The Megapixel Wars

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Over at Skip Cohen University, they’re discussing some things that camera companies do that distinctly photography customers. I can sympathize with much of what they are saying considering that computer and gaming console companies do much the same thing. It’s almost as if they went to a seminar to learn how to annoy their customers and to make their websites absolutely useless to anyone who is looking to give them money. No wonder third-party vendors like ourselves are selling more units than the manufacturers through their own online stores. However, there is one thing that has been bothering me for several years now and I’m very glad that SCU mentions it — even if it does come in at #5 on their list — and that is the Great Megapixel War.

What do megapixels measure and are more of them actually a good thing? Megapixels measure the resolution of an image. They do not add much in the way of sharpness, detail, lighting, or focus on their own. However, most people will assume that more megapixels means better pictures when the reality is that more megapixels just means larger file sizes — it is the camera sensor-size that determines the quality of the image, not the quantity of pixels. For example, if I were to put a smartphone camera sensor in a 20 megapixel camera, the image is still going to look terrible compared to any image taken with a larger sensor. This comes down to the laws of physics — the larger the sensor, the more light it can handle. The more light it can handle, the more details it can capture. The more details it can capture, the better the image will be. Therefore, it is sensor size and ability that should be used to measure the ability of a camera, not the number of millions of pixels it can capture. The New York Times ran an interesting article with a professional photographer examining this very common belief about megapixels meaning better images and found out that in 99.99999999999% of cases, the number of pixels in the final image had little to nothing to do with the quality of that image. Megapixels are not equivalent to megahertz in which case more megahertz means more processing power. More pixels in an image just means a larger space will be required to store that image.

So, why do camera manufacturers and vendors continue to toot on about how many megapixels a camera can capture? The cynic in me says that it’s because they want image sizes to get larger so that customers will buy the larger (and more expensive) memory cards. Or, it could be because they assume that customers will always think “more is better.” However, as cameras improve in many ways and customers become more savvy about how to determine if a camera is a true upgrade or a sidegrade, vendors and manufacturers will have to become more honest and focus on the sensor size and processing power instead of the way over-hyped Megapixel Rating. Because, honestly, who outside of big-time advertising firms actually needs to print out an image larger than a square meter in size (A0 or where pixellation from “blowing up” an image actually comes into play)? Don’t let yourself be swayed into buying a camera that won’t improve the quality if your images simply because it captures more pixels — always check the sensor and processor to see if they are larger and more powerful than the ones in your current camera before you click on the “Buy now” button.

— da Bird