When Megapixels Matter and When They do Not: A Complete Guide

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When it comes to photography, there are many factors and questions you have to ask yourself before you even click the record button. Should you shoot in RAW or not? What should your ISO setting be? Did you set the correct color temperature? But before you can even purchase your camera, there is one more factor to consider: megapixels.


 

When do megapixels matter, and when do they not? Megapixel count matters when it comes to printing or cropping photos to not lose the sharpness of the image, but they are a hindrance to quick burst photo taking. Megapixels do not matter when it comes to overall photo quality.


So, before you drop a few thousand dollars on a camera only because it boasts having a 687-megapixel count, be sure to read on and discover everything you need to know about when megapixels matter and when they do not.



What Are Megapixels?


According to Phone Scoop, a megapixel is,”…the size of an image, usually in reference to a photo from a digital camera or camera phone.” In other words, it is a unit of measurement for how many pixels are within a square inch (1” x 1”) of a digital image.


They are mainly dependent on the lens’s ability to accurately reflect light rays onto each specific area of the camera’s sensor. The ability to understand these reflections is based on the camera’s processor.


Without a suitable camera processor, the megapixels cannot be read and converted from analog (the electrical signals created by the light rays reflecting) to digital (SD card). So, typically a camera that boasts a high megapixel count also comes with a faster processing chip as well.



How Important Is Megapixel Count?


Although it has been established that the total amount of megapixels does not relate to the quality of the photo, that does not mean the megapixel count is entirely irrelevant. There is some importance to megapixel count, but only if they are paired with the other external needs of the camera. The megapixel count helps provide a quality image, but it does not directly create a better one.


The importance of a megapixel count ultimately depends on the size of your camera’s sensor, and the reasoning behind your photography. As explained by Blurbiness:


“The sensor surface has to be divided into very small areas, one for every pixel. Therefore, for a certain sensor size, the more megapixels a camera has, the smaller the area that can be assigned to every pixel.”


This means the light beams are gathered by the lens and reflected in towards the camera’s sensor. On the actual sensor are specific points of contact, called pixels. These pixels take the energy waves of the light rays and convert them to electronic signals. These signals are read by the camera’s processor and create a digital image, which is stored on the SD card.


This conversion is why having a higher count of total pixels creates a sharper image when printing. It almost works like shooting in RAW; with more information and data available, you can make more adjustments in post-production and scale without loss of data.


Sensor Importance

The direct correlation between the sensor and megapixel count can be understood as the sensor is divided into smaller squares. Each square can hold up to a certain amount of pixels before the square is filled. Once the square is filled to the brim, no more pixels (or information) can be read by the sensor.


So, the megapixel count is important to the camera sensor’s abilities. If your camera has 100 megapixels (MP), but the camera sensor can only read 10 MP, then 900 MP of data is lost. Thus, the sensor is essential to the megapixel amount as you do not want to bog down your processor with excess data.


Photography Needs

The reason megapixel count is important for your photography needs is mainly because of the resulting image. If you are someone who needs to print out your photographs for any reason, the amount of megapixels is crucial. The higher the megapixel count, the larger you can print.


However, if you are someone who needs to photograph things on the move or relies on quicker camera responses, the amount of megapixels does not have as high of an impact. In fact, it might be in your best interest to find a camera with a lower megapixel count, rather than higher.


Do More Megapixels Mean Better Photo Quality?

The short answer is no! However, it depends on the situation. As stated before, there are a few more elements that go into what quality of photo you will produce beyond the number of megapixels your camera can handle.


The main two factors that have to be on par with the number of megapixels your camera has to produce the highest quality photos are:


  1. Lenses Used – If your lens cannot precisely reflect the light rays onto the tiny pixel areas of the camera sensor, it cannot correctly translate those rays into electrical signals (or information) for the photo.
  2. Camera Sensor – The sensor on your camera has to be large enough to handle a certain number of pixels within one square inch without wasting any data.

If these two factors are matched with the megapixels, then yes, having more megapixels could mean a better photo quality. However, if one of these factors is off (especially the camera sensor), then the number of megapixels you have would not make a difference in photo quality.



