Since the dawn of digital cameras, the megapixel has been the one stat that camera manufacturers and uneducated consumers identified with quality. Sure, back in 2003, the difference between 1.3MP and 3MP was astounding, but in recent years, its became much more arbitrary. With phones like the Nokia Lumia 1020 sporting a 40+MP sensor, is the war back upon us? If so, how can we kill it?
The Nokia Lumia 1020 has gotten a lot of attention since its announcement. People from both sides have came out of the woodwork to express their opinions on this phone/camera combo. As a result, Sony recently teased the public with their latest phone, the i1 Honami, which is harnessing a 20 MegaPixel camera. All accounts seem to show that a mobile version of the freshly dead megapixel war is upon us, so what can we do to swiftly end it?
First, we must talk about far more important features. Magic Lantern recently enabled 14 stops of dynamic range to the Canon 5d Mark III and Canon 7d, a statistic that is going to improve image quality far more than a pixel density count on the sensor will. Essentially, dynamic range is just a figure to determine how much detail is able to be captured in the shadows and highlights in your images (It’s far more complicated than that, but lets not give a science lesson here). By in large, dynamic range stops is a statistic far more useful than mega pixels ever will be.
Secondly, memory is going to be a far bigger issue than ever. With phone companies slowly ditching expandable memory, consumers are going to run into a very real problem with these large image producing cameras. The test photo released by Nokia last week, is 13 MBs in size. That is less than 700 images on an EMPTY 16gb card before being completely full. Like most people, I have images on my phone from a year and a half ago. Changes like this will force us to change the entire dynamic we have with our smart phone cameras.
Third, is the pixel density of such a camera. While the sensor is still larger than most any other sensor we've seen for a cell phone, it still lacks the size it needs to accommodate that much pixel density. Canon for example, didn't produce a large mega pixel camera with their release of the Canon 5d Mark III because the tech didn't feel ready for them. If a camera with a three times the sensor size of the Nokia Lumia 1020 doesn't feel ready for the 40+ MP range, what makes you think a camera phone will be able to do it with any success whatsoever? The sample photos for the 1020 had a decidedly "finger-painted" quality to them when zoomed at 100%. This was a direct result of over shooting the capable pixel density for a sensor that size.
Finally, we must address the practicality of it. In 2011, HTC released the first 3d phone. It contained a 3d enabled screen, and 5MP dual lens 3D camera on the back. Everyone was buzzing, claiming this was the future, and the concept inevitably flopped because it simply wasn't practical. So far in fact, that even ESPN has recently ended their 3D enabled networks, claiming that the market simply wasn't there. A 41MP sensor on a phone falls under that same discussion. Instagram is going to take that photo, and shrink it to 500px by 500px. Facebook will surely reduce it to around 1300px long edge. So where is the practical purposes of such a camera?
Phones aren't designed to be your best camera. If I want to take a quality photo to use for my portfolio or otherwise, I will always use my DSLR. If I want to take a photo to show friends and family what I'm doing at this very moment, I'll use my cell phone. This is the common separation that companies such as Nokia haven't seemed to figure out. A cell phone camera needs to have personality, not over compressed image sensor highlighting its latest gimmick. By their very nature, they need to be designed to best show a glimpse into our daily lives, and megapixels don't mean a thing in my day to day life, especially when they end up hindering you. By creating phones with features of this nature, you're creating a comparison to much higher end DSLRs and I think we can all agree that we don't want to travel down that road.