Suppose you’re interested in buying a camera. If you look at the ads and reviews, the first thing you see right beside every single one is its megapixel count. The camera makers want you to think that more is always better, which is wrong. But the community buzz is starting to be “more is worse”, which isn’t really right, either.

Why More Used To Be Better · I was an early adopter of digicams, buying a 640x480 Fuji in 1998. I still have what I then considered the keepers, right here on this laptop; and most of ’em look like complete dogshit. Lack of talent and application are major contributors, but lack of pixels was a real issue too. Here are two of the best-looking ones, more or less (I think) as they came out of the camera.

Black branches
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Lauren and Rune

Ten years later, I still have the same excellent wife and excellent cat and they still look about the same. The house, barely-moved-into here, looks immensely better.

I got my first “serious” digicam in 2003, a Canon S50. The jump to a big five megapixels was huge, life-changing. I remember shortly after I met and photographed Dave Shea, I sent him one of the shots and he wrote back “Ooh, I have serious megapixel envy”.

So from there on in, it was pretty easy: Cameras had a number attached, and bigger was better, so all the world’s camera companies’ marketing departments got into lockstep and kowtowed before the mighty megapixel count. It’s still happening... pull some flyers out of your weekend paper and check the camera ads.

Why More Can Be Worse · Well, but once you get past six or so megapixels, the trade-offs start to get ugly and unsatisfying. Basically, almost all pocket cameras have about the same size sensor (SLRs have a bigger one which is why they take better pix), and the engineers can sure enough squeeze more pixels into that space, but there’s no free lunch; those pixels are squeezed and light-starved and undernourished and so you get noise problems and sensitivity problems and so on.

Here’s Micah Marty’s great little essay Digicam Appreciation, about how one camera company (Fuji), which had a lead in making high-sensitivity cameras that took better pictures indoors, pissed it away because they had to have that big megapixels number.

Indeed, it has come to be almost a consensus, among photographers who care, that big megapixel numbers are bad not good. It’s indicative that the Nikon D3, which right at this moment in 2008 is probably the best camera in the world (but damn it’s big), has “only” 12 megapixels.

Here’s another anecdote. Recently, Ricoh announced the GX200, an update of the GX100 that lives in my pocket. It fixes the GX100’s #1 problem: slow write speed on RAW files. But, it also increases the megapixel count from 10 to 12. The reaction over at the DPReview Ricoh forum began with:

More Megapixels :-( But faster buffer for RAW :-)

And many more joined in about the “megapixel chasing” — follow that “reaction” link above for some instructive moaning.

What About Printing? · If you step outside the world of marketing brochures and hang around the online community of twitchy photography obsessives, whenever megapixels come up the context is usually printing, and the narrative reads like this: “Well, X megapixels is fine up a print size of Y.” The highest-quality prints in the professional-photographers’ space are those required by glossy magazines, which leads to some surprising values for X.

Me, I don’t give a flying fuck about printing. I look at pictures almost exclusively on the screen of my computer and if they look good I’m happy. I use larger-than-average screens, but still, the number of pixels I can squeeze into an ongoing page is immensely smaller than the number of pixels a modern digicam captures. So why should I care in the slightest about printing, or, consequently, about megapixels?

At this year’s Northern Voice, I ran into Matt Mullenweg and his brand new D3. Obviously we started talking about cameras, and when told me that he shot JPEG not RAW, and not even the highest quality JPEG “Because it’s for the Web”, I was shocked. On the one hand, this is egregious mis-use of a great camera, but on the other, Matt has a point.

More Is Better · Well, these days, I shoot with the 10-megapixel Ricoh out-of-the-pocket, and the 14.6-megapixel Pentax K20D when I really care. Both of those cameras arguably squeeze in more megapixels than is reasonable for their sensor sizes, but both have managed the engineering to get pretty decent image quality. And you know, I’ve started to adopt the (heretical) opinion that more really is better.

Here’s why: composition isn’t something you do in real-time with the camera, any more. It’s what you do with Lightroom (or equivalent) later on, and the important thing is that the camera capture everything important with good enough fidelity that, after you cut out what’s not important, what you have still looks good. As evidence, I offer some Lightroom screen grabs of pretty extreme cropping in action on my recent rose pix.

Lightroom select too
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Lightroom select too

I’ll freely admit that digital cameras have made me sloppy. When I’ve been working through my inventory of film scans, I’ve noticed that with a film camera I put a lot more work into composition and leveling and so on; most of those scans I’ve published are (modulo dust and noise removal) about what came out of the camera.

Who cares? These days when I shoot, the over-riding priority is not to miss anything; I know I can fix the composition later. But only if I have enough high-quality pixels to work with.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Geir Aalberg (Jun 29 2008, at 11:20)

More megapixels are better, just as 35mm is better than APS, 645 medium format is better than 35mm, and 4"x5" full format is better than medium. But you don't see most people schlepping around field cameras with bellows and tripods because it's just not very practical. Same with megapixels; when you don't have quality optics to match, all you're doing is wasting bandwidth on enlarging blur.


