Today, extra megapixels are really just par for the course. Consumers have convinced themselves that they want those extra megapixels, so manufactures will continue to provide to them. That means that until consumers come to realize how little those megapixels actually do for the average photographer, you’re going to have to filter out all that megapixel-related marketing noise whenever you go to purchase a new camera.
So where does that leave you, the consumer, when you enter that camera shop or your local Best Buy? You need to be armed with all the right questions, otherwise you may end up making a purchasing decision that's based on factors that really aren't that important to you.
So what questions do you need to ask, and what should you know prior to embarking on any camera-buying expedition?
Think of camera buying on the same level as you would think of buying a new automobile. I know you wouldn’t dream of going to the dealership without having a good idea about a car’s safety features, because you know that salesman is going to mostly be trying to impress you with bells and whistles. Just as you would do when buying a car, it pays to go into your camera buying a session with an air of knowing what you're talking about. You need to be able to ask educated questions in order to get the answers that will be useful to you in making a decision.
The first thing you need to ask about is sensor size. Sensor size is by far the biggest predictor of image quality. As a general rule, the larger a camera’s sensor, the better the image quality will be. If you're shopping for a DSLR it is useful to know whether the object of your affection is a full frame camera or an APS-C camera. An APS-C camera is a crop sensor camera, which means it has a smaller sensor then a full frame camera does. Now, full frame cameras do come at a price—both financially and functionally. A full frame camera tends to be heavier and more expensive then in an APS-C camera, so keep that in mind when making a purchasing decision. It could be that that small improvement in image quality just isn't going to be that important to you, because you don't really print your images much larger than 4 x 6. Or it could be that you do plan to print large format images, in which case the difference is critical. Smaller print sizes lessen the impact of small differences in image quality, while large print sizes tend to make them more visible.
Another thing that you need to be thinking about in terms of image quality is the camera’s lens. Many DSLRs don’t come with lenses, and if that's the case (budget permitting), you should think about choosing a better quality lens to go with your new camera. Other DSLRs are packaged with “kit lenses,” which tend to be lesser quality. They will probably serve you well for the first months you have the camera, but at some point you’re going to want something of better quality to go with that higher-end camera.
Better quality lenses tend to have a fewer optical problems such as chromatic aberration, vignetting, and softening of images around the corners. Likewise, you will also need to ask some questions about the lens quality on a point and shoot camera. Point and shoot cameras don’t have interchangeable lenses, so lens quality is critically important since you won’t be able to swap out a poor quality lens at a different point in time. This is a situation where you may find it useful to do some research online regarding the camera model you’re interested in. I personally find Amazon consumer reviews to be extremely helpful. You have to take some of them with a grain of salt, of course, because not every consumer who posts a review on Amazon knows exactly what he's talking about. But as a general rule I have found that a four star camera is a four star camera, and a five star camera is a five star camera. You can also check consumer buying guides such as PC Magazine or CNET to help you make a decision. The bottom line is, don't count on what that salesperson is telling you to help you decide which camera to buy. Many salespeople are incredibly knowledgeable, but in some shops they are low-paid workers, which means they probably aren’t experienced photographers, and may not be very educated on the true selling points of any individual camera. So it really does pay to do quite a bit of consumer research before entering a shop and making a purchasing decision.
Also make sure you consider questions like how much low light photography you're going to be doing. If you shoot a lot of photos indoors or after dark, what you're going to need is a camera with good high ISO capabilities. This often goes hand-in-hand with larger sensor size, though APS-C sensors and other smaller size sensors are getting much better at taking photos in low light. Your camera’s ability to capture photos in low light depends also on the maximum aperture of its lens, (especially if it's a point-and-shoot camera where you can't change the lens), and its ability to produce noise free images at higher ISOs. If you can get the salesman to show you a sample of an image shot at a high ISO with that particular model camera, that would be good information to have. If not, you can often find online reviews that feature intensive tests of individual features such as high ISO performance.
IMG_3435-cropped by Flickr user Eerko
Just keep this in mind: we are already beyond the point where megapixels should have much of an impact on your purchasing decision. The exception to this is if you do a lot of long-range photography. For example, let's say you shoot wildlife and you'd like to be able to get a lot closer to your subjects then your 400mm lens will allow. If that's the case, having the ability to crop very close to your subject in post processing via those extra megapixels is going to be a very useful option for you. So if that's your goal, absolutely ask the salesperson about megapixels. But keep in mind that most cameras already have so many megapixels as a standard feature that the question probably doesn’t even need to come up.
5D MK3 12800 ISO, Low light high speed AF test by Flickr user vertphoto
It really comes down to this: that salesperson doesn't know everything. She's going to tell you whatever her boss told her to say. In a lot of cases, that's going to be "megapixel, megapixel, megapixel." Don't blame her, she knows what consumers are asking for. And the vast majority of consumers have been brainwashed into thinking that they need to be asking about megapixels. So instead, quiz her about some of those other factors that you know go in to producing high-quality images. If she doesn't know, that's okay, because you've already done the research that you need to do. You’re going to make an educated purchasing decision—and you may not need any salesperson input at all.
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