I was sitting up late the other night talking to Dave Sifry about his excellent Beginner’s Digital SLR buying guide: The Sifry Starter Photo Package. If you’re thinking “maybe I should get a better camera”, it’s a really good place to start. I wanted to add a couple of points and then rant a bit about the collective insanity around megapixels in camera marketing.

To Dave’s piece, I’d add a few more items of advice:

  1. Dave correctly advises that if you already have some decent lenses, you might as well get the camera that goes with them. I followed that advice and ended up in the Pentax world. But his piece might leave you thinking that Nikon and Canon are all there really is. Between the two of ’em, they sure enough dominate the DSLR world, but there are excellent (some of them interestingly off-beat) competitors from Pentax, Sony (the former Minolta line), Olympus, Panasonic, Sigma, and Fuji.

  2. There are a ton of good photography-centric places online to help widen your mind and sharpen your skills with that new DSLR. My personal favorite is The Online Photographer.

    It’s hard to avoid Digital Photography Review (everyone says “DPR”). They have probably the biggest just-the-facts database on every which camera you can possibly buy. Their reviews are exhaustive and detailed and number-laden; and are often criticized for hiding the essence of the camera behind a cloud of numbers.

    Whatever kind of camera you have, there’ll be an online forum for the people who use it. These may prove insanely valuable, particularly if you’re having trouble figuring out how to do something that seems like it should be easy.

  3. You’re going to need some software to handle all those pictures you’re going to be taking. Macs come with iPhoto, and it’s mostly harmless. But for a small fraction of the price of a decent lens you can get Adobe Lightroom, which is an absolutely outstanding program for doing color-correction and leveling and cropping and sharpening and so on. It does pretty well everything you need, it has a wonderful user interface; one of the nicest things about it is that it’s really fast.

  4. Pretty soon, you’re going to start hearing people talking about “Shooting RAW”. Shooting RAW doesn’t necessarily get you better pictures, but does provide opportunities for lots more entertainment in tweaking them.

The Megapixel Irritant · The #1 item that accompanies every digital camera ad—on the web, in your morning paper, on TV—is the megapixel count. I’m here to tell you that in almost every case, the count just doesn’t matter, and when it does, smaller may be better. The whole world of cameras would work a lot better if we could get over this misleading mania.

Why would you want more megapixels, anyhow? There are two reasons: if you want to print out your pictures on paper, it takes quite a few megapixels to fill up a medium-sized print.

Furthermore, many digital photographers (particularly those who shoot with prime lenses as Dave recommends) like to crop their photos, sometimes reducing them dramatically in size to focus in on the key visual element. Obviously, the more pixels you have, the more you can crop while still leaving behind a useful picture.

Squares and Square Roots · I remember the early days of pocket cameras, with one or two MP. When we suddenly got four and five MP cameras, that was a really big deal, because the pictures were twice as big or more, on each side.

But remember your high-school geometry? When you go from five to ten MP, you double the MP count but only increase the size of the picture by the square root of two (40% or so) on each side. And the effect of going from 7 to 10 MP is even less impressive. To double the size of a 5MP image, you’d need a 25 MP sensor, which exist but you can’t afford them.

Sensitivity and Crowding · There are two ways to get more megapixels into a camera. One is to put them on a larger sensor; the other is to squeeze them closer together. Making the sensor bigger has dramatic effects on the camera body and lens and so on, and is really expensive. If you want to add more pixels, you have Moore’s law on your side, it all happens down in the silicon. But there’s no free lunch: as you make pixels smaller and closer together, you lose sensitivity and increase visual static. It’s simple enough: big fat pixels with some space between them are better at gathering the pieces of your picture.

This really hurts when you’re trying to shoot in low light. There are very few pocket cameras that can give you a good-looking image when you need to crank the sensitivity to ISO 800 or more.

The quality of the images produced by my klunky old 6MP Pentax *ist-D is way higher than the ones from the 7.1MP in my Canon A710IS pocket cam; the difference is always visible, and it’s particularly dramatic in low-light shots.

