The Importance of Megapixels When Choosing a Camera

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Why Megapixels Matter

When digital cameras first entered the market, the amount of pixels that they offered was so low that the image quality was almost laughable when compared to the pictures developed from film cameras. As technology improved and pixel counts grew into the millions (a megapixel is equal to one million pixels), the image quality of digital photographs gained ground and eventually equaled the quality of images that the best film cameras produced. Digital camera manufacturers continued to raise megapixel counts past what many observers claim is necessary to produce quality images.

Some critics argue that the amount of megapixels on a digital camera no longer matters as standard amounts have surpassed the needs of average photographers. They claim that other factors are more important to image quality than megapixels, and they are right. However, megapixels still matter in a few ways, especially when someone is considering a camera where most of the other features are similar. This guide will highlight the cases in which megapixels do matter, and many photographers will likely find that their photography can benefit from more megapixels.

What Are Megapixels?

A pixel is the technological shorthand for picture element. It is basically a microscopic dot that forms a picture when combined with millions of other similar microscopic dots. A megapixel is one million pixels, so where digital photography is concerned, a digital photograph is generally a few million pixels coming together to form a digital image when a photo is captured.

Megapixels are located on a camera's sensor. When the shutter is opened to capture a photo, light comes in and the megapixels capture it like millions of tiny buckets sitting on the ground collecting raindrops during a storm. In terms of megapixels acting as buckets on a camera's sensor, the more buckets there are, the more light will be collected for processing into an image. The more megapixels a camera possesses, the more color (or grayscale) dots will appear in the images that the camera produces. Those dots on the picture are collectively referred to as resolution, and the higher the megapixels the camera possesses, the higher the resolution of the photos it produces will be.

It is important to note though, that megapixels are not the only determining factor in an image's quality. Overall, the camera's sensor size is more important to image quality than the amount of megapixels is. A cell phone camera with more megapixels than a DSLR camera will not take higher quality photos than the DSLR because its image sensor is much smaller. While this guide details below how megapixels affect image quality, the implication is that megapixels improve image quality when all other factors are equal.

Why Do Megapixels Matter?

Megapixels matter in digital photography because they play a role in determining a photo's resolution and clarity. As mentioned above, the size of the camera's image sensor generally plays a larger role in determining image quality, but between two cameras with similarly sized image sensors, more megapixels can help to improve an image's quality under two important circumstances: cropping a photo and producing a larger print.

Megapixels and Photo Cropping

One of the advantages of digital photography is that it makes it easy for photographers to shoot first and ask questions later, as it were. The questions that come later usually revolve around how to improve a captured image. One popular and easy editing technique is called cropping, which involves cutting out a section of a photo. For example, a photographer might notice an element in a photo that they would like to emphasize, such as a bird in the background. This can be accomplished by using software to draw a rectangle around that element and remove everything else surrounding it. The new focus of the photo can then be blown up to the size of the original photo before it was cropped.

Cropping photos this way can result in the new, enlarged subject appearing blurry. The lack of clarity may not have been noticeable when the bird was just a small element in the background, but cropping the photo to make it the new subject has essentially zoomed in on it digitally. A camera with fewer megapixels puts larger, and less fine, dots of color on the photo to compensate for having fewer overall dots. That these dots are less fine becomes apparent when something very small in a photo is made to appear very big.

A higher resolution, or the presence of more color dots in the photo, creates a very fine overall image so that a smaller object may still appear very clear when it is enlarged. Since the amount of megapixels a camera has positively correlates with the resolution of the photos it produces, a camera with more megapixels will allow for photo cropping with greater clarity.

Megapixels and Enlarged Photos

Many photographers like to make large prints of their favorite photographs. Photos such as a panorama from once-in-a-lifetime visit to Machu Picchu, or a portrait of a family member look great hanging on a wall at home. Hanging a photo on a wall involves making a larger print of it than the standard 4x6 and 5x7-inch print sizes. The "normal" image quality settings on digital cameras are often designed with these print sizes in mind and do not employ all of the camera's megapixels for shooting since higher resolutions all require more memory.

