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

Do more Megapixels mean better photo quality?

by David Peterson 169 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.

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. Mick says:

    So I have a canon elph110 and later this year Im going to Africa and Im thinking I need a new camera. Even though my elph110 works fine. I never even used all the feature on this one and new ones have more then Ill ever use.
    Based on what you are saying Im thinking I just need to learn how to use my current camera.
    Your thoughts ?


    • David Peterson says:

      HI Mick,

      You are mostly correct... your current camera has more than enough for most photography needs (The elph110 has 16 megapixels).

      However, it also depends on the type of photography you want to do. If you want to go on a safari when in Africa, you might need a camera that can switch lenses so you can purchase a zoom lens (so you can close-ups of the animals).

      More on safari photos here:

      I hope that helps.


  2. Lee Emery says:

    Does the same apply for underwater photography? I have an older Sony NEX 5T and am tossing up whether to get an underwater housing for it (as it would surely be a BIG step up from my GoPro) or buy a newer Canon G7 XII as it's newer, has more megapixels and costs about the same as a good housing for the NEX. Would the newer camera provide any advantage?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Lee,

      Yes, usually more megapixels is better. However, also weigh up if you're okay with losing your camera. If you don't put the case on correctly, it will become irrecovably damaged, and waterproof cases don't usually come with warranties that will replace your camera.

      I'd use a cheaper camera (or one you don't mind losing) to take your underwater photos, even if it means having less megapixels.

      I hope that helps.


  3. kileigh says:

    what is a good starter camera for product photography . Do you think a dslr is necessary or would a point and shoot be fine. I do alot of hand bags tumbled stone necklaces patches ect.

    • David Peterson says:

      No, you do not need a dslr camera for product photography. Any point and shoot camera will be fine.


  4. phyo says:

    If i image resize (to smaller image)quality photo from good camera and a photo from phone camera, are the resulted two photos have the same quality?

  5. seun says:

    can I increase my megapixel from 1.3 Megapixel to higher megapixel?

  6. Zawar says:

    Mr David

    What are your suggestions about 23 mega pixel mobile camera vs 23 mega pixel dslr camera
    What is the difference between both of these and which one is better

    • Tyler says:

      The biggest difference is the sensor size. A dslr may have a full frame (35mm) sensor or a cropped sensor but either way they are way bigger than a sensor in a cell phone so the quality will be higher.

  7. Pablo says:

    Hi Pete,

    Nice summary on this subject. Congrats!
    I've been looking for a mirrorless camera, and can't decide yet. I'd use it most likely for street photography on trips, plus some portrait pictures, 4k video might be a plus also. I think that the Panasonic GX85 would suit my needs perfectly well, but there are some other Sony models, such as A6300 that could work, considering that the latter has 24 Mp and bigger sensor. But I'm not sure if this is imperative on my case.
    I'm not an expert on photography by all means, so any advice is much appreciated.

    • Michael says:

      I think a Panasonic G7 is a good and cheap way to get 4k. Has 16MP, so it is a lower end camera.

  8. Shelby says:

    That is very helpful! I do not know much about cameras, but I am looking for something that will be good to take on my Europe honeymoon to take couple pictures and scenic pictures and eventually still be good for photographing babies and kids! I'm currently torn between a Panasonic Lumix Dmc-TZ3 and a Nikon Coolpix L32. If you could help me out that would be great!

  9. Cheryl Presser says:

    Hi, I really liked the info on the megapixel, my question would be is what if I want to purchase a trail camera for my husband would pixels really matter so much?

    • David Peterson says:

      HI Cheryl,

      No, megapixels probably won't matter that much as trail cameras tend to fire when the animal/subject is close enough to the camera to not need zoom (or cropping).

      Anything 4mpx or higher will be fine.


  10. Ibrahim Shalaby says:

    Dear David,
    I totally agree with you. Can you believe that I still use an ancient Nikon D40 (6 MP) and I get amazing photos?

    I use prime lenses and I am careful at framing so that I don't crop later and it works great for me. The only downfall is ISO which became more efficient in modern cams.

    Tell me what you think of that.

    Ibrahim Shalaby
    Alexandria Egypt

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