Quit Dissing My Megapixels–I love all 36 million of them!


First of all, I must say that I have resisted the urge to write this post for over a year because I know I am going to get dozens of comments saying nothing more than “Megapixels are unnecessary–I want ISO.”  I often think that photographers simply repeat what they have heard other pro photographers teach online, and stick to it instead of investigating things on their own.

Before I get nerdy on you, allow me to provide some background if you're newer to this debate.  On a camera sensor, there are millions of light receptors (called photosites) that collect information about how much light is present, color, and other information.  It used to be, in the early days of digital photography, that camera manufacturers could only fit 2 or 3 million pixels on these sensors.  Now, a sensor of the same size can contain 30 or more megapixels.  The problem with the proliferation of mexapixels on a sensor is that it reduces the space available for each photosite.  The smaller the photosites are, the more difficult it is for camera manufacturers to create cameras that can take pictures with high ISO levels and still maintain a low amount of digital noise.  So many photographers argue that they don't want camera manufacturers to keep adding more megapixels on a sensor, and would prefer that the manufacturers instead focus on low light performance.

I COMPLETELY understand this sentiment.  I have missed many pictures in low light environments because my camera simply couldn't take a clean picture without adding more light to the scene with a flash.  I understand that if all else is equal, the camera with fewer megapixels will produce images with less noise because each photosite has a larger area of light to gather from.  I get it.  Really–I do.  This mirrors a conversation I had with Scott Bourne a few weeks ago at the Google+ Photographer's Conference, where he argued that the new Nikon D800 (which has 36.3 megapixels) should not be used by portrait photographers because it has too many megapixels.  I very respect Scott, but we disagree on this point.

UPDATE: Scott commented below and mentioned an article (which I hadn't read yet) where he explained his position in more detail.  You can read that here.

Basically, there are two reasons why I believe megapixel count should not be discounted: (1) Megapixels future-proof your images, and (2) Megapixels allow photographers to crop significantly.

Future-Proof Your Images with Higher Megapixel Cameras

My first digital camera had 2.3 megapixels.  At the time, I remember other photographers telling me that it was plenty big to show the photos on a computer or to make small prints.  Now, only 8 years later, photos from that camera are not even capable of filling the screen of my laptop.

This begs the question: Do you want your entire photo library to look outdated in 8 years?

Obviously, the argument against that point is that digital cameras have improved dramatically since my tiny 2.3 megapixel camera, and now that we commonly shoot cameras between 10 and 18 megapixels, we've hit a sweet spot where resolution does not need to improve.  Photographers who believe this are quick to point out that even a 10 megapixel camera can print perfect photos at 11×14″.

I believe that this argument is short-sighted.  First of all, I'm not talking about print size.  Digital cameras have plenty of resolution to make large prints, and frankly, it's rare that I feel the need to print.  Most of my photos are viewed on computers.

Speaking of computers, computer screens are currently undergoing a major transformation.  In January 2012, the mean screen resolution of a computer was 1366 x768; however, newer computers are coming out with incredibly improved screen resolution.  The reason for the improved screen resolution is that screens are being held closer and closer to the viewer.  My 55″ TV looks fantastic when viewed from across the room, even though it only has 1080 pixels on the short edge.  But now that iPads, phones, and other mobile devices and laptops are the most common way to view the web, the screens are only a few inches from our eyes (centimeters), meaning that we are able to see sharp details better.

In fact, the new Macbook Pro Retina Display has a resolution of 2880 x 1800 at 220 pixels per inch.  While that is a dramatic improvement, it still amounts to only 5 megapixels, which is fewer pixels than any modern DSLR.  So why do I think 10 megapixels is too few?  Because I want my images to look fantastic 10 years from now.

Increased Megapixels Allows for More Cropping

This argument for more megapixels was taught to me this last year while shooting photography in Yellowstone.  I was equipped with a 600mm lens from BorrowLenses.com and a 1.4 teleconverter.  That means that I was shooting at 840mm.  The lens was like a bazooka!

Even though I was shooting with the highest-end gear and the longest lens I could find, I often found myself just barely out of reach of some of the wildlife in Yellowstone.  In one particular instance, there was a beautiful red fox posed against the white snow that was just a bit too far for my lens to reach.  My camera had 16 megapixels, but when I cropped in to where I wanted the composition to be, there simply weren't enough pixels to have the quality and detail that I would like.  Opportunity lost.

