Do more Megapixels mean better photo quality?

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Do more Megapixels mean better photo quality?

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
6×4 prints 2 megapixels
10×8 inch prints 5 megapixels
14×11 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 1000×1000 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 “14×11 inch prints or larger” on the last line of the table. You only really need a 7 megapixel camera for any prints larger than 14×11. Even huge 30×40 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 6×4 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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David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.

Comments (57)

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  1. suhas says:

    sir, i have one basic question to which you can answer to my email id [ for my convince] question is
    i have used bothcarl zeiss lens [3.2mp] and sony official lens [8mp]..
    My observation was : poto taken from carl zeiss had good clarity and sharpness and mainly COLOR REPRODUCTION,SHARPNESS
    my question is

  2. suhas says:

    sir,its very informative…but i have one basic doubt about which you can answer to My emil id [for my convenience] my question is
    i hav used 3.2 mp carl zeiss camera and 8mp sony official lens…finally i found PHOTOS TAKEN WITH CARL ZEISS LENS WAS MORE SUPERIOR TO SONY LENS..


  3. yashasvi garg says:

    Dear sir, recently i felt an inner urge to get some knowledge of pixels and photography and i found this website very useful after going through it. I have a doubt in my mind. My mobile phone has 2mp camera(1600*1200). When i try to open the images of much higher resolution than it, the images are opened but very slowly. How is it possible to open higher resolution image in a mobile having less resolution.
    Thank you

  4. Josh says:

    I believe some of the numbers u put out we’re wrong I work in a photo center that’s part of an electronics dept the numbers put here for how many pixel for what size I think are mis informed for a 4×6 to get decent quality I recommend 5 mega pixel 5×7 id say 5 would be ok but u may want 8mp 8×12 I’d say 12 mp my 2 cents for working in a photo center

  5. Sharon Peteersen says:

    I have started taking pictures again. I used to love taking them as a teen now into my 40s I have started using my digital camera Canon SX 40. Friends have said they like my photos. I like them too, but i think they are just photos. . My question is…does it matter who prints your shots? Walmart / vs Shutterfly or a lab like ProEX? i would like to frame some prints and according to friends, I could sell some. Really? I think my friends are kind. I tell them it is the camera doing the work, if it were me there would be no duds. But if I could sell some, I would like the thrill of saying I did. Also, how do I make sure they are not copied when they are printed and framed? How do you determine price?
    So does it matter in the end where they are printed?
    Thanks for answering my question.

  6. Jc says:

    Hi Dave,
    What a great relief to hear such a sensible voice in the false arena of camera manufacturers spin.

    I have been a pro photographer and card carrying press photojournalist for the last 25 years …………but now I am retired and happily sat on a beach in Thailand having sold my successful digital studio in the UK.
    My clients were all blue chip companies and also record companies for whom I shot many innovative album covers ……..

    I still don’t understand why camera manufacturers are pushing the envelope to make digital cameras be able to reproduce a ‘film like quality’. Why not just shoot film, or is the digital photographers insecurity so bad they need to check their screens after every shot??

    I did shoot Hasselblad film cameras for most of my commercial work prior to having to convert to digital backs so as to stay in the game during the early digital revolution……

    Now I am inundated by my commercial clients wishing to achieve that ‘film look’.

    The Internet has been my best friend because most clients only want me to shoot for low res Internet publication so I no longer need medium format IQ.

    So now I only carry a Leica MP and Summicron glass and scan my negs with an Epson 700. This means I don’t need my digital studio and I can live in paradise still servicing my commercial clients needs with one camera and 3 lenses.

    It’s not the camera that brings commercial success it is the photographers eye and abilities.

    I am so glad to be out of the rat race of the pointless arguments re film vs digital…………..and all the camera phones in the world will never beat my film quality latitudes and the experience I have accumulated over the last 25yrs of shooting………..which is why I am funded by my images to live in paradise.


  7. johnd123 says:

    I own 3 cameras 2 are canon dslrs being totally honest this guy is correct to a point about megapixels.. more does not mean better it just means bigger.. one major important factor in all this is the sensor size!!! if you have a mobile phone which is 10 mega pixels and a dslr of the same the image quality would be much better with the dslr basically because of having a larger sensor. the bigger the sensor the better the image quality and dynamic range less noise. the more pixels squeezed onto a sensor the more noise, distortion and bleeding ;)

  8. Caroline Evans says:

    It is not the megapixels that count, but the sensor! A 6 megapixel Nikon D70s will take better images than a 12 megapixel compact ixus for example.

