How Much Resolution Do You Really Need?

The resolution of camera sensors is still increasing. Over the last decade it has grown from 3 megapixels to 50 megapixels and more. At first the increase in resolution was a significant one, but not anymore. Do we really need more resolution than the cameras that hit the market today?

When I bought my first digital camera, I had 3.5 megapixels at my disposal. It was enough for a nice 20x30 cm print with a good amount of detail. It was in a time when I used my camera just for holidays and memories. But when I started to take photography more serious again, I invested in an expensive 8.5 megapixel DSLR camera: the Canon EOS 20D.

My first digital DSLR, a wonderful machine with 8,5 megapixels. Complete withc battery grip and L-bracket, which I used already back in those days.

The increase in resolution was amazing. Suddenly those 3.5 megapixels were a joke. Of course, the new camera was more than the increase in resolution alone. The camera was a semi-professional one, with interchangeable lenses, and the ability to shoot in raw format. All together it was a small step for mankind, but a huge leap for myself as a photographer.

From A High Resolution to a Higher Resolution

I think a lot of you will recognize this little story of my first steps in digital photography. For a few years I loved shooting with my Canon EOS 20D and I found out it was possible to print my work up to 1.5 meter wide without problems. Sure, when looking up close it was far from a sharp image, but from a practical viewing distance it was perfect.

A very large print from an image taken with the Canon EOS 20D. The 8,5 mp file had enough resolution for this size because you have to look at it from a distance

As time went by, I bought a second camera, having 10 megapixels. Not a large increase, but still. I used it as my main camera, and the EOS 20D became the backup. Or secondary camera during weddings.

Eventually I got my hand on my first full frame camera; the legendary Canon EOS 5D. It had an amazing 13 megapixels, which was enough for even larger prints if necessary.

The Canon EOS 20D, my first full frame camera. It counted 13 megapixels, which was a lot back in those days.

I think at about that time the megapixel race really started. High resolution became even higher resolution. There were 16 megapixels cameras, 20 megapixels, 24 megapixels, and eventually Canon introduced the first affordable 50 megapixel camera.

The Canon EOS 5s and EOS 5sR cameras aren’t the only ones now. Nikon and Sony have also cameras with similar resolutions. And a few years ago the first medium format cameras became relatively affordable, having 50 megapixels also. Fujifilm introduced the first real megapixel monster, called the GFX100, having more than 100 megapixels on the sensor.

The Fujifilm GFX100 has 102 megapixels. But do you really need that much resolution?

Do You Really Need That Much Resolution

The Fujifilm GFX100 has a ridiculous amount of pixels. Shooting with that camera, that produces photos that measure 11,648 x 8,736 pixels, made me wonder for whom it’s made. Do we really need that amount of resolution?

I took this image with the Fujifilm GFX100. The resolution is amazing. But it has no practical use when this image is only reduced in size to fit the internet or social media.

Of course, the amount of detail is staggering. But it also imposes a few possible problems. First of all, it needs a lot of resources when post-processing those large files, being 200mb in raw format. Second, the amount of details makes it difficult getting real sharp results. Every little bit of camera movement while shooting will have an effect on sharpness. Also the auto focus has to be very precise. Fortunately, the camera has image stabilization, which will solve at least the unintended camera movement, but that is only part of a solution.

What Can You Do With Very Large Resolution Photos

A lot of megapixels must serve a purpose. If you shoot a lot of photos that are being used for really big prints, it might have a purpose. I am thinking about prints that are being uses as a wall paper, covering complete walls inside a home or office. Or perhaps billboards, the ones you always see from a larger distance.

To be honest, how often do print in such a large format? If you do, a large resolution camera may be the thing for you. But for most photographers a print of 50 x 70 centimeter will be almost the largest size. And for that you don’t need 50 or 100 megapixels.

Most of the images that were in my exposition called "Stilte in de Peel" were taken with the 8,5 mp Canon EOS 20D. It had more than enough resolution. But I admit, a bit more would have been nice.

