Higher Resolution Photos: Know When You Need Them and When You Don't

Higher Resolution Photos: Know When You Need Them and When You Don't

There are quite a lot of complaints like: "Canon won't release a 4K video camera." At the end of the day, most photographers and filmmakers publish visuals online, and most viewers watch them on sub-2K mobile devices. Here's how much resolution you truly need.

The Fuss

What's the whole fuss about resolution? From my point of view, most people don't even know. The higher the number, the better, most buyers think. Yes, there are benefits from a higher resolution, but nowadays, a very small fraction of content producers really use it and even a smaller number of viewers can appreciate it.

Benefits Versus Reality

Here are some of the most common uses of bigger numbers of pixels:

Larger High-Quality Prints

You've heard that high-quality prints are those from 300 PPI files. That is true, but your eye could hardly see the difference between a 150 and a 300 ppi file at a normal viewing distance. Nowadays, printers are capable of interpolating lower resolution files and you can still have a very high-quality prints. You can have an A2 print out of a 10-megapixel file and it will look gorgeous.

Ability to Crop More

Sometimes, cutting out an unwanted region from an image or a video can save the shot, but if you're relying on cropping for your career, you are probably having a problem with framing or setting up your compositions. You don't always have to be afraid of scaling up images or video. It's better to have a great shot or great footage scaled up a little than throwing it away only because it's not up to the desired resolution.

Increasing the Sharpness of Out-of-Focus Shots

You have been surely fooled by sharp shots on your camera screen, while on a computer display, they were not in focus. Having a higher-resolution file can save you a few shots when you scale them down and thus hide the imperfect focus. But again, if your workflow is based on saving out-of-focus shots by scaling them down, you might want to work on your focusing capabilities or revise your focusing gear, rather than getting a higher-resolution camera.

Better Looking on Larger Screens

That's a no-brainer. Larger resolution footage and images look great on bigger screens. How much is the resolution of your screen? Do you know that most of the traffic on websites is from mobile devices with their sub-2K screens? Why do you boast a 4K video or a 40-megapixel file when almost no one will ever see it in its full glory?

What's More Important Than Resolution?

If you have the resolution, take advantage of it. If you don't have it, don't chase devices that are capable of producing it unless you really need it. Focus on dynamic range and color instead. If you have a device that produces files with great dynamic range, even with low resolution, those files will have a great impact on the viewer. Have you looked closely at paintings? Most of them are of very low resolution, but from a distance, they are incredible. We appreciate them because of the vibrance of colors and the ability of the painter to represent a great range of nuances (high dynamic range). The same holds with cameras that have a wide dynamic range regardless of their resolution. People may never see your images or videos in their optimal size, but all of them can appreciate the dynamic range of the visuals your cameras produce.


How many of you paid attention to the scaled-up and not-in-focus leading image? I leave the conclusion to you.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Tihomir Lazarov is a commercial portrait photographer and filmmaker based in Sofia, Bulgaria. He is the best photographer and filmmaker in his house, and thinks the best tool of a visual artist is not in their gear bag but between their ears.

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Most photographers use their high resolutions cameras to showcase their work in Instagram. It's hilarious.

Instaspam, LOL


Great article. When i upgraded to my Sony a7, these were the exact things i thought about.

Today most cameras are really great in terms of detail and even commercial needs.

It did (in two sentences), but the editor decided to keep them out of the current article, so there's a note about that in the comments :)

I now use my iPhone to take photos of my cats and my breakfast, so that clearly falls into a no-high-res-needed category. If it's an important breakfast shot lol I'll use a stacking app like Cortex or Hydra which improves final output immeasurably.

For my clients I use the most resolution I have, which as a Canon user is so lamely below the competitors, but is actually almost always fine, since 99% of my work appears no larger than about 1200 pixels online or an 11x17 spread in a magazine.

When I need even more resolution, I have to do some uprezzing work that I wish I could avoid. I'm quite good at it and clients have never had issues with the final output, but I'm working harder than I need to. Unfortunately I find that the 5DR/S just doesn't hold a candle to the D850 or A7RIII, so until Canon responds or I give up and switch systems, I just slug through the uprezzing process on those occasions that require it.

