If you are new to photography, Megapixel count of a camera will be very important to you. However, as you keep learning more about cameras and photography you will realize that megapixel count isn’t as big a deal as most people believe it to be.
When you buy a new camera or a smartphone, one of the first few questions people ask you is what amount of megapixel it has. In fact, in many cases, you also fuss about the megapixel count.
It is important, no doubt, but it isn’t the only deciding factor. That is to say, higher megapixel cameras will not automatically guarantee you better image quality.
In photography, a number of factors come into action when producing a good image. That’s why megapixel alone isn’t enough.
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There are people who think a phone with a 48 MP camera is way better than a 15MP DSLR camera.
Yes, the phone may give you the type of photos that you like. But if you simply think about how a camera is built and the importance of its parts, you will realize that a smartphone merely mimics the actual camera.
I am not saying that you should buy a DSLR instead of a smartphone.
In fact, your purpose in photography will decide which one suits you the best. What I am actually saying, following the title of this page, camera megapixel doesn’t always matter.
In the following sections of the article, I’ll tell you how that works out. Remember that I’ll simply be talking about cameras that are basically the same in every way other than their megapixel count.
Table of Contents
What do Megapixels Stand For?
By camera megapixels, we understand the quality of the image produced by it. While that is somewhat true, there’s more to this matter.
A pixel is the smallest part of any image. A megapixel is simply a million pixels. The megapixel count of a camera will decide how many pixels there will be in the image it captures with its sensor.
You can also find out the megapixel by multiplying the number of vertical pixels by that of horizontal ones. Like the area of a rectangle.
The basic idea is… if there are more pixels in an image it will be of a higher quality. That’s why most people prefer a higher amount of megapixel count in their cameras.
However, other factors like lenses and sensors, along with the megapixel, will decide the overall quality of an image.
The reason why a DSLR, even with a comparatively lower megapixel, will give you a better image than a smartphone is that it has bigger lenses and sensors.
The megapixels that we are so worried about are largely connected with the sensor of the camera. Because the sensor decides how many pixels it can capture by taking in the light coming through the lenses.
In essence, the true feat of any camera device is how much light it can absorb and in what manner.
For this reason, we must always consider all the factors that work together to produce an image, which includes but not limited to lens, sensor, and megapixel count.
Why are More Megapixels Better?
I know I have been making the argument that higher megapixel isn’t always important. But then again, there are many cases when it is better to have more megapixels.
The light absorbed by the camera sensor is stored in the form of details. These details will then form the resulting image. That is why a higher megapixel count will be necessary to capture as much detail as possible.
For example, a camera with a 6MP sensor will be able to capture twice as much detail in an image as that with a 3 MP sensor. It will capture 4 times more than a 1.5 MP one.
If you only need to view the images on your smartphone or computer, you don’t have to worry about these things. This only matters when you are going to print out the images. Let me tell you why.
Dots per inch or dpi is a factor of great importance for printing out images.
We always try to print our photos with at least 300 dpi setting. It may not seem like much but in reality, 300 dpi is the maximum level at which a human eye can make out details on a photo from a distance.
Here, the size of the photo is going to determine how many megapixels you need to print out a photo with this level of dpi. For a 4x6 photo, you can work with a 2 MP camera, for an 8x10 photo a 7.2 MP camera will do.
You don’t always have to print with 300 dpi. For instance, you can get a decent 4x6 photo with 150 dpi if you use a camera of 1 MP sensor. That is, lesser MP yields similar sized photo but with decreased dpi. You get the idea.
The thing here is that a higher megapixel will allow you to print out larger photos at the highest standard dpi which is 300.
Printed photos can be as large as 11x14 or more. In most cases, we don’t need to go that far. So, a 4MP camera will work just fine in order to print a photo of 8x10 size. This applies to both SLRs and smartphones.
Now, it’s not always about print-outs. A higher megapixel will be very useful in zooming in an image.
Some cameras have Digital Zooms. This is basically a zoom feature that works without involving the lenses. It is a bit like cropping a captured image in order to get a closer photo.
A camera sensor with 6MP, if zoomed four times, will only use the 1.5MP that’s in the middle of that sensor. That is if you zoom 4x the image will be captured by using only 1.5MP of the sensor.
