The Case for 12 Megapixels: Do You Need More?

The megapixel race in digital cameras has been ongoing for years, with manufacturers constantly pushing for higher resolutions. However, this trend raises an important question: do you really need all those megapixels, or could a 12-megapixel camera suffice for most photography needs?

Coming to you from e6 | Craig Roberts, this thought-provoking video challenges the notion that more megapixels are always better. Roberts argues that for many photographers, a 12-megapixel sensor is more than adequate for their needs. He points out that unless you're submitting images to magazines, calendars, or stock libraries, you likely don't need ultra-high resolutions. Most people share their photos on social media or view them on screens, where even 4K resolution only requires about 8 megapixels. Roberts also notes that for printing, 12 megapixels is sufficient for sizes up to A3 or A2.

The video discusses the practical implications of lower megapixel counts. Roberts suggests that cameras with fewer, larger pixels often perform better in low-light conditions. This could potentially allow you to use smaller, lighter lenses with narrower apertures without sacrificing image quality. He also touches on the idea that obsessing over technical specifications might be overshadowing the actual art of photography. After all, most viewers won't be pixel-peeping your images at 100% magnification.

Roberts raises an interesting point about the camera industry's dilemma. Manufacturers seem compelled to increase megapixel counts with each new model to appear innovative, even when these increases may not provide tangible benefits to most users. This trend potentially forces you to buy more expensive, higher-resolution cameras than you actually need. The video also briefly mentions Adobe's Super Resolution feature as a potential solution for those rare occasions when you might need more resolution. This software approach could allow you to enjoy the benefits of a lower megapixel camera while still having the option to increase resolution when necessary. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Roberts.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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The decision over megapixels most likely divides along the lines of professional (and serious hobbyists) vs amateur. So I'm guessing that camera manufacturers don't make 12 megapixel cameras because the consumer market already has them in their phone. Professionals generally need more than just a greater number of megapixels... features such as fast focusing, eye-tracking, low light performance, high-ISO image quality, among others are all part of the deal too, so image resolution is only part of the overall package for a professional.

Most of that is of little importance to the ordinary everyday needs of the person who just uses a camera to record social events. For those sort of snapshots, cropping isn't even much of a factor because amateurs don't typically think about composition. And of course, as you say in the video, when a picture is never used for any purpose other than something shown on social media, anything over 12 megapixels is overkill.

again Edward I can only agree with you. When you tell photograpers especially when someone asking about what camera to get for start that all they need is probably upgrade their phone you're taking so many hits from other photographers that DSLR or mirrorless can't be compared to phone. Yet everything what is happening on the market latelly in photography and as pointed aout ppl mostly sharing photos on social media not printing photos anymore leading to the future of phones replacing wast amount of those ''pro comsumer camera" once there is something like Samsung Galaxy Camera from 2013 with 10x optical zoom or Sony DSC QX10 and QX100 from same year and with same zoom. Now with super fast phone processing power and AI options , 100 or 200 megapixel sensors in phones I dont really think there is anything more the ordinary user need to put this types of cameras into pocket and be happy for what it does. When I look at DJI pocke 3 and how crazy good quality video it could pull out of 1" sensor, if this is combined with good photography capability , isn't that enough?

I would imagine the Fstoppers old-timers are pretty tired of this subject which inevitably circles around quite often. Being relatively new to the community myself, all I would emphasize, especially as it pertains to beginning photographers, is consider foremost what you might be looking to accomplish with your photography before buying a camera. Wildlife, landscapes, and portraits all have unique considerations for useful camera features. I'd recommend buying a camera which suits your needs, not what other people use for themselves or think is the best brand. We're all sort of biased in that regard, anyway.

Zdenek, you have some beautiful long-exposure seascapes. Obviously for that type of work you need control of the shutter speed and aperture. Someone seeking to learn portrait photography would need a camera with off-camera flash capabilities. Bird photographers seem to love fast eye-tracking focus. None of that falls within the capability of a smartphone... yet. So there's a lot of things smartphones can't do. But megapixels, to which this video speaks, is probably the least of anyone's concerns, until you want to make large prints... then it's a top priority.

One of the myths that I've frequently had to dispel with first-time camera buyers is that higher megapixel cameras are not always better. In other words camera "x" with 14 megapixels may not produce a better picture than camera "y" with 10 megapixels. As you and most others in this community know, the quality of the pixel is more important than the quantity.

I like my megapixels so I can digitally crop. I’m a heathen, I know. :)

While 12MP could be enough for general online use itself, it doesn't provide the optimal amount of detail to combat the noise - the detail/noise ratio is not the best possible. Similarly sensors with 60MP are a bit over the 'line' on the other side. So from a practical standpoint having 24MP is a good amount to actually have the best lowlight performance of the whole frame, not just single pixels.

