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The Megapixel Conspiracy

Artefact Camera“I’ll take it!” exclaimed Bob as the Best Buy salesman handed him his new digital camera to bring to the register labyrinth. “Super, you’ll really love all those megapixels!” yipped the Best Buy salesman as he slithered away to the next unsuspecting victim.

After a photoshoot in Acadia National Park, Bob loaded all of his images onto his computer to view them at full resolution. He began with the image of the Doe and Fawn standing amidst an ethereal beam of sunlight. The image appeared to be decent while sized to fit to his computer screen, but when Bob executed a Command-0, what he saw almost blew him into the stratosphere. The once docile doe and fawn now morphed into an exercise in Post Impressionist Pointillism that even Georges Seurat himself would reject. Their once endearing faces crumbled away into a sea of rabid pixels. Bob frantically loaded more images, but to no avail. That golden sunset melted into an orange blob, the eagle a fuzzy flying sock, and the moose a deformed gun rack.

Bob was yet another victim of one of the most tragic scams in existence today: the Megapixel Conspiracy. Yes, Bob believed the Best Buy salesman as he weaved his yarns of falsehood, proclaiming that the higher the megapixel count, the higher the image quality. Sadly, the truth of the matter is that image quality and megapixel count couldn’t have less to do with each other than North Korea and South Korea. A Megapixel literally translates to 1 million pixels, so it doesn’t matter how many of them you have in an image unless you want poster size prints. What matters is the quality of those individual pixels, which is ultimately determined by three factors—the sensor, image processing, and the lens.

I have reviewed dozens of 10-megapixel cameras that outperform 14-megapixel cameras. The Canon PowerShot G10 is a prime example of this study. Canon started at 14-megapixels on the G10, only to shift to a 10-megapixel sensor the next year. Would you know it? There were no monumental changes in image quality, aside from the fact that the new 10-megapixel sensor was a slightly better overall performer, especially in low light. The most recent PowerShot G12 retained that same 10-megapixel sensor found in the G11. Veddy, veddy eeeeentedesting.

Canon G12Let’s also look at the science of large megapixel counts on smaller entry-level sensors in the 1/2.3-inch size range. Think of each individual pixel as a bucket that collects light. The larger the bucket, the more light it absorbs. When you overload a small sensor with pixels, the size of the pixels must be reduced in order to fit. So, the light gathering capabilities of those pixels are diminished, which ultimately impairs low light performance. The Canon PowerShot G11 and G12 outperformed the G10 partly because of their larger pixels.

But the G11 and G12 also received Canon’s HS System CCD chips, which aided low light sensitivity by repositioning the circuitry. Both cameras also flaunt higher quality glass and are equipped with Canon’s latest Digic processing. At this point, it’s obvious that this triforce of features determines image quality, not megapixel count. Megapixel count only comes into play when determining print sizes. Obviously, a 16-megapixel resolution of 4638 x 3456 will yield much larger prints than a 10-megapixel resolution of 3648 x 2736. But, how many consumers in the point-and-shoot market are going to hang pixilated posters of Grandma Prudence all over the house?

In closing, what have we learned? Megapixel count does not have anything to do with the quality of an image, and is primarily used as a marketing axe wielded by poorly trained salesman. The sensor, processor, and lens are the three ingredients to a digital camera’s image quality. Bob is going to read our upcoming camera reviews from now on before he trusts the man in yellow again.


Mike Perlman

Mike Perlman grew up in Nintendo Land and developed a relationship with all things electronic and nerdy early on in his childhood career. Today,...

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