There’s a reason that the real cost-no-object high-end DSLRs (for example the Canon EOS-1Ds and the Nikon D3) are what is called “full-format”; the sensor is the same size as a piece of 35mm film, many times larger than the competition. People praise these cameras’ high sensitivity and ultra-fast shooting speed, not pixel counts (although the Canon has 21.9MP).

The Fuji F30 Story · Take a moment to read Micah Marty’s Digicam Appreciation; there was once, a few years ago, a pocket camera from Fuji, the F30, that everyone agreed had low-light imaging capabilities that totally stood out from the pack. Then, as Micah phrases it, “Fuji decided to forgo its primary edge over the competition (‘Less noise’) in favor of being more like the competition (‘More megapixels!’).” The result is that the “classic” F30, unlike every other now-superseded digicam, is increasing in value, on EBay for example.

Earth to the camera business: can we get over the megapixels already?



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Fabian Ritzmann (Dec 23 2007, at 00:40)

We were just looking into buying an easy-to-use compact camera for my parents. The Fuji F31fd was our first choice (it's almost the same as the F30, with just a few details updated). Unfortunately, it seemed too difficult to find anybody that would still sell it with a warranty. We went for the F40fd, which still delivers better picture quality than any of its 8 MP (and more) competitors. There are some German enthusiasts who are actively lobbying for 6 MP compact cameras: http://6mpixel.org/en/

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From: John John (Dec 23 2007, at 04:00)

There is only Canon or Nikon.

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From: Barry Kelly (Dec 23 2007, at 04:30)

5MP "doubled" on each side is a factor of 4 (2x2) larger in area, so you'd need a 20MP camera, not 25MP.

Just saying, is all :)

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From: Janne (Dec 23 2007, at 05:46)

I have to object to one piece of advice in that link: having a 50mm prime lens - a short telephoto - as the first and only lens is a terrible idea. 50mm was a good all-round lens on 35mm; it is too long on APS. Starting with a prime can be a good idea, but you want to have something at around 28-35mm, not longer.

In the not-hideously-expensive lineup Canon has a 35/2 that is fairly old but not too bad. Pentax is blessed with their 35/2 which is similarly low-priced but produces excellent images. And the Sigma 30/1.4 has the image quality (especially stopped down a bit) but pays for the quality and speed in size and cost (you could use it with good effect in a fight, probably).

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From: David Magda (Dec 23 2007, at 09:05)

Philip Greenspun wrote a good piece on building a dSLR system (focusing primarily on Nikon and Canon):

http://photo.net/equipment/building-a-digital-slr-system/

He then breaks out and talks about each company's systems:

http://photo.net/equipment/canon/

http://photo.net/equipment/nikon/

Some more writing on various other topics (though check out the main sight as well as there some talented people posting things):

http://photo.net/equipment/

Interspersed between all the words are some stunning photographs.

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From: Julian Gall (Dec 23 2007, at 10:33)

Most computer screens are not much more than 1 mega pixel. Maybe 2 for a big screen. Why then, do pictures that look really good on screen come from high end cameras with high pixel counts? Why can't I have a 1024x768 pixel camera that creates good pictures for a 1024x768 screen? I've never seen this explained anywhere.

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From: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward (Dec 23 2007, at 14:16)

When one mentions camera brands in the digital age the argument can be very close to those about the existence or non existence of God. This particularly applies to Nikon and Canon owners and they will ultimately challenge each other to fight behind a church at dawn.

I would say that if one looks at pictures on a monitor there seems to be not much difference between brand x or y. We may judge these by standards that are spotty. Consider the bluish photograph used to show the organizers of the 2008 Northern Voice Blogging conference. The photograph is appalingly blue but nobody has corrected it. The blue has nothing to do with the camera as much as the user.

So it's snowing outside. You take out your $169 or $700 digital and snap the scene. The resulting pictures (if skillfully taken) will be pretty much the same when posted on a monitor. The digital camera has become the "great equalizer" of the 21st century much as the Colt .45 was the great equalizer of the 19th.