Most of the time you really don’t need that amount of resolution. I guess most photographers won’t even print their photos. Or perhaps they will make a small album of their best work. Most images will end up being presented on a website or social media. So most images with very large resolutions will be reduced in size to fit the screen of a computer.

Shooting images for websites and social media doesn't require a lot of pixels. For this you can use a 5 megapixel camera and still have enough room for cropping. I took these images with a 10 megapixel Canon EOS 1D mark III

What Resolution Do You Really Need?

This is a question I can only answer for myself. It is very personal, and for my own needs. So I rather should ask: What resolution do I really need?

The answer still isn’t that easy to answer. I still shoot with a 16 megapixel camera, that has enough resolution for most occasions. But I rather shoot with my 30 megapixel DSLR camera, being able to crop a bit if necessary. When I tested the Nikon Z 7  and the Sony a7R III, I loved the amount of pixels, knowing it would be easier to print in large format with a wonderful amount of detail.

Playing with fire and shooting with the Sony A7R III. Its resolution shy of 50 million pixels is amazing. It looks like its become the new standard. By the way, I took this image with the Nikon Z 7, which has almost the same resolution.

Also the Hasselblad X1D and Fujifilm GFX50 produced that very high resolution and it felt really good when I reviewed these cameras. But when I am shooting a wedding, I find this too much resolution. It has no use at all. Having between 20 and 30 megapixels is more than enough for these occasions. I think something like a 24 megapixels resolution is the best choice for most photographers today.

But What If…

There are also benefits having a high resolution. It gives the ability to crop the image without a significant loss. It isn’t a big deal when you loose 50% from a 50 megapixel image. You still end up with 25 megapixels. This is the main benefit for most, I guess.

On the other hand, if you shoot landscapes and you want the most detail available, a high resolution camera will give you just that. It may benefit your really large prints, but you won’t see this if you just show the images on the internet and social media.

In the end it is just personal, and you have to choose yourself if you need it. Perhaps you just want it, although it has no real benefit at all. And that’s okay also.

What I Want For Myself

Shooting with the Fujifilm GFX100 made me realize 100 megapixels has no real use for me. The images are huge. Fewer than 300 photos fit onto a 64gb memory card. I wouldn’t want to spend ten thousand euros on a machine that is amazing, but without a real benefit for me.

The 102 megapixel Fujifilm GFX100 next to the 31 megapixel Canon EOS 5D mark IV. If I had to choose I would grab the Canon any time. The resolution of that camera is more than enough and its price is much more reasonable.

That is why I am very happy with my Canon EOS 5D mark IV, having more than 30 million pixels. It is more than I need, but it gives me the possibility to crop a bit if necessary. And in the rare occasion I need a higher resolution, I can always shoot a panorama.

What Do You Want?

I have a good idea of what is available on the market today. I have used a lot of different cameras with resolutions that varies from 8.5 megapixels up to 100 megapixels. For me I have an idea what the ideal resolution may be, as explained in this article.

But what do you want? What resolution do you need for your photography? Is it because you really need it, or because you just want it? I think there is no wrong or right answer, but I would love to hear your opinion about the best resolution for your camera. Please share it in the comments below.

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110 Comments

D M's picture

How much resolution is needed? How much do you have?

For retouching, clipping masks, cropping, more is better. Plus, you never know where your photo is going to end up. You may be shooting something for online, 4x3 inches, and find the client likes it so much it is now going to be a poster, or an 8-foot wide print or their wall. You're shooting a large piece of equipment, with tubes and wires everywhere, and the designer needs the file delivered with a tight clipping path. I'll take a larger file with more resolution, thank you. There are so many examples.

So how much is needed? I'll take all I can get.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I am working with a 100mp for a few weeks now, but I still don't see the benefit of that much pixels

Jan Holler's picture

For 95% of all my images the 16MP of the D4 are enough, used with 70-200mm most of the time. For the rest I use the D800 (36MP) with wide angle lenses (have to crop sometimes) and 85mm (portraits, easier to retouch). My largest prints are 60x90cm (~23x35"), but most of them are 40x60cm (~16x24") or lower. But still I can see a huge resolution as a benefit (with the according lens) if you are into wildlife pg e.g. and have to crop. That said, if I shoot parties or private events for friends and family, 1920x1080 is enough, as they only use their mobile phone to look at the pictures. I deliver them 6MP (3kx2k) photos. And more and more I use my 10MP mobile phone for those occasions (IBIS, f/1.8). Nobody ever asked for more resolution. Conclusion: no need for a new camera in the near future.

