Megapixels – Is the Truth (or Hype) Out There?

Over 10 years ago, I bought a Canon Elph 2.0 megapixel (MP) camera as a way to learn about digital photography. This was essentially the dawn of digital technology and that little camera cost a fortune (it was over $400)! But it was money well spent because that little camera really took me to school on the new technology. Here’s why (and how).

Nikon D70S 6MP

Because the Elph did not have a lot of pixels (these are the 3 to 5 micron size electronic light gathering dots on every digital camera’s sensor), cropping a sloppily composed picture taken with jittery hands was a recipe for a crummy picture. It taught me that trying to make prints from poorly made digital images—especially from my Elph’s “small” files—usually resulted in a phenomenon called “noise”. Digital noise (also called artifacts) are ugly flecks of oddball colors that show up in places where smooth tones should be. If you think back to “grain” in film photography and you will understand what it is.

By using careful technique, I learned how to make acceptably sharp 4X6 and 5X7 prints from my little 2 MP Canon Elph. I even have a framed 8X10 on the wall from that camera and it’s one of my favorite family pictures! Careful focus, strong composition and a steady grip were the lessons learned and they stick to this day.

But the real surprise came when I had a picture from that little camera published in Bimmer Magazine! I was in Indianapolis during a Formula 1 Grand Prix weekend (remember them?) and was on my way to a group dinner with Kimi Räikkönen (yes, I’m name dropping, OK?). On the way, I saw a huge sign on Nordstrom’s stating that Ralf Schumacher was signing autographs for race fans. I ran in, pushed my way to the front of the line and shot a few picture with my big “film” camera. However, I had the Elph in my pocket so I tried a couple of shots with it too. Sure enough, the digital pictures had better color than the images made on film because of the Elph’s automatic white balance feature; that’s the camera’s ability—as if by magic—to sense and adjust color for the ambient lighting. To my great amazement, my very fussy editor actually used a 2.0 MP shot in the magazine for my brief story on the autograph session! That really taught me a lot.

Now I’m not telling you that megapixels don’t matter. Far from it. In my personal history, I have progressed from that little Elph through a 5 MP (Canon G5) to 10 and 15 MP Canon G11 and G10 Point and shoot cameras.

On the Digital SLR (DSLR) side, my first camera was a Nikon D70S sporting a 6MP chip. I followed it with a Nikon D200 (I loved that one) that had an amazing 10MP chip! But it didn’t stop there…

Over the years, I have accumulated both Nikon and Canon equipment so when my friend the Nikon Rep switched to selling Canon, I was presented with can’t-pass-up deals on Canon DSLRs. Since then, I have gone through a 10MP 40D, two 15MP D50 cameras and recently I have even added a 7D with an impressive 18MP. Having a camera that makes large files is great because they offer more options for cropping. On the other hand, I have made 20X30 prints from the 6MP Nikon D70S and others pictures from that camera have even been used on magazine covers.

(The lead photo for this article – the flying Porsche – was shot with a Nikon D70S.)

The Hartford Charity Concours once used a 10MP Canon 40D, Ferrari image I shot as their huge event poster and it doubled as the cover of the program. And these were NOT pictures shot in “raw” format. All were large/fine .jpg files.

You can be excused for doubting me because what I’m telling you is counter intuitive and goes against everything the camera manufacturers and photo magazines have told us for years about digital photography and image sensor chip size. I asked a great photographer, Bill “Moose” Peterson, about file size and megapixels. He said he has been shooting digital from nearly the dawn of the digital era with Nikons (he is a Nikon guy, through and through). He said he has made very large prints from even their smallest MP sensor cameras and these images look good and still sell very well. The reason is simple—professional lenses and good camera handling technique. Above all, it means careful composition so there is minimal cropping needed. Good exposure is critical as well. Minimal camera shake (you would be surprised how few people know how to properly hold a camera steady!) and, of course great (note, I didn’t say GOOD) lenses shot using the sharpest f/stops the lens has.

Is all this heresy? Are camera companies liars and cheats? Of course not! They are in the business of selling equipment and that means beating the other guy’s equipment technical point by technical point. We usually benefit from that head to head competition because it results in lower prices and high performing cameras. For example, my Canon G11 point and shoot cost less than that Canon Elph of a decade ago.

Truth be told, the biggest technical improvements have come from the software side of the street, not just in the increase in pixel count on any given chip. Newer cameras have faster and better image processing engines; Nikon calls theirs EXPEED, Canon calls theirs Digic or Dual Digic. Manufacturers even give the processing engines version numbers to indicate significant software improvements. These internal camera programs process the electrons from the light gathering pixels into our pictures and the newest programs are always being tuned to reduce noise, improve high ISO performance, speed the read-write process from the SD or compact flash cards and make a host of technical image improvements (e.g., color, highlight and shadow resolution). So while newer cameras have a ton of reasons to tempt us to buy them, these are not always related to the size of the image sensor.

Canon, to their credit, actually reduced the size of the chip in their G11 camera from 15MP in the G10 to “just” 10MP. The surprising result is that the image quality actually improved slightly—especially at ISOs above 400. The reason for this was because when you put fewer pixels on the same size chip (i.e., 10MP vs. the older 15MP), the individual pixel size (that’s those all important light gathering electronic dots on the sensor) can be made larger. And larger pixels usually—OK, almost ALWAYS—mean better control of noise and those annoying blotchy color dots. But the hype still pervades the marketplace because used G10 cameras sell on eBay for surprisingly high prices! Go figure.

Final thoughts on megapixels: If you don’t shoot your pictures in “large/fine” or even “raw” format, having a high megapixel camera is simply a waste of money. Shooting pictures and saving them in “basic”, “medium” or any other smaller than large/fine or raw file size is like shooting with a camera with fewer megapixels!

But I’m not telling you that you have to shoot large/fine either, especially if you don’t make large prints! Remember, large/fine and raw files from high megapixel cameras can be extremely big—meaning many, many megabytes in size. These hefty files will then take up lots of space on your camera’s removable compact flash or SD digital storage cards. (Note: To hold your pictures, these cards will have to be high capacity and high speed—can you say expensive?) And these enormous files will eat up a lot more space on your computer’s hard disk drive.

So going into the camera store and buying the model with the highest megapixel count may not be your best option. These cameras tend to be more expensive; require higher capacity, more expensive storage cards and they will produce picture files that are so large that they could quickly fill your computer’s hard drive storage capacity.

So don’t be fooled by all of the megapixel hype. You can make great pictures with just about any digital camera if you exercise care in making the image.

More on that subject—how best to exercise care in picture taking—in a future Camera Man article on MMR.