In fact, I find that this is frequently the case.  When I'm out shooting, I sometimes frame the shot to the composition that I would like, but then return home and find that I cropped in too tight.  With more megapixels, I could always shoot slightly wider than I imagine, and then crop in to the exact spot in Lightroom without worrying about losing detail in the photo.

A prime example of megapixels over focal length was mentioned by Juan Pons a few weeks ago on his excellent podcast.  Many wildlife photographers continued shooting the Canon 7D rather than upgrading to the 5D Mark II because the 7D is a crop sensor camera and therefore adds to the focal length of the lens (if you're new to this concept, read this article).  For wildlife photographers, long focal lengths are essential.  However, photographers discovered that the 5D Mark III (a full-frame camera and thus shorter effective focal lengths) is actually is better than the crop sensor 7D for focal length, because its increased megapixels allow photographers to crop in more with the same number of pixels than the 7D can crop in effectively with its crop multiplier due to the sensor size.


What photographers have discovered in the last few months since the D800 was released is that its low light performance is actually quite superior, despite the high megapixel count on the sensor.  In fact, it performs better at high ISOs than its D700 predecessor even though there are nearly three times more pixels on the D800.  Although the size-per-pixel argument makes perfect scientific sense, it ignores the reality that camera manufacturers have seemed to defeat the physics with advanced noise reduction in the camera.

Another interesting finding among photographers who are experimenting with high megapixel cameras is that, even if these cameras produce more noise, the fact that they capture such fine detail allows photographers to use aggressive noise reduction in Photoshop or Lightroom without losing a significant amount of sharpness.

You see, software tools such as Photoshop and Lightroom are capable of eliminating noise in photos, but the noise reduction always reduces the overall sharpness of the photo; however, if a high megapixel photo is used for the noise reduction, there is enough fine detail in the picture that the noise reduction does not affect the file as much, so more of it can be applied while maintaining sufficient sharpness.

For example, the D800 produces slightly more noise than the Nikon D3s, but if you apply noise reduction to photos from both cameras, the D800 file can take more noise reduction and still retain more detail.  When noise reduction is applied to a file from the D3s, the picture falls apart because there are not enough pixels of information to apply much noise reduction.  More on that here.

Therefore, if noise reduction is taken into account, high megapixel counts can produce files with less noise.

One More Thing… (Okay, maybe two)

I currently have a Nikon D800 on order (it has been on order FOREVER, so I'd appreciate it if Nikon would ship me one!).  It is a $3,000 camera and wields an powerful 36.3 megapixels sensor.  For me, this camera is nearly ideal.  HOWEVER, I want to respond to a few drawbacks that many photographers have mentioned about shooting a camera with this many megapixels.

1. Shooting portraits with too many megapixels shows too many imperfections in the skin.  HUH!!??!  I have to admit that I was shocked when Scott Bourne cited this as a main reason for not liking the D800.  Using a camera that is incapable of capturing fine detail is a horrible way to smooth skin.  Skin smoothing is extremely easy and fast using Photoshop or Lightroom.  You don't have to take low-detail pictures just to have good looking skin.  Further, this ignores the fact that there are parts of a person that you WANT incredible detail when shooting a portrait (like the eyes, the hair, the lips, etc).

2. Shooting high-resolution cameras makes for unwieldy file sizes.  This is a very relevant argument for some photographers.  In our studio, I use a BLAZING fast computer and we have 12 terabyte network attached storage devices, so file size is not an issue in the least.  However, for photographers who do not have this type of equipment, I can see it being frustrating to work with such large files.

So yes, I DEFINITELY agree that if you're not equipped with computer equipment to work with high megapixel cameras, then a high megapixel camera probably isn't a great choice.

But then again, keep in mind that storage is much less expensive than a quality long lens.  A wildlife or sports photographer who can't spend $10,000 on a quality 400 or 600mm lens could get quite a bit of “focal length” by using a high megapixel camera and then cropping on the computer.  Storage is cheaper than a long pro lens.


