The Megapixel Race: Why It (Mostly) Doesn't Matter

Do you really need all those megapixels in that shiny just-released camera, or is your current 20-something-megapixel camera still just as good as the day you bought it? Let's talk a little about why the megapixel race is great for some photographers and might not even matter for others.

Camera brands have been consistently raising the megapixel count of most cameras for over a decade as a means to sell newly released cameras to the masses. While there are great reasons to pick up a 50-plus-megapixel beast of a camera, there are many reasons to hold onto the current setup you have. Through the B&H Photo YouTube video above, David Flores takes us through what some of these reasons are.

If you are shooting on an 18-to-24-megapixel camera currently, you are shooting beyond the resolution of a 5K image. That's right, that 5K Apple iMac doesn't have the resolution of an eight-year-old Canon 60D body. Most people use monitors that are sub-4K resolution, so all those extra pixels are going to waste. Nearly everyone will never see any discernable difference in your new, high-megapixel camera's image resolution versus your old camera body.

If you do a large amount of cropping in post on your images, it may be a great idea to pick up a higher-resolution camera. What if you crop to get closer to your subject, as is the case in some wildlife imagery? Rather than picking up a new camera, maybe a teleconverter is a better option; and this way you can shoot for the subject to fill the frame. The upside is a teleconverter is a great deal cheaper than a new camera body.

What about shooting epic landscapes? Surely you need a higher-megapixel body to print those large images, right? I would very much say, "No." If you are looking to gain more megapixels in an image, you can simply shoot a panorama. By overlapping by 50 percent and shooting three images, you have doubled your pixels for your finished image — a very simply technique that allows for your camera to take advantage of noise reduction by trading some image detail or maximizing the image's flexibility for post processing. Where this may be a hindrance is during bracketing of an image. At this point, some people will have a harder time to process their image if they have to combine layers into a panorama. A higher-megapixel camera makes much more sense here for ease of use.

If you shoot families or portraits, the extra detail for editing and, more importantly, cropping may be a boon for you. This will allow for cropping that may be a better and more sellable image. By being able to shoot so you can crop to 5 x 7 or 4 x 5 imagery, you are better prepared to sell that image to a client, and the higher-megapixel camera won't lose effective sharpness as quickly as a lower-resolution camera. 

If you want to print your work, a higher resolution camera won't really help you create better physical images. Having 300 pixels per inch in a photograph sounds fantastic, but the reality is a viewer has to have some space between themselves and the image to be able to appreciate the work. This viewing distance results in a lower required pixel-per-inch/ dot-per-inch figure to match the sharpness of our visual acuity if the image were smaller and closer to us versus larger and farther away. Billboards are a great example of this, as they are routinely made with resolutions between 10 and 20 dots per inch at a viewing distance of several hundred feet, yet look as sharp as a 300-dot-per-inch 8 x 10 print.

So what's your take on the megapixel debate? Do you need that high-megapixel camera or do you have a 10-to-24-megapixel camera that's meeting your needs on your photographic journey?

JT Blenker's picture

JT Blenker, Cr. Photog., CPP is a Photographic Craftsman and Certified Professional Photographer who also teaches workshops throughout the USA focusing on landscape, nightscape, and portraiture. He is the Director of Communications at the Dallas PPA and is continuing his education currently in the pursuit of a Master Photographer degree.

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Agreed. More is not always more. Two observations: A full frame usually weights more. Unless the images must be of the absolute highest quality, the extra weight may not be worth it when traveling out of a studio. Also, there is the "agency" issue. People hiring pro photographers want to keep their jobs, so they will consider (sometimes foolishly) the photographer's equipment in making a hiring decision. If they believe more megapixels is better...

It's not always/just about the ability to print large- I love the flexibility in cropping that my Nikon D850 45MP image gives me. Great for those scenes where you wish your 200mm was a 300mm- and for action /sports where I can shoot 9fps and frame looser. It also let's me create headshots out of medium shots.

I'm in the process of printing for an upcoming exhibit. There is a marked difference between prints from my Nikon D-810 and my FujiFilm X100T (36 vs 12). I'm only printing 17 X 22 (most are full frame)..