For larger prints, it is advisable to use the maximum amount of megapixels that are available on a camera. Blowing up a digital image for printing can result in the image losing sharpness as an larger image size makes the lack of fineness in the image more apparent. The table below presents guidelines for the maximum print size based on megapixels used in a photograph. One quick note: Print quality is also important here, so this correlation is based on a 300ppi print setting. It also assumes a standard resolution for each megapixel amount, though this can vary based on other factors.

Megapixels

Pixel Resolution

Print Size

3 MP

2048 x 1536

6.82" x 5.12"

4 MP

2464 x 1632

8.21" x 5.44"

6 MP

3008 x 2000

10.02" x 6.67"

8 MP

3264 x 2448

10.88" x 8.16"

10 MP

3872 x 2592

12.91" x 8.64"

12 MP

4290 x 2800

14.30" x 9.34"

16 MP

4920 x 3264

16.40" x 10.88"

In order to print photos that are suitable for framing and hanging on the wall, a minimum of six megapixels is recommended, though 16 megapixels substantially increases the maximum size of the print that can be achieved without losing any clarity or sharpness.

Where to Buy Digital Cameras with Sufficient Megapixels

Digital cameras with high amounts of megapixels are available from many different sources. Camera specialty shops generally stock both point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras that offer at least six megapixels. These are good sources from which buy digital cameras because the employees of such shops are generally quite knowledgeable about the products sold there and can provide quality advice about how many megapixels are suitable for different needs and how a camera's megapixels work in conjunction with the camera's other features. Stocks in these shops can be limited though, depending on the size of the shop.

There are numerous retailers of digital cameras that have online stores. These often have very large digital cameras with varying levels of megapixels, and they can be good sources for digital cameras that local shops do not carry. A buyer generally needs to have a firm idea of what they want though, because the amount of available consumer advice available in online shopping is generally less than in brick and mortar stores.

How to Buy Cameras with Sufficient Megapixels on eBay

eBay can be a great source for buying digital cameras that have enough megapixels for zoom cropping and for making large prints. It is easy to find these digital cameras on the site and you can make sure that you are buying from reputable sellers.

Searching for Digital Cameras on eBay

Start your search on eBay's homepage. From there, scroll your mouse over the All Categories menu and choose Cameras and Photography from the menu that appears. This will take you to eBay's Cameras and Photography main page. Select Digital Cameras from the menu on this page to view the digital cameras that are for sale on the site. On the results page, you can filter the listings by point - and - shoot digital cameras or by DSLR cameras by choosing either of those options from the Type menu. If you are looking to shoot very high-resolution photos from a quality camera, you can filter your search for DSLR cameras with 18 megapixels and more by choosing the 18 MP and More option from the Megapixels menu. If you are looking for deep discounts offered on used cameras in this class, select the Used option on the Condition menu.

Buying from Reputable Sellers on eBay

eBay makes it easy to buy from reputable sellers on the site, which is especially important if you are considering buying a used digital camera. You can see what kind of experiences other buyers have had with sellers by looking at their feedback. It is also possible to filter your search for used DSLRs with 18 megapixels or more, for example, by the site's Top Rated sellers. Simply choose this option from the Seller menu once you have a listing of the digital cameras that you are considering. eBay recognizes Top Rated sellers for their outstanding customer service.

Conclusion

Although megapixels may not be the most important feature on a digital camera when it comes to producing a high quality photo, they do still matter. Many digital photographers crop photos after taking them in an attempt to highlight an aspect of a photo that they were perhaps unable to initially focus on or that they may not have initially noticed. If the camera does not possess enough megapixels, cropping one of its photos and then enlarging the new subject creates a blurry image due to low-resolution.

More megapixels create an overall finer image that allow for digital zooming without losing noticeable clarity and sharpness. Many photographers also like to make large prints, and a low resolution photo will show its lack of clarity and sharpness when printed on larger paper. The more megapixels that a digital camera possesses, and the greater the resolution of its photos will be, and the larger the prints the photographer can produce.

Although some argue that megapixels do not matter, they do. While it is true that they are not the most important feature of a digital camera, with all other things being equal a photographer can get more out of a digital camera with a high number of megapixels.

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