The Great Megapixel Race

For many years – from around 2000 to 2015 – digital camera makers were falling over themselves trying to release new camera models with ever-more megapixels. By around 2016, the megapixel wars had slowed considerably, with most new top-end camera models hovering around 16-20MP. But by then a major shift in the digital camera market had already taken place: the widespread adoption of smartphones.

The fact that most people always had a camera-equipped smartphone in their pocket had two major effects on camera sales:

1) compact, “pocket” camera sales fell off a cliff, since those devices were seen as redundant and unnecessary, and

2) even in situations where people would otherwise carry a more “serious” camera (vacations, graduations, etc.), interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs) were increasingly viewed as awkward and inconvenient to carry compared to the smartphone already in the pocket, so sales of those cameras to casual photographers declined as well.

With the digital camera market now primarily focused on professional photographers and “enthusiast” amateurs, the megapixel race has become less prominent in the overall marketing picture (though the very high-end cameras are still pushing those boundaries). And that relative calm allows for everyone to stop and reflect on an important fact when it comes to megapixels:

More is not necessarily better.

That probably seems counter-intuitive to a lot of people. On the surface, it would seem obvious that given the choice of a 10-megapixel camera and a 20-megapixel camera, the 20-megapixel camera would clearly be the better choice. But that’s always not the case.

To back up a bit: A digital photo is made up of lots of pixels (an abbreviation for “picture elements”). Pixels are lined up in columns and rows across the image sensor. The megapixel count refers to how many millions of pixels are squeezed onto the sensor – 10 megapixels equals approximately 10 million pixels. It’s also important to note here that the size of the sensor inside an interchangeable lens camera (ILC) is significantly larger than the sensors used in smartphones and compact digital cameras, affording a higher image quality in general.

But the number of “necessary” megapixels is very dependent on the how the photos will ultimately be used. For example, if someone’s intended purpose with their photos is simply to post them online, or include them in a slideshow at a graduation ceremony, a 3 megapixel sensor would provide plenty of resolution for those purposes. You could even, generally speaking, get a good quality 8×10 print from a 3 megapixel image.

But let’s assume you’re someone who is taking photography more seriously, and would like some larger prints for the wall…

An ILC sensor of 8-10 megapixels will – in most cases – yield a resolution comparable to consumer-grade 35mm film. And as long as the image is in focus, isn’t cropped heavily, and doesn’t suffer from excessive high ISO noise, you can likely get a decent-looking print up to 30 inches across (when viewed from a normal viewing distance) from an 8-10 megapixel sensor.

Now, on the positive side, a higher megapixel sensor could give you more latitude for cropping the photo, as well as more detail when viewing up close (assuming a sharp lens and a very steady hand when the photo was taken). Or it could support an even larger print size. On the negative side, a higher megapixel camera will generally cost more. Further, it will produce larger files, which take up more space on the memory card, take longer to download, take longer to post-process, and take up more space in long-term storage. If you don’t print giant murals of your photos, that can add up to a significant amount of wasted money, resources, and time.

Certainly, if there’s not a significant cost differential, newer models of ILC cameras are nearly always a better option over older models, especially on the used market. Besides higher megapixel counts, newer models also tend to have improvements in other, often more significant areas, such as better low light performance and improved dynamic range of the images captured by the sensor. But if you have a limited budget – as most of us do – your dollars might be better spent on a slightly older camera body, but also a slightly better lens.

At any rate, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that more megapixels are always worth more of your hard-earned cash.

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