How Much Resolution Is Enough? Maybe Not as Much as You Think

Sometimes, photographers like to make things harder for themselves for no good reason. Whether it's shooting film in 2024, or pretending to shoot film in 2024, sometimes the exercise itself is part of the fun.

That said, how does that factor in when it comes to camera resolution? Street photographer and filmmaker George Holden answers that question by taking a detailed and deep dive into the resolution of common screens that we use every day to what's actually needed for those social media posts, iPhone screens, and even gigantic 4K desktop monitors.

As he points out, the common iPhone screen works out to about a 3 MP resolution, 4 MP for a common MacBook, and 8 MP for a 4K desktop monitor. So in theory, the hordes of cameras out there that shoot 8-16 MP should be just fine for all of these applications.

Indeed, I get it. One of my favorite cameras to this day to shoot was my 16 MP Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II. I could still crop to half the resolution on the camera and still fill a 4K monitor.

There are even older cameras I have that are just plain fun to shoot with. Sometimes I dust off an old Canon D30 (3 MP) to remind myself of how far the EOS digital system has come, or I'll bust out my Sony Mavica FD-83 (0.8 MP) just to remember what it was like to shoot on floppy disks. It's an entertaining walk down memory lane.

But there is one downside to all of this. While Holden's points hold true for today, as someone who remembers the dawn of digital with those aforementioned low-resolution cameras, while they are fun to shoot with, there's zero future-proofing involved. I wrote an article a while back about how I regretted shooting everything in my life with those early digital cameras. In 1999, a 4K monitor was inconceivable. Now it's a reality and then some. It's a safe bet that using cameras of yesteryear will cause your images to age even more poorly in the future.

All that said, if you're not doing critical work or you're fully aware and accepting of the limitations, there's some truth to what Holden says. There's often a look and a way of shooting that an older camera can capture that a newer camera can't. In that case, knock yourself out in the most primitive way you're comfortable shooting.

Holden takes a deeper dive into how sensor size/pixels affect light-gathering ability, and goes on to discuss and show how his photos size for different mediums. Take a look for his further thoughts on the subject and offer your own in the comments below.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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The amount of resolution needed depends on the specific task, desired final product, and the client's requirements. In many cases, it might not be as high as initially perceived, but sometimes the resolution needs to be as high as possible.


Solid article. I appreciate that you at least acknowledge that there are some uses in which really high resolution is necessary, and that modern camera advances are beneficial. Many other articles about this topic are one-sided and do not acknowledge or validate the other side at all.

In so many hundreds of articles and YouTube videos, we have had it drilled into our heads that we do not need super high megapixels, we do not need big sensors, we do not need the latest autofocus ... continually being told that equipment does not matter is something that I have grown tired of.

Some of us really care a lot about the nitty gritty pixel-level image quality, and want every single hair and feather to be resolved in great detail, and that is okay! It isn't always about the story being told or the emotion evoked. Sometimes, for some of us, it really is about the detail resolved and the pixel-level quality in our RAW files, prior to any editing.

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I agree with you completely. People often discount and discard the benefits of having a higher resolution camera. Shooting RAW and editing in post production provides far benefits than you will ever have from a low resolution camera in every possible way.

Totally. A lot of my freelance work was in sports photography where the fast action means I can't always frame the way I want, so cropping is the name of the game. It was around the time the 5K iMacs came out that I really started feeling the pinch of 12MP resolution in my D700.

Wasim wrote:

"There's often a look and a way of shooting that an older camera can capture that a newer camera can't."

I have seen others write similar things over the years. But these statements are always a bit nebulous, and leave me wondering exactly what it is that the older camera is doing that the newer camera cannot do.

Could you please articulate what exactly you mean, in specific detail? If you can use words to describe exactly what this look is that new cameras can not achieve, that would help me to understand better. Everything we think and everything we feel can be reduced to words without losing any power or impact. It is just difficult to come up with the proper wording. Difficult, but by no means impossible.