The 24 MP cameras offer plenty of size for most photos. Some think more MP means more resolution. If I open an untouched image from a 24 MP camera in Photoshop and under the Images menu, select Image Size. In the window that opens you will see the dimensions and in the middle is the resolution. It is 300PPI. If I take an image from a 45MP camera and open in PS>Images>Image size you will see the dimensions are larger but the resolution is still 300PPI. MP and resolution are not the same.

Resolution appears to be a catch-all term for a lot of things dealing with digital imaging. You are technically correct when correlating resolution with PPI (pixels per inch). Image resolution, in its most narrow definition, is the number of something (pixels) per unit (inches, cm, etc.). It tells us the density, which becomes a measure of how clear and sharp an image or picture looks. But the totality of picture clarity and printing is more complicated, so the story doesn’t end with just PPI. As the word is commonly used, resolution refers to the pixel count for both height and width of a two-dimensional image. Megapixels defines the number of pixels in a sensor… a 24-megapixel sensor could have 6,000 pixels in one dimension and 4,000 in the other for a total of 24,000,000 pixels (24MP). A 12-megapixel camera sensor would have 4,000 pixels in one dimension and 3,000 in the other for a total of 12,000,000 pixels (12MP). Practically speaking, megapixels are perceived as the same thing as resolution because both total pixel count and pixel density impact clarity and detail, which is the ultimate distinction that we’re trying to make by using the word in the first place. The point I’m raising is important because PPI is only half the equation for making a sharp, detailed print.

To print a photograph, the image’s total pixel dimensions are divided by PPI to calculate the print size. At the magic number for photo printing, 300 PPI, a 12-megapixel (4,000 x 3,000) file will print a picture size of 13.33” x 10”. Anything else requires up or downsizing which either deletes pixels or invents pixels. However, some people think that a 300 DPI or PPI image printed at any size from a postcard to a billboard will look the same, and that’s not true. That’s because 300 PPI is not the sole factor in print reproduction quality. PPI determines how tightly those dots are compressed which makes a picture look sharp, but if you try printing a 4,000 x 3,000 pixel image file with 300 PPI at a print size of 40” x 60”, you’ll get a poor quality print with lack of clarity because the printer is going to effectively lower the density of pixels (PPI) in order to fill a larger space. In other words, you can’t print an 8-megapixel image file at 40” x 60” and get the same sharp quality of detail as you would with a 45-megapixel image file because you need more than PPI; you need a lot more total pixels. At least until AI solves that problem. The same concept can be applied to screen devices such as computer monitors and televisions. They all have screen resolutions as measured in total pixel count, and pixel density if you do the math. The term you’ll hear most often is something like 4K or 5K, which measures linear dimensions such as 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. But clarity is only implied because clarity depends on the physical size of the monitor or television, or as we noted in printing a picture, the density of pixels. Inject 4K resolution into a 24” computer monitor and the image will look really sharp and detailed… stretch the same pixel count into a 60” television and it won’t look so sharp any more, at least from the same close-up viewing distance. So, most importantly, megapixels (or “resolution” in the commonly used interpretation of the word), do matter.

While I’m in the neighborhood of print quality… PPI (pixels per inch) and DPI (dots per inch) are two different things, but used interchangeably for convenience (kind of like resolution). We’ve already beaten PPI to death; DPI is actually a printing term. When printing a picture on an inkjet printer, the driver software typically has options for print quality. Canon’s is something like draft, normal, and best. Epson’s is usually more specific such as 720 DPI, 1,440 DPI or 2,880 DPI. All of them are measurements of resolution, referring to the density of dots on paper rather than total pixels in a digital image. Same concept as PPI but used in a different place. But when I’m asked for a 300 DPI file by a commercial art buyer, I just give them 300 PPI and everyone’s happy. It’s amazing though if you ask a printing company what resolution they use to print their photos, banners, posters or whatever (in order to gauge what to expect in quality)… the customer service person almost always know no more than to spit out “300 DPI.” Of course that’s the resolution of the source image file, not the resolution of the printing device. If they print out a fine art photograph at 300 DPI, it would look terrible. Their printer equipment, just like my Epson or Canon, can take a 300 PPI image file and print it in various DPI resolutions with different levels of quality. Most times, you wont see a difference between 1,440 and 2,880 DPI in a photograph, but a lot of wide-format sign companies, that will also do a canvas wrap for you, will print at very low DPI because it’s a lot faster print speed, and for many of their products, fine detail doesn’t matter.

For most social media/computer and TV display, 6-12 MP is plenty, even if cropped and/or interpreted. Small, svelte files that take fewer resources.

Even large prints 20x30 and 30x40 can be easily printed and with good craft glorious prints for museum and public art are fairly easy from these small files, especially if printed on canvas and not pixel-peeped on the wall which we tend to do.

