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Gear & Apps

What Camera Should I get? | How Many Megapixels Do I Need?

By Max Bridge on April 4th 2017

“What camera should I get?” is one of those fundamental questions that, at some point, we all ask. Whether you’re an amateur looking to purchase your first, or a professional looking to add to your arsenal, this question will inevitably rear its ugly head. In this article, I’ll be covering one of the key measurements we all use when deciding which camera to purchase:

How many megapixels do I need? ‘Need’, being the operative word.

Within any marketplace, manufacturers have to find a way to differentiate themselves from the competition. As such, it’s understandable that headline figures, like megapixels, become key selling points. After all, for the average consumer, megapixels sound far better than high ISO performance.

How Many Megapixels Do You Need To Print At…

Printing at 300 DPI is considered the gold standard for print quality. Yes, it is possible to print with a higher DPI, but 300 is more than adequate for most of us. Having heard that 300 DPI is the “gold standard” many photographers (I have also been guilty of this) think that every print has to be 300 DPI. If that were the case, the maximum print size of a 50.6 megapixel Canon 5DSR would be roughly 29 inches on the long edge. And, a 100-megapixel Hasselblad H6D-100c would max out at roughly 39 inches. So, how on earth can you print something at billboard size?

I don’t want to delve into this aspect of the megapixel argument too heavily as it’s been covered in countless articles by people far more technical than myself, but if you want to learn more about maximum print sizes, check out the two articles linked below. For our purposes, all you really need to know is that a camera with a 24-megapixel sensor could print billboard size. Yup, that’s right, billboard size. So, if your argument for purchasing a high-megapixel camera is to print large, you’re wasting your money.

[REWIND: HERE’S WHY SIZE MATTERS | PRINT RESOLUTION EXPLAINED IN 5 MINUTES]

[REWIND: DO YOU NEED MORE MEGAPIXELS OR A HIGHER MEGAPIXEL SENSOR?]

More Megapixels Does Not Necessarily Equal More Detail

Now that one major myth has been busted, lets smash a few others. In the video above, Pye talks about some of the many factors that can affect ‘perceived image sharpness’; noise, lens quality, viewing distance and so on. If your sole desire is to print large, ultra-sharp images, then it won’t matter how many megapixels your camera has if the lens you put on it cannot resolve the potential detail (an argument can be made here, however, that modern good lenses can out-resolve properly paired sensors). The same can be said if you were forced to shoot at a high ISO and your camera does not cope well in those situations. The point here is, there are many other factors which must be considered, and megapixels are not the be all and end all.

Side note – I firmly believe that SLR Lounge is the best online resource for amateur photographers. There is a ton of education on offer in the SLR Lounge Store that can take you from inexperienced amateur to knowledgeable pro. The Premium membership is something I would have loved to have when I first started. Click here to take a look. 

When Are High Megapixel Camera’s Useful?

Whether or not a high-megapixel camera will be useful to you comes down to one question: “what do you shoot?”

I shoot a range of things, as many of us do, one of which being family photography. For that, I use a 24 megapixel Nikon D750 and have never felt more megapixels were required, almost. I’m confident the D750 files can be printed at almost any size, but I have, on occasion, desired some more megapixels. Why? Cropping.

One of the biggest advantages to having a high megapixel sensor is the ability to significantly crop your images. With portrait photography, you rarely need to make significant crops. However, there are bound to be a few occasions where that ability will be of use.

Given everything we’ve learned thus far, I think we can safely say that 99% of photographers out there do not need a high-megapixel camera, especially if we include amateurs. So, who does?

Well, I also create a lot of commercial still-life images. Within this arena, the more megapixels the better, and the same can be said for most commercial photography; fashion, architecture, e-commerce, still life etc. The reason for this comes back to the ability to crop.

If you take a shot of product and want to crop in on one particular detail, a high-megapixel camera will give you that ability. When photographing very small objects like jewelry, you can take advantage of that ability to crop and shoot a little wider. The advantage here is, you won’t have to take quite so many images to focus stack.