I apologize for this post being a bit argumentative and overly technical, but I just can't stand seeing such a good debate passing by without taking the chance to toss in my two cents 🙂  Also, I hope that you'll at least consider things from my point of view before following the photo lemmings on the web who simply repeat the photo advice that they hear others say, because the truth is that there are some very compelling reasons to embrace new technology with high megapixels.


52 thoughts on “Quit Dissing My Megapixels–I love all 36 million of them!”

  1. I’ve seen some of Scott’s posts around this topic and they’ve left me baffled. Especially the file size argument. Hard disk costs have dropped through the floor in recent years and there are plenty of USB 3.0 card readers for file transfers. I don’t shoot portraits with my D800 too often but I do shopt landscapes and Hong Kong island from a nearby mountain top and I can tell you that the higher pixel count is giving me pictures of detail and clarity that I never got with my D700. I think Apple’s push towards so-called retina displays, which other manufacturers are certain to follow, also calls for higher resolutions. The argument that 12 mp is all you need for printing is also kind of backwards thinking.

    1. I shoot the Nikon D3200 which is a 26 mp camera. But with 1 TB drives now under $100, I don’t mind the file size at all. The only place the large file size becomes an issue is when I travel and take my cheap little laptop with me. The laptop is no where near as fast as my i7 quad core hyper threaded desktop with 16 gb of memory, so working with the pictures from my D3200 in Lightroom 4.0 is definitely slower! My gut feel (and I’m an IT pro, BTW) is that that is more likely to be related to the CPU time required to process the 26 million pixels than it is the time to load a 20 mb raw file instead of the 8 mb raw file my previous camera (D3100) had. But I’ve not run any tests to prove that theory.

  2. Good post. I agree, but think print ability is a really important factor as well. Yes, you can print pretty big from 10mp, I’ve made tons of 16x12s from my 10MP camera, but you are interpolating to provide such large print ready files, which isn’t a good thing, inventing pixels is never a good thing, so the ability to print big without any interpolation, and ridiculously huge with little interpolation, is an excellent thing.
    I think the low light debate is a little old, because it’s as much about the cameras processor now as it is the sensor, the APS-C Nikon D3200 is 24MP, but shares the same D800 processor, so the ISO performance is just fine, I think that camera is amazing value if you use it with good lenses you’re going to get brilliant quality files.
    Scott Bourne’s too much detail debate is crazy, D800 is an ideal studio camera as it is for anything else, shooting at 100ISO in te studio, noise isn’t even a discussion.

  3. Hi Jim beauty is in the eye of the checkbook holder – none other than Dean Collins said that. I’ll put my portrait sales numbers up against yours or anybody’s and I’ll tell you not one of my female customers (the majority of portraits are sold to women according to PPA) wants to see MORE detail in their face. If you want to justify your decision to buy a D800 go ahead. I just hope that newbie photographers reading this don’t get confused. In my opinion – you absolutely don’t need nor should you use a 36mp camera to make portraits unless you’re doing it for people who build billboards. 🙂

    1. ImprovePhotography

      Citing portrait sales in support of your argument about megapixels is what is called an “ad hominem” attack. It attacks the quality of the person you’re arguing against instead of discussing the merits of the argument.
      But getting down to the merits, I’d remind you of what I already pointed out in the article. I’m not saying increasing detail in the skin of portraits is a good idea. What I said is that it is simple to smooth skin on the computer so you can retain detail in the eyes and hair, while masking the detail in the skin. You could smudge vaseline on your lens to smooth the skin too, but it wouldn’t be a good idea because it would reduce the sharpness on all areas of the face. The same is true with choosing a camera that does not capture fine detail just so you can have smooth skin.

      1. I disagree (again) with your characterization. Authority is something missing from most Internet discussions. You stated that my argument against this camera as a portrait tool is silly. I have (via my original post) indeed discussed the merits of the argument I make and I have authority behind my statements in the form of 15 years of successful portrait sales. I think that matters. Perhaps you do not.

        As to your other point – why on earth would someone pay all that money to acquire a D800 only to “dumb it down” for portraits via extra (and time consuming work) in post when you can spend thousands less and get the result you want in camera?