When Do You Want More Megapixels?


If you are printing, you want a higher number of megapixels. As explained in the video essay by B&H Photo Video, most professional photos are printed at around 300 dpi (dots per inch). This means that each square inch (1 x 1) has 300 pixels within this space, so if your camera has 24 Megapixels, that equates to being able to print a photo up to 20” x 13.8” without loss of quality or detail.


With higher megapixel counts, you can print larger photos with more details. Any amount of megapixels within a camera can print at any size; however, they will lose quality and cause blurs because of the inability to process more dots (or pixels) within one square inch.


The more megapixels your camera has, the sharper your printed image will come out as it will be able to relay more information in the form of higher dpi count. This is especially important for any prints that will be looked at up close. For example, magazines are printed at 300 dpi, and some art galleries print their photos at 450 dpi. To maintain the sharpness and avoid an unprofessional look from your print, you need a higher megapixel count.


If you are shooting in RAW format, you will want more megapixels. This will increase the overall information being processed into the saved image for complete control in the post-production process. However, it should be noted that you will need a large storage unit for all the files.



When Do You Not Want More Megapixels?


The megapixel count can have an impact on your print photography. Although it may seem like more megapixels are better, there are times in which you would want to have a lower megapixel count for your camera. It will always come down to the type of photography you are doing, but here are the top three reasons you would not want more megapixels.


Less Continuous Shooting

Megapixels work by converting more information per square inch of captured reflections from the lens to a digital format (the SD card). Although it may seem like you would want as much information on your card as possible when shooting something, the opposite is true for any situation that needs continuous shooting (such as event photography).


Like the debate between whether to shoot RAW, shooting on a camera with a higher megapixel count means that your camera processor needs more time between each shot taken. It has to process all the information and convert it from analog to digital.


This means that there is slower continuous shooting with higher megapixels. Especially for event photography, this can be a significant disadvantage as you may miss a perfect photo opportunity from your camera, essentially lagging.


Slower Auto Focus

If you are someone who relies heavily on autofocus features, then a camera with a higher megapixel will become a hindrance. The camera’s processor works like a computer; the more applications you have running at once, the slower the system is going to get.


Because of this, if you are trying to shoot with a camera that has a high megapixel count, it’s going to slow down all the other features. Most of the processor speed is going towards capturing all the information, rather than the autofocus feature.


This does not mean the autofocus would not work at all, but it does mean you should plan for slower responses and possibly less crisp focus. With the chance of having blurry photos from the autofocus not being able to work at full capacity, you are better off with a lower megapixel count. After all, it is more professional to have a smaller, crisp photo than a large blur.


Higher Storage Needs

With so much information being processed by the camera, you will need a larger storage unit for each photo session or event. With every addition of a megapixel, 1 million pixels are being processed and converted into the SD card. Because of all the extra information, you need a bigger SD card with every upgraded megapixel.


According to the storage chart from Montavue, the rule of the thumb is to increase your storage times two with every upgraded megapixel.


For example, if you are going from a 2 MP camera to a 4 MP camera, your current SD card would fit around seven gigs (G) of data for one day of shooting. To upgrade to the 4 MP camera, you would want to get an SD card of a minimum 14G to keep up with your photography needs.


Terrible Low Light Performance

If you are an event photographer who frequents low light wedding dances, then higher megapixels may not be the solution you are looking for. Because there is so much information being captured by the camera, it has to stay at a higher ISO as the shutter will most likely need to be open for a more extended amount of time.


Usually, this would mean that there is more light reaching the sensor; however, with so much data coming through to the camera’s sensor to be processed, the image ends up very grainy. In low light settings, a higher megapixel camera may produce low quality, noisy photos, especially in print.



How Many Megapixels Should A Good Camera Have?


As always, the number of megapixels needed will vary depending on what you are trying to capture. For example, printing photographers may need to have megapixels of at least 24, while event photographers can get away with cameras at 16 MP.


For the general needs, The Travel Insider recommends 10 megapixels for an excellent camera. This is for photographers who have no intention of cropping their images. This number of megapixels is also decent at capturing details, but it would not be able to be stretched for a larger canvas without extreme noise.


