How Many Megapixels?

How many is too many?  I really don’t know.  I refer to the number of pixels that can be squeezed onto the sensor for a digital camera and what is desirable or not.  Over the years the camera manufacturers have steadily increased the number of pixels on their sensors and come up with ever greater resolutions as a result.  This has been both beneficial and problematic.  What I am not sure about is whether I am missing the point with all of this.

My first DSLR was a Canon EOS 10D.  It was a 6.3Mp camera – something that would now be considered unacceptable on a cell phone.  It was a great camera, even if it did have a number of limitations that would be considered unheard of today.  However, for its day it was very good.  I had full page images printed in magazines from it with absolutely no problem.

As the megapixel wars got going, I was adopting larger and larger file sizes by default.  I would tell anyone who asked that megapixels were not the most important thing when buying a camera and there were plenty of other issues to consider.  I certainly don’t mind having a more dense file when I need to crop in to a shot but the impact on memory cards, the need for ever larger hard drives and the upgrades to computers to process the larger files were downsides that I didn’t appreciate.

For a while it seemed like the pixel count had leveled off a bit and the focus was on gaining better noise performance at high ISO settings.  This seemed like a very worthwhile approach for me.  However, big sensors are now back in play with the Nikon D800 leading the way and Canon talking about some large sensor cameras to come.  (I think it is worth noting that, since the pixel count is a function of the square of the linear resolution, these larger counts do not translate in to a huge improvement in linear resolution.  Yes, you do get more detail but it isn’t quite as mind-blowing as some will suggest.)

Am I a dope for not welcoming this?  Am I taking a Luddite approach in sounding happy with what I had and not appreciating the advances?  Do I just accept that all of my gear has to be upgraded periodically to stay in line with the latest thing whether it is camera file sizes, the processing requirements of new generation software or the interface needs of the latest devices.  I’m sure there are some benefits to having such dense files but I am not sure that they matter for what I do.

As for the uses for large file sizes, there is always much discussion about printing big or using for billboards.  Only a photo nerd looks at a picture from six inches and billboard resolutions are actually quite poor.  I wonder what a good resolution level really is.  Anyone care to suggest the perfect compromise?

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4 Responses to How Many Megapixels?

  1. Thomas Bunce says:

    Too many pixels? Never!, but then I come from the viewpoint of an engineer who loves to see the detail of how mechanical things are built. From a photography point of view, the limit depends on the level of technology keeping the image quality high. Low noise is imperative or why bother with all those pixels? Low noise at high ISO is what I want to see improved since I can usually stitch if I want a large print. I saw a demo for an 80 MP medium format camera printed as a 40 x 50 inch image. The output at 180 pixels per inch was just outstanding with all the ropes from a group of sailboats crisp, and of course the sunset colors were great since it came from a medium format camera. But with stitching, I have created images beyond 400 MP and when printed at 10 x 3.5 feet at 360 ppi, they are really spectacular. Since most people won’t be printing that large, the sweet spot would be to get a 36 x 24 inch print at 180 ppi. That means 28 MP. We are already there with mid-range cameras and with great image quality to boot! Larger pixel counts just makes it easier to make really large prints, to crop and still print poster sized, and to catch people and vehicles in motion where stitching isn’t possible. As with purchasing cars and computers you have to decide what you are going to do with it and choose what works best for that purpose. And any camera will be improved with a better lens!

    • Rob says:

      I agree Thomas. Upping the pixel count for individual requirements is fun and I am happy stitching large panos myself. However, I don’t want to be burdened when it comes to processing every image. The low noise at high ISOs is certainly improving but that will still be a goal I think.

  2. Jonathan Price says:

    Just traded my EOS 350D for a Fuji X20. Modest pixel count increase but the improvements in processing, the way the X20s on chip filtering works seems to be the biggest improvement. Maybe it’s just that cameras have moved on but the pictures look stunning on a monitor. Always disappointed when printed – just doesn’t seem to translate from screen to print. Need someone to recommend a good photo printer that doesn’t cost the earth to run and does justice to the original. Canon Pixima just doesnt cut it. Sometimes miss the good old fashioned send away and process / print companies!

    • Rob says:

      I have pretty much given up on printing much at home. The quality of online printing firms is so good and far cheaper than maintaining a printer at home. Not sure what a good printing business is in the UK but MPix are great over here. I have heard of Photobox and One Vision Imaging so maybe they are worth a look.

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