There’s a lot of misleading and confusing information online projected by photographers and big-brand camera manufacturers claiming that more megapixels improve image quality. The question is, are they right? Let’s take a look!
What is a Megapixel?
One megapixel refers to one million pixels, which are small squares of information combined to make up an image. So, if a camera has a resolution of eight megapixels, it could capture images with about eight million tiny squares of information per inch.
- 8 megapixels = 8 million pixels.
- 20 megapixels = 20 million pixels.
- 60 megapixels = 60 million pixels.
A pixel (short for picture element) is the smallest element in an electronic image. Digital camera resolutions range from 4 million to more than 16 million pixels (MP).
Pixel is just an element of the picture that plays a vital role in completing the image. Frederic C. Billingsley first published the word ‘pixel’ in 1965. The measurement of the screen can be described through pixels. Hence, the size of the image also depends on the number of pixels; the larger the number of pixels your image has, the greater the measure will be.
Megapixel resolution is essential in how large you can print and crop your pictures. Because the more megapixels you have, the more detail is recorded, high-resolution cameras allow you to make larger prints or crop shots without worrying about the image’s pixel structure becoming visible.
What is Camera Resolution?
The camera resolution definition is the total amount of pixels captured. It is also called the “Number of Recorded Pixels” by the CIPA DCG-001 (an organisation in Japan that handles photography-based technology).
In the context of cameras, the term resolution will be closely linked to spatial resolution. It describes the size of the image taken by the camera. We define it with the term megapixels (x million pixels) that can be recorded in a single shutter release.
The concept itself is built upon the pixel information and megapixel count. Both of these aspects will determine the quality of your images. The higher the number of pixels in a camera, the better the resolution.
Do More Megapixels Improve Image Quality?
Simply put, the answer is no. More megapixels do not improve image quality on their own. Big brand camera manufacturers continue to push the “more megapixels, better image quality” myth. However, they rarely explain how this works on its own. If we take DJI’s Mavic Pro 3 camera drone as an example, DJI claims the drone comes equipped with a 12MP telephoto camera and a 20MP wide-angle camera.
The (DJI Mavic Pro 3) 20MP camera is a Four Thirds CMOS sensor (17.3 x 13mm). The maximum print size I could obtain from this camera before pixilation was visible is a standard A4-sized print.
DJI touted their £1,700 Mavic 3 as one of the best camera drones on the consumer market. However, they didn’t discuss their improvements regarding this specific drone camera compared to their older models. All DJI mentioned was that the Mavic 3 drone came with “improved camera features” for “bigger pictures”, of which the company used the 20MP tease as a selling point.
With that said, I have printed images in A0 shot from the Mavic 3. Still, I would never sell them professionally because the photos came out blurry in some areas, with considerable pixelation visible in other regions. In my opinion, the 20MP drone camera was not up to the usual Four Third standards.
On the other hand, I have printed images in A0, and A1 shot from the £799 16MP Lumix DMC-G7. The Lumix DMC-G7 has precisely the same sensor size (17.3 x 13mm) as the Mavic Pro 3’s primary camera.
When printing images in A0 and A1, I found less pixelation in print because I used a wide range of professional lenses to improve image quality. However, image quality could not be improved on the DJI Mavic 3 because DJI does not offer consumers the option to change lenses on that particular model of the camera drone.
So, having more megapixels does not improve overall image quality, but what does having more megapixels do?
- More megapixels allow you to zoom more into your images. So, if you wish to show your picture on a bigger screen, you could do that.
- More megapixels improve sharpness.
- If you plan on cropping an image and printing it in a large format, you will need a large sensor camera with more megapixels.
- It will be possible to magnify the picture to a bigger size before the pixels become visible to the naked eye. The maximum size will depend on the number of pixels in the picture. Generally, the greater the number of pixels, the larger the photo’s size can be viewed.
To improve overall image quality, the photographer must be experienced and knowledgeable. The photographer must consider investing in a camera with a bigger sensor with more megapixels. Furthermore, quality prime lenses, decent lighting and the correct kit are a must to produce quality images to be viewed on-screen or printed in large format.
Sensor Quality Matters!
The quality of a camera is decisively influenced by the sensor quality, not only by its megapixel resolution. In addition, the quality of the lenses you use plays an essential role, even more when you handle more megapixels.
A larger sensor can also lead to larger pixels, significantly benefiting your pictures. If you see a Full Frame camera with the same number of megapixels as an APS-C camera, that doesn’t mean they will have the same image quality. Instead, that means the pixels will have been spread out over a larger surface area in the Full Frame model.
Sensor size matters when printing large format images because:
- Larger sensors result in improved low-light performance.
- Larger sensors generally provide higher resolution.
- Dynamic range will likely be increased with larger image sensors.
- A larger sensor lets you create more background blur.
- A larger sensor can mean less diffraction.
- Larger sensors reduce the crop factor.
So, if you’re thinking of printing larger prints, it’s critically important to purchase a camera with a sensor size of at least 36 x 24mm (Full Frame DSLR) or 44 x 33mm, i.e., Medium Format such as the Hasselblad X1D. In addition, you need to aim for a camera that has at least 25-35+ megapixels to be able to print in larger formats.
Quality Lenses Matter!
The camera lens has a more significant impact on the photo quality than, for example, megapixels because a camera lens directly affects the background blur, sharpness, level of detail, and depth of field. These are just some of the more critical parameters.