        1. Shame on you to slap that argument in Jims face (or any photographer for that matter). So you have been shooting portraits for 15 years, big deal, I have been doing weddings for that long also. I would really like go see the 36 mp slr that you were using 15 years ago…oh wait they didn’t exist back then… High MP sensor have only been in existence for only a year or so your argument is biased and invalid…

        2. Yawn – sorry but your argument makes no sense. In fact it helps prove my point. I made and sold plenty of portraits with 3.3 MP cameras. Should I un-cash those checks now? Your faux outrage isn’t impressive. Moving on.

        3. ImprovePhotography

          @google-279c9b97a6d6695c1a46acf300c804b7:disqus – Look, no one said it is impossible to sell a 3.3 megapixel portrait. We’ve switched from ad hominem to straw man now. Both are fallacies.

        4. Holly smokes why so bitter man, Jim is only trying to day that there two sides to every story…in fact I agree with both of you. I shoot with D300(s) bodies and I am not planning a switch. I think that is plenty of MP for what I do. What i am saying is that you are basing your opinion on assumptions and and not facts. Did you ever offer your clients a choice between a 2 different MP count images?

        5. ImprovePhotography

          No, I don’t think you have to have 15 years of successful portrait sales in order to make a valid point in a friendly debate. Also, wouldn’t you agree that it is rude to say you’re right and the other person is wrong in a debate because you make more money than they do? That’s the kind of thing that trolls do, and you’re always complaining about them.

          About “dumbing it down”, the reason is because I want the sharpness and detail on some areas of the face (such as the eyes and hair and clothes) but not on the skin. I’m going to do skin smoothing no matter what, so I’m glad to have the detail on the other areas of the face. That’s the way I like to shoot. If you don’t like shooting that way, you’re more than welcome to do it your way.

      2. Whoa Jim, taking him to school in Latin? Thats cold. I think the saying “To each his on” would apply nicely here. I think sometimes as photographers we get too caught up in brand loyalty and the old tired repeating of “truths” from our predecessors (Like you mentioned) that skews our objectivity. Which is why we need someone to spark a little controversial debate every now and again to keep us on our toes!

      3. Roberta Osmers

        I’m leaning your way on this one Jim. I would much rather have the ability to have more detail when needed and smooth out what needs smoothed than to have a smoother all-over photo. And because I nearly always shoot in low-light situations, I struggle with noise regularly. But that doesn’t mean I would want to give up the option of detail. Now I just have to find a happy medium.

  4. By the way I think it also might be fair if you’re going to reference my position on the D800 to let people know about the whole article – not just part of it. Context matters – http://photofocus.com/2012/04/16/nikon-d800-mini-mini-review/

    I have softened my position a bit looking at the results some macro shooters are getting. And I should say that I don’t mind disagreements like this one bit Jim when they are as well articulated and thought out as yours. Thanks for a stimulating debate. I still disagree with you though 🙂

    1. ImprovePhotography

      Thanks for your reply, Scott. It’s good to have your perspective. I hadn’t read that specific article yet, so I updated my post to link to it.

  5. Rick Scheibner

    Great! But for the rest of us with consumer level computers and hard drives <1T, there are cameras in the 18-22M range.

  6. Serge Gershkovich

    I won’t join the megapixel debate but do want to point out the proper usage of “begging the question”. Despite popular usage, it is not a substitute for “raises the issue”. It is a logical fallacy in which the argument in question is used as it’s own defense (“I’m right because what I said is correct”).

    Keep up the good work!

  7. I can sort of understand both side of the argument.
    Still the true is that RAW containing 36 Mpix are just huge and it is not only about files storage (and the HDD prices have skyrocketed last autumn and never got as low as before the floods in Asia since), but also processing takes much more system resources that with let say may 10 MB 12 Mpix RAW files.
    No everyone owns fast computer with huge amount of disk space, computing power and RAM.

    1. Your post is consistent with a reply I added in this thread above, about how slow my cheap laptop is compared to my very powerful 3 year old desktop computer. As an avid but very amateur photographer, but as a very experienced IT professional of 35+ years, let me offer my opinion on the computing side of this topic.

      Number one, unless you can only justify one computer and you MUST take it with you sometimes, then buy a desktop computer! For years I have personally felt that laptop computers are 4 times as expensive as desktops. That is because a laptop can often have half the computing power and cost twice as much as a desktop. Also, you will pay many hundreds of dollars on a laptop to get say a 17″ screen, when you can now get a 26″ screen for under $200. My view here is similar to my view about cell phones. If I’m stuck on the freeway then there is nothing like a cell phone. But if I’m relaxing at home, I would much prefer to talk on a full size handset on a land line.