From: David Magda (Jun 29 2008, at 11:28)

Doing a quick search, you don't need to have a lot of camera pixels to be able to have good quality prints (300 dpi):

At 6 MP you get a 8x10" print that's 300 dpi, and as most pictures in shoe boxes are probably 4x6", you can crop a lot if you want a paper copy of your images. I think most people have 5x7" and 8x10" on display around their house, and the default printing size of 35mm negatives in the past was 4x6" (it was at the photo lab that I worked at just a few years ago).

Some of the better pages that I found from the above search URI:

Ken Rockwood has a formula for those who aren't afraid of a little math:

<em>Long print dimension in inches = 4 x (square root of megapixels)</em>


From: Scott Markwell (Jun 29 2008, at 12:33)

From my current amateur experience with my Canon XTi, the camera sensor is only half the equation. The other thing is having the right high quality piece of glass in front of the sensor. Also, even if they manage to pack more pixels per surface area on the sensor, a bigger physical sensor is going to by nature have light to work with.

Of course the more I work with a DSLR the more performance I want. The below image may be sufficient for most people, but I want so much more focus and edge clarity.

Of course this begins the downward spiral of spending 1200$ on single quality lens for a single task...


From: Zach (Jun 29 2008, at 13:16)

I've long stopped worrying about megapixels. I thought I wouldn't stop shooting film for some time, but my 6mp Pentax K100D has been good enough for what I do that I rarely break out the velvia anymore. I do have my eyes on a K20D, but largely for the better image processor inside.

As for RAW, I long ago stopped shooting RAW in anything except low light, no flash situations. I found that I was spending too long tweaking my photos with RAW, and if I just concentrated on the composition and shooting at the right moment, and let the camera handle the adjustments, my results came out better, in a lot less time. The camera really does have a fantastic jpg processor inside, and I can store more pictures and take them faster.


From: Alan Little (Jun 29 2008, at 14:30)

You are oversimplifying, and I assume you know it. The D3 is probably this week's "best camera in the world" for its highly specialised photojournalism niche niche. If I were shooting landscapes seriously, I wouldn't even think about a D3: Canon's 1Ds Mk III for something reasonably portable, otherwise a Phase One or similar medium format back, or 8x10 film if I wanted to go the whole hair shirt hog.

None of which invalidates your point about silly little digicam sensors getting overcrowded, but much as one might drool over the D3's ability to take pictures in the dark, it doesn't alter the fact that there are other specialised niches for which more than 12 megapixels are still a good idea.


From: Matt (Jun 29 2008, at 15:06)

I shoot JPEG + RAW, but my workflow is entirely with the JPEGs. I treat the RAW files like digital negatives. However after your demo I've had it on my list to go to an all-RAW workflow, but realistically it won't happen until I upgrade to a laptop with a bigger hard drive than my Sony's 32gb SSD.


From: Janne (Jun 29 2008, at 18:23)

The Pentax is fine; your Ricoh is probably already right at (or beyond) the point where the resolution is completely irrelevant, cropping or not.

You have some fundamental limits on how well a perfect lens can resolve its image, simply due to the diffraction of light at the aperture. This is not something you can compensate for. More pixels just means you're recording the diffraction blur with greater resolution. At that point, higher resolution is a complete waste of resources; worse, more pixels means more noise, slower camera operation, more memory and power consumption, all without any benefit whatsoever.

A quick approximation gives that your Ricoh (1/1.8" sensor with about 5.4 micron sensor pitch) is limited at f/8 or so already; the new Ricoh would be diffraction-limited a bit earlier still. And remember, this is under the assumption that the lens is theoretically perfect.

Really small-sensor cameras, at 1/2.5", like cameraphones and many cheaper, smaller pocket cameras, are effectively recording blur already at or before f/4, which is faster than their lenses. They're already beyond the point at which there would be any conceivable point (beyond marketing) to increase the resolution.

Here's one recent, good description on this:


From: Derek K. Miller (Jul 13 2008, at 11:43), which is, along with, one of my two favourite camera review sites, has started including "pixel density" in its coverage, which is a wise idea, because then you can get a sense of where on the compromise track you're looking.

I have a Nikon D50 (6 megapixels), and have often run it at Medium resolution (3+ megapixels) when shooting JPEG, which is most of the time, just to save hard drive space. Now that I have a bigger disk I'm shooting at full resolution most frequently, particularly for the exact cropping reasons you talked about. Even at the lower resolution, I notice big differences in the result depending on which of my lenses (some of which are almost 15 years old) I use.

For most people, it's a great time to buy an enthusiast camera, because any of the current crop of digital SLRs (of which there are a couple of dozen or so) will produce fine results:

Interestingly, I just bought a used Nikon F4 film camera (designed and introduced in the late '80s, and one of the first of what people might consider a "modern" SLR), and there's still something to be said for film, especially when shooting B&W, even aside from image technicalities. I certainly was composing more carefully when I knew I only had 24 or 25 shots in the roll and had to pay to see any of them:

Oh, and a full-frame 35mm viewfinder seems *so large* when I've been shooting with an APS-C sized view for a few years.


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