I always cite the 1DX and D4/5 lines as proof that pixels aren't everything because they are their respective brands' top of the line cameras and have the fewest pixels.

I find the 5DR/S files too big for my and my clients' needs. I'm with you on the "good enough" resolution. But what are your actual complaints about the 5DR/S compared to the Nikon and Sony?

The 5DR/S is just a 7D2 in a larger sensor. Just for fun, I took DPR's comparison tool and compared their 6D1 photo that I uprezzed to 50 MP to their 5DR and S shots. I layered and aligned them in PS and could barely find a difference even at pixel peeping levels. But when compared the 5DR/S to the D850 and A7RIII, it was just night and day, particularly at higher ISOs.

Good to know, thanks.

What was night and day? The resolution or the noise? I have the 5DSR and I find the resolution nothing less than incredible.

Ed, I'm late seeing this so I apologize for the delayed response. It was the noise that was night and day, not the resolution.

My 5dsr is my workhorse and I am not having a noise problem. Of course, the camera is designed for low ISO use. However, I have some great shots at 6400. 90% of my use is on a tripod. I would not use it to shoot basketball games....

Totally understand. I have a 7D2 that I've gotten shots I've sent to clients taken at 16,000. So I'm okay with the general IQ I get, and I love so many other things about the Canon interface and their glass. But I don't consider Canon's entries (including my own Canon gear) class leading any more.

Good points. I have found that the abilities of almost any camera on the market far exceed the needs of almost any means of display available.
I currently have framed 20x20 prints from my iPhone that are startling in their clarity and detail.

The only time that the high res has saved me on extreme crops is when the image is razor sharp. Otherwise it is a fool's errand to think one can zoom with impunity.

With more than 24mpix I would have more problems than benefits. I was happy with 16mpix sensor.

As I down size all the 24MP/6000 X 4000 pixel images from my EOS 80D down to 3840 X 2160 to view on my 4K TV,I won't be downgrading when I sell it and start using a a 16MP camera.
I always saved as the highest possible quality JPEGs in the belief that I MIGHT need those extra pixels one day,so in the future I'll be shooting at 16:9 and throwing away the least possible number of unwanted pixels.

I don't mean to be rude (I'm just drawn that way) but what's the point of this article? Will there be follow-up articles on how much high-iso performance we need, how large of an aperture we need? How about lenses? Do I really need a macro lens or should I just attach an extender to my existing lenses? :-/

The point of the article is based on feedback from the readers here on Fstoppers.com and under the Facebook posts where I see a multitude of people chasing resolution. A few of them really know what they're talking about, but many beginners take that chase as the goal of their life. After a few grand they see that resolution won't take them anywhere.

In short, this article can save beginners a lot of money and efforts.

That makes sense. I guess when I see the word "need", I think of the plethora of articles telling you what you should or shouldn't do, as opposed to what is, in fact necessary for a particular result.

The word "need" here is used in a different meaning from what you said. It's not "you don't need" or "you need high resolution", but both: you may need it or you may not, but get fooled by others that you do. For that reason in the article I shortly outline the benefits of the high resolution and what usually happens in cases you don't need it. If the beginners are going to use the benefits of high resolution, based on the guides in the article, they will know where to dig deeper. Otherwise, if they thought high resolution would make their photos or videos better, this myth would be busted.

With that in mind, the article doesn't try to force anybody to do something or to avoid doing it. It gives them the blue and the red pill with information which is which. It's up to the readers to choose what direction to go.

Other than that, I know what "need" you are talking about when you talk about articles. I also don't like the expression "You want to...", because I may not want to, but I may "have to" in some cases.

" That is true, but your eye could hardly see the difference between a 150 and a 300 ppi file at a normal viewing distance."

Run, do not walk, to an optometrist. I can totally see the difference between 150 and a 300 ppi file at a normal viewing distance, and I'm an old man with bifocals. That number of 300 ppi is not arbitrary, and it's much older than digital imaging. It's about the minimum frequency that a "continuous" tone can be interrupted before most people with health eyesight notice it at "normal reading distance."