    It is not the pixels that give a great image, but a good sensor gives a good image.

    Look at the sensor size, not the pixel size

    BIGGER sensor is what you want. NOT more pixels!

  9. Swapna Billa says:

    Hi Dave, can you please suggest for a camera among
    Nikon coolpix P510, L820, Sony NexF3 and Canon SX50HS based on all factors like pixels, resolution, lens, zoom , etc. My use is totally personal for my trips with my family and save good pics of my kids. Please advise as I am totally confused…

  10. thai_rat says:

    Dont pictures taken in dark conditions look better with higher number of pixels since the graininess is smaller and harder to see?

  11. Anthony Orr says:

    The fact that the more m pix I have the better I can print large format photos. On my design-jet printer with a 6mp I could get a reasonable image at A2 or A3 and a quite good A1 size. Now with now with 18 mp on my Nikon 5100 I can get a wonderful A1 image and a good A0 image on photo paper or canvas I cant help looking forward to what the future will bring.The cost of these high res Nikon don’t break the bank.

  12. Carol says:

    I have a Nikon D90 at 12 mp. When I take my RAW files to LR or PS Elements and save them in TIFF format they often end up being dozens of mp’s? How do these programmes work? Why are the mp counts so high. Does the software interpolate pixels, and if so, how does this effect print quality?
    I haven’t figured out this part of the equation.

  13. As a near novice to the photography world and after reading most of the articles printed I now have a much better understanding of what digital camera I really need and more importantly, why. Sales teams in camera shops are so wrong in the information they have given me when I was deciding on what to purchase as I would be sitting here now with a high priced, high megapixel, huge zoom defunct camera which would’ve put me off photography for good. Your knowledge is very much appreciated, I feel like a photographer now :-) I have opted for the Lumix LX7 instead of the Sony Alpha 65 my camera shop was trying to sell me. The shop has lost a sale as I bought online.

  14. Mark says:

    Will higher megapixels enable me to enlarge a photo more (larger sizes) without it getting grainy ?

  15. David says:

    For David Peterson

    Umm HDTV is getting upgraded to 2k, 4k, 5k and UHDTV

    Do a google search

    And IMHO I think mp do matter when I take a photos with my 7D with 200mm lens with a tack sharp photo I can zoom in all day and you just can’t do that with 12mp

  16. my page says:

    Hello There. I found your blog the usage of msn. This is a really well written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and come back to learn more of your helpful info. Thanks for the post. I’ll certainly comeback.

  17. Jan says:

    Great blog! So can anyone suggest a really decent third party lens for Canon EOS (Sigma or Tamron) that is best for portrait photography and fashion photography? Thanks!

  18. Just make sure the zoom is an optical zoom not a digital zoom. Otherwise you’ll find your images are more blurry than you would like.

    Good luck with your photos!

    • ateeb says:

      Sir, can u plz elaborate what is oversampling and I have heard that Sony Xperia Z2 takes pics at 20mp but final image was of just 8mp…whys thanks

  19. gokulprasath says:

    i planned to buy nikon L120 digital camera.. plzzz sent your suggestions. it is having 14mp and 21x zoom. iam satisfied with zooming. is 14mp mp is enough for me to take wildlife photographs??

  20. dougbm says:

    I have a Sigma SD14 which has a 4.6Mp Foveon sensor (and triple the photosites of other sensors) and it often gives a better result than my 12Mp Canon 5D and both are less noisy than my ex Sony a350 which was 14Mp. You never see grain noise in the Sigma but it doesn’t handle hi ISO due to the stacking of the photosites needing a lot of light. The 5D has good resolving power (shows detail) but you can often see the grain although it is acceptable up to 1600 ISO. Canon seem to have a handle on hi Mp and hi ISO in the 7D and 5D MkII as do Nikon in the D3 but generally more Mp = greater detail but more noise. It is just physics really. No free lunch although they are getting better. However I do not want to process a RAW file larger than 15Mp (will make me think seriously about upgrading my 5D).

  21. Edison says:

    I recently bought a Pentax kx 12 mpix only to play with Photoshop. When I’m using destructives editions the final quality appears to depend on the initial image size.The more, the better. ins’t it? It’s my favorite hobby. I’m
    not an expertise and would like if possible, an explanation about.Forgive
    my english.Thanks

  22. John,

    Even the current HD TVs don’t require a high megapixel count.