Older cameras provide a look that newer cameras have trouble duplication because of a number of reasons.
1) All older cameras were analog and used film. Film renders a grainy and unrefined look that gives a beautiful vintage/classic aesthetic. Newer cameras are digital and offer better image quality and performance across the board. But they sacrifice that vintage look for a somewhat sterile image that will require post processing to duplicate.
2) Camera lenses have grown to the point of near perfection. Long gone are the optical imperfections that make older cameras really shine. Now even budget lenses are lightyears ahead of older glass. Again, this gives a sterile look that isn't on par with older glass characteristics.
3) Since most cameras are digital now, the way which we process images has a lot to do with the final outcome. If you took your time, you can easily create an near perfect vintage looking photo. To many, this completely negates the purpose of buying a new camera.

These are just a few answers to your question, but there are so many more factors!

It's a bit hard to explain. Sometimes I'll grab my D30 off the shelf because even though it has roughly the same controls, as my modern cameras, there's a quaint lag in the controls, or the autofocus, or the shutter, or whatever that makes it an interesting camera to use. Ditto for my floppy disk camera, it's so slow it's comical but it's such an interesting way to shoot - press the button, wait for things to happen, and it writes to a disk.

As far as the look - the D30 was one of the early Canon CMOS sensors, before things were really dialed in as far as color science and stuff, so I feel like it can give me a look that I can't quite replicate with modern cameras. A lot of people say this about cameras with CCD sensors, and to this day I still feel like I haven't found a camera with as nice color as my Fuji X-T1 with its X-trans sensor, so there's that.

So much of this is subjective, of course, but this is what it all means to me. My modern Canons are workhorses that always get the job done in the fastest and most efficient ways possible, but I don't wax poetic about the feel in the hand or the sensors - they're tools that just get out of the way and let me work, but sometimes I'm looking for a little more enjoyment than that, which is when I go to the shelf and pick out an old camera to shoot with.

I really don't like the megapixel race camera companies are in. I don't like having too much resolution in my photographs as it can look far too clinical for my tastes and I'm not a wildlife or landscape photographer who may benefit from more megapixels anyway. When I will no doubt be in the need for a new camera, I really don't want 40MP or 60MP and my sweet spot is 24MP as I do like to print.

30 MP for me.

In my opinion there's no such thing as too much resolution. By having a high resolution camera, you have the ultimate freedom when cropping. This can be a blessing as you are able to create various compositions from a single larger image. You also get plenty of leeway for making large prints or editing fine details. When the higher resolution isn't needed, you can always downsize in post production and have no loss of detail. This does not work in reverse. Upsizing images usually leads to a loss of detail, quality and has random visual artifacts. You also don't get the freedom to crop for better composition, or the benefits that come along with editing with much higher details.

If finances were a factor for buying a low resolution camera, that's completely understandable. Everyone has to do what they must. If finances played no part, there would be zero reasons to purchase a high resolution camera over a lower one. Even tiny cameras like my Fujifilm X-T5 are pushing 40 megapixels. This is a significant improvement over my other Fujifilm cameras, and a true blessing when editing.

Perfectly explained points!

Unless you have too much resolution for too small of a sensor which can result in too much noise, depending upon the generational technology. Though it seems that may be more a thing of the past. My 16MP four thirds cameras of 5 years ago can easily out perform my 20MP APS-C cameras in terms of image quality, under most conditions.

Sphere in Las Vegas showed us what does it feel to look at 16K for 180 degree so the clear numbers is there, and we need minimum 60 pixel per degree which is about 10800 pixels cross 180 degree. Modern sensor is not full RGB in one pixel so the resolution of modern digital camera is not as they claim so 16K image for 180 degree is the ultimate numbers which is around 200MB pixels and none of modern camera can reach this level yet.

The point of this article is not a d**k wagging contest about megapixels, it is obviously to encourage people with older lower pixel cameras to work with what they have. No one needs comments disputing the old "size matters" thing yet again. There was also no mention of RAW here, that also was not the topic. The only thing that matters is that people try to improve their skills.

For me, dynamic range is even more important than megapixels resolution, although there is a relationship. A sensor having 10 stops of dynamic range vs one having 5 stops regardless of MP to me is very valuable feature. Megapixel size comes into play for cropping and that is an advantage to have.

