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

by David Peterson 82 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. 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

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. Karla Saenz says:

    When taking pictures of the aurora borealis, how many megapixels are recommended?

  5. Michael L says:

    I have a Nikon D7100 which I love. My question is, If I was to drop the camera down from 24 MP to 13 MP "which is roughly half of 24" how does that work? Is the image spaced out across the sensor using something like 2 to 1 ratio ?, Does it use every other MP to capture the lower resolution image? Etc. And would this increase light sensitivity? I have been curious for quiet a while how cameras go about doing this.

    • Justin says:

      Think of it as a rectangle or an index card, if a 5x7" is 10MP, 4x6" 6.8MP, 3x5" 4.2MP. When you change your image size L, M, S you are simply using less of the sensor. The only real difference is your image and file size will be smaller, everything else remains the same as long as that is all that you are changing.

      Now it is a different story all together if you use a crop frame lens on a full frame camera.

      • David Peterson says:

        That's not quite right, Justin. When you L, M and S sizes still use the full sensor size, but the camera resizes the image to reduce the number of pixels before saving to the memory card.

        Michael: No, it doesn't increase light sensitivity for most cameras. There is another process that uses larger pixels in the sensor to be more sensitive to light (and also less noise) but it's not related to the resolution you set for your final image.

        I recommend you always save as "L" resolution - the highest possible. That way you'll always have the best quality if you need to crop or resize the image later with your computer.

        David.

  6. Damon says:

    Hi David,
    I am wanting to upgrade my mobile phone to use for my realestate shots of houses. I know that a wide angle clip on would help but what about megapixel amount? would 4mpl be enough quality after adding a wide angle/ macro angles lenz or do I need more mega pixels on a phone? Thanks.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Damon,

      You don't need more than a 4mp camera when taking photos of real estate online that will be used online (those are usually 800x600 pixels = 0.5mp).

      However, I would strongly advice AGAINST using a mobile phone to take photos for use in selling real estate. You won't get the dynamic range, clarity or colors that you get on a DSLR camera.

      If you're going to do this professionally, invest in a good quality DSLR camera with a wide angle lens, a steady tripod, and a flash with remote trigger.

      David.

  7. Jenny says:

    Hi. I was kind of upset with Samsung for downgrading the megapixels in it's new Galaxy S7 camera to 12mp from the previous models 16mp. I was looking forward to upgrading from an S4 which I love. Someone just told me that they have upgraded the technology but downgraded the mp but the picture is clearer is that possible?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Jenny,

      Yes, that's possible. In reducing the number of megapixels, they are increasing the size of the small pixel sensors inside the camera, which means they work better in lower light with less noise.

      So Yes, lower megapixels is better!

      David.

  8. Will says:

    Hi David looking for an affordable point and shoot camera which works well in low light conditions and provides a bright, colourful sharp image, any recommendations?

  9. Jason says:

    Hi. I had a question... ? I have a Galaxy S6 and the camera takes very nice pictures. I was just wondering, if I lower the megapixels, will that in anyway improve the quality of my pictures since the camera has less megapixels to process? Or does it not matter. Thanks.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Jason,

      No. If you lower the megapixels, your images will be worse because you've lowered the resolution.

      Phones these days have plenty of processing power to handle all the megapixels in the camera, so leave it as high as you can.

      I hope that helps.

      David.

  10. Tom says:

    This article certainly has some truth to it. Higher MP's have other values however. For instance, more MP normally means you can bury the noise at higher ISO. It's one of the reasons why back in the film days- people used medium format. Of course, with sensor tech. APSC cameras do quite well using spacial algorithms to match FF ISO performance.

    The real reason you might not see a drastic difference is in how resolution is computed. A 24MP camera is only twice the resolution of a 6MP camera. You have to times by four to double the resolution of a sensor. Removing the AA filter on higher MP models has almost as much of an impact on perceived resolution as increasing the MP count.

    Splicing hairs doesn't do much for the consumer anyway. 300 percent crops are rarely seen in the real world. However, photoshop let's us study our stills in a manner never people were not engaging in back when film was king.

    MP also has an affect on dynamic range and- despite sensor size- ISO performance as I briefly mentioned. One should consider these points as well.

    One other note- it takes 3MP to fill a 9.75in retina display. So yes, you are throwing an incredible amount of information away with your current digital cameras. Higher quality large monitors are quickly falling in price however. If you plan on ever viewing your pictures on a 4K 65in monitor 5 feet away then yes. However, be prepared to not be blow away at the differences. Digital has yet to really reach mass saturation with sizes over 35- so we're talking minor differences anyway.

    I didn't mention foveon sensors- despite their limitations- pumping out crazy levels of detail for pennies on the dollar (check out DP Merrels)...nor was stitching mentioned which is as easy as pie on digital cameras today.

    I'd rather new sensor tech rather than more MP's.....actual color sampling on the pixel level using sensor shift, getting rid of RGB filters all together, organic sensors..etc.

    But yeah, article is on point for the most part.

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