    The highest HD resolution available on a TV is 1920×1080. Times those numbers together, and you get just over 2 million pixels. That’s only a 2 megapixel image!


  23. Stan says:

    Comment on:
    ” if you work with a point and shoot camera, with say 3 x optical zoom did the more pixels not help you a bit to get a better photo on max zoom, it you zoom in on the computer.”

    The technically correct answer to this is “no”. Optical zoom only determines the content of the picture. However, an exposure taken with the same camera with NO zoom and later cropped to have the same contents as the one taken with Zoom, will have less pixels and less resolution.

    Regarding ‘Digital Zoom” – some say never use it as one can use programs, such as photoshop, to enlarge and crop.
    Depending on the camera, the camera electronics may do a better job than Photoshop because the internal electronics are working with the RAW picture file data before saving it as a Jpeg.

    It is a good idea to take some pictures with and without max digital zoom. Use photoshop or similar program) to enlarge and crop the non-digital zoom picture to make them both the same size and resolution then compare the pictures. I suggest using a tripod and if the camera has a time delay option, use it to avoid any camera shake.

  24. John Rocha says:

    Hi Dave – another comment

    Things change so quickly in the digital photo world! It’s a point I’m making in an ebook I’m working on.

    All the points you made and the comments are right in saying that more megapixels mean better quality if other factors are taking into consideration too.

    Still, there are new factors coming up – one of these is the TV revolution.

    Lots of people are buying huge High Definition televisions and with the convergence of computer and television technology they may well want to show their photos on these screens – I think you’ll need plenty of mexapixels to look good there.

    There’s one other point to which is a sort of mindset matter – lots of people are thinking of comparing digital cameras with standard 35mm film cameras and there’s no doubt that digital has come a long way to meet and beat this standard.

    However many film photographers used and use medium and large format film cameras and are used to a different type of image.

    To meet this standard more miexapixels are needed


  25. Arline says:

    Thanks for an illuminating article,

  26. Kennygior says:

    Do more Megapixels mean better photo quality? from: @dphotosecrets
    I totally disagree with David Peterson. Megapixels and dpi makes a huge difference in large blow ups. I’d say 20×24 or larger 12 megapixels doeset cut it for sharp detail. I print reproductions of art work. I could never get nearly enough detial with 12 megapixels. I need more.

  27. Thulani says:

    This is a gud subject coz some of us were thinking of pixels as the determinant of gud quality. If i may ask, are you saying that 7 megapixels is the best standard so far the rest dont mean much, its just a marketing strategy? and the other thing, i’d love to know then which brand is best.

    Thanks a million tyms you are of such great help.

  28. Max Riethmuller says:

    What I’d like to see is a continued growth in sensor resolutions, but at a slower rate so to allow for development of sensor and lens quality to keep pace. No point in having hi resolution sensors when the noise is so bad you have to compress the shit out of the image.

    Compression is my bug bear with digicams, atleast cheap ones that don’t have a raw option. You are stuck with their idea of the best ratio between noise and detail. Personally I prefer they err on the side of detail (more noise), since I can de-noise myself if I want to. But ideally better quality sensors overcome the problem altogether. Another factor is lense quality – a good lens can make a small sensor perform better than a large one by ensuring the sensor gets the best and sharpest image possible falling on it’s receptors.

    However that all said, I love the fact that my 8MP C905 digital camera phone has bucketloads of detail and I would take that camerphone over my old kodak 2MP even though the Kodak has a much better quality sensor with very little noise. With the C905, I can reduce the 8MP image to 4MP and still have a larger clearer better image than the Kodak (mind, sony ericsson sensors have excellent colour reproduction which many hi-res camera phones do not – I wouldn’t compare some cameraphones to the Kodak no matter what the resolution)

    All said, I tend to believe that resolution should be the leading edge of digicam sensor development, as long as sensor quality (to limit noise) and lens technology are always just a step behind and not left outof the equation altogether.

  29. Deon says:

    Thx Dave for a wonderful blog – I get your e-mails regularly and am never disappointed when I read your postings. I agree with you fully – at some stage the megapixels simply does not matter.