I think it's important to consider the end use especially as a pro. We use 24 MP cameras and it's more than enough for our work. Those cameras produce an image that is 6000 pixels wide @300 dpi. If I used the 45MP version it would be about 12,000 pixels wide but still 300 dpi. The resolution is in dpi not megapixels. What we send to our customers is 2000 pixels wide @72 dpi. Throwing away most of the data because the images are going on the web. I would never tell another photographer what they should use, well unless they shoot for us. Being an old (literally) film photographer learning to compose and crop in camera is an important skill. Our work is on tripod and set up. Not hard to crop in camera but not every situation is like that so I get cropping. I simply don't believe higher megapixel cameras produce better images. There are some 30x40 prints in my office shot with 24MP cameras. I think they look pretty good. Higher megapixels fill up memory cards and hard drives and take more time to transmit. If you need that for your work that's great.

» …with those aforementioned low-resolution cameras, while they are fun to shoot with, there's zero future-proofing involved.

Oh, you think so? Have you tried playing around with the new AI-based upscaling tools? Already some of them can give impressive output, and that's a technology that'll only get better.

I have played with Topaz Gigapixel AI and while you can get *okay* results, if you really look, the artifacts are easily noticeable since it's pulling information from thin air. Sure there are a lot of tech demos and applications for where AI upscaling is useful, but I caution my journalism students against it because of this.

There's also not much that Topaz Gigapixel AI has been able to do with my .8 MP photos from my Mavica. Sometimes, there's no replacement for displacement (Megapixels).

I probably should have anticipated this and put it more in the article.

My perspective has been that higher end cameras don’t necessarily capture better images, they just make it easier to capture better images. When it comes to resolution, having a higher resolution image means you have more leeway to crop in post, correcting an imperfect composition that could have been captured in camera. Low light performance trade offs notwithstanding, I think there’s more value in greater native capture resolution than there is in using computationally intensive AI upscaling, at least when you are processing a large number of images.

It's all about cropping right? I think that if you do any sort of cropping then it's obvious that more mega pixels will give you more opportunity to enlarge your work. But can you have this argument without also bringing up sensor size? Another can of worms but there is really no dispute there either, unless we are maybe talking about reach, operational speed, and portability. But those obstacles are falling with every new generation of camera.

I literally shoot in the past, as I never buy new gear. My 6D gives me 2OMP or so, yet I still shoot with my E-1's 5MP because the OOC colors are hard to emulate in post (Kodak got it right) and the body is indestructible. 16-20 is just fine for me and some of my best macro work was shot with only 10MP. But then I'm cheap, so if anyone would want to gift me a 45MP camera I certainly won't look twice.

I find myself not cropping a whole lot. When I first bought my a7rii (42 mp) years ago, I figured I'd need it to crop in especially when using my 28mm and 35mm. At the end of it all, I actually don't crop very much. I just learned how to frame better.

I export 3300px x 2200px (7.3 mp). Even a 12 mp camera would be good enough for me.

There is a problem with the term photography. The problem is it’s just too vast as it encompass so many genres that are vastly different, never mind all the photographers that have very different needs. While all use cameras that is where the similarities end. Talking about resolution and how much is enough….it depends. For some people churning stuff out for instagram where detail is not crucial 8MP may well be more than enough while those that shoot macro may find 60MP only just adequate to show that fine detail. The requirements for each are just not comparable. Even within a single genre like portrait photography there is no ideal resolution as it depends more about the style of the photographer and the look they are after. When it comes to wildlife I think resolution is all and prefer 60MP while others are happy with 20 or even 16MP! There is no right or wrong, though I’d rather my images had as much detail as possible, but that’s me. Others may prefer something quite different. Trying to somehow find a rule or statement that covers all is a pointless task.

I agree. I sometimes "lust" after more resolution but as a retired film photographer who used digital near the end of that career such high res is beyond my needs in several ways. At his point it is all for my own entertainment I guess. I would love 100mp but probably 16-20mp is fine for me. I felt better when I finally had at least one 24.2mp camera. I do miss the theatrical work I did near the end of that career. I always loved the results of shooting theater.