Why You Don't Need More Megapixels. Really. :: Digital Photo Secrets

Why You Don't Need More Megapixels. Really.

by David Peterson 17 comments

Everyone knows that more is better. Eight gigabytes is better than four. 550 horsepower is better than 500. Five blades are better than four. And 12 megapixels are better than eight. Right? That is without a doubt what we have all been indoctrinated to believe, especially when it comes to technology. More is better. And sometimes it's true. But before you take on blind faith the idea that a higher megapixel camera is automatically superior to the one you already own, it's a good idea to look past the marketing at the facts.

What is a megapixel?

"One megapixel" simply means that a camera can capture 1 million pixels per image. So, a 12 megapixel camera can capture 12 million pixels per image. Great! So that must mean a 12 megapixel camera is superior, right?

Well, no, because there are limits to how much of that information the human eye can discern. I've written about this before, but it bears repeating: if you only view your images on a computer screen or on a website such as Flickr, your camera doesn't really need to capture more than 1 to 3 megapixels, depending on how close you like to zoom in after the fact and how much cropping you will typically do. If you print your images but don't ever go larger than the standard 4x6 size, you don't need anything more than 2 megapixels. If you occasionally print your images at 8x10, you need something on the order of 5 megapixels. And for an 11x14 you can get by with 7. How about images larger than that? You still really only need 7 megapixels, because you need to stand a bit further back from a large image in order to take it in properly, so you aren't going to notice that drop in image sharpness.

Add to this the dirty little secret that most manufacturers don't want to tell you - more megapixels can actually decrease your camera's image quality. This is because the higher megapixel count increases the signal to noise ratio in the camera, which means that you'll end up with noisier images, especially in low light. In fact image quality really depends much more on the physical size of the sensor than it does on number of megapixels alone. Cameras with larger image sensors take better photos, as a general rule, for this simple reason: there is more surface area exposed to the light.

Now I've been saying this for a long time, but manufacturers still haven't caught on. Or, more accurately, consumers still haven't caught on. The consumer keeps demanding more megapixels (because more is better!), and manufacturers keep complying, so in the latest generation of digital cameras we're seeing models capable of 18 to 24 megapixels (Hasselblad even has a 200 megapixel model that will set you back about 45 grand).

Until now...

HTC is the first manufacturer to really try bucking this trend, though they have a hard road to walk if they're going to successfully convince consumers the truth of this philosophy. Their new smart phone - the HTC One - has a camera that boasts a less-than-whopping 4 megapixels.

Now before the smart phone buying community could gasp and cover its collective mouth in horror, HTC was quick to point out that the HTC One's camera does not use run-of-the-mill pixels: the pixels in the HTC One are "UltraPixels." UltraPixels are 40% larger than the standard pixels we all know and love, which allows them to capture more light - 300% more light, according to HTC. And because the HTC One's image sensor is the same size as the image sensors on many competing smart phones (including the iPhone 5,and the Nokia Lumia 920) the smaller megapixel count is what permits those pixels to be larger. And all of this leads to better photos in low light.

This all flies in the face of the conventional wisdom, of course, which is to keep image sensors roughly the same size and just try to cram more pixels onto them - naturally resulting in smaller pixels. So while it's true that smaller pixels can also get the job done, they aren't as good at it because they allow less light to reach the sensor.

Besides having a camera with a smaller megapixel count, the HTC One has other things going for it, too - it lets you grab full-resolution images from video, for example. This is a pretty cool feature because it means you can scroll through a video in the same way as you would scroll through your video library, stopping when you land on the frame you want to use as a still. The HTC One also has the added coolness of being sort of the SmartPhone equivalent of the DVR: it will begin recording video a few seconds before you actually hit the record button, so it is continually recording and dumping information on the off chance you might like to use something that happened before you actually reacted and hit "record." It also has an f/2 aperture, which is the largest of any Android smart phone currently on the market and has a flash with five levels of brightness that fire depending on the distance between the camera and its subject.