  30. Yaeli B says:

    Well, the number of megapixels may have a bearing on photo quality up to a point. But none of the posters have mentioned the fact that users of the Leica Digilux 2 (a 5 megapixel camera with a 2/3rds sensor)universally report picture quality that beats (hands down) the 8-10-12 mg competition. A critical issue seems to be how well the sensor and the lens work together, and in the above mentioned case, apparently extremely well. People routinely report exhibition quality results from this camera, using print sizes of 13X19. So there is a more subtle issue at work here. (And the proof is in the pudding: on the used market, the prices of the Digilux 2 and the Panasonic LC1 (it’s companion camera) continue to rise the more people hear of and use these cameras!)

  31. Jess says:

    Does more megapixel makes you a better or seeing things better that makes your image unique? I think not, even a camera phone with 2MP in the hands of a professional would be able to capture Wow image it is because he has trained his eyes on how to get a better picture and not to complain about megapixel. Find some exhibit about photos and you will not hear of megapixel. If u worry about megapixel then get a film camera, no pixelation and can zoom many many times.

  32. Douglas Hubbard says:

    It should be noted that the max megapixel is based on raw setting, not jpeg.
    A 15 MP camera set on smallest jpeg setting will not give you a 15MP

  33. 90% of the pictures I take are of my kids playing sport. I do get some decent shots but suspect I would struggle with lower MP without spending serious money on some lens.

    The high MP means I can crop out great shots taken at distance, are there any othe suggestions?

    Also – any suggestions on the best reasonably priced sports lens I could get for Canon 50D which would be good for both outdoor and low light sports?

    I do plan to buy a x2 extender

  34. Krishna Ghosh says:

    Thanks David for explaining the megapixel myth

  35. Andre says:

    Dave that is so tru, but if you work with a point and shoot camera, with say 3 x optical zoom did the more pixels not help you a bit to get a better photo on max zoom, it you zoom in on the computer.

  36. afalco says:

    Before you can determine how many megapixels are required for a good photograph, you must decide what the term “good photograph” means to you. If your include expressions like “artistic content”, “emotive content”, “web publishing”, “family album” in your answer than you probably don’t need high MPs, unless you want/need to crop aggressively. At the same time you don’t really need very high quality optics either.
    But if you crave for fine details, large prints, smooth tones and an ability to crop when needed then high MPs large sensors and good lenses are the way to go. Although it is true that the higher is the pixel count the more noise you’ll have for same sized sensors of the same generations, it is not always true if you compare different generation sensors. Comparing sensors from different sensor generations are not so easy. I have shot with 8MP (2004) and 18MP (2009) APS-C size sensor DSLRs and while I rarely went over ISO 800 on the 8MP camera because ISO 1600 shots were sometimes unacceptable I don’t hesitate to shoot now at ISO 3200 when the light is bad. And if you print and not pixel peep on your monitor at 100% then the noise is usually invisible. But noise may even be good for a photo. I saw fantastic (deliberately) very high “noise” images.
    I have read many times that high quality lenses are a must to get every details your sensor is capable, but my experiences show that even my mediocre quality optics produce better detail on 18Mp than on 8MP.
    So in my opinion more megapixels are always better if you have good enough optics.

  37. Brian772 says:

    Can someone explain the difference in photo quality between a 12MP p&s camera with a smaller sensor vs. a 12MP DSLR camera with a larger sensor? Assuming all other things (settings, focal length, etc.) being equal.

  38. Jess says:

    Hi Cecil,

    If your camera has a saturation settings then you may want to increse it ‘+’ and probably try to experiment with the white balance. Try the cloudy or shade WB if it would give the colors you want. Try not to overexpose also, you may try to -2/3 exposure compensation also. Best thing also is to find something that are rich in colors abd try to shoot them at the right time and place

  39. Michel says:

    Hi Cecil,

    Try to invest in better optics.
    I am still taking pretty good pictures with my Dynax 7D (6MP)
    using the Carl Zeiss lenses.
    I also take my pictures in RAW.


  40. Jess says:

    Camera doesn’t matter. If you had a 6MP camera may it be p&s or dslr still you will be the one shooting and not the camera. Details are for techkie freak and composition is the one for the artist. Artist does not care much if there are slight blur due to pixel density as long as the perspective or everything on its composition are balance. So again camera is not important, your camera is as good as you are.

    Thanks David for explaining the megapixel myth,

  41. Cecil says:

    I have a Nikon D100, 6 MP. Most of my photos are a bit on the soft side. I want to upgrade to at least a 12 MP, however if there is a secret to making my current 6MP clearer I would stay with it. Any suggestion?

