Does the Number of Megapixels On Your Camera Really Matter?

Does the Number of Megapixels On Your Camera Really Matter?

To follow my previous article which stirred a healthy discussion about sharpness and whether that it's vital or not, it inspired to me to ask my fellow peers another question. Are the amount of megapixels on your camera crucial, or do other factors and features hold more value when purchasing a camera? Here are my thoughts.

Before I really dive in, I would like to make it clear that I do not consider myself a 'gear guy.' If you're looking to pick an argument on how this camera's ISO performance is better, or the dynamic range of this body outperforms the other, blah blah blah...I'm the wrong photographer for that. I'm a strong advocate that great light is paramount compared to quality of the gear; it does not matter if it's a smartphone or a Sony A7rii, it's all about the quality of light and the photographer behind that lens. 

That being said, last year after a little back and forth I decided to upgrade to a camera with 36.3 megapixels (Nikon D810) from a camera with 24.3 megapixels. While 24.3 megapixels is a good amount, the upgraded body was still a considerable step up in that category. Even though my files eat up more memory, I am glad I made the decision, and here's an example why.

When More Megapixels Come In Handy

Referring back to the same shoot from my sharpness article, the flexibility of having more megapixels has definitely paid off. I had my model, Hannah, take a seat on a stairway. Now if you don't already know, stairs behind a subject can lead to issues if you're not perfectly level with the stairs. If your photo comes out crooked, sometimes it can not be fixed with a simple rotation adjustment in post. And you're like me, your OCD just cannot handle it! 

Here's a shot that made the cut in RAW format at 25%:

As you can see while I love her expression, the photo is crooked, and the stairs are just distracting to any viewer. Let's fix using the rotate tool, shall we?

When rotating, I was more focused on the symmetry of her face opposed to the level of the stairs. This image is still not usable, so I needed to get more creative with the crop. This is where the advantage of having 36 million pixels came in handy and I'm glad I had the flexibility of using them. 

Above is the final image. This photo is at about 50% view compared to the original file. As you can see, the image displays great detail even at a very close crop. 

Let's take a quick look below at 100% just for kicks.

My overall take on when it comes to megapixels is simply it depends on what you're using your imagery for. Are you using it for print? Billboards? Web? It simply makes little sense to but a 50 megapixel camera if you're exclusively shooting for your Instagram account. For my situation, I'd say the amount megapixels is important since my images will be on print, catalogs, and various marketing mediums.

I also have the ability to crop my images to my liking in a multitude of ways, like the example below.

Three different crops using the same image effectively, both landscape and portrait. (Original crop is on the far left)

I'm able to deliver multiple crops, portrait or landscape, to clients which is very advantageous.

What Do You Think?

But I'll pass this question onto you. Does the amount of megapixels on your camera matter to you? Or are there other factors and features that you put ahead of megapixels when purchasing a camera? Share your thoughts below!

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60 Comments

Andrew Ashley's picture

Quality of megapixels matters just as much as quantity. What is the dynamic range of the sensor? What is the highest usable iso? I have a D800 and love the ability to crop and enlarge without sacrificing detail. So more megapixels is better, but I would not upgrade to more unless that includes some increase in usable iso and/or dynamic range, OR some other really killer functionality that causes my D800 to be obsolete. Here's hoping the D820 does that for me...

Jason Crockett's picture

check out this article on ISO.. http://improvephotography.com/34818/iso-invariance/
It's pretty interesting. I came from an canon 60D which sucked horribly if I tried to push an underexposed picture to far. My new fuji x-t1 though is leaps and bounds above the 60D. My only answer is this ISO invariance thing....

Sean Molin's picture

I shoot concerts, and any lighting that would require less than ISO 3200, I just shoot at base ISO (64 or 100) on my Nikon bodies and adjust exposure in post. No reason not to, especially in dynamic (strobes) and high contrast situations. I'll never blow a highlight or clip a color channel. Once the ISO gets higher (within the realm of native ISO), I try to set it close in-camera.