How to Find the Right Number of Megapixels

Many variables go into deciding the minimum number of megapixels you should be shooting with. As of now, there is not a specific formula created; however, you can follow the guide below to help figure out the numbers.


A- If you know the print size, but not the megapixel count:

If you know the dimensions of the print size you would like to have, you can figure out the proportion of pixels that will give you the megapixel count as well!

Megapixel Needed =
[(Length of the printed photo) x (Desired dpi)] x
[(Width of the printed photo) x ()]

For example: You need to print an image that is 15” x 12” at 300 dpi.

MP = [(15″) x (300 dpi)] x
[(12″) x (300 dpi)]
= 4,500 pixels x 3,600 pixels


MP = 16,200,000 pixels or 16 MP minimum

B- If you know the megapixel size, but not the print size:

If you already know your megapixel size (preferably with the dimensions) and you need to figure out the best print size at a specific dpi, then follow this formula:


Print size = [(Height of pixels) / (Desired dpi)] x [(Width of pixels) / (Desired dpi)]


Megapixel Needed =
[(Length of the printed photo) x (Desired dpi)] x
[(Width of the printed photo) x (Desired dpi)]

For example: You have a camera that has a megapixel count of 2MP with a resolution dimension of 1600 x 1200, and you want to print a photo at 500 dpi.

Print size =
[(1600 pixels) / (500 dpi)] x
[(1200 pixels) / (500 dpi)]


Print size = 3.2” x 2.4” maximum at 500 dpi


If the idea of switching between Dots Per Image and pixels as units is confusing, you can use the two terms interchangeably as they relate directly to each other. However, be aware that dpi is always in a circular fashion, while pixels are strictly squares.


Is 16MP Better Than 12MP?

In math theory, yes, but in practical use, no. Although it seems counterintuitive to think that a smaller amount of megapixels would be better than a larger one, this does seem to be the case. The main reasons why the 12 MP would be better than the 16 MP are the storage size, lower light abilities, and filming needs.


Storage Size

As already established, the higher the MP count, the more storage you will need for your photography. The smaller MP means there is more space on the card for more shots. This can be an advantage for event photographers or anyone looking to take a ton of photos within a small period.


Lower Light Abilities

As described by Mix Arena, the smaller megapixel count means that there is more room on the sensor for individual pixels. In other words, the pixels for a 12MP camera are larger than the pixels found on a 16MP camera. The larger the pixels means there is more space for light to hit and be processed. Thus, the smaller megapixel count camera can handle low light settings better than high megapixel count cameras.


Filming Needs

Although most people associate cameras, specifically DSLRs, with still photography, there is still another area of interest when it comes to megapixel importance. The topic that seems to be forgotten when talking about this is filming videos.


As established in the video essay from B&H Photo Video, there are a few advantages to filming with a lower megapixel count camera than a higher one.


  • One of these advantages is the control over the rolling shutter effect. As explained by DIY Photography, the rolling shutter effect can come from a subject moving too quickly for the camera sensor to process it. Because you do not have as much information that needs to be processed through the camera sensor, your camera can handle the movements of people and objects without the delay or warping of the image.

  • The other advantage of a 12 MP camera over a 16 MP camera for filming is, again, the low light. Just as in still photography, the smaller megapixel count means the camera has a larger surface area for light to bounce onto. Thus, you can film in lower light settings without as much grain or noise as you would from a higher megapixel count camera.

What is the Highest Megapixel Camera?

According to Digital Camera World, the camera with the highest megapixel count is the PhaseOne XF IQ4 150MP Camera System. Coming in at a whopping 150-megapixel count, this camera needs significant storage space. So much so that the Phase One company built in two different memory card slots for it.


The XF IQ4 can read both XQD (for RAW processing) and typical SD cards. This camera also comes with a large, full-frame camera sensor at 3.54” x 2.36”. This larger sensor allows for up to 15 stops of range! To give a comparison, the camera sensor for one of NASA’s cameras (Nikon D1) only comes in at 0.93”  x 0.614”!


What is the Lowest Megapixel Camera?

