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

by David Peterson 139 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 2000x1000 pixels = 2 megapixels! 4k monitors still only have 8 megapixels. I'd err on the safe side and use a 6 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. Paige Piedt says:

    Hello I am interested in buying a new camera. I'm very used to using my camera on my Samsung Galaxy S6 which does take pictures pretty well. As you know taking pictures with an Android it is hard to see the screen when taking pictures Outdoors. We do frequently visit the beach on the weekends and I'm looking for a camera that will have a good zoom and good quality for moving objects such as Birds boats. I've been looking at a cannons SX series and I'm very unsure of what model would suit me better. Any help or suggestions are greatly appreciated.

    • David Peterson says:

      HI Paige,

      Any of Canon's SX series are good cameras, and you'll be fine with them. Note that you'll have the same problem with the screen as you will with an android phone.

      To get around that, I use a 'screen hood' - a piece of cardboard taped to the back of the camera that shades the screen from the sun.

      Alternatively, you can purchase a camera with a viewfinder, although you'll need to spend more on your camera to get that. They aren't available on cheaper models.

      Good luck!

      David.

  2. ROBERT RAWSON says:

    Hi David, first off I want to thank you for taking time to ensure people/photographers that you can get great quality photos with so many megapixels. I have noticed the huge climb in megapixels since I got my Nikon d3100 in 2011 with an 18-55mm and 55-200mm lenses. nikon d3200 the next model shoots up to a whopping 24 megapixels from the 14 i now have on my 3100 which seemed desirable but i liked the way i shot with it, i guess it kind of grew on me. I now feel like upgrading to the d3200 because my d3100 is a little old i think coming out in 2010. It seems to have much more perks than my d3100. I also wanted to ask, would a d3100 lens like my 55-200mm fit on a d3200? would it have any problems shooting? I was thinking of selling my camera body and the kit lens (18-55mm) and keeping the zoom lens for the d3200 because the kit lens was holding me back to be honest as far as aperture and quality of shots. If you have any suggestions I would like to hear them. I am an amateur photographer but have taken some good quality shots as far as composition in landscape, wildlife, and seascape. I used the d3100 for about a year and sort of stopped using it little by little each year. 2011-2013ish but I am getting back into it and trying to go into people/ modeling photography and want to get something that can take a crisp image to a new level. Thanks again David, hope to hear from you

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Robert,

      Thanks for your questions. Yes, the lenses for your D3100 will fit the D3200. Both use the standard Nikon F-mount. In fact, that's one of the advantages of purchasing a camera with removable lenses... you can upgrade the camera body without needing to purchase new lenses.

      A kit lens is good for most shots, but don't think that a kit lens is holding you back. Most of the time, it's more about the settings on your camera, and your eye as a photographer rather than the lens.

      However, if you want to switch to portrait photography it might be worthwhile investing in a prime lens - they have wider apertures than a zoom lens which helps with sharper images (because the shutter speed is shorter), and increases the blurry background. More on prime lenses is here: http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/tip/1803/what-is-a-prime-lens-why-use-one/

      And here is an article I wrote on what lenses I recommend: http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/tip/3409/the-best-lenses-for-5-common-scenes/

      David.

  3. James Peet says:

    Will additional megapixels allow me to make larger print out of smaller parts of a photo? What effect will RAW have in the end with something like that?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi James,

      Yes, you can but there is a limit. Try to make too large a print from too small a part of the original photo and you'll come across the same blurry problems.

      RAW won't really help with that. Where RAW works will is allowing you to highlight the details of the image.

      David.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Hi! I am diving into the birth photography world and currently use a Nikon D40x. I am torn if I should upgrade my camera body or will using different lens for low lightening be enough? Currently looking at adding the 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lens to my collection. Would appreciate any feedback. Thank you!! :)

  5. Hitanshu Gaur says:

    I have an Olympus OMD EM5 Mark ii
    The sensor is 16 Megapixel. Is it enough for wedding photography, photoshoot, product photoshoot?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi,

      For weddings, I'd be looking for more than just megapixels. Look at the quality of your lens and how well your camera can photograph in low light situations (like churches).

      For casual shots, the EM5 is fine, but if you want to photograph weddings professionally, I would recommend a more expensive camera.

      David.