Kyle Medina's picture

That's incredible

Ramon Acosta's picture

Impressing!

Jason Crockett's picture

That's impressive... I'm just finding out out this so have to play with it more but the results that I have had with my fuji are similar to your nikon. It blows me away...

Sean Molin's picture

The old Fuji S Pro cameras were this good, just in the highlights instead of shadows.

Brenden King's picture

That is amazing!

Rob Watts's picture

That makes my 5D3 cry in a corner. Nice image.

Tony Carter's picture

Yep, within the last month or so, I've noticed that I can do that also with my D7000. I can get a way with using ISO's of 100-800 in any dark setting and still come away with a fairly clean image with rich and un-muddied colors after adjusting in LR6 :) :)

Paul Monaghan's picture

Same I've been doing that kind of shadow pushing with my pentax k5 for many years, Infact I get better results if I shoot at lower iso and push than I do if I shoot at high iso (as I lose highlights).

Still I rearly use my Dslr these days (even after I upgraded to the 24mp no AA filter k3) as I like the look of a full color sensor better.

Tony Ciccone's picture

Are you shooting with a 2.8ish aperture?

Sean Molin's picture

This was shot with a 14-24mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8.

Quentin Decaillet's picture

And this is the exact reason (or at least one of them), why I'm about to give Nikon a try and most likely sell my Canon bodies. I recently tried the 5Ds hoping it would do better than the 5DIII but it was even worse! Only the 1Dx performs slightly better that any other Canon camera. But it comes with huge price tag and only has 18mp, which is not enough on some shoots :/

Justin Haugen's picture

I did it back in November and it's changed everything for me. It's truly remarkable how amazing the sensor tech is. I was able to make the switch without spending anything extra. Gray market D750's for $1500 which are what my Mk3's sold for with a lot of mileage on them.

Jason Crockett's picture

I'm not sure why some manufactures sensors are able to do this and other not. Makes me wonder why canon doesn't implement this sort of thing or change the sensor capabilities. I'm sure it's why more techy and difficult then that but it certainly is a nice ability to have.

Jonathan Krier's picture

Not to get too off topic, but what didn't you like about the 5DS? I've been kicking around picking one up but any insight helps.

Quentin Decaillet's picture

Same file, ISO 200, cropped at 100%. Left is the original file, right is the same but with exposure boosted by 2.55EV in ACR. And the issue is very much the same at ISO 100.
Not everyone needs to adjust exposure by 2-4 stops in post, but sometimes it can come in handy… Where I live, the D810 is sold for $2200 and the 5DSR is sold for $3300. I know they don't have the same resolution, but to me the exposure latitude/DR is more interesting for what I do, and 36pmx are more than enough for most of my jobs :) Add to that I could sell my 1dx for about the price of 2 D810... and well… switching becomes a very interesting option :)

edit: seems like the image below is compressed and thus the noise less visible…

Jonathan Krier's picture

Wow, gotcha, great info! The noise can clearly be seen enough. So if the exposures are fine OOC, then the subject is moot, but anytime you have to recover more than a couple stops of exposure, the Canons start to show their weakness.

Tyler Newcomb's picture

Dammit, I just decided to stick to canon and now you're all making me question it.

Tomos Edwards's picture

Do it. I switched from Canon to Nikon, best decision I made.

Tyler Newcomb's picture

I really want to, but I'm already invested in canon lenses and I'm on a really tight high school budget

Quentin Decaillet's picture

Try to rent a D750 or D810 and see if it's worth the change or not. The D750 is dirt cheap for a full frame camera, and the D810 is sold for the price of a second hand 5DIII. I'm considering switching because the money I can get for my 1DX covers the cost of a two D810 or almost three D750.
However, if you are on a tight budget you might just want to wait. Sony is also coming strong and something tells me MF will become more affordable than ever very soon :)
Plus, at the end of the day, both Canon and Nikon are very capable cameras. I know a few action photographers that went the other way and sold their D4 for the 1DX because of the better AF… It all comes down to how and what you shoot ;)

Leif Sikorski's picture

I think ISO is also way too much overrated these days. There might be a very few specific use cases where high iso capabilities are useful, but most photos are still taken at very low iso because that's where we get the best possible quality - doesn't matter how good a camera is at higher iso. As long as the native ISO of cameras stays around ISO 200 we'll try to use that. My guess would be that 80-90% of the commercial pictures that were taken aren't above ISO 800 or 1600

LA M's picture

Or you could have just composed each image exactly as you cropped them...and/or used the right focal length lens to achieve that. Why spend money chasing megapixels just to throw them away on bad compositions?

