Megapixels and You: What You Need to Know

An article by David Brooks on February 16, 2009


Let’s face it; digital cameras still can’t compete with film cameras. Unless of course you’re willing to spend a ludicrous sum of money to purchase a digital camera based on the medium format standard. But for the rest of us with a limited budget it’s nearly impossible to compete with film quality.

But it doesn’t matter, or it doesn’t have to.

When you look at a camera in the store you’ll see a description of how many megapixels (MP) the camera can shoot. Sales people will tell you that this is really important, and on some levels it is really important. But they want you to buy something more expensive than you ought.

Most of my favorite photos were taken while I was visiting Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala during college. As you might suspect (because I was a college student) the camera I was using wasn’t all that great by today’s standards. It was a Fujifilm s5000, and I loved that camera. The saturation was brilliant and the quality of the image was just amazing. It also had a 10x optical zoom which changed everything.

The s5000, as great as it was, only packed a sensor capable of capturing 3.1 megapixels. When you compare that to many of today’s cameras that get 9, 10 or 12 megapixels it definitely seems inadequate. But what does that really mean?

Megapixels really only matter if you’re going to print your images. On my s5000 I could print 5” x 7” prints without noticeable issues. However, if I had cropped anything out of the image at all things started to look shaky if I went beyond 5” x 7” prints. If everything was perfect I could get a really nice looking 8” x 10” print, but it depended a lot on lighting and overall photo quality, which was more of a question of my ability to take a photo than the camera’s ability to capture it.

In fact, one of my favorite photos by Jeff Rogers was taken on a 6 MP digital camera. It printed out to be over 3’ tall and hardly shows any artifacts at all.

So what am I saying? If a camera that shoots 3.1 MP images can print near a 8” x 10” print what does that say about a camera that boasts 9 MP images? It should be able to print anything you need (well, assuming you’re not trying to make a living out of photography).

Every print that I have in my photo album that was taken on a 35mm film camera is less than 5” x 7”. That means that even though the film still has more quality and can be pushed farther it really doesn’t make a difference unless I actually want to do so. At that point, if my digital camera can adequately present an image at around 5” x 7” I don’t have to use film anymore. (Unless I want to…)

There are cameras out there for under $300 that have 9 MP sensors, you just have to look for them. However, if you’re in the store and a sales person tries to sell you something just because it has a higher megapixel rating consider a few other things first.

Zoom Length

If you’re buying a camera that only has one lens make sure it’s a good one. My Fujifilm had a 10x optical zoom which meant that I could stand a really nice distance away from the subject and still see plenty of detail.

And don’t be fooled by the box. If it says something ridiculous such as “50x zoom capability!” (Real examples will be much more subtle) find out how much of that is digital zoom and how much is optical. For example, my s5000 says 22x zoom on the box. (10x optical and 2.2x digital) Only 10x of that is useable because digital zoom is just a way of cropping your images. If you crop your images you lose the data. Optical zooming is the only true way to zoom in on a scene, digital just makes it look like it by sacrificing context.

Image Sizes

When you load your photos onto your computer and start to chop them up in PhotoShop, make sure that you know what the overall image size is. When I look at images from some digital cameras, sometimes they are 52” wide and 72 pixels per inch. That’s not all that useful if you think about it, because it’s just a really big and really grainy photo.

The best result is if you have a smaller photo with a higher number of pixels per inch. I prefer 300 pixels per inch, but 150 is also fine if you’re not really wanting to sell your images or print them at larger sizes. 72 is, however, the standard for screen. So if you plan on only using your images on the web, 72 is quite acceptable.

So What Does It All Mean?

Don’t buy a camera on megapixels alone; look at the zoom length and the size you want to present your image. If you do that you’ll be much happier than if you buy the camera that only works a short distance away from your subject. And lest you be tempted to skip my advice and buy the shorter zoom anyway, consider that by purchasing the longer lens you can always get in close and zoom.


As I went to publish this article I thought about naming it “The Myth of Megapixels.” I decided that I had better see if anyone else had used that title already, which returned a similarly named article in the New York Times. Good to know that I’m not alone on this one! Breaking the Myth of Megapixels”

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David Brooks is the owner of the small creative studio, Northward Compass, based out of Orlando, Florida. He writes electronic and ambient music as Light The Deep, and fantasy stories about a place called Elerien.

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