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

by David Peterson 99 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. 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.

  2. Teresa says:

    Hi I'm trying to decide on either the galaxy S6 or the galaxy S7 big don't know on which one is better for to mp. The S6 has 16 mp and the S7 has 12mp but also has dual-pixel. Which one would you recommend?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Teresa,

      Don't decide on your model of phone for it's camera. Both cameras will take excellent photos - and as my article says, megapixels don't matter!

      If you're serious about photography, I recommend you invest in a separate camera that has better lenses.

      David.

  3. Daniel says:

    Hi David,

    I've been doing some research on mirrorless cameras and noticed that Sony A6000 and Fujifilm X-E2S have sensors with same size, but different megapixels (24 x 16). I have seen some articles mentioning that the pixel size matters, but I'm not exactly sure of how it works.

    In this case I guess the X-E2S has a bigger pixel (as the sensor size is fairly the same, but this camera has only 16MP against 24MP of A6000). Could you please help me to understand how this can change the photo quality?

    Thanks,
    Daniel

    • Wave Dancer says:

      The Fujifilm X E2s has a X-Trans CMOS sensor which is not comparable to the usual Bayer sensors. Wait! The new X E3 (2017) will have the new X-trans III sensor with 24 MP! Unbeatable in the APS-C range! If you can't wait, buy a X-T1 or end ot the year (2016) a X-T2 with the new sensor as well! Important! It does not help to have lots of pixels if you don't have matching top class lenses!!! Better invest into lenses! 16 MP's are mostly sufficiant if you are not to much in cropping. Cheers - a X-100T owner.

    • David Peterson says:

      HI Daniel,

      The differences are small.

      Cameras with less megapixels are usually older models that were produced before the technology allowed the sensor pixels to shrink further. Also, cameras with less megapixels are cheaper to make so that's also a factor.

      The reason some articles say that 'less megapixels are better' is that in recent years, manufacturers have used the larger pixel size to increase the sensitivity of the camera at high ISO levels. However, unless they've used that as a specific marketing point, it's unlikely to be the case for most cameras.

      Both those are excellent cameras. Go to a local camera store, try out both cameras, Choose the one that feels better to you.

      David.

  4. hilga says:

    Hi, thanks for writing this article. I'm out shopping for a new smartphone (Android) and I'm curious why the front camera has a better pixel than the back... where I would think I would also want good pixel size for making videos and pictures with a flash option... or am I missing the point of the technology improvements?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Hilga,

      That's a design decision made by phone makers. There's no technical reason why they can't put a larger camera on the front. I think they use a smaller sensor because it doesn't take up as much space on the front of the phone.

      David.

  5. Danny says:

    Hi, what's the best way to print pictures.. I've just bought a 20.1mp 35x zoom camera, the pictures look great but when doing instant prints the quality seems to vanish.. just wondering if instant prints are doing this and if using a 24hour print service would be better?

    • David Peterson says:

      The instant print services shouldn't mean a reduction in quality - so switching to a 24 hour place won't make a difference.

      You don't say what specifically reduces in quality when you print your photos.Is it the color? do the image look fuzzy? does it crop some of the image out? If you can let me know what's wrong with the prints, I can help to give you an answer.

      David.

  6. Jennifer kael says:

    Hi I am a mother of 6 with age's ranging from 2 to 20 and I love taking pictures of my children. I have found the best camera for me is the one on my smart phone mostly because It allows me to hold down the button and then go back and find the shot that came out the best. Getting people to cooperate with my lack of photography skills is not humanly possible. My camera has 8 mp and I do the croping thing alot and usually the photo prints look grainy as you mentioned. I tend to have to shoot from bleachers and places like that. Would one of the add on lenses made by the camara companies help this issue?

    Thanks for any input.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Jennifer,

      Yes, an add-on lens can help zoom in. But when you zoom in, your camera is more sensitive to movement, so you'll need to be ultra-steady when holding your phone, or mount it on a tripod.

      Photographing sports is harder again (you mentioned you were in the bleachers). For better photos here, you'll really need to invest in a dedicated camera with a better sensor. A camera phone just can't handle it. More on removing blur in sports: http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/tip/4376/ask-david-scourge-photography-blurry-images/

      David.

  7. Midge says:

    Hi David,

    I will be taking a trip to some National Parks; Zion, Bryce & Grand Canyon. I would like to take some pictures and print them 11 x 14 or larger. I am an amateur with photo taking. What camera would you recommend and I'm guessing 6MP would be enough?
    Thanks!

  8. Ms. Yvonne says:

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR ARTICLE! I've gotten back into photography and have an old 6.3 megapixel Canon Rebel and I wasn't sure if I should upgrade BUT, you helped/saved me from buying a new one. Interesting article.

    • Luis Fernando Rocha-Pena says:

      You might want to invest into a better lens tho, pics tend to have more noise and grain but its fixed by a good lens for example a 50mm 1.4f

  9. Karin says:

    I have an older model Canon that's around 10 megapixels. I love to shoot my son's hockey games, which is a difficult sport to shoot because of the poor lighting and fast action. So I delete a lot of images because I can't afford some crazy expensive lens or body. I was wondering how much more megapixels would help the ones I do keep blow up better when I want/need to crop in?

  10. Nilima Majji says:

    I want to sell my photos on shutterstock which camera would be best or can my lenovo k5 or a 7000 help me to take a pic of 5 megapixels or more??

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Nilima,

      Neither. You'll need a high quality professional camera (usually costing many thousands of dollars) to have your photos approved on stock photo places like Shutterstock.

      It's a myth that it's easy to earn cash by submitting to stock photo sites. It's very hard with lots of competition to get selected, and if you are, you are still competing with the millions of other photos on the service.

      David.

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