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

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...

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

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.

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.

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

Leigh Miller'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.

Réjean Brandt'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.

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.

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