The difference between cameras becomes readily apparent when lighting has to be used. Unless the photographer uses (properly) an external and independent light source (a flash on an umbrella, softbox, ring-flash) the resulting photographs, be they with the $169 or the $6000 Canon, will be virtually the same. In this age of Flickr most photographs look the same because most photographers fall for the advertising bull that all you need is a Canon Warp 2710-XA in your hand and the world is at your feet. Not true.

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

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From: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward (Dec 23 2007, at 15:15)

Jullin Gall wrote above a question which nobody has really answered to my satisfaction either!

Most computer screens are not much more than 1 mega pixel. Maybe 2 for a big screen. Why then, do pictures that look really good on screen come from high end cameras with high pixel counts? Why can't I have a 1024x768 pixel camera that creates good pictures for a 1024x768 screen? I've never seen this explained anywhere.

But I have noticed that when I right click on many on line photos and then on properties I get to see pictures that may have 100 by 150 pixels. When I scan my transparencies and negatives for my blog I scan them for what seems to be a Blogger maximum of 5 inches wide but I up the dpi count to 135. What this means is that when I click on my blog's pictures they enlarge to a maximum of 600 by 800 pixels. And this is why they look good. They can be enlarged without pixilation even on my poor Dell cathode ray monitor!

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

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From: Derek K. Miller (Dec 24 2007, at 01:24)

Here's an article from 2004 about how the Mars Spirit rover made amazingly detailed panoramic photos with a 1 mexapixel camera -- the sensor is huge for that resolution (12 x 12 mm), manufactured to far higher tolerances than consumer sensors, and coupled to a top-quality lens. Plus it's monochrome, and creates colour photos with a series of exposures using filters.

So yes, it's possible to create a great photo for your computer monitor at a similar direct resolution, but that doesn't seem to be the way manufacturers build cameras right now.

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From: Philip Storry (Dec 25 2007, at 16:28)

Welcome to marketing. :-(

The problem is that manufacturers - or more correctly, manufacturer's marketing departments - need a single, simple benchmark of goodness.

This is mostly because the consumer is busy, lazy, and blissfully ignorant, and wants that benchmark to make their life simpler.

In the APS-C and smaller sensor world, we're beginning to butt up against some limits that are significant - file size and usable pixels.

File size, because digital cameras have made people become used to the luxury of 100+ (deletable) photos per card as opposed to 36 exposures per film. Compact cameras, shooting high quality JPEGs, can actually go into the thousands of photos with the largest cards on the market today.

More megapixels eats away at this advantage - I've already heard complaints that newer cameras "take fewer photos" from people that got used to uploading once per month with an old camera.

Usable pixels because, cropping aside, there really are only so many you can use. With an old 5Mpixel SLR, I got excellent prints at A3 sizes. I wouldn't dare try it with a cropped photo, but with its new 10Mpixel replacement I now have latitude to do so.

Do I need a print larger than A3? Can I justify the expense versus the cost of storing larger files?

On those two arguments, I'd say we've begun to hit the practical wall, rather than the physics limitations.

So if everyone is going to find themselves with a similar benchmark, what's next?

Probably Dynamic Range. We're already seeing people get very worked up over dynamic range, despite the fact that few people can agree how to measure it and fewer still realise that dynamic range is already excellent, and getting more is already in the "more latitude" category than the "must improve to be useful" category. (Contrast with megapixels five years ago!)

After all, if we're all publishing to 8-bit JPEGs and printing to similarly low-bit printers, why would you want more dynamic range? You're just asking for banding or nastily stretched/compressed and ultimately "plasticy looking" pictures.

And when some of the most dramatic and memorable photography you've seen was high-key or used a similarly limited dynamic range on purpose (such as many black and white shots in the film days), why would you want a HUGE dynamic range?

Still, the customer end of the market (in dSLRs anyway) seems to be gearing up towards switching to dynamic range as its new benchmark, as they are now satisfied (or even dissatisfied, as you are) with the megapixels they get.

And yet none of this actually helps you take a better picture, in the same way that automatic metering did in the 60's, automatic exposure programming did in the 70's, or automatic focus did in the 80's.

(I wasn't taking photos back then, but can't imagine getting into photography without the help of those innovations!)

Be careful what you wish for. The public wants an easy benchmark, and megapixels are it. If we change it for higher dynamic range, we unleash another genie.

