Do more Megapixels mean better photo quality? :: Digital Photo Secrets
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Do more Megapixels mean better photo quality?

by David Peterson 116 comments

They're getting better every year. Camera makers and your local Best Buy salesman are always talking about the next model with more megapixels than the one that came before it. The new numbers make your current model seem obsolete. If you bought a camera with six megapixels a few years ago, you wish you could get a new one that gets twelve. But does it really mean anything? Does having more megapixels amount to better photo quality, or is it all just marketing hype?


Up to a certain point, megapixels do matter. The first digital camera models had horrible resolution. They simply didn't compare to film cameras in terms of image quality. Every picture you took looked pixelated and blocky. I remember my first digital camera. It was a Sony Digital Mavica. I got a whopping half of a megapixel out of that camera, and it was considered revolutionary at the time.

What are Megapixels?

So what are megapixels, and how do they relate to image quality? To put it simply, a single megapixel amounts to exactly one million pixels in an image. If you know the width and height in pixels of an image created by your camera, it's easy to calculate how many megapixels your camera gets. In the case of my Digital Mavica, I simply multiply 640 by 480 to get 307,200 pixels total. So I guess I was wrong. My first digital camera got 0.3 megapixels.

How Many Megapixels do I need?

How many megapixels you need depends on the how you are going to use your images. Here are some common uses:

Viewing On Megapixels Needed
Computer Monitor / Online 1-3 megapixels
6x4 prints 2 megapixels
10x8 inch prints 5 megapixels
14x11 inch prints or larger 7 megapixels

If you only enjoy your photos on your computer screen, or uploading to a photo website to share with friends, you really only need a 1 megapixel camera. That is because your computer monitor is usually about 1000x1000 pixels = 1 megapixel! I'd err on the safe side and use a 3 megapixel camera or higher to enable cropping though, as I discuss below.

When you print your images, you will need more megapixels. If your megapixel count isn't enough for the size of image you print, your images won't look sharp.

Use the above table as a guide for the number of megapixels you need. Notice how I say "14x11 inch prints or larger" on the last line of the table. You only really need a 7 megapixel camera for any prints larger than 14x11. Even huge 30x40 posters. That's because we normally stand further away from larger prints, so we don't notice when they are less sharp!

Why you might need more megapixels

There are a few reasons why you might want to buy a camera with more megapixels than that listed in the table above. The most important is cropping. Sometimes you don't always capture what you want to capture in the right part of the frame. If you crop the image slightly, it looks a lot better than it would if you just left it alone. This is the main advantage of having a camera with more megapixels. It gives you a little extra room to play around with when you are cropping your photos.

But how much room do you really need? If you were to double the image size, that would be more than enough room to crop photos and still have a great looking image on your monitor screen. Now for a 6x4 print, we are up to 4 megapixels.

The other main reason is for the times when you take a photo you are really proud of. You will want to print it as large as possible to show it off! This is where having taken the shot with a 6 megapixels camera can really help!

The Megapixel Marketing Myth

But wait, I hear you say, these are incredibly small numbers! Why do camera makers keep making cameras with many more megapixels every year? The answer is simple. They need a reason to convince us in the public that the next model we buy will be a big upgrade from the one they we now. What better way to do it than with a number that steadily increases as camera makers make bigger sensors every year?

So, what is the lesson to be learned from all of this? Megapixels are great. They brought digital photography out of the dark ages and allowed photographers to make digital images that compare to film images. But megapixels are no reason to upgrade your current model. Instead, focus on a kind of image you would like to get and consider the limitations of your current camera model. You might need a different lens or a camera body that takes a quicker continuous stream of photos. If you do end up buying a new camera body, do it for reasons other than the fact that you will be getting more megapixels with it.

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Comments

  1. gloria says:

    HI David,
    My family is going on our first family vacation in November to California. Long story short I would like to be able to get a camera that will capture clear memories that will last forever. I was thinking about getting a Canon EOS rebel, the specs online say is 18 MP, and comes with 18-55mm lens, 70-300mm lens. Would this give me what I need? My husband seem to think that the more you spend the better and is looking at the Nikon brand. Any help you could provide would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you,
    Gloria

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Gloria,

      Yes, in general the more money you spend, the better quality images you will get.

      However, it is not true that the more money you spend the better photos you will take. That's all about the person behind the camera, not the camera itself.

      The EOS camera you mention will be a good start. I also recommend you take a course on photography (like one of my free courses here: http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/courses ) to learn how to use your camera to the best of its ability.

      Good luck!

      David.

  2. Regan says:

    Hey David,

    I'm looking to buy a camera that allows me to shoot landscapes,want to have long exposures and things. I was looking at canon eos D1300, are these any good, what do you think?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Regan,

      Not sure which camera you mean - The D1300 doesn't exist. The D3100 does exist but it's a Nikon camera not a Canon. However, it doesn't matter - both manufacturers produce excellent cameras.

