Digital cameras: Do megapixels really matter?

No doubt about it, I gotta get a better camera, but I’ve been saying that for fifty years, starting with a 1963 Brownie Fiesta. The latest camera I’m unsatisfied with (though I like it just fine–I’m like that) is a Fuji A500, 5 megapixels, 3x optical zoom. I’m not shooting for prints, but to have something that looks good on a computer screen. Five megapixels gives me an image size of 2592 x 1944. My laptop, which is not the best but things can look good on it, tops out at 1024 x 768, or a mere 786,432 pixels. What do all those extra pixels do for me, besides letting me crop the shit out of the image? Doesn’t the image lose all the fantabulous extra detail when it’s squeezed down to fit on the screen?

I’ve been using this camera for about a week shooting lots of plowed-up piles of dirty snow that, between the presence of salt and sublimation from the bright sun and very low temperatures, have interesting textures and contrast. The first shots weren’t totally successful because why the hell did the previous owner touch the lens? I didn’t even look, assuming she wasn’t an idiot. Wrong. And it was bloody cold last week, so composition was corrected in the “darkroom” when the shot wasn’t wrecked by my shaking.

I know I should work on getting better at my craft before dumping this camera for something with 16mp (apparently right around the realistic “pixel” count of non-specialist 35mm film in a decent SLR), 15x zoom, and pretty big and good lenses–basically a “bridge” camera–but I get that itch pretty often. Anyway, the one I got on eBay for super cheap because the seller said it didn’t work, doesn’t work. I started taking it apart, but got bored. Some day it will work, or I’ll pass it along to some other schmuck. It’s the eBay ecology. I got the A500 plus an A360 that also works fine for $4.99 because they’re unstylish and that sort of price is in the sweet spot of what I can afford, so don’t suggest anything new or expensive. Just a little help grokking the usefulness of a high pixel count will do.

If all you ever want to do is look at photos on your puny monitor, then 5 Mpixels is more than enough.
If you ever want to make decent 8x10 (or larger) prints (or make an HD movie from them), then you will find that more is better.

But, 5 is good enough for most uses.

Granted, I know that there are better monitors out there, and I have pretensions to artiness, but paper prints are last century’s (and the century before its) technology! :wink: There seems to be a techno war in which megapixels are constantly growing, but with the crappy, little lens on an iPhone what good does 8mp do for you?

If you’re trying to scan documents or read text, MPs do matter. Up to before inflation sets in. iPhones are pretty conservative with their counts and 8 MP is clearer than 5 MP.

There’s something of a correlation between megapixels and quality. But for the most part it’s not more pixels that makes for a better image, it’s a whole bunch of other things.

Generally speaking, low megapixel cameras tend to be cheap, older technology, or have tiny sensors and lenses. All of which produce lower quality photographs than a newer and pricier camera, which will probably have a higher megapixel count.

So what you are saying is that it’s a poor workman who blames his tools, eh? :wink:

iphones are not the last word on camera phones. And it’s not all about pixels. The SIZE of pixels matter. a bigger pixel will deliver a better picture

And it’s an even poorer workman who deliberately chooses inferior tools. :wink:

Megapixels matter, but they are not the only thing that matters. Other key factors are lens quality (which should not need explaining) and the physical size of the sensor area (larger sensors are less prone to ‘noise’)

The current standard monitor is 1080p or ~2 megapixels; the upcoming standard is UHD or 4K or 2160p, which has 8 megapixels.

Yeah, that’s why I said they don’t inflate their MP counts and keep emphasizing their pixel size.

Unless you are a pro photographer, or you want to wallpaper your house with 20ft-long blow-ups of your photos, I can’t see any reason why you would need more than 8mp. In fact going above 5mp is pretty pointless for most people. I have 10x8 framed pictures on my wall that were taken with a 2-megapixel camera released in 2000. It had a great lens and it took great pics.
The reason phones give crappy photos when you blow them up is nothing to do with the MP count. It’s down to the size of the lens and the sensor. When you blow them up you can see that they start getting fuzzy long before the pixel jaggies show up. The pixels aren’t the limiting factor in the resolution.

If you have decent glass and a nice big sensor, you should be able to get a decent image even with few megapixels. If you have crappy glass and a tiny sensor, no amount of pixels will help you.

By analogy with film cameras - you could put the finest Velvia slide film in a low-quality 35mm point-and-shoot, and you’d still get bad pics.

MPs are nice, but a whopping megapixel count won’t cover up an inability to reproduce colors accurately.

Not to mention that unless you’re saving these in a raw format, even if your optics are perfect, JPEG artifacts also become visible long before the raw pixels do.

I would say that is mostly correct. Within one technological generation, if there is one piece of information that best correlates image quality, it is size of the image sensor.

The thing about higher megapixels that is nice, and more important (to me at least) than being able to create a large print, is the ability to crop without losing a lot of detail. The more pixels in your image, the better you can take a small part of that image and make it look great after a crop - especially on a computer monitor.

But for most consumer cameras, as I said, the limiting factor isn’t the pixels. In most cases you can crop and blow up an image and it will still start to get fuzzy before the pixellation becomes evident. I could have 10 times as many pixels (theoretically) crammed onto my phone camera, and the pictures wouldn’t be any sharper. Analogue film doesn’t have pixels, and if you use a decent slow film then the grain is barely noticeable, but you still can’t blow images up too far before you lose definition, simply because of the resolving power of the optics.

For most practical purposes, any pixel count above 5mp, and certainly above 8mp, is just creating bigger more unwieldy file sizes, and noisier images (because the pixels themselves have to get smaller for a given sensor size).

The problem with extremely high MP counts on a small sensor is noise. If each pixel sensor is extremely small, then it can’t gather much light; the result is going to be a noisy image, unless the high megapixel count is put together on a physically large image sensor.

Unfortunately, manufacturers of point-and-shoot cameras are selling to consumers who seem to be transfixed by megapixel count and nothing else, and it’s resulting in a race to the bottom as far as image quality goes.

If you want good image quality in a pocket-sized point-and-shoot, you’re better off with a moderate pixel count. If you want excellent image quality, you need a high megapixel count on a large image sensor with good quality optics, and you’re not likely to see all three of those features in a pocket-sized point-and-shoot.

Are MegaPixels going the way of MegaHertz?

It used to be that the more MHz you had, the snazzier your PC was. These days, clock speed is barely mantioned.

As others have said, unless you’re going to be making poster-sized prints 5 megapixels should be all you need. Beyond a few (2-3?) MP things like optical quality and sensor size become more important. It used to be that the MP number was associated with these other qualities, i.e. a 6 MP camera would have a better optical system, processor, and overall build quality, etc than a 4 MP camera in addition to the extra 2 megapixels. In other words, there was a strong correlation between MP and the overall quality of the camera. Today megapixels are cheap and that is no longer the case: compare this 41MP, $100 cell phonewith this $3,400 Canon with a mere 22MP. Nokia’s marketing clearly indicates they assume most consumers will think “41 megapixels=mindblowing images”, while Canon barely even mentions megapixels when marketing a professional-level camera. I guarantee you even an amateur will get better images shooting a Mark III with a kit zoom lens than they would with the Lumia 1020.

Long story short, I think you should focus more on optical quality than MP. If you think you might make the leap to a DSLR someday, you can find older models in the 5-10MP range used for a tiny fraction of their original cost that will still “take better pictures” than a point-and-shoot with a similar pixel count by virtue of the superior optics found in removable lenses.

I think this is a pretty good analogy.