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News & Insight

Do You Need More Megapixels Or A Higher Megapixel Sensor?

By Kishore Sawh on February 6th 2016

Throwing fuel on the fire is what you’re doing should you question the importance of megapixels in modern photography. There are those that believe more is always better in one camp and then in the other, there are those who are right. (No, I’m only joking, sort of). But this is what megapixels seem to do, they polarize, and they throw into focus, rather ironically, the need for proper discussion and understanding of all the other elements within the photographic procedural ecosystem.

There’s a lot going on in-and-around-and-out of camera to affect your final image, and it would pay to understand the relations between many of these. When megapixels are treated as the primary metric by which to measure a camera’s value over another’s, there’s a problem; but likewise, when the benefits more megapixels can bring are outright dismissed, that’s equally injudicious. They do matter, as much as they are incendiary.

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Which is why Tony Northrup’s newish video ‘Megapixels – Do You Need More?’ is a clickbait title, but an opportunity to delve into the matter a little bit more and a little differently. He capitalizes on it, which is great.

 Starting out with the big question of whether megapixels are important or not, Tony actually addresses the answer via digression into a discussion on the other factors one must consider in conjunction with megapixels. Thinking in terms of DPI as is common in the overall argument? 300 dpi seems to be the standard for most prints, and according to Tony, it is that way because when an image is perceived at about the closest distance to the eye that most are able to focus, that’s the maximum amount of detail they can perceive. He then addresses that the dpi must be considered hand in hand with relative viewing distance, and how megapixels fits into all that.

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[REWIND: SONY A7II | PROOF SIZE ISN’T EVERYTHING, IT’S HOW YOU USE IT]

While adding megapixels will always increase the amount of perceived detail, the image from a higher MP sensor won’t always seem like it because it’s not a component that works in a vacuum, and ingredients such as resolving power of a lens, and then environmental ingredients like atmosphere, diffraction, camera shake and so on play a huge role. We’ve referenced the DxO P-MPix system before, and it’s a great tool to use to help understand lens/sensor pairings and resolving power.

It’s about 15 minutes long but well worth your time as it’s a different way of bringing the material across to a familiar discussion. Hopefully, it will arm you with information to make better usage and buying decisions, and maybe give you a more enlightened opinion.

Always good stuff from Tony & Chelsea; be sure to see more of them here.

Terms: #Megapixel
About

A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Paul Nguyen

    Resolution and perceived detail are two completely different things. I’ve addressed this before and I’ve always erred on the side of perceived detail rather than resolution. People are crazy about resolution because it has to do with numbers. People love numbers and charts and all that stuff, but all that has very little to do with how much detail is perceived in your images. Factors such as microcontrast, control of chromatic aberrations, harshness of transition from in-focus to out-of-focus areas, among other things define lenses much more than their MTF curves do. Similarly, having a high resolution file doesn’t necessarily mean you get ‘sharper’ pictures. Too many people, especially when uploading to social media, don’t know how to get the sharpest images because they don’t crank their sharpening settings. There will always be a case for more MP, e.g. if you exhibit in an art gallery, but for most people, photos will only ever be viewed on the web, on probably a 1080p (2MP) screen, or perhaps a 4K screen if they can afford it (8MP). Ultimately, it’s not an important discussion, MP will go up over time, whether you want higher MP or not, your next camera will probably have higher MP than your last. I wouldn’t worry about it.

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  2. Ben Perrin

    It completely depends on what you shoot not just if you print large or not. Wedding and sports photographers may want a faster workflow and landscape photographers want to see as much detail as they can in general. Personally I’d hate to be stuck with a 12 megapixel camera but others seem to pride themselves on only needing 12 megapixels. My personal philosophy is more detail = more options. However it also means that things like the reciprocal rule go out the window and better technique and glass is required to take full advantage of a high megapixel sensor. Storage is an issue for some and not for others. Then there is always the issue of need vs want. I don’t need a Ferrari but I want one :)

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  3. robert s

    he looks like he was done in cgi in that video

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  4. John Cavan

    I find that the biggest advantage I’ve gotten from the D800 pixel volume is flexibility in my cropping decisions compared to the 16mp my Pentax K-5 used to give me. If nothing else, the added resolution (assuming all other components allow for the data to be captured) provides some after-the-fact creative license.

    As for printing sizes… well, I think the 300 PPI (as opposed to DPI, which isn’t really the same thing even if it gets used like it) depends on the print size and the expected viewing distance. I don’t always print to this resolution because a photo hung on a wall, that forces a certain distance for most people, gives some freedom to be a little less dense. If I printing to sell, sure, I would want to ensure the print was crisp and so would aim at 300 PPI, but for many purposes, something like 240 PPI is sufficient and that would print a 16mp image at 13″x19″ easily and the vast majority of consumers wouldn’t notice the difference.

    In any event, depends on purpose. I print a handful of images, at best, in a given month and I post many, many, more on the web with 2400 pixels on the longest side. The upshot of which is that I’ve felt very little need to consider a camera upgrade because resolution is simply not something I’m short of these days.

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    • Poul-Werner Dam

      Yes, DPI is a measurement for printer resolution and PPI is the correct term when it comes to file resolution :-)

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  5. Kim Farrelly

    Technical as usual is Tony. Viewing distance. The all important question I ask my, all be it few, commercial clients when planning a shoot. Trying to get a 2.5m * 1.9m print to fit under the TIFF limit can be hard at 300dpi. A much easier job was an 8m * 5m wall behind a hotel desk. That is where more mega pixels and ultimate resolution would have been handy, not having to stitch so many 5D3 images together. I find 16Mpx is great for weddings and such on the most part & if the only out put is for web 5Mpx is looooooads.

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