In years past, all I had were 6-10-12 megapixel files and sold my work for large installations, hundred of prints. The smallest prints were maybe 28x18, mostly 40x30 and up to 40x60 from these little files. It paid well.

30-plus years ago, Kodak settled on 6 megapixel files for their PhotoCD figuring that was a good place to be and from film, that covered the vast majority of print needs. About 25 years ago, Nikon brought out he D1 which I think way maybe 4 MP. Large prints were stunning compared to scans from film.

Although I now have much larger files from higher resolution cameras, it's still the craft that counts. I still sell lost of prints from those old, decrepit and low-resolution files alongside newer and larger files. I love the rich detail in those newer images but side-by-side on the wall, it's hard to tell from a few feet away which was shot with old vs. newer camera.

As long as your craft and technique is sound, more megapixels to a certain extent are overkill for a vast majority of photographers.

I was a pro-photog for 50 years, starting with Kodachrome, Plus-X, 35mm, & Portrato color, 35mm to 8x10, and digital. I had 2 Fuji S5 Pro digital capture systems embodied in Nikon bodies, so all of my many Nikkor lenses fit perfectly.
ALL of my weddings and individual portraits were shot at 6 megapixels, and large groups and commercial work were done at 12... I eventually printed ALL of my own work on an Epson Stylus 4800, 17" wide printer, using Ultrachrome Inks. Everything was beautiful, and not one image quality problem.
I could print 16x20s easily from those 6-mpx files, and did many per year.
After "working" an image in Photoshop, the finished file size was about a 5 to 7 mpx size. A great print. Easy to work, save, and send. During my initial learning curve, I never really noticed much difference between the 6 or 12 meg captures.
PS: BEFORE digital CAMERAS, we'd shoot on film. A chosen image negative was then sent to our lab, scanned, and a CD was returned to us for our Photoshop work. Our Mamiya 6x7 negative yielded a 72 meg file to wrestle with. 😳🤔

This topic is never going away as long as technology allows for more image resolution and image quality. Everyone talks about megapixels but leaves out mentioning sensor size and pixel density. Is there a difference in a 24 megapixel micro four thirds VS APS-C VS full-frame? What delivers the best dynamic range? Why do many professional use 100 megapixel medium format cameras if 12 megapixels is all you need? If 12 megapixels is all you need then why bother and just use you mobile phone, or a cheap point and shoot? Many photographers, including hobbyists, may need the higher resolution based on what they shoot (eg. wildlife) and require at times deep crops. All in all this is an old topic that people like to argue, but the technology is moving to more megapixels.

Resolution is a lot like RAM and and CPU performance, you can never have enough of it, furthermore there are many subjects where modern cameras and lenses are only capable of capturing a minuscule fraction of the info and detail needed. For example, even a gigapixel camera and a lens that could deliver on that resolution would still leave users wanting more when it comes to capturing the cuteness of a fennec fox, lynx, cheetah, mountain lion, river otter, and other forms of extreme cuteness.

There needs to be a breakthrough in sensor and lens technology that would. Bring about cameras that would capture multi-petapixel images at a decent SNR. That will allow for a revolution in wildlife photography as people viewing such photos on the web, would be able to experience more of the astronomically high cuteness levels of many of the animals.

Aside from being able to more accurately represent how cute some animals are, ideally what the public wants, is the ability to zoom in and explore images, at least to the level demonstrated in the image (sites image compression may wreak havoc on the gif but it should convey the idea of what is needed in a photo shared on the web.)

Never will I give up my Sony R series for the camera technology that I was working with before. Yes, I have tens of thousands of great photos at 14.1 megapixels, but 40 and soon to be over 60 megapixels are even better. From cropping to gradation to detail, it's all better, and as both storage and computing power are cheap I've nothing to lose. Good glass focusing on a good sensor with as many pixels as I can get makes for a better experience in post. Going back is not an option.

That said it is the photographer and the content that makes the image, not the technology. Anybody with anything over 12 megapixels on a decent camera can get long lasting and memorable images. Shoot. Shoot your mom, dad, grandparents; dogs, cats, friends, and the rest. Shoot your life. I have a friend that once said he'd never take his Nikon DSLR to the beach. SAND!!!!! My film Leica went everywhere. I once watched it bounce along the road (in my suitcase) as the bag flew off a bus roof while crossing Flores in Indonesia. It still worked and continued to do exactly what it was there to do.

Every photo is priceless, every moment at one time will be cherished. Shoot. Shoot it all. Todays film is cheap, very cheap, and if you don't take advantage of that then no camera of any sensor size will make a difference. Even 3 MP can wonderfully and atmospherically capture a smile.

And yes, my Sony A7R2 goes to the beach, sometimes just inches above the incoming waves. If it dies there it will have died a glorious death - WITH ITS BOOTS ON!