  6. Cyndy says:

    I have been happy with my Nikon D5000, but I dropped it and took a chunk out a part of the body that connects to the battery cover (not the cover itself.) It does not look easily fixable, and I have to hold the battery in place with my thumb to be able to use it. Not very convenient! I can buy a refurbished 5000 body for $250. Would I be better off spending more for a D3300? I use the camera mostly for vacations, and I rarely print larger than 8x10. Thank you!

    • David Peterson says:

      HI Cyndy,

      It's all up to you. The D5000 being released in 2009 is getting a bit old now, so a newer camera will give you better features. However, if you are happy with the D5000, then stick with that.

      Remember, if you decide to upgrade, you can keep your current lens and just buy a body. Your lens has an f-mount which is compatible with most Nikon cameras.

      David.

  7. Douglas says:

    If you had to choose between these cameras what would be the best one?
    I will be using it for taking photos of the kids, and during football games , and just every day type stuff. I'm not a camera expert so Im sure I will not use Half of the settings, but I want to learn and I want a nice camera. I"m leaning towards the Nikon because of ALL of the things i have heard about it and the WiFi adapter is nice addon.

    Option 1)
    24MP
    Nikon D3200 AF-S DX 18x55mm F/3.5-5. VR II

    Option 2)
    18MP
    Canon EOS Digital Rebel T6 Kit with EF-S18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6 DC III Lens
    Also Includes EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II

    Option 3)
    Canon EOS Digital Rebel T5 Kit with EF-S 18-55mm DC III Lens

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Douglas,

      All those cameras will be fine for photographing football games and general photography. If you're leaning towards the NIkon, then go for it. The WiFi is pretty handy.

      David.

  8. Angie says:

    I currently have a Canon Rebel T4i. I need an new camera. I regularly take pictures of my kids at their sporting events and activities. I'd like to stay with Canon. Would a SL1, T6 or T6i be the best option?? Is the T6i worth the money?

    Thanks!

    • David Peterson says:

      HI Angie,

      Yes, those are all good cameras. If you like your current camera and just want an upgrade in specs, then those cameras are great. If you want more from your camera, I recommend you upgrade to the next model up, the 70D or 7D Mk II.

      David.

  9. jon says:

    So,you didn't get into size of camera sensor and number of pixels.If I want to take great pictures for online showing only,would I be better off using an old,high end large sensor,2Meg camera or a newer,lower end 10Meg camera taking pictures at 2Meg?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Jon,

      There are other improvements camera manufactures have made over the last 10 years, so don't just rely on the megapixel count. Newer cameras work better on darker scenes and tend to have more complementary features (like wifi and gps).

      Re your choice? You don't tell me what cameras you were thinking of using, but 2mp high end cameras are at least 15 years old. In that case, I'd go with the newer 10mp camera purely because of the other features you get with the camera. Then resize the images to a good size for the Internet in an image editor.

      David.

      • Jon says:

        Hi,The reason I asked is because I did "upgrade" to a higher pixel count camera and got worse results.I know I'm going to sound primitive here,with what I use.I admit I'm an amateur on this subject,but learning since I signed up for your email lessons.I was using a Canon A60,2M 2002 date camera for Ebay photos.It started going bad(learned later that there was a sensor connection problem and recall).I decided to buy a Canon A590,8M camera.Never could get sharp pictures.Returned it.Sent the A60 in for recall repair.Got it back and been using it.Started to fail again and Canon no longer doing free repairs.So,I'm looking to buy something that might work better at lower resolutions and not buy another high resolution,small sensor camera that works worse than the A60 at lower resolution settings.I don't need 10m for doing Ebay photos.In fact,they would load too slow and probably not be accepted by Ebay or Auctiva,who hosts the listings.But,if there was a reasonably priced 10m or higher camera,that would work as well or better than the 2M A60 that would be fine.

        • David Peterson says:

          Hi Jon,

          Sounds like you haven't had much luck with cameras. Rather than looking for one with a lower megapixel count, I recommend you instead save a little more and invest in a higher model camera. These are made with better components so will last a lot longer. My Canon 30D from 10 years ago still works great. Look at the 650D or 700D. Or one step up again is the 70D and 7D Mk II.

          I hope that helps.

          David.

  10. Ann says:

    Hi, I currently have a rebel t3 and i'm looking to upgrade. i'm caught between the 5d, 5d mark ii, and 6d full frame camera.

    Which do you reccomend?
    Which is least expensive?

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