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

by David Peterson 125 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 4 megapixels. I'd err on the safe side and use a 4 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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. audrey says:

    i would like to have your take on the nikon d5300. is it a good camera especially for blogging and logging? thanks you

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Audrey,

      Yes, for blogging the d5300 will be fine. Nikon (and Canon) make an excellent range of cameras.

      David.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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