Camera manufacturers keep making cameras with more and more megapixels. I feel like I want the most megapixels in the whole world… but how many megapixels do I actually need? Here’s our view of it at BudgetProPhoto:
The short answer is – not as many as you think! Even smartphones from three years ago have high enough resolution to make a glossy magazine front page.
For a front page of a glossy magazine you only really need about 10MP (iPhone 6S will cover you)… for a double page spread in a super high quality magazine, you’re looking at a maximum 20MP photograph (eg Canon Powershot ELPH180). You can go ahead and buy a 50MP DSLR, but you’re unlikely to ever be able to view the image fully on either a page or a screen…
But 20MP is Nothing!
The iPhone X and iPhone 8 both have a 12 megapixel main camera. The biggest megapixel count in a 35mm (full frame) DSLR is just over 50MP at time of going to press (Canon 5DSR). And some medium format cameras will go up to 100MP (Hasselblad etc.). BUT… a glossy magazine cover is roughly 9 inches by 12 inches (8.5×11 but we’re rounding up) at 300dpi (dots per inch) – which is 9×300 x 12×300 = 9.7 million dots… crudely 1 dot = 1 pixel so for a full quality image you need… 9.7MP.
Why the hell did you just drop $5k on a 50MP camera???
Megapixels seem to be the obsession of almost everyone who has ever picked up a camera. Everyone believes they need as many megapixels as possible, and no one wants the cameras that don’t have enough megapixels!
Even I am guilty of this, and I have done quite a bit of research, and think I understand the whole megapixel thing!
But, the truth is, getting the absolute maximum number of pixels in your image just isn’t all that important.
Stop lusting after megapixels!
Don’t get me wrong, a 1MP camera is crap in comparison to a 30MP camera. But between a 25MP camera and a 30MP camera, even the absolute technical pros would struggle to tell the difference without zooming right in.
Even the camera manufacturers have kind of admitted to us that a maximum megapixels is not the be all and end all. Of course, they haven’t actually admitted that because they would stop selling cameras, but if you look at their latest updates, there has been a clear plateau in the rapid advance in megapixels. Many of the most recent releases of top end cameras have seen no increase in overall pixel count.
The ubiquitous 35mm sensor seems to have been maxed out by the Canon 5DS and 5DSR at 50.6 megapixels. That camera was brought out four years ago, and there’s been no advance on it in 35mm sensors since.
If you move up to a bigger sensor size, medium format, then more megapixels are available, but by the time you get there you really are way, way beyond anything anyone could ever describe as budget.
Big megapixels = big cost!
The biggest pixel count we are aware of that is available to the “everyday consumer” is the Hasselblad H6D-400C. As the name suggests this can create 400 megapixel images! But here’s the truth of its… It actually has a 100 megapixel sensor. It creates 400 megapixel images by taking six images with the 100 megapixel sensor in quick succession and stitching them together.
Because it can’t take all 400 megapixels at the same time, and there is a short delay between the capture of each 100 megapixel image, you can’t shoot anything moving. So that 400 megapixel count is only really available if you’re shooting still life, or have a model who is able to keep very, very still. So, not really a 400 megapixel camera. But isn’t it an exciting number!
(FYI – each image on a Hass H6D-400C is 2.4GB @ 16bit TIFF!!)
That Hasselblad camera will also set you back $48,000… should you somehow find that you are in desperate need of all those pixels. Start saving!
The cheaper options
Back in the real world… top of the range on the professional, or pro-sumer market right now is around is between 30 and 45. The Canon 5D4 offers 31MP, the Sony A7R2 (check it out on Amazon by clicking the name) and A7R3 both have 42.4 megapixel sensors.
But that Sony A7R series can tell us a lot about the industry and the future of it.
The A7R2 was released in June 2015, and the A7R3 released end of 2017. Between versions 2 and version 3 there was NO increase in megapixels. Sony spent their two years of research and development working on other things.
What can we tell from this? That for Sony, cramming more megapixels into that sensor was not important enough for them to commit serious funds to it. The Canon 5DSR came out at the same time as the A7R2 (June 2015), and was therefore in existence for the duration of the research and development phase for the A7R3. So, Sony knew that a competitor had crammed 50.6 megapixels onto a 35mm sensor, and chose to do nothing about it.
Which all tells us, that the megapixel space race has slowed right down.
What does it all mean?
I think we can safely draw some conclusions from this. This pattern is common across all the major manufacturers at the moment. The Canon 5Dmk5, when it is released, is rumoured to have the same 30.4 megapixel sensor as the Canon 5Dmk4. The first conclusion we can draw is that you just don’t need more megapixels. If you did the camera manufacturers would be offering them!
The second conclusion that we can probably draw is that it is likely quite difficult to squeeze any more than 50 million pixels onto a 35mm sensor.
But, let’s face it, almost everyone in the camera buying market IS swayed by bigger numbers. It’s so hard not to be!
I have been guilty of this in the past. And I’m probably a little bit guilty of it still. When I went looking for a second camera to complement and sit on the bench for my 5D4 I looked at the A7S2 – a competent stills camera with a focus on video use. When shooting video, megapixels really means nothing. For reference a high definition image is 1920 pixels by 1080 pixels. To get a fully working HD sensor, you only need two megapixels! 4K video is only 8.5MP!
But back to stills, the A7S2 has a 12.2 megapixel sensor. And whilst I wanted the extraordinary video ability, and low light availability, I just couldn’t bring myself to shoot on a 12.2 megapixel sensor – that’s the same as my phone!
So I went for the A7R2 with more limited video ability, but a 42.2 megapixel sensor.
I am still convinced that the images I get from my 5D4 at 30.4 megapixels are cleaner, crisper, and more detailed under extreme magnification than the images I get from the A7R2 at 42.2 megapixels.
And that brings us on to the next point – there is a lot more to image quality than just megapixels!
That’s one for another time! I’m going to leave it there for now.
In summary – you want to save money on your camera gear?
STEP ONE – YOU DON’T NEED ALL THOSE MEGAPIXELS!
Imagine how many cameras now fall within your budget if you stop chasing those massive pixel counts!
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