If you really want to get an understanding of the impact (or lack thereof depending on your viewpoint) that megapixels have on the quality of image, the best example is the type of cameras that have the lowest megapixel count. These cameras are your run of the mill security cameras!


According to CCTV Camera World, you can purchase security cameras that only have one megapixel but can still record a video at a resolution of 720p. In the day and age of 4K streaming, 720p does not seem that impressive. However, even the daily news broadcasts at 720p!


The reason security cameras can still output a video of such quality with only one megapixel is that the smaller overall megapixel count allows the cameras to have one large area for the camera sensor to process over. This means they can process information in the lowest light settings, have the fastest shutter speed, and can even process night vision!



Camera Suggestions


With so much information regarding megapixels and whether they matter or not, it can be confusing on where to start looking. As stated before, the amount of megapixels necessary depends significantly on what you are trying to capture.


To help your search for the right number of megapixels you need, here are some suggestions for cameras for each of the main types of photography, determined by their megapixel number.


General or Beginner Photography

If you are just starting in photography, or you need something that can cover your basic needs for a camera, these suggestions might be the best option. They have an average amount for megapixels (neither low nor high) that will get the job done. They are ranked from cheapest to most expensive.


  1. Nikon COOLPIX B500
  2. Nikon D3000 10.2MP Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm
  3. Canon EOS Rebel T3 Digital SLR Camera with EF-S 18-55mm
  4. Nikon D40X 10.2MP Digital SLR Camera (Body Only)
  5. Nikon D90 Digital SLR Camera (Body Only)

Event Photography

If you are a professional event photographer (or aspiring one at that!), then you may need a camera that can handle a higher rate of megapixels. However, you also need that sweet spot of not too high, but higher than the beginner photographer would have. Here are five suggestions for event photographers when it comes to cameras with emphasis on megapixels. They are ranked from cheapest to most expensive.


  1. Nikon D3000 10.2MP Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm
  2. Canon EOS 4000D DSLR Camera 18 MP (15pc Bundle)
  3. Canon EOS Rebel T6 Digital SLR Camera Kit (13pc Bundle)
  4. Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7, 16 Megapixel Digital Camera
  5. Panasonic Lumix DC -FZ82 Digital camera 18.1 MP

Print Photography

By far, this is the main group of photographers that will need to focus on how many megapixels their camera can handle. For print photographers, here are five cameras with rather high megapixel counts that should be considered for purchase. They are ranked from cheapest to most expensive.


  1. Nikon D3500 24.2MP DSLR Camera with AF-P DX NIKKOR 18-55mm
  2. Nikon D800E 36.3 MP CMOS FX-Format Digital SLR Camera (Body Only)
  3. Pentax K-1 Mark II 36MP Weather Resistant DSLR (Body Only)
  4. Canon 90D 32.5 MP Digital SLR Camera with 18-55
  5. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV 30.4 MP Full Frame Digital SLR Camera Body with Travel Bundle

Nature Photography

If you are someone who photographs nature quite frequently, the general needs of nature photographers when it comes to megapixels are the same across the board. If you plan on cropping in your photos to capture a bird sat on a birch, you would be better off keeping with one of the below suggestions as your base camera and invest in a telephoto lens. They are ranked from cheapest to most expensive.


  1. D5600 DX-Format Digital SLR 24.2 MP
  2. Canon T7 EOS Rebel DSLR Camera 24.1 MP Kit
  3. Nikon D3500 DX-Format 24.7 MP DSLR Two Lens Kit
  4. Pentax K-70 24MP DSLR with 18-55mm
  5. PANASONIC Lumix GH5 4K Digital Camera, 20.3 Megapixel Mirrorless Camera with Digital Live MOS Sensor


In Conclusion


Megapixels are not a direct correlation to automatically having higher quality photos. In many cases, you can have a camera that has a 35-megapixel count, but the lens can only provide enough light equivalent to 12 megapixels. The question of whether megapixels matter or not ultimately comes down to your camera’s overall sensor.


If it can handle higher megapixels, then yes, the megapixel count matters. If your camera can’t process much data, the sensor is too small, or you need to take a burst of photos very quickly, then the number of megapixels you have does not matter.

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