Everyone knows that more is better. Eight gigabytes is better than four. 550 horsepower is better than 500. Five blades are better than four. And 12 megapixels are better than eight. Right? That is without a doubt what we have all been indoctrinated to believe, especially when it comes to technology. More is better. And sometimes it’s true. But before you take on blind faith the idea that a higher megapixel camera is automatically superior to the one you already own, it’s a good idea to look past the marketing at the facts.
What is a megapixel?
“One megapixel” simply means that a camera can capture 1 million pixels per image. So, a 12 megapixel camera can capture 12 million pixels per image. Great! So that must mean a 12 megapixel camera is superior, right?
Well, no, because there are limits to how much of that information the human eye can discern. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: if you only view your images on a computer screen or on a website such as Flickr, your camera doesn’t really need to capture more than 1 to 3 megapixels, depending on how close you like to zoom in after the fact and how much cropping you will typically do. If you print your images but don’t ever go larger than the standard 4×6 size, you don’t need anything more than 2 megapixels. If you occasionally print your images at 8×10, you need something on the order of 5 megapixels. And for an 11×14 you can get by with 7. How about images larger than that? You still really only need 7 megapixels, because you need to stand a bit further back from a large image in order to take it in properly, so you aren’t going to notice that drop in image sharpness.
Add to this the dirty little secret that most manufacturers don’t want to tell you – more megapixels can actually decrease your camera’s image quality. This is because the higher megapixel count increases the signal to noise ratio in the camera, which means that you’ll end up with noisier images, especially in low light. In fact image quality really depends much more on the physical size of the sensor than it does on number of megapixels alone. Cameras with larger image sensors take better photos, as a general rule, for this simple reason: there is more surface area exposed to the light.
Now I’ve been saying this for a long time, but manufacturers still haven’t caught on. Or, more accurately, consumers still haven’t caught on. The consumer keeps demanding more megapixels (because more is better!), and manufacturers keep complying, so in the latest generation of digital cameras we’re seeing models capable of 18 to 24 megapixels (Hasselblad even has a 200 megapixel model that will set you back about 45 grand).
HTC is the first manufacturer to really try bucking this trend, though they have a hard road to walk if they’re going to successfully convince consumers the truth of this philosophy. Their new smart phone – the HTC One – has a camera that boasts a less-than-whopping 4 megapixels.
Now before the smart phone buying community could gasp and cover its collective mouth in horror, HTC was quick to point out that the HTC One’s camera does not use run-of-the-mill pixels: the pixels in the HTC One are “UltraPixels.” UltraPixels are 40% larger than the standard pixels we all know and love, which allows them to capture more light – 300% more light, according to HTC. And because the HTC One’s image sensor is the same size as the image sensors on many competing smart phones (including the iPhone 5,and the Nokia Lumia 920) the smaller megapixel count is what permits those pixels to be larger. And all of this leads to better photos in low light.
This all flies in the face of the conventional wisdom, of course, which is to keep image sensors roughly the same size and just try to cram more pixels onto them – naturally resulting in smaller pixels. So while it’s true that smaller pixels can also get the job done, they aren’t as good at it because they allow less light to reach the sensor.
Besides having a camera with a smaller megapixel count, the HTC One has other things going for it, too – it lets you grab full-resolution images from video, for example. This is a pretty cool feature because it means you can scroll through a video in the same way as you would scroll through your video library, stopping when you land on the frame you want to use as a still. The HTC One also has the added coolness of being sort of the SmartPhone equivalent of the DVR: it will begin recording video a few seconds before you actually hit the record button, so it is continually recording and dumping information on the off chance you might like to use something that happened before you actually reacted and hit “record.” It also has an f/2 aperture, which is the largest of any Android smart phone currently on the market and has a flash with five levels of brightness that fire depending on the distance between the camera and its subject.
And it kind of has to have all those extra things, because consumers – being consumers – need to have extra reasons to give up their high-megapixel smart phones in favor of those still-unproven UltraPixels. Because it’s telling that HTC isn’t exactly trumpeting the fact that its new phone has a 4 megapixel camera. More megapixel=better camera is a mindset that has become really entrenched in the digital camera buying public through the nearly two decades that digital cameras have been marketed to consumers. Changing that now means completely overturning some very long-standing ideas about what makes a good digital camera. HTC has some work to do, and it’s not going to be easy.
Should you buy a HTC One?
It may seem like I’m urging you to go out and get a HTC One. Well, it does have some unique features that will help photographers. While I like the UltraPixel idea, and want to reward HTC for (finally) doing the right thing by consumers regarding Megapixels, it’s too early to tell if the phone’s camera will live up to the marketing hype. Some reviews show a marked difference between the HTC One and the Galaxy S III. Others show no difference between it and an iPhone 5.
If you’re a photographer wanting to take better photos on-the-go, and you’re in the market for a new phone, definitely take a look. There is no longer a reason to stick with the iPhone or Galaxy S III for the great camera.