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The Megapixel Misconception

by thegadgetjunky | December 5, 2009December 5, 2009 9:10 am PST

The other day, I was at a local electronics store doing my usual “window-shopping” routine just to see what’s new. At one point I was looking around at digital cameras and I just happened to overhear a conversation between a customer and a sales associate.

camera-shopper It turns out she was stuck between two Sony digital cameras. Both cameras had all the same features and looked very similar to each other. However, the higher priced camera (about $50 more) had one slight difference, 2 more megapixels making it 12MP. She asked if spending the extra $50 would mean better quality pictures due to the higher megapixel count.

It amazes me to this day that some people think that the higher the camera’s megapixel count the better the pictures will look. This is far from the truth.

Before I describe in detail when a higher megapixel count is important, I should explain the definition of a pixel and a megapixel. A pixel is the smallest unit of a visible image on a display (in this case, the display is the photo or on a camera’s LCD screen). A megapixel (MP) is a measurement of how many pixels (in millions) a camera’s image sensor will pick up in one shot. For every 1 million pixels, you get a megapixel (or 1MP). If you see a camera advertised for 8MP, that means it’s capable of taking shots with 8 megapixels. The number of megapixels can help you determine the size of your prints or the amount of cropping that can be done. The larger the megapixel count, then the bigger the prints and the more cropping that can be done. It DOES NOT determine the quality or resolution of the shots.

Let’s understand another thing. About five years ago the average camera had the capabilities of about 2 to 4 megapixels. You were lucky if you could find any camera higher than that for a good price (less than $700 maybe). During this time period, megapixel count was a big deal if you wanted to make larger prints or if extensive editing or cropping was involved. Overtime, the megapixel count would increase gradually while camera prices dropped too. So it became less and less of a deal throughout the past few years. Nowadays, for the average consumer it is virtually meaningless unless you really plan to do editing or printing beyond your wildest imagination.

If you shoot a picture taken from a 3MP camera and blow it up larger than 5 inches by 7 inches (5×7”), then pixels on the picture begin to get distorted or fuzzy-looking. Now if we took the same shot with an 8MP camera and blow it up beyond 5×7”, then it will look fine unless we go beyond a certain point. To put it simply, the larger the size of the photo beyond a certain scale, the worse the picture looks. See the chart below for more nominal print sizes.

CREDIT: http://www.design215.com/toolbox/megapixels.php

CREDIT: http://www.design215.com/toolbox/megapixels.php

If all you plan to do is print normal sized shots (around 4×6 or 5×7), e-mail your photos, or upload them to sites like Facebook or Flickr, then megapixel doesn’t mean anything on today’s cameras. A camera of at least 2 or 3 megapixels will suffice. I recommend at least 5 megapixels just for the extra leeway in case any slight amount of cropping or editing is to be done.

If you are a hardcore photographer and/or do a lot of editing and cropping, then maybe a higher megapixel count can make a difference. Even then, most professionals say the number is so high it barely makes a difference, so it all depends on what you want to do.