Most photographers agree the lens quality is generally more important than the quality of the camera. Put a crappy lens on the best camera in the world, and you’ll get a crappy image. However, the reverse is not always true. You can still take excellent pictures with a mediocre camera and a high-quality lens.
Faster lenses (i.e. better lenses) allow more light into the camera, which can help compensate for smaller photosites. In other words, using a better lens can help improve your image quality if your camera has trouble in low-light situations.
Generally speaking, a better lens will always produce better images regardless of the megapixel count.
It’s also important to note that a better lens does not improve or increase megapixel count.
How to Achieve the Highest Resolution?
It’s important to note that very often, your aim is not to capture the absolute highest amount of detail you could theoretically capture. Photography is not all about sharpness. It’s about communicating a story or feeling. Or to please aesthetically.
Still, there are applications where you want the highest resolution. It might be that you want to crop it later (“digitally zoom in”). Large prints also require highly detailed images.
So, what can you do to achieve the highest resolution with your photography equipment?
- Know your lens. Know its sharp and weak points. Examine what apertures it performs best at. Check if close-up focusing results in a blurrier image; this is often an issue. Check sharpness at different focal lengths throughout the zoom range.
- Know your camera. Know the ISO levels you can dial in without affecting the image too much.
- Shoot at proper shutter speed. Experiment with shutter speeds at all focal lengths. We all know the inverse focal length rule, but there’s more to it. When photographing people, try to go slower than 1/400s to freeze motion. (Unless you want a creative motion blur effect.)
- Set it up properly. Please set it to the total aspect ratio and best quality JPG. Or, just set it to RAW, so you have more post-processing choices. Also, check your in-camera sharpening settings. It doesn’t provide more but emphasises the existing detail. Over-sharpening, however, can hurt detail in a photo.
- Clean your cameras and lens. Make sure there’s little to no dust in it. If your lens has fungus, get it removed. Clean the sensor.
- Check your filters. If you’re using filters, ensure they don’t degrade image quality. Some cheaper filters tend to decrease sharpness.
- Focus accurately. Exercise autofocusing; make it behave how you want it. If necessary, make AF micro-adjustments. Be aware of the focus shift in your lens and focus accordingly. If you shoot steady subjects on a tripod, use manual focus.
- Be aware of external circumstances. Hazy days, although promising a lot for creative photography, don’t help sharpness.
- Be aware of diffraction. Check the pixel pitch on your camera, and try to avoid apertures affected by diffraction.
Don’t be seduced by the megapixel counts touted in advertising materials and camera packaging. It’s no longer true that the higher a camera’s megapixel count, the better your image quality will be.
More megapixels will only allow you to enlarge and crop pictures without individual pixels becoming visible. In addition, more megapixels will enable you to zoom more into your images. More megapixels can improve sharpness too.
Furthermore, it will be possible to magnify the picture to a bigger size before the pixels become visible to the naked eye. The maximum size will depend on the number of pixels in the image. Generally, the greater the number of pixels, the larger the photo’s size can be viewed. Other factors are much more critical in determining overall picture quality than that of more megapixels.
The size of a camera’s image sensor is the primary determinant of picture quality, and the larger the sensor area, the higher the potential for producing top-quality digital pictures. Equally important is the size of the actual photosites on the sensor that collect the image-making light. The larger the photosites, the more light they can collect and, consequently, the more image data they make available to the camera’s image processor.
The surface area of a sensor’s photosites dictates the number of photons (particles of light) it can capture. The more photons collected, the more information the camera can process – and the less the image is affected by the background noise that is generated by all electronic devices, which is relatively constant.
Sensor size can also influence the camera’s ability to record a full range of tones, from white to black. Regular camera tests consistently show that cameras with smaller sensors fail to achieve this in bright conditions. It’s common to find blown-out highlights and blocked-up shadows in such shots. In contrast, DSLR sensors with larger photosites can usually record the full dynamic range in the subject (although you may need to shoot raw files to extract all the highlight and shadow details in brilliant sunshine).
The size and quality of a camera’s lens can influence image quality at least as much as the sensor’s megapixel count. There’s a big difference between a small, cheap glass lens that you might find on an entry-level digicam and the high-quality, multicoated lenses you would buy for a DSLR. Five megapixels is probably the limit of resolving power for most point-and-shoot camera lenses. Beyond a certain point, diffraction will begin to reduce the resolving power of the lens-plus-sensor system.
A further consideration is how the camera’s image processor handles the image data. In many digicams, the image processor automatically sharpens the image by default. This can further degrade picture quality, especially if it’s already been reduced by diffraction. It’s not uncommon to find a 10-megapixel digicam with worse performance than a 6-megapixel camera with a similar-sized sensor.
Subject lighting will also play a role in image quality, especially with small-sensor digicams. In dim conditions, photographers are forced to increase ISO speeds. However, a small-sensor digicam will increase image noise, thereby reducing image quality. As outlined above, larger photosites produce less image noise and give photographers more flexibility with ISO settings. Shooting at ISO 800 may be feasible on a DSLR, while the same setting on a digicam will probably produce very noise-affected images.
Finishing; knowledge, sensor type, file type, lenses, resolution, photosite size, sensor size, and subject lighting is more critical in determining the quality of an image than anything else. While more megapixels can help improve certain aspects of an image, i.e., sharpness, crop and printing in large formats etc., don’t get drawn into the myth that more megapixels on their own enhance overall image quality; because it’s a lie!