Tony Northrup's picture

Sure, though especially when photographing non-models, there's often that one frame where their pose and expression are just perfect, and it's not easy for them to maintain that perfection while you recompose, move closer or farther, or change lenses. Cropping can simply be faster, too, if the job necessitates that (like shooting group photos after a wedding ceremony when everyone is eager to get to the reception).

If you're doing work for print layout, like magazines, you often have no idea how the editor is going to use your images. They could go full page and full bleed, which would be vertical. They might do two facing pages, which would be horizontal. They might try to cram it into some available space between ads and words, so it might end up in a completely different shape than you could possibly anticipate.

Benjamin Thomson's picture

A large campaign may also require an image to be used in a huge array of formats and ratios. We always request a loose crop with tonnes of negative space.

Dejan Smaic's picture

In an ideal world, there is no cropping, no editing, and paid market value with licensing forever...However, having flexibility with your images gives you more power with your images.

rejeanbrandt's picture

In the commercial world, it's not that easy. A lot of commercial clients want the ability to use a certain photo for several different mediums using different crops.

Jason Crockett's picture

For cropping I 100% agree, the flexibility that the megapixel count gives you to do a tight crop is fantastic. Quality of those pixels as Andrew Ashley states is key too. For the vast majority of people that own DSLRs, 18mp is plenty. You could even argue less then that. I had a Canon 60D and I made some pretty large prints with it, with no problem. I'm now onto the fuji system. It only has 16mp's and I only notice the difference when I crop in tight.

David Liang's picture

It depends on the photographers needs. I do a lot of retouching and clipping paths especially, I can not have enough resolution, the more complex and fine the product the more resolution I need. That said I still shoot events with a D3, 12mp is more than enough for that type of work.

Kyle Medina's picture

One thing people are forgetting when they are cropping is subject to camera distance. Once you start getting far away and you attempt to crop heavily, as in the article. Your picture gets pixelated. No matter the MP count. For portraits you don't have that issue and that's where MP come in handy for heavy cropping. You are able to retain sharpness and detail. That why I typically don't pixel peep when using a telephoto (400mm) since my subject is far away. Also don't crop the image and just try an get everything in camera. Which is hard for wildlife.

Nick Pecori's picture

Absolutely I agree to try and get everything in camera, but for some scenarios there are benefits of having this kind of flexibility.

Kyle Medina's picture

I know its an extreme comparison 400mm to something like the 85mm. Also the working distance is extreme too but it all holds true. Portrait shooters don't have to worry about their subject running.....or do they, ha.

Anonymous's picture

Digital imaging doesn't work that way. A pixel is a pixel. The problem is more likely a combination of your glass and/or the atmosphere not delivering the enough detail for the sensor to resolve. There is a reason good telephoto lenses cost and arm and a leg and even then the heat/particulates may diffraction too much of the light.

Andrew Bee's picture

FroKnowsPhoto is completely against cropping; and he has 200k subscribers...;)

Doc Pixel's picture

Since when did Fro really Know anything and everything to achieve that many followers? /s

Bavarian DNA's picture

I do agree with you, im not a fan of him, but the man worked on his social media and not all people care about what he knows :(, i guess they enjoy for some reason watching his posts. I remember when people liked him more when he went against using Jpegs and talked about Kenrockwell opinion (preferring to use Jpeg format instead of RAW)

Saad Khan's picture

He's against cropping in certain situations. If you can move in in a step or two to get the shot you want, do that as opposed to cropping afterwards. I applied that methodology in my wedding photography and I started getting more usable shots out the camera vs having to crop them later. It was a useful tip that is now saving me an hour or two of editing for each wedding.

