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The Truth Behind the Megapixel Myth Gear Reviews

Do Megapixels Matter?

By Pye Jirsa on April 29th 2013

The general population these days seems to have bought into the belief that megapixels are the single most important aspect of a camera’s image quality. Because of this, more discerning photographers have started to argue that megapixels don’t matter at all, and it is everything else about the camera sensor that matters.

Well, two wrong myths don’t make a right! In this video we will explain that the truth behind megapixels is actually somewhere in between.

The Truth Behind the Megapixel Myth Video


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When Do Megapixels NOT Matter?

Yes, megapixels do play a role in the overall camera image quality….but is it the leading factor in image quality? Is more always better? This totally depends on how the camera is being used. For the vast majority of photographers, and in the vast majority of shooting conditions, 10-15 megapixels is more than sufficient.

Other aspects of sensor quality and camera features, such as sensor size, low-light performance,  frames per second, dynamic range, etc. can be more important than megapixels to these photographers.

For example, the image below was shot with a 12 megapixel Nikon D700 and and the image quality is stunning, especially when viewed online, as a slideshow, or in 10-20″ prints. For these types of viewing conditions, the 12MP sensor more than enough and even allows for a small amount of cropping.

Nikon-D700

Can Megapixels Actually Be Bad?

Additionally, if you shoot a high-volume of images like for a wedding or action sports, then you may not want 4,000 images at 40 megapixels per photo shoot, because you will run out hard drive space fairly quickly!

For example a studio that shoots 150 weddings per year may produce over a million RAW images per year, and at 40-50+ megabytes per image, that is 25-30 Terabytes of storage!  Of course the average shooter may only have to buy one or two extra memory cards and hard drives, so this is mainly based on your personal workflow volume.

Another consideration is editing speed.  Let’s consider again the wedding photographer who generates roughly 3,000-5,000 images per wedding.  Even if the difference in your editing time is just a few seconds per image, your workload can increase by quite a few hours per week if you double or tripple your megapixel count.

When Do Megapixels Matter?

Sheer resolution becomes a factor when enlarging and performing extreme crops. For example, because detail is more visible when blowing a photo up to a 20×30 inch canvas versus a 4×6 inch print, having a higher megapixel resolution is important in bringing out more crisp details in your enlargements. Also, if you happen to have a 40 megapixel image, and need to crop 80% of the image, you will still have plenty of detail left for that enlargement.

Nikon-D800

The image above is shot with the 36 megapixel Nikon D800. With this much resolution, there is plenty of room to crop the image and still produce high-quality photos. The example below is a 100% crop sample from the previous image, and as you can see we still have enough detail left to use for either posting on the web or even printing.

Nikon-D800 Crop

Similarly, if you are an advertising or fashion photographer then ultra high resolution sensors can mean a lot more flexibility in production. Just imagine an editorial photographer taking a single full length portrait, and then being able to create printable crops focusing on the subjects facial expression, dress, wrist, neck jewelry and shoes, all from one shot!

Compared to the Nikon D800, the Phase One medium format camera has more than twice the megapixels, resulting in an incredible amount of detail saved even after extreme crops.

Phase One

In between Dreams by Joe Gunawan | Fotosiamo.com for SLR Lounge

The image above is taken with a staggering 80 megapixel digital back sensor. Even at just 50% crop, we can still get beautiful details of the model’s face, clothes, and jewelry with enough resolution for a full-page spread publication!

Phase One Crop

The Wild Card: Re-Sizing a High-Res Image

There is a third myth that needs busting before we wrap up, and that has to do with down-sizing your high-res images.  Many people argue that down-sizing your high-res images is not as good as if you simply had a sensor with lower megapixels in the first place.  However if you compare image detail and dynamic range, this is NOT TRUE!

For example if we compare images from the 16 MP Nikon D4 and the 36 MP D800, with the D800 image re-sized down to 16 MP, there will be far more detail in the D800 16 megapixel image.

The bigger debate has to do with ISO performance and re-sizing high-res images:  If you want the absolute best low-light performance, should you use a 16 MP sensor or a 36 MP sensor?  Without getting too geeky, suffice it to say that by re-sizing a high-res image, you do indeed gain a considerable amount of low-light performance, or at least you get better noise reduction performance.

(Side Note: We’re talking about RAW images here, and re-sizing in post-production.  Some cameras can re-size RAW images in-camera, and you can view examples of that in our article HERE.  Also, keep in mind that every camera on the market can shoot JPG images at different resolutions.)

The bottom line is that most photographers wind up over-emphasizing one of three aspects of image quality:  They value either resolution, dynamic range, or low-light performance.  In reality, a balance of all three is probably the best choice for 95% of photographers.  Our advice to you?  Don’t obsess over just megapixels alone, or “DR” or ISO…  Unless your genre of photography is a very specialized area, a good balance is best.

Conclusion

So, just how important are megapixels? It depends on what kind of photography you shoot. If you are an average photographer shooting around for fun, or a wedding / sports / wildlife photographer shooting thousands of images in a single session, you may not need the super high megapixel count.

However, if you shoot fashion and commercial photography, or landscape, architecture, etc. then a large number of megapixels may be more important, and far more manageable.

Of course, there are still all the other factors like sensor size and dynamic range that go into an image quality. So in the end, megapixel count does indeed affect image quality, but whether megapixels matter to you will depend on your intended use and workflow.

Terms: #Megapixel
About

Founding Partner of Lin and Jirsa Photography and SLR Lounge.

Follow my updates on Facebook and my latest work on Instagram both under username @pyejirsa.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. brandon shink

    wow… !!!

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  2. Kurk Rouse

    Feeling the large image size pain

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  3. Pat Cullinan, Jr.

    Dear Pye,

    There’s one additional purpose in taking high-MP photos, one that never comes up in discussion, namely, the ability to display images on very large 4K or even 8K flat panels. 4K is here already, and 8K is just a few years off. The digital revolution is missing one feature — the (by now old-fashioned) slide show. I used to project Kodachromes on a 72-inch matte screen using a Leitz projector with a very-wide-angle Leitz projection lens. There’s no photographic experience like it.

    All the best,

    Pat Cullinan, Jr.

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  4. Jim

    In the article about MegaPixels you said….Don’t obsess over just megapixels alone, or “DR” or ISO… What is DR? Dynamic Range?

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  5. kenyee

    Total WOW w/ the PhaseOne image :-O
    Greatttt styling too :-)

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  6. Jeffrey Howarth

    I need to be able to crop unless I can frame the shot better in the first place :-)

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