This is not actually a bad thing. But the resulting image will be of lesser details than the one you’d have got with a camera with optical zoom, one that involves the lenses.
So, if your camera has a high megapixel count it will be able to compensate for the loss of details when you use the Digital Zoom.
Just consider a camera with a 14 MP sensor. If you use 4x Digital Zoom, you will still get an image taken with 3.5 MP.
That is, there will still be a lot of details and can produce a high-quality 5x7 print-out. Keep in mind that the quality will decrease when printing the same image in a larger size.
These are the cases when a high megapixel count will definitely be necessary. But if printing photos is out of the question, you are good to go with lower megapixel cameras.
Why More Megapixels Can be a Drawback?
A higher megapixel count has its drawbacks too. I know it sounds a bit unbelievable. After all, even the camera companies always focus on advertising how many megapixels their devices can offer us.
I wouldn’t blame you if the first thing you want in your camera is a high number of megapixels. But it can be overkill in some situations.
You should already know that a camera functions by absorbing light on its sensor through the lenses. In most cases, the more light a camera can absorb the better images it can produce. The light helps the camera to generate the right color and brightness for each of the pixels.
In other words, the more megapixels your camera has the more light it will need to produce high-quality images. It also means, if you are working during the night or in low-light conditions, a high megapixel count will not work in your favor.
Let me explain. A camera with a high megapixel count can pack a large number of pixels in each of the images it captures. So, if it gets the right amount of light, it will be able to produce great quality pixels.
But there’s a catch. The more pixels there are in an image, the less light each of them will have. It will not be a problem for you when you take photos during the day or in a lot of light.
Now imagine taking photos with the same camera but in a lower light setting. Your camera will not get enough light, and so it will not be able to generate the correct color and brightness for each of the pixels. As a result, your images will be full of annoying “noises”.
You can solve this problem by using a camera with the same sensor size but with a lower megapixel count.
It will pack fewer amounts of pixels in the images it captures, and so each of those pixels will get comparatively more light. This will help to reduce noise and bring forth better quality images even during the night.
When is Megapixel Count not Important?
In essence, megapixels always matter to some extent. But it only matters as part of a range of aspects concerning how you use your camera.
In some cases, a higher count will be helpful, and in other cases, a lower count will be the most suitable.
There are also cases when you will have to think about the other features of a camera before its megapixel count.
In such situations, photographers should prioritize the sensor size, dynamic range, low-light performance, frames per second, etc.
From what I have seen so far, you will not need more than 10 to 15 megapixels for taking photos in most of the cases. With the right kind of camera specifications, you can easily capture high-quality images.
These images will be good enough for viewing on a smartphone or PC, and can also be printed to sizes as large as 10-20 inches.
In fact, how the photos are going to be viewed is a matter to consider here as well. Depending on the viewing conditions I just mentioned, a camera with a 12-megapixel sensor can easily do the job.
You can even crop your images if necessary.
As you can see, the megapixel count of a camera is sometimes the least of your worries. Those who have been in photography for a long time will easily agree with me on this. But if you are new, you may feel skeptical and that’s alright.
To be honest, the best way to learn this art is through experience. I can ramble on and on, it might still not make any sense. But as you start doing it yourself, you will easily understand it.
Are there any Downsides to Megapixels?
In the beginning, you may not realize this but megapixels are directly connected to storage space limit and editing. These are two things that come after taking photos, and so they can easily skip one’s mind.
So, how is megapixel valid here? You should know that a camera with a high megapixel count will produce images with larger file sizes.
Say, you are a wedding or sports photographer; you will have to take a huge number of photos in one session. Now imagine taking 5000 photos each of which is 5-6 megabytes in size – what will be the total size of the photos? A lot.
Professional photographers always carry additional storage space in case of shortage. Even then, it might fall short. That’s just how it is.
Think about taking only RAW images, and their sizes are never small. With a high megapixel count, each of them may easily be 50 megabytes in size.
Personally, it will not seem like much to you. But to a photography company that shoots 100+ events every year, all the images will amount to terabytes of storage space. I know, it’s not a big deal nowadays. But it’s also true that dealing with 25+ terabytes worth of images is no piece of cake.