Petr Svitil's picture

Why do you keep using it, if you dont see any benefits?

Nando Harmsen's picture

Because I am reviewing the camera.
It will return to the owner eventually.

Deleted Account's picture

20

Matthew Lacy's picture

Underneath the picture of the Canon 5D, it labels it as a 20D.

Nando Harmsen's picture

INdeed. My mistake ;)

Dominic Deacon's picture

The more the better. I do composite photography and the more resolution there is to work with the better I and remove the backgrounds while retainging the maximum amount of detail.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I understand. And the end result? How large will the result be printed?

Dominic Deacon's picture

I've never printed an image. 90% of my work is done for clients though. I'm not sure how large they print them, if at all. I shoot a D850 though which is, I think, 45mp, and by the time the composite is done the image might be 70mp so they have a bit to work with.

Ramon Acosta's picture

As much resolution as I can get. I do like to crop. And I like printing.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Really? How much do you crop? How large do you print?

Ramon Acosta's picture

OK,ok, it's more of a just in case situation. But it's nice to be able to get a horizontal crop of a vertical picture. (If I managed to get it sharp enough).

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

I printed 80*60 cm pictures of 16Mp (after crop), it went perfectly fine, you need to stick your nose on it to see a "lack" in definition.

Doubling the resolution means :
2x the storage
2x time for any operation
Only 1.4x the magnification (60Mp is 1.4x larger than 30Mp)

There is a middle ground, which depends on everyone's need.

Nando Harmsen's picture

So true

John Koster's picture

Exactly. The rest is silly.

Rose Florida's picture

Storage gets bigger faster better as time goes on. Same thing with "operation". No harm in the higher resolutions. I use specifically for archiving historic material left by my parents - we take photos of some of the crafts left behind because storing all the pieces physically is not practical, we give them away. It may be an exaggeration, but you get the idea if you ask "Would you prefer to take a photograph of an original letter from Lincoln with a 24 mp camera or 100 mp camera?" Yes, I know, it does not make a difference on my pc monitor.

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

Yep, I guess if I can afford a GFX100, I'll be able to change my old I3 processor :p

Alec Kinnear's picture

The lenses resolve up to 40MP, the pixels themselves degrade in quality over 36MP (talking 35mm here). Not sure what use all of you have for 50MP+ files from a 35mm sensor. I've stepped back to a Z6 from a 5DSR/850 and am entirely satisfied with 24MP. Considering picking up a D810 for the great middle ground when I want higher resolution during daylight hours.

One of these images was shot on a D4 (16MP) and one was shot on a D850 (45MP). Which has better detail? Same evening, both with the same 300mm f2.8 lens.

Adam Rubinstein's picture

For wildlife, more is better.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Why?

Dan McCloud's picture

I assume Adam is referring to cropping. You seldom have a wild animal just where you would like it to be. More resolution can translate to greater effective range, provided your lens has sufficient resolving power.

David Garcia's picture

Yes, for wildlife, I find that 50mp works great for cropping and retaining enough detail and Rez for prints. The file size is workable too. Anything larger would be somewhat burdensome after an 8000 image shoot.

Michael Dougherty's picture

I only need enough resolution so that a lack of resolution doesn't detract from my final image after cropping, post processing, and enlarging. Some images require a lot more resolution than others so the resolution I need matches my highest resolution images.

Nando Harmsen's picture

True...

sam dasso's picture

I'm glad author mentioned need and want. My first "real" digital camera was 8mp Sony DSC-F828. And going to 14MP NEX-3, 24MP A7, 42MP A7RII, 61MP A7RIV it was always want, not need. But going higher MP and more advanced cameras and lenses opened up some types of photography I couldn't do before. For example I can crop 6MP ot of the frame that effectively makes my telephoto reach about 3 times longer.

