they aren’t so good at framing the shot and need to discard millions of pixels later in Photoshop to get the cropping right.
  2. If they print larger than 11″ x 14″

The solution for #2 is to become a better photographer!

Rather than spending your hard earned cash on a new camera and spending hours studying the manual—get out there and practice more!

As a general rule you shouldn’t need to be cropping much in Photoshop at all. In the days of film it was REALLY expensive to have a hand-cropped enlargement made. Photographers would lose money on a job if they had to resort to hand printing. So they learned to do all the composition in the camera at the time of taking. It’s worth cultivating that same habit.

What About the Future?

So what about the 4K TV. You’ll need 8.3 megapixels for that, right?

Well, maybe. But how close to the screen are you going to be standing? Can your eyes actually see the difference between a 5 megapixel shot and an 8.3 at standard viewing distances?

So let’s move on to printing.

How Many Megapixels Do You Need For Great Quality Printing?

Well that depends on how big you will be printing your images.

Small prints tend to be held closer to the viewer. A 5″ x 7″ print will be held about foot away. For such prints you’ll need to print at about 200 to 300 dpi (dots per inch). So to get a 300 dpi print at 5″ x 7″ you’d need 3.15 megapixels: that’s (5 x 300) x (7 x 300).

The bigger the print is the further away your viewer will stand to take in the shot. So as your prints get bigger the fewer ‘dpi’s you need for the picture to still look great. I grant you some people do like to get as close as they can to a print and get their pocket magnifying glass out. But what does that prove?

My math teacher always used to say that there was no point learning Pi to more than a few decimal places. His rationale was that there comes a point where the inaccuracies of the measurement makes the accuracy of the calculation irrelevant.

The same is true with printing.

At 12″ x 8″ you’ll find 250 dpi gives you great pictures. In fact there are plenty of people who wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between 300, 250, 200 and 150 dpi at the normal viewing distance for a 12″ x 8″ print. So for a 12″ x 8″ print, even 5 megapixels is probably overkill.

A 16″ x 20″ print is almost certainly bigger than the screen you use to edit your prints. A typical computer screen has a resolution of 96 dpi. Now if you printed a 16″ x 20″ at 96 dpi you’d probably notice if you stood up close to the print. So something closer to 150 dpi would be about right. 8 megapixels would give you better than 150 dpi.

So Megapixels Are Unimportant?

The camera built in to an iPhone 6 has 8 megapixels.

Does that mean that an iPhone 6 will give you prints just as good as a DSLR with 8 megapixels?

No.

Although the camera on an iPhone 6 is pretty good, it has a tiny little lens and minute image sensor that could never compete with the huge prime lens and (relatively) massive sensor found in a good DSLR.

You see, once you’ve reached 5 or 8 megapixels, other aspects of a camera are more important than the number of pixels it pushes out.

Personally I wish we’d all stop worrying about megapixels and get manufacturers to concentrate on the quality of those pixels. Give me better light sensitivity and color rendition any day.

Let’s Not Blame the Manufacturers

Let’s not blame the manufacturers/sales people too much either. If someone walks out of a camera store because the one down the street has a camera that has 2,000,000 more pixels for the same money, the store owner is soon going to be moaning at the manufacturer to up their pixel count. The manufacturer is going to be pressured to ‘keep up with the competition’ and squeeze in more pixels, whether or not that means the image is less sharp.

Like so many things, it’s a lack of education that pushes the direction of the market.

Okay, So What Should I Spend My Money On?

How good is your lens? I’d hazard a guest that spending the money that you would have spent on the extra megapixels on a well designed, fast, prime lens would make a huge difference to how crisp your images look.

If I had some money burning a hole in my pocket, here’s my list of things I’d buy in preference to a new camera:

  1. A better lens
  2. A better tripod with a ball-and-socket head
  3. Pro level flash gun with a stand and spare power pack for ‘one light’ work
  4. Wireless flash remote release units
  5. A sturdy case to keep it all in
  6. A bunch of good books
  7. A remote shutter release / smart controller
  8. A live workshop or DVD training program on something I care about
  9. Camera gear insurance!

What is a Megapixel?

Inside every digital camera is a light sensitive sensor that converts the light that falls on it in to digital signals. These signals are processed and the stored on the camera’s memory card as an image file. If you zoom in to the image file you’ll see dots of color.

Each of these small dots is called a pixels. It’s short for ‘picture element’. No matter how much you zoom in, you can’t see any more detail than a single pixel. Here are some pixels:

A photography showing pixels up close. The image shows that if you zoom in close to a digital photograph you see that the image is made up of descrete blocks of color which, when viewed from afar, all merge to give the impression of a continuous tone image.

Get a million pixels in your picture and it’s called a megapixel from the Greek word mégas (meaning large, great in number) and pixel. That’s it!

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