How Much Resolution Do You Really Need?

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.

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

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.

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?

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.

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 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

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.

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.

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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107 Comments

Previous comments
Pierre Dasnoy's picture

While our eyes can't take apart 100 dpi and 300 dpi printed pictures, when 2m away, I don't really think there will be a need for really high definition pictures later. Can you take appart an 8k television from a 4k, from your couch ? Try it at a shop, you'll see.
100Mp may be useful in some fields like science, and for when your clients think bigger is better.
And for the pleasure of searching in an image, ok, pleasure is a driver for many of us. But that is "want" not "need".

Kirk Darling's picture

If we start talking about "needs," we should remember that no creative photography is a "need."

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

When photography is an art only, yes. But that's also a profession which products need to meet the client's technical expectations.

Kirk Darling's picture

Creative photography as a "profession" is merely good marketing to convince people that their "wants" are really "needs."

Everyone has their own needs. When is the last time that you saw someone view a photograph from 6 feet away (unless they had to by location or ropes)?! People naturally want to exam and explore the image up close. They want details. You may see things differently than I. If so keep doing what works for you.

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

What's your minimum definition then ?
300 dpi ? That's 40" wide for a 100Mp image, already.
Concerning "profession", I was more thinking about advertising, wedding, fashion, than art for itself.

That is a very good question. I have never really thought about “how little can I get away with?” I have always asked myself “how good can I make it?” When you realize that large format cameras are the equivalent of 709 megapixels and have been used for decades largely due to their high quality we can understand that we really are not even close to reaching that level of quality in a digital camera.

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

Sure, but I think we will reach that, but is it useful ?
Also, if the film could hold such definition, the lens couldn't, back then, and still can't.

That is the crux of this whole article. If you are an Instagramer or simply want snapshots then “no”. If you want to print images to be explored up close then absolutely “yes”. The demand and popularity of large format photography over the last 170 + years continuing even today is absolute evidence that it is worth it to many. The overwhelming surge of cell phone photographers is evidence that for many it is not. The question of “how much do we need” cannot be universalized. I believe the best question is, “what is good enough for me?” You may be happy with lower resolution images never printed or viewed from 6 feet away. I simply am not.

I believe that there are only a few small drawbacks to high resolution images and those can be easily overcome. Storage space and processing power are the main concerns. These two concerns are minimized as devices are faster, larger capacity and less costly and are continually improving. The concept of slowing down where possible and creating fewer in quantity but greater proportion of higher quality images is another helpful approach.

Your comment that “if film could hold such definition, the lens couldn’t back then, and still can’t” is absolutely incorrect. Research large format cameras and lenses today and I believe you will be surprised.

Nando Harmsen's picture

So every image that has been taken with the 8 mp camera from 10 years ago, can be thrown away, you say?

Ryan Ringstad's picture

Not at all. What I was trying to communicate was had we had the option to spend a little bit more money back then and upgraded to 12mp files instead of 8mp those decade old pictures would be more useful & relevant (from a quality perspective) on today's modern equipment.

The future is unknown but its safe to assume screens are only going to get higher resolution and larger than they are today. Shooting in high res will only ensure those images maintain the best quality possible on tomorrows technology.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I understand.
And I agree we would rather have 12mp (or more) when 8mp was top of the line. And still, with 8mp we can still print amazing quality images in 30x40 cm books and posters.
But tell me, how much more do we really need? Isn't 50mp enough? Unless you use the images for exceptional large prints (not billboards that need less resolution), we don't need that much.
And if your future use needs that large resolutions, it probably won't be for that old work. It will probably be needed for commissioned work at that time, instead of archived material

Tony Northrup recently made this point, and I can see some logic to it. But, it depends upon what you shoot.

Currently I see two distinct paths for sensor development. One to improve pixel performance so that they can be made smaller and packed closer together (think Canon's 50MP 5Ds) and the other to improve pixel performance for more challenging low-light environments (think Canon's 20MP 1Dx2). If the latter makes it more likely that I'll get the shot, then 20MP is fine. Although, I suspect a 30MP Canon EOS R body with greater low-light performance that the newly announced 1Dx3 isn't far away.

Eric Hiss's picture

It's like HP in a car - the rest of the car makes as much or more difference, and with cameras the quality of the pixels makes a big difference too. Funny how my cell phone has more pixels now than my old PhaseP20 but still...

At leat you could feel the difference in acceleration, but you wouldn't see the difference in MP most of the time.

Pixel counting will never work
People used kodak brownies for great shots.
8 to 16mp is lots unless you make pro shots for billboards

And i know you dont

Spy Black's picture

"8 to 16mp is lots unless you make pro shots for billboards"

We used to make billboards with film, which has less resolution. Modern digital billboards are low res and easily be handled by even a 6 meg camera.