  42. Alejandro says:

    I totally agree with Larry Mendelsohn and Aus. Furthermore, Camera makers has invested lot of money researching the subject to allow costumer to get the best from their products and the results is that you can get sharper and better images as the technology has allow increasing of the pixel count, eventhough, it is true that the pixel density is just a matter on the use you are going to give to your images.

  43. Excellent article! I completely agree that for most folks, the manufacturers’ megapixel campaign is just hype. Of course, your advertising and product photographers need more pixels for extreme detail rendition and to take advantage of professional optics. But for the rest of us, perhaps “12″ is the magic number, above which the Law of Diminishing Returns applies!

  44. Aus says:

    Hmmm.. I really have to disagree. I now have my third DSLR, first was 6MP, second was 8MP and now I have a 21MP. I also still have and shoot the 8MP, but less and less.

    It’s not all pixel density, and no doubt has a lot to do with newer smarts on the chipsets and in firmware and software. BUT, the images off the 21MP camera are head a shoulders better in all ways than off the other camera bodies.

    So to say the extra pixels are a marketing ploy is misleading.

  45. Mike Wilhelm says:

    I a new user of a Panasonic 10MP camera, not an SLR. I just returned from a trip to Hawaii and I must have taken a couple hundred pictures. I’ve deleted about 10% of them just because they were bad or out of focus. I agree with your article re cropping. I’ve found that cropping to concentrate and perhaps exaggerate the subject works wonders. Example: I have several pics of whales breaching the water but most too far off and the frame is more than 80% sky & sea. By cropping a frame around my subject (the whale) I’ve been able to turn a weak photo into a descent photo where you can at least tell why the photo was taken.


  46. Andre says:

    I seen some comments and more I must say, I agree with dave that eg 13Meg pix isnt everything. never the less in 10 years from now we will probably say 300Meg pix is not every thing.

    40Meg pix camera have been out for a while now and I wouldn’t mind to play around with it.

    I do wedding story book albums (10″x12″ ) and frustration is at my top list when I try to crop pix taken with my D40 a 6Meg pixel so I prefer the 300dpi i get from my D300.

    The other thing is Do you invest 80% on pixel and 20% on a good lens or is it 50/50 or 40/60.

  47. For printing and viewing on a screen, less can be better. Less is definitely better when it comes to noise. However, for those of us who are into detail, nothing beats full frame 21 or 24 megapixel (except medium format). There is no comparison regarding the detail between a 12 megapixel APC camera and Full Frame with twice the megapixels. There are things you see in those images that you cannot see in the smaller chip. It is not that I am blowing everything up to 20X30, but I want to see those leaves in the landscape and not just muddy green blobs.

    The downside is high iso, but frankly, I never use my FF cam for high iso images.

  48. Evert says:

    I have say it over and over!
    Les pixel density of the chip means les noise means BETTER pictures!!!
    It is so true
    So I have never understand canon ‘s eager to stack chip with pixels. And it is sad Nikon never made a D300 variant with 6MP with the quality of the D700. It has 1.4MP/cm², some camera today have 50Mp/cm², it is worthless.
    I think the D700 is at the border of the balance between high iso performance and pixels count. We don’t need 18 or 24 or what else! And who has the money to buy a computer to work with those 24 or future 48 MP??

    But there are few people who believe this, I had a point and shoot from the same manufacture one of 4 mp and an other of 6 I believe. The pictures of the 4 mp where better.
    In those years I was so stupid to believe the mega pixel myth. But I have learned it the hard way.

  49. I have a 2004 released 8 megapixel camera. I get some wonderful shots. Of course, in six years of casual use (sometimes intense playing/testing/learning) I have gotten to learn the flaws.

    a) never use focal length 7.1 and autofocusing — 3/4 of pictures are hosed.
    b) low focal lengths in bright light will give too bright images, regardless of what the graph shows you.
    c) use ISO 64 for good clarity, 100 is “ok”, others are terrible.
    d) always use anti-shake mode (turn it on immediately before the shot, off after it — to save battey).
    e) Camera -> LCD -> Printer … colors, have to fix at least the printer daily.
    f) always use a tri-pod — over 50 and I can’t stop shaking
    g) trust the camera, not your eyes (unless you go manual focus)
    h) center/spot focus on what you want, then hold and move to position shot.

    You always want newer and better equipment. Test it first — compare with your old stuff. Be surprised! Determine if you can put up with the old stuff or the new peculiarities and unknowns.

  50. Ted says:

    Hi Dave, I am so glad you pointed the megapixel thing out in your news letter article. What you said is so true.

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