Now that the images have been stored, you would need to edit them. This is where the real trouble begins. The higher the megapixel count of an individual photo the longer it takes to edit it.
For a wedding photoshoot, a person may have to edit around 2000 to 4000 images. You may think that it doesn’t take that long to edit photos, and it’s true as long as their megapixel count is low. But with a higher count, the overall workload will easily increase by hours.
No, I don’t want to make you feel discouraged. In fact, these are the two issues most professional photographers have to deal with every day.
So far there hasn’t been found a solution to these issues. However, by wisely selecting the megapixel count you can make a difference here.
Having More Megapixels Can be very Useful As Well
A high megapixel count will be a godsend when enlarging and cropping photos. When printing out enlarged photos the biggest concern is to make sure all the details remain clearly visible.
This is when a high megapixel count really comes in handy.
You can enlarge any photo, but it will lose its quality if it doesn’t have the necessary number of pixels. Most of the details will be lost and your work will go to waste.
A higher megapixel count means a higher number of pixels in each photo. Imagine a photo taken with a 40-megapixel camera sensor.
If needed, you can enlarge it to 20x30 inch size and get a high-quality print-out. All of its details will remain intact and the pixels will not lose their brightness and color.
The same things apply when cropping that image. You would be able to crop as much as 80% of it and still have enough details. In fact, you can easily print out the crop and not have any of its crispness lost.
Cropping a photo directly leads to enlarging a small portion of a photo. We do this a lot for fun or otherwise. But it is of great help when you work in industries like that of fashion or advertising.
Photographers working in these industries always use cameras with high megapixel count and high-resolution sensors. This not only produces superior quality images necessary for their job but also makes their job easier.
You can take a single portrait with very high-quality resolution, and then crop it in any way you want. None of the details, be that facial expression or fabric texture will be lost. The print-outs will also come out perfectly.
That is, in cases like this you need to have a camera that will provide you with ultra-high-resolution images. One of the best ways to ensure that is to have a high megapixel count.
Myth: Resizing high Resolution Images Is Bad
There is a prevailing myth among photographers that resizing a high resolution image is bad or a waste of time. They argue that you should have better used a camera with lower megapixel count.
Here we are talking about RAW images which always have a rather larger file size. Sometimes we need to resize them while doing post-processing. There are cameras which can resize RAW images, but the rest of the times we have to do it ourselves.
So, what’s the deal here?
Well, you may need to resize images for a variety of reasons, but that’s not our concern here. The idea is to have almost the same amount of details in a smaller file size, and this is where megapixel count comes into action.
Imagine two photos, one taken with a 16 MP Nikon D4 and the other with a 36 MP D800. Now, resize the latter photo down to 16 MP. You will get a smaller file size but with more details than you had with the D4 16 MP. This is because the D800 packed more pixels in an image than D4.
Another thing that we must consider here is ISO performance.
Earlier, I argued that it is better to use a camera with lower megapixel count when working in low-light conditions. However, in this case, when you resize the 36 MP photo, you will also get a better low-light performance.
Everything Comes Down to This
Camera megapixels matter depending on your genre of photography. Even if you are completely new in this area of work, you should always try to buy a camera that offers a multitude of features. Megapixel count is just one of them.
If you are a pro photographer and you have a specialized genre, you should already know which particular features you need. You would also know if you need a higher megapixel count or a lower one.
If you are a newbie or take photos simply as a hobby, I suggest you get something that will not limit your photography options.
That is to say, your camera should allow you to experiment with different genres of photography and light conditions. You should consider the megapixel count keeping this in mind.
In short, your purpose of photography will decide what kind of features you need in your camera including the megapixels.
For example, if you like to take photos for fun, or do wedding/sports/wildlife photography, you’d probably click a large number of photos. In such cases, a lower megapixel count will easily give you high-quality results.
On the other hand, if you are into fashion, landscape, or architecture photography, you would definitely need a high number of megapixels.
But that’s not all there is to photography, and knowing that is very important.
Megapixel count is one of many features that decide how well a camera would perform. There are matters like lenses, sensors sizes, dynamic ranges, low-light performance, and more. Take them all into consideration before you choose a camera.