The Megapixel Myth
There is a long-standing myth among camera buyers that more megapixels are better. Each year, there are ads for the latest and greatest camera announcing the increase in megapixels. The idea has become ingrained in the public mind that we need to get the newest model because it has more megapixels than last year’s model. More is better! A well-planned marketing strategy by camera manufacturers to get consumers to upgrade to the latest device.
After doing a quick internet search, it appears that most digital point-and-shoot cameras being sold these days range from 15 to 20 megapixels, with digital SLR and mirrorless cameras even higher. The latest iPhone and Samsung cameras both offer 12-megapixel cameras built in. One of the misconceptions about these new cameras is that the extra megapixels are creating a sharper and better image when, in fact, image quality has more to do with the quality of the lens on the camera than the sensor inside of it.
What is a Megapixel?
We should start by defining a megapixel. A megapixel is 1 million pixels. A pixel is a tiny square on the sensor within the camera. To view a pixel in a photograph, open the image on a computer and zoom into the image until the little squares are visible. Once you see the square, you are seeing a pixel. The idea behind “the more megapixels the better” is that with more megapixels, crammed into a sensor the megapixel gets smaller and we can enlarge further the image before the squares become visible. Which, technically, us true.
There is only so much physical space on a camera sensor and, with each megapixel upgrade, more information is being crammed onto the sensor, creating larger and larger image files. When the images are stored on a computer, they then take up more hard drive space. This in turn requires buying computers with larger hard drives for storage and faster processors to handle the images, creating a never-ending cycle of buying.
Based on this photographer’s experience with portrait photography, I have found that most consumers order prints less than 8×10, occasionally enlarging to a 16×20 but rarely ever larger. Most images, in fact, are ordered digitally to be posted on social media with a few to be framed in a home. Sue Chastain wrote an article on Lifewire.com stating that only a 3 to 4-megapixel camera is needed for high-quality 8×10 prints. While a chart made available by B&H Photo Video shows that a 4-megapixel camera will create photo quality, 8×10 prints. Based on my experience I would say that around 8 to 10-megapixels is a good number for the average print.
There are other things to take into consideration with pixels and those are pixels per inch (ppi) and dots per inch (dpi). When printing a picture, the printer creates little dots of each color (a combination of red, blue, yellow, and blacks) to create the final image. Each printer can handle only so many dots per inch so, if printing an image with more megapixels than the printer can handle, they end up being unnecessary.
As each new year’s camera is produced with more megapixels, most manufactures also do other upgrades to the camera. Early digital point-and-shoot cameras were slow to use and, when pressing the ‘shoot’ button, the photographer would have to wait for the camera to focus and take the picture. The lag time often made the picture taken different from the picture intended to be taken. Also, the speed on new cameras has been greatly improved, as well as color quality and accuracy
Cropping and Enlargements
There are advantages to having a larger megapixel camera. If cropping the image, the more cropping that is being done, the more the zoom is increasing on that section of the print and this is increasing the pixel size. The more megapixels, the better the crop that can be made to allow for a good print.
Cropping an image involves editing it in a photo editing app and cutting out portions of the image to zoom in and focus on a specific area. This is where a larger megapixel number comes in handy. As you crop the image and zooming in to focus on a specific area on the picture you are cutting out megapixels, so by having more than is needed originally you will not necessarily see a reduction in quality.
One way to avoid the need for this is to take the image with the final output in mind. For example, if you are standing on the side of a mountain and the focus of the image is a lake at the bottom of the mountain, don’t take a picture of the entire skyline and crop it later, but take the picture of the lake that is the focus. Take the picture framing it as you intend the final output to be framed.
What Should I Buy?
When shopping for a new digital camera, any camera on the market today is going to have more than enough megapixels for the average consumer’s needs. Instead of looking for a camera with the highest megapixel count, there are other camera features to be looked at.
The most important thing to look at is the quality of the lens on the camera. Look at sample images taken with the camera and assess the clarity of the image. Also, does the lens have optical zoom or digital zoom? Optical zoom will create a better image.
Another thing to look at on the camera is the image color quality. Is it an accurate representation of the scene? Look at the blues in the sky and people’s skin tones to check for accuracy. How well does it take pictures in low light or bright light? Finally, look at the other camera features, such as screen display and autofocus options.
With people usually using the default settings on a camera read some reviews on the quality of the auto-focus and how fast and accurate it is. Additional features like follow focus are also handy if you are using the camera for video as well.
Quality Over Quantity
When buying a new camera don’t fall into the megapixel hype. Since most consumer prints are less than an 8×10 anything over an 8-megapixel camera is unnecessary. Most cameras being sold these days already exceed that it is more important to focus on the other features a new camera offers.
Megapixels tend to be emphasized when it comes to new digital cameras. Although more is usually better, it might not always be the case for cameras and megapixels. When it comes to buying a new camera look at the other features of the camera and ignore the megapixel count.