If we could change it for educated customers, it would be ideal... Unfortunately, the customers don't seem to want to cooperate!

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From: Alexey Maslov (Dec 26 2007, at 00:33)

I really like Ken Rockwell's site on photography: http://www.kenrockwell.com. The guy follows a no-nonsense approach to both photography techniques and choosing the gear. His photography essays in my opinion are pure gold. And there are also nice "Camera Holiday Guides" there: http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/recommended-cameras.htm. After having discovered this gem I've never returned to DPReview :)

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From: Ben Fulton (Dec 26 2007, at 12:05)

Are 6MP cameras really clunky and old now? I guess if that's true the MP's don't matter any more, but I still tend to compare things to the .75MP's that my very first digital camera could do :)

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From: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward (Dec 26 2007, at 15:02)

Philip Storry writes above:

"And when some of the most dramatic and memorable photography you've seen was high-key or used a similarly limited dynamic range on purpose (such as many black and white shots in the film days), why would you want a HUGE dynamic range?"

While there were quite a lot of high key black + white shots many (most) weren't. Some became high key simply because of the limitation of newsprint or the poor reproduction (then) in magazines. But if you have ever seen an original Ansel Adams or Cartier-Bresson photograph with a tremendous range in the grays, then you would understand that shadow detail and dynamic range have something in common and are important and desirable.

If people are getting used to seeing images on a monitor(and enjoy the convenience of browsing in virtual art galleries)they will also get used to its dynamic range and probably will then not appreciate the pleasure of going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and seeing the original (be it a David, Manet or Goya). Those who have not seen a superbly printed light-jet print (let's say at least a 20 by 24 inch )from a medium format film camera or a good high end DSLR, they would not be satisfied with that A3. The problem is that many consumers are getting used to coping and then accepting mediocrity. They sacrifice the so-called advantages of having 25,000 tunes in their i-pods for the soon to be forgotten pleasures of listening to good high fidelity reproduction at home with music that is separated from its source (in this case the amplifier, player and speakers) with a distance of air to where the listener might be sitting in a living room sofa.

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

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From: Ryan Cousineau (Dec 26 2007, at 20:48)

Mr. Fulton:

As a representation of the current camera landscape, I searched the 21 (!) non SLR digital cameras that Canon USA shows on their site:

http://www.usa.canon.com/consumer/controller?act=ProductCatIndexAct&fcategoryid=113

Of those, the lowest megapixel cameras are 5.3 Mpx A460 and SD430. One is their super-cheap entry-level camera, and the other is an oddball (and pricey) wireless-enabled compact. Everything else seems to be at least 6 Mpx, and I think Canon is representative of the state of the market. In many consumer-oriented camera departments, the A460 may be the only sub-6 Mpx camera available.

Mr. Waterhouse-Hayward: I agree that dynamic range is cool, but I don't think that computer monitors will be the death of art galleries, any more than the printing press was the death of painting.

The key reason most art lovers don't go to MOMA is the cost of transportation and accommodation.

For that matter, there has been a lot of work in increasing the dynamic range of displays, much of it done by locals. Here's a UBC project detailing HDR display technologies:

http://www.cs.ubc.ca/~heidrich/Projects/HDRDisplay/

...which was largely implemented by that group as Brightside Technologies, which then got bought by Dolby:

http://www.dolby.com/promo/hdr/

Several companies are now selling displays that use similar HDR technologies.

Is it perfect? No. But it's darned good. And unlike adding pixels to tiny sensors, the current trend of display technology seems to be in the direction of good rather than evil. The last HDMI spec (1.3) added extended gamuts, too.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_Color

In both photography and audio, I think we're well past the point where digital has paid back in quality as well as convenience versus analog reproduction.

Medium-format photographers can get the resolution from film more cheaply than digital, but at the top end, image stitchers can probably match or beat anything view-camera users are likely to accomplish:

http://www.tawbaware.com/maxlyons/gigapixel.htm

Audio reproduction will be a fun topic for another day, but I think that a 21st century audiophile has far better options than have previously existed, and for far less money.

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