Whether interpolation can substitute for image detail depends on the nature of the detail and the expectation of the audience. Software can interpolate lines very successfully, and an image in which "detail" is just a continuance of lines (an automobile, for instance is easily interpolated.

Or audience expectation can make a difference. Audiences have a limit of how much detail they want to see in a human portrait, for instance. Facial hair, maybe even skin texture should be resolved, if the scale is sufficient. Eyebrow mites--no, nobody wants to see those.

OTOH, there is no limit to the amount of detail audiences expect in a landscape, and the more it is enlarged the more detail audiences expect it to reveal. Interpolation can't created detail. If the sensor did not resolve all the leaves of a maple tree grove, interpolation cannot create them. But if you enlarge that image sufficiently, the audience will expect to see each leaf. I once saw a guy whip out a loupe at a landscape exhibition.

It seems like my not-pixel-peeping attitude reflected on the article. Even on the screen I'm very tolerant of lower resolution images, because I don't really mind imperfections. Having a drawing and illustration background I'm more fascinated by colors and dynamic range rather than detail. Maybe that's why the article is so biased towards the less importance of resolution. You may be right that there is a substantial difference between 150 and 300, but I personally don't see it much or maybe I don't pay attention.

A guy with a loupe is a guy with a loupe. He obviously cares to also see the gear, not only the vision of the photographer. Honestly, most "loupe guys" don't care about the vision and the idea of the photographer. I hope this one did.

What camera do you use for a 30x40 print? You need a12,000x9000 sensor to achieve 300ppi.

The only 30x40 prints I had (the others are mostly 16x20 or 8x10's) were with my first camera: a 10 megapixel Canon 40D. And these looked great to my eyes. It was a sub 100ppi file. Back then when someone wanted a high resolution 300 ppi/dpi print, I rented higher resolution cameras.

I will repeat what I said: Whether interpolation can substitute for image detail depends on the nature of the detail and the expectation of the audience.

Who is going to look at a 30x40 print from the same distance as they would look at a magazine? The 300ppi number generally applies when viewing images from 12-18 inches. As viewing distance increases the ppi required to achieve the same effective resolution decreases. I have a 24x36 metal print in my family room, taken with a 12MP camera, and printed at 125ppi. Because the normal viewing distance is 4-5 feet you can't tell that it's not 300ppi.

Magazine? Was this article just about magazine photos?
When printing photos on to paper, many recommend 300+dpi. It seems unrealistic as most cameras are incapable of producing that level of detail. It seems from your response that 125ppi or even 100ppi (Tihomar's comment) is sufficient.

I am happy with my images using 150dpi, but can go down to 100dpi. Since I print upto 60inch I would ideally like to have 54 megapixels. When shooting weddings though I still use my 16 megapixel D7000

I upgraded from 21Mp to 42Mp by changing from an ageing Canon 5D2 to a shiny new Sony A7R3.

What I found is that the files are far bigger, meaning bigger cards needed, new HDDs in my PC and all the importing, editing and exporting takes longer even with a fairly beefy PC. The main thing though, is that older lenses won’t resolve all the detail that the sensor can record. Of course, you might want to use a certain lens for the bokeh and look it produces, but realistically for me, 24 or maybe 30 is the right balance for me.

Of course, megapixels isn’t everything, and I am quite happy switching away from Canon since their 5D4 fell a little flat with its cropped 4k video, lower DR and higher sensor noise.

Great article. I was making the same point with a friend of mine the other day. Expanding on your point, I'd add that lighting and "moment" also add more value to your images than additional megapixels.

Lighting and "moment" are indeed superior than megapixels (although there's something more important than them) but I decided to keep the article only on senor-level to keep it more focused, or actually, less focused on megapixels, DPI, or PPI.

Well now I'm curious. What would you consider most important?

Up to a certain level, it's the light, the resolution, the technique. From that level above you're in a world where everyone knows how to do anything. The competition there is not based on technique, but ideas and who will be the first to execute them.