The Megapixel Myth



There is a longstanding myth among camera consumers: more megapixels is better. Each year, there are ads for the latest and greatest camera announcing the increase in megapixels. The idea is becoming ingrained in the public’s mind that we need to get the newest model because it has more megapixels than last year’s model.

After doing a quick internet search, it appears that most digital point-and-shoot cameras being sold these days range from 10 to 14 megapixels, with digital SLR cameras even higher. 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 and the sensor inside of it.

What is a Megapixel?

A megapixel is 1 million pixels. A pixel is a tiny square on the sensor within the camera. A pixel can be viewed in a photograph by opening the image on a computer and zooming into the image until the little squares are visible. The idea behind “the more megapixels the better” is that with more megapixels, they get smaller and the image can be enlarged further before they become visible. The common idea is that the overall image is clearer and of higher quality.

What Does a Megapixel Do?

There is only so much 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 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.

Image Source
Most consumers order prints less than 8x10, according to my experience. Sue Chastain writes on About.com that only a 3 to 4 megapixel camera is needed for high quality 8x10 prints. While a chart (see image to right) shows that a 4 megapixel camera will create photo quality, 8x10 prints.

There are other things to take into consideration when it comes to 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 (see chart below).

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, in turn, this is increasing the pixel size. The more and smaller the megapixel, the better the crop that can be made to allow for a good print.

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 actually 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.

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 the point-and-shoot 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 an optical zoom or digital zoom? An optical zoom will create the 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 auto focus options.

Quality Over Quantity

When buying a new camera don’t fall into the megapixel hype. Since most consumer prints are less than an 8x10 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.


This article is also published at Suite101...