“How Many MegaPixels Do I Need?” (December 2008 Show-Me Nature Photography Newsletter)

As I began drafting out my December Show-Me Nature Newsletter, I was planning on covering some winter weather tips for assuring your camera keeps working when outside on those cold days. However, I was asked a question at the Briarwood Elementary “Holiday Shoppe” that often comes up when someone asks me about what they should look for in a new camera. Specifically, the question of “How many Megapixels do I need in my new camera?” So, with Christmas near and camera buying at a peak level, I’m postponing the cold weather tips until January (I promise to get the Newsletter out early, so you can put the tips to good use!) so that you can consider this factor in any camera you decide to purchase. So here are my thoughts on the megapixel question.

First, I believe that most of the Show-Me Nature Photography Newsletter readers are non-professional photographers, using either a point-and-shoot camera or a lower-end digital consumer camera. So, I’m going to address this question with those shooters first (I’ll cover the rest of you, later in this article).

Whenever you hear or see advertisements for a new camera, there usually is a lot of hype placed on the number of Megapixels the camera has. But how many Megapixels do you really need? For a short answer, I would say “probably 6-8 megapixels would be sufficient, even ideal for most of you … anything more would be a “waste” and actually can cost you more money to live with. For example, the more megapixels you have, the larger the file (photo) size and, therefore, the more storage space (hard disk) you will need to store all your images.

Let’s cover some important facts that will help to explain my position on this question. First, what is a Megapixel? A megapixel is equal to one million Pixels. And what is a Pixel? A Pixel is simply the unit of information used to record a scene (i.e., color, detail of what is being photographed); we usually envision a pixel as a small dot or square of detailed information. Have you ever blown up a photo to extraordinary proportions and observed what appears to be “fuzzy squares”? Or, on the television news, sometimes people’s faces are “blurred out” and sometimes you can see “fuzzy squares”? In this situation, the image is becoming “pixelated” … these little, fuzzy squares are the pixels, and when blown up to great proportions, the information contained within the pixel is stretched out and the detailed information becomes distorted and soon loses it’s ability to accurately depict the scene. With this being the case, you are probably saying, “Then more megaPixels is better.” Yes, you are right. Technically, the more megapixels you have, the more information and detailed data you have on the image you make. But, do you really need those extra megaPixels?

The determining factor, in my opinion, for how many megapixels you really need is to define exactly how you are going to be using the images you make with the camera. If your end result will be prints that are 4″x6″ to 8″x10″, and you will not be cropping much out of the image, then a camera with 4-5 megapixels is plenty of horsepower for you. However, if you do much cropping to the image (which eliminates the # of pixels you have in the image), then you will need a camera with more MegaPixels. Anytime you crop out a lot of pixels, then enlarge the image, you are essentially “blowing up” the remaining pixels … remember the above example of how this distorts the image? Having a camera of 4-5 megapixels will allow you to delete some pixels and still end up with sufficient pixels to be able to do some enlarging for prints.

Now, for you serious photographers. If you are like me, you will likely be cropping some images. In fact, you may be cropping quite a bit with some. In this instance, you will want more megapixels in your camera. Having more megapixels (let’s say 8-12 megapixels would be a good starting point) will allow you to do some serious cropping and still get a print of at least 8″x10″ or so. Another factor to consider is extremely large print sizes. If you will likely be producing wall-sized posters or extremely large prints (greater than 20″x24″), then you will want to purchase the largest megapixel camera you can get. Whenever you make a print of these sizes, you will need the extra megapixel power, in order to keep from losing detail and quality in your large prints that are caused by such enlargements.

To give you another perspective on this subject, the American Photo Processors Association have developed some guidelines on megapixel sizes vs. print sizes, when there is no cropping performed on the image. According to their standards, they say that a 1.0 to 1.3 mp (megapixel) camera will give good prints of 4″x6″; a 2.1 mp camera will allow good prints up to 5″x7″; a 3.1-3.34 mp camera will allow good prints up to 8″x10″; a 4.0 to 5.0 mp camera will make good prints up to 16″x20″; and a 6.0 mp camera will make good prints up to 20″x24″.

So, after all this information, you may be asking how many megapixels I use. I have 3 digital cameras. My 2 everyday (most-used) cameras have 10.2mp and 8.3mp. The third camera (used soley as a backup camera) is 6.3mp. I have a 20″x30″ print of a bear hanging over my fireplace at home; this print was made with my 6.3mp camera.

Understanding the megapixel issue can be difficult. If you have any questions regarding megapixels, or need further information, please contact me at: showmenaturepix@hotmail.com

Posted in Photography Tips.
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