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!
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 Space.com 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.
Hi, 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 KenRockwell.com
Megapixels and Image Quality at B&H Images