Ed Sanford's picture

All I can get. I have had the Canon 5DSR since it came out in 2015. Every time I upload images to Lightroom I still marvel at the resolution. I do landscapes, and I shoot to make prints. The resolution allows me to make the sharpest prints possible. The other thing that high resolution does for me is that I will often have what I consider a bad shot and then after looking at it, I find that I have a "picture within the picture" that I didn't see when I was shooting. Those 50 Megapixels allow me to crop images and come up with phenomenal shots and resulting prints. Occasionally, I shoot wildlife. A frustrating thing about wildlife is that whatever lens you have is typically not long enough. Again, cropping to get closer is a lot easier when you have more megapixels under the hood. I'll take megapixels over shutter speed any day.

No offence! But improving the composition and framing would render the 50MP useless in this case.

Ed Sanford's picture

No offense taken... improving composition is always preferable to cropping. The point I made is that I ended up seeing something I missed and still made a great print. Nevertheless, perfect composition does not render high resolution useless. Good composition and 50MP along with other photographic skills creates high resolution prints, Case in point, 4x5 negatives blew away 35mm negatives by miles in the film days. The same applies here. It’s just another tool in the box. I’d rather have it then not. Since I have it, I am keeping it...

Christian Lainesse's picture

The higher the resolution, the more you have to slow down and plan your shots. I find that faster, lower resolution cameras tend to make you want to "spray and pray".

150mp or greater, especially for large busy scenes. Iconic images that will be printed very large need the extra detail. Yes, stitching is an option to get to higher resolution, but when you need to freeze everyone at a single point in time, there's nothing like having the Phase One XF + IQ4 150mp. The GFX 100mp has a great amount of trade off - dropping to 100mp but going to 5fps & having some longer lens options (EF-GFX adapter). Wall size advertisements are common these days, and the last thing you want to see walking by is all the pixelation & detail falling apart.

You also don't know what your future use of a specific image may be, so shooting higher resolution now, the scene may change dramatically over the next few years. Here's a single shot from the IQ4 150mp - the standard Seattle shot from Kerry Park. http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/216321

marc gabor's picture

For me 24mp is the sweet spot for events and shoots where I know there won't be much retouching, cropping or large prints. The modest file sizes are easier to handle and the low light capability is great. I do however make a lot of large prints for clients and while I've never had anyone complain about the quality of a 40x60 print from 24mp (or even 16mp) I always want to make the most tactile beautiful prints that I can. So for me (especially if my wallet can allow it) upgrading from 24mp to 45mp or even 50mp is definitely something I'm interested in doing.

I've also been on quite a few commercial shoots where the photographer has to leave quite a bit of space around the subject for the retoucher to get the image just right. I've also seen clients make very narrow narrow banner crops for graphic design purposes. For e-commerce it's very effective to be able to zoom in on a product and retain detail. So yeah there are a lot of commercial applications where having a comfortable "pad" of extra resolution is very useful.

My 2 cents, i am pretty happy with a 14.2 Mpx Sony A350. Doing portraits, wedding, street. Am happy, as long as there is enough light :P

Martin Peterdamm's picture

the fuji gfx with a 50/60 mpix sensor and ibis would be so amazing. the lenses are amazing even in corners and have a super nice look and are priced similar to the latest 35mm lenses. also <ou can adapt a lot of lenses and get super interesting looks.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I have used the GFX50 and was amazed with the quality. Also the GFX100 is amazing, although I prefer the looks of the GFX50 anytime over the GFX100.
But 100mp is overdone, I think

Dana Goldstein's picture

I've been shooting the GFX100 for several months now, and the 50s before that. For what I do, commercial photography and environmental portraits, the detail is an amazing benefit and something you can't un-see. When I'm working with an artist for example, the details of their paintings and sculptures is beyond. And yes I can crop though I try to get it right in camera. I'm confused that you find it hard to get sharp images with it, though, because I've found it extremely reliable in that regard (I'm also not always shooting wide open). I agree completely that if I were shooting events, this would not be my choice (it would probably be an XT3) and yes I upgraded my computer when I bought the 50 (in addition to buying into the glass) so this was a serious investment and I sold off a ton of gear, mainly Nikon, but for those that can actually benefit from it, it's fantastic to have the option.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I have the GFX100 at this moment, and indeed, the detail is amazing. I have no problem getting sharp images with it (did I say that?)
For me personal, the 102 mp has no real benefit. But that is me, and I guess for most photographers. That is why I wrote the article. A lot of people want more and more pixels, they never going to use. And there is a group of photographers who really benefit from the large pixel count. You seem to be one of them and it is wonderful these cameras now exist.

Kirk Darling's picture

That would be like someone in the 89s writing a "what's the point of medium format" article.

But wait. People did write such articles...to show how great more resolution actually was.

John Adams's picture

Me having the A7III I never had really the need for more MPs, especially with sharp lenses, but I would like to have around 45 MPs, it never hurts to have as many MPs as possible and in post you have the freedom to do whatever you want without limitations. It's like a haircut, if you make a mistake you can't go back and fix it.

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