Megapixel Mania

CCD's swirl out from a jumble of DSLR's and point 'n shoots. How many megapixels do you need? (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

CCD's swirl out from a jumble of DSLR's and point 'n shoots. How many megapixels do you need? (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

The megapixel—which, incidentally, is one million pixels—has become an advertising and marketing person’s dream metric—keep adding more of ’em, and they’ll keep buying more of ’em. No matter whether this is actually the most important measurement of quality in the world of digital photography cameras—it no longer makes any difference. The public now equates more pixels=more quality, end of story.

I think this is an incredible marketing feat that has been foisted upon us, the photographic equipment-buying public. For the most part, we all accept this as the gospel when it comes to making our camera buying decisions: I need more pixels!

But do you? What camera are you using today? How old is it?  How many megapixels does its CCD sensor capture? What other features on this machine were key to your original purchase? Are those features outmoded as well? What other factors did you consider when making your purchase?

I like to remind myself (and others) that cameras today are simply computers with lenses on the front of them. And like all other computers, they continue to get faster, smaller, better, roughly every 2 years as predicted by Intel’s Gordon Moore with his now-famous “Moore’s Law”: The number of transistors on a microprocessor will double about every two years.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford to buy a new computer every 2 years, and I certainly don’t buy new cameras that often either. I need both of these computing machines to last quite a bit longer than that.

One of my favorite true-story tidbits about megapixels and image quality is this: the highest-resolution digital photographs ever (so far) produced were made by a one-megapixel camera! That’s right. One megapixel!

The highest-resolution digital photographs ever (so far) produced were made by a one-megapixel camera!

The Mars rover 'Spirit,' which, with its one-megapixel camera, shot some of the highest resolution photos ever taken.

The Mars rover 'Spirit,' which, with its one-megapixel camera, shot some of the highest resolution photos ever taken.

Not just any megapixel camera, though. And as it turns out, not just any CCD either. (The CCD stands for ‘charge-coupled device,’ the sensor that gathers the light information and converts it into digital 1’s and 0s’.)  The cameras capable of shooting such amazing photographs were on the two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

The Mars Rover Camera Lenses were only 1 Megapixel, yet they produced the highest-resolution digital images ever recorded.  As explains:

“Anyone who has ever agonized over whether to buy a 3-megapixel or 4-megapixel digital camera might be surprised to learn that Spirit’s stunningly detailed images of Mars are made with a 1-megapixel model, a palm-sized 9-ounce marvel that would be coveted in any geek’s shirt pocket.

Spirit’s images are IMAX quality, mission managers say.”

The secret for Spirit and Opportunity has to do with the custom-made, incredible lenses that were attached to those cameras, and the huge size of the CCD itself—over four times the size on an average consumer camera. So the pixels themselves are huge, hitting a huge CCD, resulting in super-high resolution photographs.

So what should you be concerned about if not simply pixels? In a word: lenses! The quality of the glass that you’re shooting through is easily the single most important variable that you have a lot of control over. Are you shooting through professional glass or still using the consumer glass that came with your first DSLR?  Before replacing your camera, think long and hard about upgrading your lens collection if you haven’t already addressed this issue.

Beyond that, things that affect quality get more esoteric. Each camera manufacturer has their own proprietary software and hardware used to process the information collected by the camera’s CCD. Even if you’re shooting RAW files, there will be some differences between manufacturers on how things end up looking.

So the moral of the story is: don’t get swept up in the megapixel hype! Upgrade your cameras when other camera features require you to do so. Otherwise, look first at your lenses when trying to improve image quality.

selfport1aHi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Related Stories on the Web:

Prime Lenses at Epic Edits

Megapixels and Image Quality at Digital Camera Resource

The Megapixel Myth at

Megapixels and Image Quality at B&H Images

Posted in: Equipment

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

10 Comments on "Megapixel Mania"

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  1. orlund says:

    To me that does not completely make sense, from what I understand:

    resolution = Megapixelsnot resolution = pixal size. A bigger pixcal doesn’t give you more resolution. Bigger pixals on a CCD would give you a higher quality image because it would more accurately pick up light. Meaning less noise.

    If you wanted your one megapixel to have higher resolution you would either have to stitch several photos together or do some other type of enlargment.

    It makes sense that that the image quality is better. That is one reason why DSLRs have much larger sensors that compacts. It is also the reason a 4 magapixel image is noisier than a 3 magapixel image if the manufacture built both cameras from the same size (and technology) sensor.

    It is very true that increasing Megapixals in not the answer to everything, it is only the answer to a few things.

    Does that make sense?

  2. Oh, now my head’s going to hurt…the CCDs on the Mars rover cameras are huge. My point (or at least what I wanted to convey) is that the general public’s slavish attention to megapixels leads to more confusion than clarity…

  3. orlund says:

    I completely agree with that. Megapixel are only a small part of it.

    I would love to see (and try) the technology they used for that. CCD and lenses!

    Too bad there 1 megapixal camera costs hundreds of times more that all my camera equipment put together 🙂

  4. Steve says:

    Think they would send a rover to Mars today with a 1 megapixel camera, regardless of how big the sensor? I doubt it.

  5. Bob Diamond says:

    I think people should be educated more to dispel this megapixel “myth”. This blog, and many others, needs to be read by more consumers who get into the megapixel hype. Personally, I don’t even use my old camera’s highest resolution of 8-megapixels. Unless I want to create a huge banner, most of my shooting are done at 5-megapixels.

    Picture composition and basic knowledge of camera settings are more important than pixel count. You’d be surprised at how many people don’t know how to use the flash and ISO settings properly, specially for bright (eg. sunlit) backgrounds.

    Bob Diamond Real Estate

  6. @Bob Diamond: I totally agree that so many people are misinformed about the over-hyped megapixel; subsequently buying into “myth”.

    Six years ago it was more relevant because most new cameras only came with a few megapixels. However, most people don’t realize that once you go over 8 megapixels the only thing you’re changing is the size of the photo—and most camera buyers are not using it to make posters. I would say buying a camera with manual control settings and a large optical zoom.

  7. Jeanette says:

    Quality over quantity is good to remember here. When we got our first digital camera I think it was a 3MP version. We did a lot of research into it and found that it would let us print 8×10 photos without any pixelation. At that time I also learned that more MP only helped to have a larger image.

    Now we have a 5 or 6MP SLR. The extra MP are useful to me so I can crop out a lot of the photos but still have enough to print page sized photos. But the SLR’s lenses are what makes it amazing. I compared it to my friend’s 7MP compact camera and it was like comparing a black and white TV to an HD LCD TV.

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