      And yes, the D3100 is an excellent camera. The only suggestion I have is to look for a model that has a removable lens. Those lenses usually have screw fittings on the end where you can install filters. Filters like ND filters might be useful when taking long exposures of landscapes during the day.

      More on daytime long exposures: http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/tip/2736/daytime-long-exposure-photography/

      David.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Hello,
    I'm looking for a good all around camera to travel with. People, scenery, flowers, good in low light and some action.
    A bit of video. I'm more of a point and shoot person but want quality photos and will do some cropping.
    Can you make some recommendations please?

    Thanks,
    Liz

    • David Peterson says:

      HI Liz,

      I'd recommend any of the point and shoot cameras from Canon or Nikon. They work well in most light conditions.

      David.

  4. pol says:

    hi, im planning on buying a nikon d1x for $150, i do macro photograpy, is the nilon d1x worth it?
    thanks

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Pol,

      The D1 is a very old camera - over 15 years old. If you are limited by cash, then I recommend purchasing a new point and shoot camera like the Nikon Coolpix. It will be less expensive, and have better features (other than the removable lens) than the D1. Make sure you purchase a model that supports macro mode.

      David.

  5. Craig Duncan says:

    Hi David
    I am looking to upgrade my Nikon L120 bridge camera, I mostly take pictures of motosport. I have the choice of a Nikon D3300 kit that is only 1 month old for 180 or a Nikon D3100 kit with a Sigma 55-300mm lens for 200. I will need the larger lens to take shots at Knockhill Racing Circuit (Scotland) but will need to wait a few months to save the money. I know the D3300 has better specs (24mp vs 14mp) and a 5 shots per second vs 3 but would I notice much difference in the real world. Any advice you can give would be appreciated. Craig

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Craig,

      I think it's worth saving the money. For action shots at a distance (ie car racing) you'll definitely appreciate the extra megapixels, and shots per second.

      David.

  6. Courtney says:

    Hello. I am looking to buy my first professional camera. Mostly I wouldnlike to record, and video that things that happen in my life, and I was wondering what you would recommend? I found one I really like online that I can pick-up in person, but have NO clue what the details about the camera mean? The caption with the camera says this "canon powershot 16MP digutal camera with premier bundle - 50x zoom canon"

    Thank you for any help! :)

    -Courtney

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Courtney,

      It's hard for me to recommend cameras as they all have different features which are useful for different kinds of photographers.

      However, I searched on that name and it looks like a bundle being sold by Blinq that includes a Powershot SX530 HS, memory card, tripod and some other accessories. The SX530 is a great camera to start with, and Canon is a great brand, so you'll be fine.

      Good luck!

      David.

  7. beneficii says:

    I'm wanting to take detailed photos of something small. Would more megapixels help?

    Basically, I'm trying to keep up with the moles on my body in case there are any changes which could lead to skin cancer.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi,

      I'd recommend a macro lens for that rather than more megapixels. I think for checking skin cancer you need to watch for changes in growth or color and a macro lens would be best for that.

      David.

  8. nidhishree says:

    is 21mp a nice camera quality?is it required for a smartphone to have so much mp?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi,

      21mp is plenty. And no, you don't need that many in a smart phone, but it can be handy if you want to crop your image a lot.

      David.

  9. hugh snyder says:

    Walmart slide to digital service [jpeg] is 4 mp. Cost $25 for 135 slides

    Wolverine converter for 20 mp. image [jpeg] cost around $100.

    Walmart clearly cheaper, but 4mp v 20mp seemslike very big diff. Is it

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Hugh,

      It depends. The Wolverine is a unit that will convert unlimited photos. So unless you have more than 500 slides to convert, then Walmart will be cheaper.

      If your slides are old, they most likely won't have more than 4mp of data on them anyway - when you get higher quality like 20mp, you'll start to photograph the film grain.

      Good luck.

      David.

  10. Adam Smith says:

    I am in the Market to buy a new DSLR camera for a specific purpose. Most of my photos are of small objects and Macro shots in a lightbox... Then a lot of photo stacking. I was looking at the Nikon d3300 which is around 24 mother I seen a d3000 around 10 mp.. The price difference is a lot. Will the megapixels play a big factor in my type of shots. Or would I be ok going with the cheaper camera and investing in better lens's
    Thank you
    Adam Smith

    • David Peterson says:

      HI Adam,

      No, megapixels won't matter too much for your specific use. You'll be quite close to your subjects so won't need to crop as much (which is where more megapixels is very handy).

      However, there are other differences between the D3300 vs D3000. The 3300 was released 5 years after the 30000, so it will have much better electronics inside. It also takes video whereas the 3000 doesn't.

      If you don't need video, I recommend spending more on a lens now. When you need to upgrade the camera body, you'll be able to keep the lens.

      I hope that helps.

      David.

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