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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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About the Author ()

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 (67)

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  1. Sharon D'Amore says:

    David, Thanks you for another informative article. I finally understand something about megapixels. Since I am looking to upgrade my dlsr….it is good to know that megapixels are not the primary reason to buy a camera….even if the salesperson says so! Your articles are always easy to read and understand. I can’t tell how much I have learned about photography since taking the Dash!

    Thanks again.

    Sharon D’Amore

  2. Ivory Bandhu says:

    Very good ideas and tips about Photography.I do learn a lot from your ideas.Thanks.

  3. samuel knowles says:

    hello David and great post! i have a question regarding the camera/smartphone argument. your discussion about “more doesn’t mean better” makes perfect sense, but is there a direct comparison between a smartphone versus a dedicated SLR camera especially in my case. I have a 5 year old Cannon powershot A570IS 7.1 megapixel CAMERA, and while i find that my camera makes better pictures on average i’m seeing more smartphones that are gradually outperforming some shots that i take (even when i change the ISO, shutter speed and aperture myself). other than pixels, what type of lens or other factors would i look for when finding a new cannon? i like too keep up with what’s new.

    thanks, sam

    • HI Sam,

      While smartphones can take better ‘normal’ photos than older cameras, they still can’t handle the range of lighting that regular cameras can. For example, it’s still very hard to take a great photo in a dark location on a smartphone (although they are improving).

      Another thing that smartphones usually lack is the ability to change the aperture (or a large aperture range). This controls the depth of field of your image allowing you to keep some of the image in focus, while placing other parts of the image out of focus.

      However, you usually have your smartphone with you – if your camera isn’t with you then the photo opportunity is lost forever.

      The upshot is – use the camera that works best for you.

      David.

  4. Joyce says:

    Trying to figure out if a samsung 13-16MP phone camera is better than an iphone 8MP phone camera. Thank you

  5. Steven says:

    Dear David,

    I need help with choosing the right DSLR…
    I’ve never used DSLR before, but I’m thinking between Canon EOS 700D and the new Canon EOS 750D… The problem is 750D (24 megapxl) is more expensive than 700D (18 mgpxl)… Which one should I get? Do you think 750D is much better than 700D?

    Best regards,
    Steven

    • Hi Steve,

      The 750D is an upgraded version of the 700D (thus the extra megapixels). If you can afford it, go for the 750 as it will last longer. Otherwise, the 700D will be fine for your needs.

      I hope that helps.

      David.

    • Canopvs says:

      The difference between the two is not that great. The main differences are:

      1. 750D has a newer processor, which results in slightly less noise at high ISO. Practically, what this means is that you are more likely to get better photos in low light conditions (but it also depends on whether you are using a fast lens, and a flash)
      2. The 750D has wifi. It’s a nice toy, personally I don’t consider it essential.

      20 megapixels on the 700D is way more than enough, as David says.

      My advice is to get the 700D and spend the savings on lenses.

  6. Luis says:

    Hi!

    I just have one question, I want to do the exact opposite thing, I’m thinking about changing my current entrylevel dlsr which has 24mp to a more professional camera with 16mp, the only reason that kept me from doing it is that difference between the megapixels since the camera I want has so many features that my current camera doesn’t have, more autofocus points etc…. should I go with it?

    • HI Luis,

      You don’t mention model numbers, but if you are upgrading from an entry level to more professional DSLR, then you won’t notice the drop in megapixels. The rest of the camera has better optics (lenses etc) and processing so you will still get better photos.

      I hope that helps.

      David.

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