Did You Know You’ve Got a Lot More Megapixels Than You Need?


You can be forgiven for thinking that the number of megapixels your camera has actually matters. Because we’ve all been brainwashed into believing that megapixels are important, but the truth is, it stopped mattering quite a few years ago.

There was a time, for a while there, that the megapixel race appeared to be over. Sure, in the early years of digital photography, DSLRs had to prove themselves against the quality of reproduction offered by film SLRs. For a long time, photographers were resistant to the idea that digital cameras could rival the analogue status quo. Naysayers were legion. Eventually, however, the facts pushed to the surface like mushrooms after a spring rain. Technology won out. Digital was superior in terms of details visible upon extreme magnification. (Not that you should care about that anyway, but that’s a discussion for another post.) And then it calmed down a bit.

But somehow (the power of marketing?) the megapixel race is alive and well. The number of megapixels a camera has still sways consumers, which is why, for instance, camera makers like Sony have come out with two versions of the same camera, the A7 and the A7R. Essentially the only difference between the two is that the A7 has a sensor with 24 megapixels, and the A7R has a sensor with an astounding 36 megapixels. Not to put the blame on Sony, because hey, they’re in the business of making money, just like you and me. If the consumer wants more megapixels–and they do–then Sony will give it to them. But why do we want them? Because filling up hard drives is fun? When it comes to megapixels, when is enough enough? The answer is quite simple: it was enough in 2008.

At least that’s the date I’m going to go with. 2008 was the year that National Geographic photographer Steve Winter won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for images he took of the ultra-elusive snow leopards of Central Asia. He took these images with a Canon digital Rebel XT, a camera with a sensor boasting a grand total of 8 megapixels. Some of his images taken with his Rebels appeared in National Geographic magazine as double-page spreads. It’s not as if the photo editors at the Geographic said, ‘well, heck, they’re images of snow leopards, and they’re hard to get, so let’s let the quality slip a little this once.’ Uh, no. They didn’t have to compromise on quality because the images had more than enough resolution.

I know what you’re thinking. Sure, that was 2008. Six years ago is a lifetime in digital technology and we’ve come a long way since then. That is true, but in 2008, the Rebel XT was far from the best camera available. The ‘pro’ level Canon 1Ds was introduced in 2002. It’s successor, the 16-megapixel 1Ds Mark II, came out in 2004. Hell, the Rebel XT wasn’t even the best Rebel at the time. The 10-megapixel Rebel XTi had already been around for two years.

So the question you have to ask yourself is this: Do you need resolution that is significantly beyond what National Geographic requires for a double-page spread?

I guess it’s a moot point because you couldn’t buy a new DSLR with fewer than 10 megapixels even if you wanted to. The Rebel T5i, the current model from Canon–which costs just $499 for the body only–is packed with no fewer than 18 megapixels. That’s the same number (albeit on a smaller sensor) that the Canon 1Dx has. And that’s Canon’s flagship camera, a beast that will set you back almost $7,000. (To put that in perspective, my first DSLR was the Canon 10D. I bought it in 2003 and it had 6 megapixels. But my stock agencies still license images taken with it, and there’s no quality issue at all.)

Maybe there’s a lesson there. Enough was enough a long time ago. Today it’s more than enough.

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6 Responses to Did You Know You’ve Got a Lot More Megapixels Than You Need?

  1. Jon 14/03/2014 at 7:10 pm #

    Wow, the shots of snow leopards by Steve Winter made my day. Thanks for sharing

    • Mike Randolph 14/03/2014 at 7:13 pm #

      Thanks, but all the props go to him. The guy spent the better part of a year in getting them. #dedication

  2. Josh 14/03/2014 at 7:17 pm #

    I have a Rebel. I quite like it. Hope to do something important with it one day.

    • Mike Randolph 14/03/2014 at 7:30 pm #

      It’s not the camera it’s the photographer. So when you take your world-changing image, send it my way and I promise to publish it!

  3. Allyson 17/03/2014 at 7:59 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more with you Mike – I’m drowning in external drives (that are eternally failing), and have to augment them every six months or so. The only complication remains making new submissions to big stock agencies, because although they admit less than 5% of clients need huge files for uses like billboards and trade show panels, all submissions are still held to the same file size requirements. Hopefully that will change to be the exception and not the rule.

    Thanks for digging up such an excellent example of how a smaller-capacity camera was used so effectively by a pro! Interesting to watch.

    • Mike Randolph 20/03/2014 at 10:04 am #

      Thanks for you insight, Allyson. Maybe the hard drive companies are behind all this 🙂

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