And it kind of has to have all those extra things, because consumers - being consumers - need to have extra reasons to give up their high-megapixel smart phones in favor of those still-unproven UltraPixels. Because it's telling that HTC isn't exactly trumpeting the fact that its new phone has a 4 megapixel camera. More megapixel=better camera is a mindset that has become really entrenched in the digital camera buying public through the nearly two decades that digital cameras have been marketed to consumers. Changing that now means completely overturning some very long-standing ideas about what makes a good digital camera. HTC has some work to do, and it's not going to be easy.

Should you buy a HTC One?

It may seem like I'm urging you to go out and get a HTC One. Well, it does have some unique features that will help photographers. While I like the UltraPixel idea, and want to reward HTC for (finally) doing the right thing by consumers regarding Megapixels, it's too early to tell if the phone's camera will live up to the marketing hype. Some reviews show a marked difference between the HTC One and the Galaxy S III. Others show no difference between it and an iPhone 5.

If you're a photographer wanting to take better photos on-the-go, and you're in the market for a new phone, definitely take a look. There is no longer a reason to stick with the iPhone or Galaxy S III for the great camera.

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


  1. Anthony Hendricks says:

    Amazing how the smartphones keeps revolving,pretty impressive stuff from HTC,WOW........keep on putting pressure on the leaders of smartphones like Samsung and iphone.

  2. David says:

    don't count out Pentax either....Pentax has the K3 and now the K3II that cost a little less and really
    can compete with the other camera companys with the included features. its just that they don't
    really advertise much like Nikon, Canon and Sony.

  3. Kelvin says:

    It seems the part of this article on the HTC ONE may be out of date now. I just looked it up, out of curiosity and the latest versions of this phone have dropped the ultrapixels for the more consumer preferred 20mp camera.

  4. Naman Bansal says:

    I do agree with u david.....
    I hav s3 mini and a frnd of mine has some htc phone.... both the cameras have 5MPs bt his phone capture better photos thn mine..... the only difference in his phone has a bigger camera...

  5. vilaroImages says:

    Sorry David, but this article just sounds like a HTC advert.
    On the subject of megapixels what you say may have some truth, but there are nor real disadvantages to having more megapixels, just advantages.
    I have the 36MP D800E and it is a brilliant piece of machinery that I love to use.

    • amsurak says:

      Actually it isn't advert stuff. He is talking pure truth. If you get your hands to a Canon Mark III you would notice it has less noise in higher ISO's in the dark compared to both Nikon D800 and D800E due to their large MP counts. This is because both the Mark 3 and the D800s have the same full frame sensors but the less MP count of the Mark 3 compared to the D800s gives each pixel larger surface area on the same sensor hence allowing more light to hit each sensor hence less digital noise. This applies to HTC One as well it has same sensor size with almost most smartphone but less pixel count hence each pixel helps acquire more light hence lesa noise. I learnt this through videography mostly which is photography in motion.

      Don't get me wrong I am not a Canon worker, and I am actually a Nikon user. Just stating the facts. In terms of resolution yes the Nikon D800s are ahead the Canon Mark 3 but how many people zoom in or crop images to an extent of 100x??

  6. Russty says:

    Wasn't this Fujica's idea with there Super CCD's?

  7. Ace Manev says:

    OK so if you are cramming 3x more pixels into a 4mp image, would that be equivalent to a 12mp image??

  8. Johnno says:

    I understand what is being said but I have to disagree on the basis that many shots include a background that when cropped and the remainder zoomed in, for example a kayak punching through a wave, leave the remaining image much fuzzier with a lower megapixel camera.
    I have experienced this many times over the years and zooming right into the subject is often not an option as the viewing screen or viewfinder cannot always be seen due to light conditions or the speed of the shot. Sometimes the photo captures something you want a closer look at and my earlier camera's just don't have the resolution to do that. Also I notice that not all resolutions are equal. My old Sony cybershot 5Mp took way better photos than a more recent Sony 7.5Mp camera. I have gone to a NEX-7 24Mp camera and love it.

  9. Den DiMarco says:

    So if my 14 megapixel camera lets me choose a picture size setting of 7 megapixels, should I choose that to reduce noise levels?

  10. Tobie says:

    NP are you referring to point and shoot? I'd go for something like the Canon Powershot SX50 IS. If you're referring to DSLR: I'm still a DSLR rookie, but my conclusion so far is that you can rather save on a body (many entry levels available) and rather spend more on a proper lens or two.

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