The Race is Off.
First, a megapixel definition.
A megapixel (MP) is a million pixels; the term is used not only for the number of pixels in an image but also to express the number of image sensor elements of digital cameras or the number of display elements of digital displays.Wikipedia.
Manufacturers want to make you feel like it matters. The number is everywhere. Front and centre. Pride of place on advertisements aimed at the mass market. ‘Fuji XT-3 26.1M’. ‘Sony A7iii 42.2M’. ‘Hasselblad X1D 50M’. It’s megapixel madness. We are inclined to feel like our camera is inferior if it has fewer megapixels than the competition. But who actually wins in the ‘megapixel race’ and is this number as vital we are lead to believe?
A good quality camera in today’s market has between 20 to 40 megapixels, with prices that vary significantly. But what exactly does this number refer to in relation to camera performance?
The megapixel count is the total number of pixels that will make up an image captured by the sensor of the camera. The higher the number the more detail in the photograph. The number is obtained by multiplying the vertical pixel count by the horizontal pixel count. For example, if a sensor is 3000 x 2000 pixels, then it has 6 megapixels (6 million pixels). A general rule for modern cameras is the bigger the sensor the more megapixels are present. The more megapixels, the higher the resolution of the final photograph. Yet in reality, when do the benefits of a higher resolution photograph stop outweighing the cost of the camera? Is there a point at which it is not worth the money anymore?
Decreasing Returns on Investment.
The megapixel count of your camera matters, up to a point. The usefulness of improvements in resolution are big at first but tail off dramatically as they reach higher pixel counts. At the high end, differences become barely visible. In fact, to be able to see any difference at all, it would take a print of a few meters to be able to see it with the human eye.
When printing pictures out to paper, it is best to do so at a 300 dots per inch (dpi) setting, as this is the highest level at which our eyes can distinguish detail at a standard distance. The number of pixels needed to achieve good prints at the highest quality setting is directly related to the size of the print. It is possible to get a usable print as low as 150dpi on a smaller sensor. To print at much larger sizes, more megapixels are needed. Yet most people in the enthusiast to semi-professional bracket, only need to display their work on a screen or in print for book and magazines. Cameras with a 6M sensor would still be able to produce clear usable photographs at an 8″ x 10″ size. The return on investment diminishes dramatically when the sensor reaches anything over 30M. The majority of photographers will never need or see the full range of their camera’s ability to capture high resolutions.
This is the essence of where my problem lies with the so-called ‘megapixel race’. At some point over the past half-century, it has become a fallacy. Measurement of what was once important when designing or choosing a camera. And as an indirect result of this obsession from the manufacturer, other more important aspects of camera design have been neglected. The menu system in the latest mirrorless has barely changed when compared to 90’s designs and is in desperate need of a re-think. This issue is compounded further because modern cameras are menu heavy, with less single-use buttons on the body. This equates to more time inside the menus and less time with your eye on the world.
Look Past the Megapixel Count for Value.
For most of us, buying a camera because of the number of megapixels alone is not recommended, as more value can be found in other aspects of camera design. Here are some features that will provide you with more value from your investment;
- Full weatherproofing of the body and lens
- The quality of materials used in manufacturing the body
- The quality of the lens
- High framerate capability for shooting sports and street photography
- The size and versatility of the screen
- Competitive low light performance
The megapixel count became a way for manufacturers to distinguish their claimed superiority from the rest of the pack until the limits of the sensor itself were reached. It is important when searching for a new camera to undertake some research yourself. In your own time, settle on a camera that is right for you and your needs, your diligence will be rewarded. There is a lot of overwhelming information out there and the final decision is not an easy one.
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