I just upgraded to an X100F and the difference (24 vs 12) is stunning. Soon I will purchase a D850 for the reasons you have outlined.

You forgot to mention what the difference is. I am curious about that. Could you explain and maybe upload some samples?

The x100t is 16 mp not 12

APS-C mode in my A7r2 allows me to shoot the FF camera as a cropped camera with 18MP. Like getting 2 lenses in 1.

true when I shot weddings did about 3 years with a M4/3 for parts along with a FF

for pets my main thing now MP are nice the detail in all the fur is noticeable

When will people learn that the amount of mega pixels has no direct influence on ISO performance. Within a chosen sensor size the total amount of light gathered stays the same, regardless of the amount of pixels.

Thanks for the frank & open discussion of this issue. It seems to me that it's been turning up in discussion on sites all over the place, lately, as the camera manufacturers try to "squeeze the lemon" by introducing more and more models with more and more pixels. My take on it is similar to yours - apparently something like 99% of all the photos currently being taken will live and die in digital form, and never see the light of day except on some form of digital screen.

And cameras these days are so class to "perfection" that the camera manufacturers will now have one hell of a struggle on their hands, trying to convince their market that "new" is somehow "better".

Part of that struggle is more pixels. And ever more after that. Another part is adding more features to their latest model. I can't seriously believe that any one photographer actually NEEDS all those extra features. But there it is.

As far as I'm concerned, the primary reason for "more pixels" only works if you crop the image, or if you make a large enough enlargement (print) of it. Commercial photographers have no choices - they are usually told by their clients what is acceptable.

If I had a nickel for every time this same Megapixel article has been written over the years I could go buy myself a Hasselblad H6D-100c.

As long as people have the choice it will continue.

WELL other situations mandate 100 mp or more;
YOU need to decide for yourself if you use your experience it will become quite clear.
Macro Photography a larger sensor will allow you to crop a 100mp image by 50% and still have 50Mb (this is appx but close) thus enabling you to print large...however most likely shooting macro and striving for depth of field even with stacking you will probably crop 60-70% of the original image. Due to moving the camera back eliminating the need to shoot too many stacked shots.
Landscape heck you can crop like hell and still have a very large file left to print big.

The other reason and maybe more important is including the discussion of sensor size along with MP this alone giving you 15 stop of dynamic range and 16bit files is worth the ticket! BUT compare for yourself go to a camera store take your camera shoot some images, then borrow there 100 mp camera and shoot the same images ok. Now take your cards home and PP the heck out of the images boost the shadows, pull back the highlights, color correct, add saturation, make some B&W crop the images and print them. Look at them side by side then you will know what I know and why it works for me.

You might be happy with what you have only I'm warning you if you go the distance you wont want to go back unless you just post your images to the web.

I use my 20 MP 7D2 on 95% of my work, which is printed at best as an 11X17 magazine or book spread, or at about 1200 pixels on line. But I do use my 5Ds for one client which puts photos floor to ceilings in some of their hallways where people are right up next to it, and the extra resolution is very helpful there.

i disagree so you must be wrong.
let me explain. today we use 4k, in next few years we will use 8k displays and who knows in 10 years time we will use 16k or even 32k monitors in 20 years time. putting the points aside that larger images makes larger prints there is this. i can crop a huge image, i can crop a lot. when i do macro, i get lots and lots of detail. looking at a 360p video on a 4k monitor looks horrible, lack of detail etc. looking at a 4k image on a (in 20years time) 32k monitor wouldnt look much better and very smal not filling the screen. so you buy megapixels to future proof your images, i would love to redo my baby pics with a 100mpx hasselblad. who wouldnt.

another thing. for postprocessing on a timelapse or 8k shot video you want to be able to crop, zoom in, pan or other things and still have enough resolution to process this in 4k. youtube downscales it to 1080p for your phone(which will be 4k or higher before you know it). downscaling video/s shot in a higher resolution leaves you with sharper images.on of the reasons why that sony A7-3 is so good. it shoots in 6k and processes it down to 4k so effectively you have 4k. keywords of my point is that you want room for postprocessing and to future proof your images. when you look at pics of winston churchil you dont see the detail in the fabric of his jacket, same goes for jf kennedy and other famous images of famous people. if they only had a 47mpx camera in those days,.images are memories that will last you a lifetime, they need to last 50-80 years or longer. if i could effort it i would own a 100mpx hasselblad just for that reason, to future proof my images and to have enough to post process. i am right because i used smart words.