Daniel Hobebila's picture

Cropping makes nothing "longer". It just ... crops and therefore removes.

Michael Penn's picture

Decade no, 20 years yes since 3 megapixel cameras

Nando Harmsen's picture

Indeed. My fault

Tom Pinches's picture

Sorry to be the pedant but it’s number, not amount of pixels.

stuartcarver's picture

Sorry to be a pedant = no you arent, and as John said it doesnt matter.

Matt Williams's picture

I shoot largely with 24MP (FF) and 16MP (APS-C). It wasn't long ago that I was still regularly using my D700 (12MP), which was replaced by the Z6.

Ideally I'd have a 36MP Z6 type camera. With the IBIS, the higher resolution doesn't pose as many issues as it did with, say, the D810. And 36MP gives the ability to crop in to APS-C with 16MP remaining.

I don't really desire anything higher.

Carl Crumley's picture

I have one of my photos taken a decade ago with my old 13 MP Canon 5D, cropped to a panorama then enlarged to 11 FEET by 30 FEET and displayed in a local shopping mall. It looks great, even up close.

Having said that, I love having my 42 MP Sony A7R2 and the ability to crop in on wildlife shots. Yes, more is better, but less isn't impossible to work with.

Garth Scholten's picture

Congrats on this venue for your image!

The high school for which I often shoot events cropped one of my Canon 5D3 22MP images down to about a 1/4 of its area, then printed it to about 2x3 feet. Not as impressive as your print, but the resulting image from about 5MPs worth of the frame was a pleasant surprised to me.

iris-imaging's picture

Thanks, Carl I have been debating this for my own work. Canon had given me a digital that used the 3-inch floppy disc to play with when working on a project that produced a full1mb image of the retina in the mid 80's. Stuck with film until this century but want to go large now and you answered my question thank you.

Garth Scholten's picture

I'm shooting 20mp in poorly light high school gyms and football stadiums. 30mp is attractive (except for larger file size multiplied times 1,000 images per game), but if given a choice between 10 extra mega-pixels or another stop of cleaner high ISO images at 20mp, I'll take the latter. And, when 30mp comes with one, maybe two extra stops of higher clean ISO, then I'll take that -- along with bigger, faster storage devices.

Matt Williams's picture

Generally, downsizing from a given resolution to a lower resolution will result in the same appearance of noise as a full res file of the same resolution.

But I do find that larger pixels - even if downsizing can produce similar results - have more latitude. They seem more robust and easier to push around in post without as many issues. That's why I went for the Z6 over the Z7 - I tried both and the Z6 seems to have more durable pixels. And, of course, it gains maybe a stop over the Z7 due to being less sensitive to shake, i.e. able to shoot handheld at lower speeds.

Garth Scholten's picture

I'm watching the progression of Canon 5D sensors vs. Canon 1Dx sensors. The 5D had more pixels for a potentially sharper image, but the 1Dx had larger pixels with more color depth and light sensitivity for better low light performance.

The original 1Dx has about a stop advantage in cleaner images over the 5D3. In this context, I'm not thinking that the lower pixel sensor is downsizing, but simply a different path for sensor development. One path seeks to get the same performance from a smaller pixel to increase pixel density and to record more detail in the image. The second path seeks to increase the performance from the existing pixel size to improve image capture in challenging environments.

I suspect that these two paths will merge in time, but for now, I want more out of the 20MP sports sensor more than I want more pixels.

You also make an intriguing point about handheld shake with larger pixel sensors. I can imagine that the greater detail captured from a densely populated sensor makes it more sensitive to capturing camera movement. This is all the more reason for my interest in sticking to the 20MP sensors for sports -- at least for the near future.

This next decade will be quite a ride in watching how pixel technology shakes out -- so to speak.

Matt Williams's picture

The smaller pixel sensor are absolutely more susceptible to camera shake. My D700 could be shot at a shutter speed 1/2 of the focal length, though I almost always limited it to 1x the focal length or somewhere between 1/2 and 1x. When I got a D810, I found it required at least 2x focal length, 3x to be entirely safe.

