Digital Photography: How Many Megapixels Do You Need?

Here’s an article I distributed on the internet a while ago. Perhaps you have already read it, but for those who havent it has some points that are worth considering…especially if you are shopping for a camera.

Digital Photography: How Many Megapixels Do You Really Need?


Is ‘megapixel’ the most overused word in the language of digital photography?


Tell anyone you are thinking of buying a new digital camera, and the first question they will probably ask you is “How many megapixels does it have?” In my gallery I often overhear comments like “I would love to take better photos, but my camera doesn’t have enough megapixels.”


Like computers and the internet, digital photography has bred two types of ‘expert.’ There are people who know a lot. Then there are the people who know just a little, but think they know everything. Many of these people have been persuaded (most likely by a salesman trying to increase his commission) that the key to good photography is a high megapixel rating. By clinging to this notion, they may well be ignoring more important factors that could help them become better photographers.


The number of pixels in a photo determines how much you can enlarge the picture without losing image quality. The more megapixels, the bigger the print. But how important is this really, for most photographers in today’s digital world?


Let’s forget about the size of the enlargement for a moment. How many photos these days are ever printed at all, let alone enlarged to poster size? Gone are the days of shooting photos on negative film, and printing them to see the results. These days we see the results immediately in the camera, and can look at them in better detail on the computer screen. In fact, by eliminating the cost of film and developing, more people are taking more photos than ever before.


But back to the question: how many of these photos ever get printed? Most pictures live their lives on a computer screen, where we see a small version of a photo at 72dpi. In fact, if we want to share them in emails or add them to webpages, we have to make them even smaller to travel in cyberspace.


Of course there are people who print a lot of their photos. I encourage everybody to print their best photos, frame them, hang them, give them as gifts…after all, what is the purpose of all these photos if we don’t do something with them? But do we need a lot of megapixels to create a good print?


In most cases, the answer is no. The vast majority of printed photos are 6×4 or 5×7 inches, and very occasionally 8×12 inches. Very few non-professional photographers will ever print a very big enlargement from their own photography. They might think they will; but almost certainly, they won’t.


So, do we really need all these megapixels? I equate it to buying a car than can travel 200 kilometres per hour in a country where the speed limit is 100. The power is there, and it may give some inward pride to know it is there…but it is wasted power all the same. Apart from bragging rights, in some ways you equally well served by an old hatchback that just gets you from Point A to Point B.


You can produce good, high quality prints up to 8×12 inch (20x30cm), and probably larger, with a five megapixel camera. This is not a compromise; I doubt you would see any improvement in print quality taking the same picture on a ten megapixel camera. Certainly you would see a difference if you enlarged the photo to poster size, but (as we have discussed), very few people reading this article are likely to do that.


Please do not see these comments as negative. I would never suggest that anyone who has bought a more powerful camera has wasted their money. Your upmarket camera probably came with an extra feature or two that adds to the fun you can have with photography. And of course, it is nice to know you could make giant prints from your photos…even though we both know you possibly never will.


Rather, I want to encourage all those people who didn’t buy the top-of-the-range camera and wish they did, or are currently agonizing over how much to spend on their next camera. If you want a camera that takes a decent photo, for use online or to produce small and medium sized prints, you don’t need to overextend your budget. Buy the camera you can reasonably afford and be happy with it – it will do the job for you.


If there is one important buying tip that is more important than the megapixels, it is to find a camera with a good quality lens. If your photos are not crystal clear and sharp when they are small, they are not going to improve by being blown up to larger sizes. In fact, all you would be doing is making your fuzzy image bigger and fuzzier.


Just as importantly, once you have your camera, learn to use it. Most digital cameras come with manual settings that allow you to be truly creative once you know the basic photography techniques. If you look at any camera club competition, you will find that the winner is not the person with the most expensive camera. Invariably, it is the person with the imagination and skills to get the best out of the camera they have.

If you are looking to learn the creative skills that go with your digital SLR camera, I have released two ebooks that put it all into plain English for you. They are illustrated by a huge range of my own photos, and explain all the essentials; aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, how to manage moving subjects, composition, lighting…all that you need to know to get started. Find them at


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