The Megapixel War | Summary

For the majority of photographers out there, the megapixel war is a marketing one between manufacturers, and that has little to do with you. A camera with 10-20 megapixels is going to, in most cases, be more than capable of meeting all your needs. You’d be served far better by saving money on your camera and investing in better lenses.

On the other hand, high-megapixel cameras are exceptionally useful to many, but not all, commercial photographers. Those who need to make significant crops to their images will find the abundance of megapixels a useful tool. Essentially, beyond a certain number of megapixels, that’s what it becomes. A tool. A tool which is useless to most but indispensable to others. Don’t let the megapixel hype fool you into purchasing a camera you don’t need.

[REWIND: PHOTOSHOP BETTER | USE LINKED SMART OBJECTS TO KEEP PHOTOSHOP FASTER & FLEXIBLE]

If you’ve not taken a look at all the education on offer in the SLR Lounge Store be sure to check it out now. There are some fantastic courses for beginners and professionals alike. Click here to take a look.

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About

Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Ralph Hightower

    I started looking at a DLSR to buy in 2012 and it’s an “arms race” between Canon and Nikon to out megapixel and out feature the other. In the film days, the pro SLR of Canon and Nikon had a life cycle of 10 years; now it’s 2-3 years.

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  2. Josh Leavitt

    I’d agree that 24MP is good for just about everything for modern cameras. My Canon 5D (orginal) suits my needs just fine, despite its 12MP sensor. And I’ve used my little Olympus E-PL7 to make really great looking 20″x30″ prints despite it only having 16MP and a micro four thirds sensor.

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  3. adam sanford

    Why to get a high MP rig:  Detail for cropping, detail for large prints studied at close range (ugh), to *somewhat* obviate the need to focus stack (macro) or pano (landscape) for those that are detail obsessives, and for Canon guys with terminal resolution sickness, the 5DS R is the only rig that defeats the AA filter (many would give their left nut for an AA-free 5D4).

    Why *not* to get a high MP rig:  Manufacturers are overcharging for high MP rigs, though most lenses improve with high MP you often need a ‘new wardrobe’ of glass to truly maximize the resolution opportunity, mo pixels / mo problems (noise, file size, cards, CPU time, etc.), hard to get a high framerate rig as the CPU + buffer get crushed quickly, you need slightly faster shutters than you would with lower res sensors, etc.  And for Canon folks, on-chip ADC + high res do not live together yet, so you’ll have to wait for a 5DS2 to get that.

    I’ve held off for now and stick with my trusty 5D3.  But as a stills-only shooter who doesn’t really need high fps, a high res rig is almost certainly in my future provided it doesn’t send my high ISO shots to radioactively noisy places.  I could see myself scooping up a 5DS2 someday.

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    • Chris Lynch

      With respect to the “new wardrobe” of glass part of your comment, how do you know if your lens will be capable of resolving these high MP cameras?  I assume any Canon L series, Zeiss Milvus/Otus and Sigma Art series lenses fits the bill?   What about a lens like the Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/2?  Canon 100mm f2?  Thanks in advance!

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    • adam sanford

      Chris:

      Shortest Answer:  Canon has a published list of what is ‘rated’ / recommended for the 5DS/5DS R here:

      http://www.the-digital-picture.com/News/News-Post.aspx?News=15356

      Longer answer:  It’s grayer than any hard metric will tell you.  Read Roger’s take on three great and one mediocre lens tested on the 5D3 / 5DS  / 5DS R:  https://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2015/06/canon-5ds-and-5ds-r-initial-resolution-tests/

      Uncle Rog’s findings:  *all* lenses improve on a finer canvas (sensor), but *how much* the lens improves and *where in the frame* it improves are a function of how good the lens was to start with.

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    • Chris Lynch

      Adam, Thank you kindly, I appreciate you posting those links!

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