Leif Sikorski's picture

16MP and even less have been enough for billboards, magazines and other commercial work during the last years so every camera that gets sold these days has enough.

T Dillon's picture

This really comes down to viewing distances. Bilboard distances are measured in yards. Magazine spreads in inches. Makes a huge difference. Particularly in fashion, sports, advertising, etc.

J F's picture

For LED billboards I would only need about 14MP, while for print billboards I needed 40MP. So for the LED signs my Olympus EM5II would be just fine, while my print billboards I could have used my 645z, but instead just used the Olympus for the shots of us, and used the EM5II high res mode for the buildings and did a composite. So even the cheapest cameras will work fine if you know your output. And as far as magazines, most are using a cmyk offset that will be fine at 12-16MP, if they need to place or crop for the magazine 24mp is more then enough. (actually had to downrez my 645z for a few magazines as they did not want the 51MP file as it was to large for their uses, and instead of them down sizing them they asked me to do it. So I normally down sample to around 16-24MP on average to save on time and I just let them know I have larger MP file if needed. The last magazine I shot for needed only 13MP for a full page spread and for full size online spreads 8MP is the max they needed, especially considering 4k TV/monitors are only 8.4MP, which is why most newspapers/magazines/etc are accepting even iPhone photos for their campaigns and articles).
Billboard seen from across 6 line highway, and last spread using 13MP:

Tony Carter's picture

For what it's worth, photographer Daniel Gregory said in a video: "Viewing distance is twice the diagonal."

Taylor Franta's picture

I agree 100% with the "it depends on what you're using your imagery for. " As a landscape photographer I frequently print wide panos at 40 to 60 inches. Now I do this currently by taking multiple pictures to achieve a dpi high enough for my print sizes. A 40 to 60 mp sensor for me is ideal and allows for few enough shots to make my work uncomplicated . I currently have no desire to print any larger so for me megapixels are important... But only up to that range. Any further and the benefit for me becomes negligible at which point dynamic range, noise capabilities, etc take over. So yes, they matter but only to the extent necessary for the individual.

Prefers Film's picture

All my studio work is done with an original 5D...

Kyle Medina's picture

OG!!

Bavarian DNA's picture

I guess you have covered it all by your nice illustration here Nick, but i think this topic needs a video demo rather than an article. The reader will always want to express his opinion about this matter, which doesn't help that much. I liked it when you described what is the megapixel meant for you and that helped for sure who have no idea about camera bodies to understand something about it.

It would be great if you or anyone here in Fstoppers makes a full guide with discussion covered by a video to help the amateurs and enthusiasts to a better proper upgrades :)

As for your Question " Are the amount of megapixels on your camera crucial, or do other factors and features hold more value when purchasing a camera? "

My opinion goes both ways, because it depend on your photography type,

ISO is definitely needed in Sport, astro and any place were strobes or flashes can't be used

Landscape photography in general tend to avoid ISO usage and keeps it to the minimum

and the list goes on here...

I will end it by saying " yes, good light is the essences of a great shots " you are totally right about it

Nick Pecori's picture

Great input Bavarian on all points! It's appreciated, thanks!

Jeff Colburn's picture

Very informative article, and comments. Thanks for posting this.

Have Fun,
Jeff

Joe Schmitt's picture

I have a D810 and had the D4S (soon to be D5!!). I love the extra megapixels for cropping but l, when I had the chance to control my images with subject placement, lighting, etc., I always opted for the D4S. I thought the color rendition looked better, sharpness was right on, the camera itself was a joy to use even though I have a grip on the D810, and the smaller files made the editing work go a little smoother. Unless I am shooting landscapes or maybe doing a large group photo, I'll always opt for the D4S/D5 as my number 1 choice.

And the upgrade to 20mp on the D5 will be very welcomed for cropping when necessary.

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