IBIS has mitigated the need for 2x or 3x shutter speeds, but the principle stills applies: a 24MP a7III will can be shot at a SIGNIFICANTLY slower shutter speed than a 61MP a7RIV.

Keep in mind, when talking about "pixel density" it only applies within sensors of the same size. A 24MP APS-C camera is no more susceptible to shake than a 24MP full frame, assuming the field of view matches between the two. A lot of people get mistaken and think pixel size alone is what matters, but that doesn't apply when comparing different sensor sizes.

Joseph Balson's picture

I always needed my camera resolution +1MP.
From the beginning, I was always 1MP short.

Nando Harmsen's picture

:)

Spy Black's picture

For web and most print work, you can work with around 12 megapixels. For a full page print 12-20 megapixels will do, depending on how much retouching it may need. For large electronic billboards, about 6 megapixels will probably do. Composite work can benefit from more res, but the end results will usually be back at some tiny res. Everything else depends if you need to crop a lot, or if you're printing something large for some specialty format.

So it depends on what your target medium will be. Fortunately any modern camera today will supply more resolution than you'll ever need, with a few exceptions.

Kirk Darling's picture

Talking about the wall-sized mural one made from a 2-megapixel image is meaningless unless there is also description of subject matter, final display size, audience, and venue.

Different subject matter requires more or less detail. Type of detail and the expectation of the audience for detail determine how successful interpolation will be. Whether the viewing distance of the audience can be physically controlled by the photographer also impacts the requirement for detail that meets the audience expectation.

A discussion that doesn't include all those factors is meaningless.

Some are devoid of details important to the audience--showroom automobiles, for instance. Moreover, the detail that exists on showroom automobiles happens to be easily interpolatable detail: Lines and tonal values.

Audiences are happy with no better than the resolution of facial hair on portraits when those are viewed at a magnification and distance that their eyes would normally resolve facial hair of a person seen live. Resolving facial hair on a headshot is easy. Facial hair on a headshot is not "minute" detail. Facial hair on a full-length family grouping...that's what I want to see resolved.

Audiences expect detail-packed landscapes to reveal more and more detail the closer they can get to the image. I once saw a man at a gallery pull out a loupe to inspect the detail in a barnyard scene.

If a photograph that appears to have detail catches the interest of people, they will mozy as close as physically possible to glean its detail. Photography may be the only visual art that even casual observers will study so closely.

I make portraits. My largest prints may be loosely posed family groups, 30x40, on the wall of a living room over a mantle or sofa, viewed from no more than ten or 15 feet. Audiences will almost certainly shuffle to within three or four feet. They are delighted to see Aunt June's famous false eyelashes resolved at that magnification and distance. I want a delighted audience.

My original 5D cameras were the first that had enough resolution to permit me to retire my Mamiya RZ67 cameras. But even the 5D's 12 megapixels confounded me with hair moire in half-length portraits. At that particular framing, hair was right at the cusp of the 5D's resolution. The increased resolution of the 5DII freed me from moire at my favorite portrait framing.

Nobody was asking "do you need all that resolution" when we reached for the Kodachrome or the Panatomic X or the H+W Control Film. Nobody asked that question when we pulled out the 6x7-cm or 4x5-inch cameras. It's a silly discussion, really.

John Koster's picture

You can get great resolution 4' X 5' at 300 dpi with a 16 MP sensor. What's silly is the massive PR campaign by camera companies to sell cameras very few people need. I make portraits too. Plenty of them, and more MP is not necessarily helpful. Just my .02 cents

sam dasso's picture

Great resolution with less than 70 pixels per inch magnified to 300 dpi? You must be kidding.

sam dasso's picture

Amazingly accurate comment as opposed to all this talk about "nobody needs high resolution"

Ramon Acosta's picture

I absolutely agree with all your points. I find that most people move to a comfortable distance, almost the same distance they use when watching tv. But others like me, after looking at the whole, want to see how much detail there really is. And I want to do that with my own pictures.

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