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
Nando Harmsen's picture

But my hair would grow long again. So it can be fixed ;)
Oh wait, in my situation... :p

John Adams's picture

In that case you can use your beard.. xD

Stuart Carver's picture

1 Meeeeeelion pixels (in the voice of Dr Evil)

In my case the 24mp i have is just fine.

Lorin Duckman's picture

I started the same way you did. Just sold the Mark iv, while awaiting the mirrorless whatever. Want just a few more pixels and better dynamic range. I shoot landscapes and portraits and flowers. New Canon lenses way outperform older ones.

Michael Holst's picture

Only as much as the camera I'm shooting with has. Could be 8 or even up to 100.... Or none at all.

Ado Avdic's picture

I have 2 D750's with 24mp and D800 which is 36mp. Most ideal for me is about 32 to 36mp because I print a lot of wedding albums in 30x30cm. With 24mp's and some crop I do often have to little resolution to print picture which takes the whole spread. So I have to increase the resolution in photoshop very often.

Resolution is absolutely a factor for large prints depending on how far the viewer will be standing from the print. If placed in a 10' wide public corridor, for instance, the viewer will be fairly close and pixelation may be visible for images <120PPI.

I like this table when determining the maximum print size based on the PPI and estimated viewer distance: http://resources.printhandbook.com/pages/viewing-distance-dpi.php

That said, old low res files often work out just fine. Here are two images printed for the local state university. The 92" wide triptych was taken with a 15MP Rebel T1i.

Angel Sanchez's picture

I shoot portraits with a 12mp lol I love it. It doesn't tax the computer that much and is enough to print a 14.30" x 9.34" at 300 dpi.

I belive the real question is “How much resolution is good enough for me?” This is entirely an individual need and want. I do find it ironic that on the same article highlight headlines on Fstoppers is another article titled “Five Times Bigger Than Full Frame at a Fraction of the Cost: The Mamiya RB67”. James Madison an Fstopper writer has this to say “The Mamiya RB67 sets the standard for an affordable 6x7 medium format film camera. If you’ve never shot 120, it’s an incredible experience. Think of it like an all manual 35mm film camera that has so much more perceived resolution when viewing two photos at the same size, you’ll never want to go back. Coming in at nearly 5 times the frame size as full frame/35mm film, a proper 6x7 camera with a good lens can make anyone a fan.“.

I appreciate your article for the thoughts it created in me. While I see things differently than you, I believe that it really is good to think about and not chase the “more is better” game blindly.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Interesting.
Thanks for your comment.

Two things: Fuji definitely was not the first out of the gate with a 100-megapixel camera. That honour goes to the Phase One IQ3-100. And you certainly don’t need massive resolution to print billboards. Those get printed at about 6 lines per inch, meaning they require about 12 pixels per inch of image resolution. From any appreciable viewing distance, your circa-2015 cell phone camera could produce a photo with enough resolution for that and it would look just fine.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I have looked into cell phone phtography and although the resolution may be enough for billboards, the quality is lacking.
INdeed, Phase One and Hasselblad H-series camera's had that amount of pixels and more long time ago. But the Fujifilm is the first one that doesn't costs as much as a really big car. ;)

I’ll give you the cost argument on the GFX, for sure. As for the cell phone thing, I can tell you that given proper lighting and with a stable tripod, you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between something shot with an iPhone 6 and a Hasselblad or Phase when you’re looking at them from 100 feet away. I know because I’ve done it.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Yes, if the light situations are very good, it could be possible. But that is not always the occassion.
But I wonder why you would use a cellphone to make photos for customers. To me it would seem foolish to rely on that. Could you explain?

Don Risi's picture

It's a moot question in some ways. For example, I shoot with a 36mp Nikon D810, which is all the resolution I need for anything I do.

But if I want to upgrade to a camera such as the D850, which has better capabilities (i.e., better ISO, faster FPS rate, etc), I have to accept the fact that the D850 comes with 45.7mp, a considerable jump in resolution, and therefore, file size.

Do I need the extra resolution? No, but it come part and parcel with the better camera body.

On the other hand, I could go with a better body, and and go with the D6. Unfortunately, at 24mp, such a move would result in a downsize of the resolution that would no longer satisfy my current needs.

We're kind of stuck in the middle between what we want and need and what the camera manufacturers give us. Oh well.

I’ll take anything between 16-24mp. Would sacrifice high res files for good low light/dynamic range any day. I’m glad they’re making these censors, advancing technology and pushing the limits but at the moment I’m good.