"If you are looking to gain more megapixels in an image, you can simply shoot a panorama"
Yeah except this won't work in many cases. An example is taking a photo over say a 1 hour period so that you make best use of the crazy light for sunset but also best use on the foreground and in different areas. Shooting a panarama would mean moving the camera which would make re-aligning the images a pita. Also having a 50mp camera doesn't stop you from taking panoramas either. I printed a 80 inch print from a 5ds which was I think 4 images stitched together. I do not regret having that many pixels for that print and I often get up close to it and think I'd like even more. But for most people I'd agree, you don't need that much for every situation.

This is what I use to put my panoramas together. Some have been over 100 images at over 36,000 pixels wide.

the problem is, that the people never print their images and have no connection to megapixel and even worse to noise in real life. also they should visit exhibitions from well known photographers like irvin penn or newton to see their prints
- most of this stuff is in photocommunity standards for the trash bin - too much noise, too blurry, crushed whites etc.

I think for amateurs and professionals alike, there is always a difficulty to balance the amount of data you want to store with the amount of pixels you want to use.
Storage may be cheap but it still costs money. And if you need to change the drive in your NAS, it is often 2-4x the hard-drives that need replacing.

I am an amateur so the amount of detail I can produce has no effect on my income since I am a teacher by profession and not a photographer.
24Mp seems to be enough for the moment.
The prints I have are usually 100x70cm and printed of canvas or on aluminium.

When I bought my 5ds I wasn´t completely sure till I thought about something that made my mind completely. Maybe I will go to a place and it will be the only time in my life. Why not get the best resolution/detail possible?

The only case I see where it matters nowadays can still be a PITA. I am talking about client requirements. A popular example in the video world might be if you want to shoot for Netflix, because they market their original content being 4k to their own clients, you need to be shooting at least 4k if you want your show to be on Netflix. That means that even if you have a classic Arri Alexa, you cannot use it to shoot for them. And yes, it's a marketing reason, not a technical one.

Well, if potential clients say no, it is a damned good reason to switch.

Overall this is specific to photography and not video. That need is different from the video and the article overall. The interesting thing if you specifically require video and 4k is that a 20 megapixel camera is already a 6k camera if using it to create time lapses. You still have cropping possible in post at this resolution and the raw files create the final video from. There are always different needs and that's why some need the additional resolution but most, from their own needs, don't.

I took the Netflix example on video because it's a popular one. There are probably plenty of photo & video clients having the same kind of policy as them on resolution.

If you're shooting for movie posters or large in-store print media, or shooting to create large prints to sell... megapixels absolutely matters. That's usually not the case of most shooters. But it does play an important role for those who do.

I used to shoot corporate events with a 4MP Canon 1D and I still could today if I wanted to.

Judging from the discussion above you probably could... But may have to market your sales pitch to include something like: " And I will be using a nearly unique camera that none if my competitors have!"

I'll say this from the other side. I'm an editor and will say megapixels absolutely matter for the professional photographer. The thing is, what photographers submit to me for assignments might not be the shot I want. I might want to focus on another part of the image that I consider more important, and I often crop in heavily on them, layover graphics/text in sections (negative space), or use for other kinds of promotional materials like newsletters and advertisements (vertical/horizontal, etc). I might want to use one large shot and create multiple images out of it later down the road as well. This matters even more so for stock photography, event photography, etc. I'd say if you are just shooting vacation whatever then no it won't matter, but if you plan to be a working photographer and submit your stuff to magazines, newspapers and such, yes it matters.