      The second suggestion is that if you want a screaming desktop computer and are even just a little bit technical, consider building your own desktop rather than buying one from Dell, HP, Gateway, etc. The desktop I mentioned elsewhere in this thread cost me like $1100 3 or 4 years ago, and is still plenty fast to do Lightroom on my 26 mp raw images from my Nikon D3200. To get a laptop with that same amount of power and memory, last year I spent $3500 (or my employer did) for the top end Alienware gaming laptop (the most powerful laptops out there are gaming ones).

      “Building” a desktop is really just buying the basic components and plugging them together. Buying the components also lets you mix high end components with lower end ones. Unfortunately, photography needs high end everywhere! (lots of disc, lots of ram, and lots of CPU power). 🙁

  8. Fully agree on advantages of high pixel count. I learned photo processing in the eighties and many times copied just a part of a frame into a 18x24cm print. This is not that easy with digital.

  9. WTF? a landscape photographer trying to tell us what’s right for a portrait photographer? My guess is this post is more about linkbait than the D800. Everyone is clamoring for low light performance and you want more MP????????? I guess when you’re a Nikon fan you have to do whatever you can to justify buying the next cam they sell. There are MANY problems with the D800 listed on the forums but I am with those who say less MP please.

    1. ImprovePhotography

      Howie, did you read the entire article? Your comment makes me think that you didn’t…

  10. HA! You weren’t kidding when you predicted a heated debate… Love my D800 but I don’t shoot portraits.

    1. ImprovePhotography

      I usually keep the site pretty friendly and uncontroversial, but I got suckered into this debate. That’s okay. Sometimes I enjoy a little nerd debate 🙂

  11. I read with interest the points made on the article and the somewhat heated comments below (Wow, folks sure do get defensive where open mindedness might be more productive).
    It seems that for some genres or output requirements, higher megapixels (provided not packed into a camera phone sized sensor) offer some advantages.
    So if low light performance is equally good and purchase price isn’t prohibitive – why not get a higher megapixel camera.
    Portrait photographers not wanting the extra detail or the desire to soften skin in post process simply need to set the camera to one of the lower mega pixel settings. Normally we are always advised to “shoot at the highest quality setting” but this doesn’t have to be the case if for a particular genre yields better results at a lower setting.
    I personally frequently shoot windsurf/kitesurf sports – primarily for web display. I used to shoot on 8mp camera with a medium quality 500mm zoom – now I use 18mp camera and a very high quality 200mm zoom and the crop images to get the same range. I find the cropped images superior in detail and sharpness.
    [email protected]

    1. ImprovePhotography

      Excellent point. Why not just set the camera to capture a smaller image? Then you have the megapixels when you want them, but not when you don’t. Good point.

      1. I’m glad you found my point insightful – plenty more where that came from! I responded to your request for volunteers to help with improvephotography.com but as yet received no reply…..

  12. I have a question that seems very timely given this post although it is a bit off topic. I have a 12.2 MP camera and am trying to figure out how large an image I can print with it. In looking at web sites I get answers that are all over the map. I can’t really afford to just keep printing large images to try and figure out that. Any suggestions or “rules of thumb”?

    1. A lot depends on the quality your looking for, but you should get excellent results from a file that is set to 300 ppi. So if you divide the number of pixels for the horizontal dimension by 300, that will give you the maximum horizontal size in inches for your final print. Do the same for the numer if pixels in the vertical dimension. Hope this helps.

  13. Following photo is a good example of a cropped(!) portrait captured with D800 at ISO6400 where careful noise reduction applied to http://www.fotokritik.com/2853534/euro-2012-gunlukleri-4. I prefer spending a little more time for skin smoothing and noise reduction to keep such detail in the eyes and eyelashes. Maybe at the end we downsize the image for web resolution but for sure 36MP gives you a lot of detail for intensive noise reduction. People argue that instead of cropping an image from a FX camera we should buy a cheaper DX camera. I would have never taken such picture with my D5100. The only thing I dont like about my D800 is the large file sizes. However, the results are definitely worth it. I believe that we should also mention the beautiful gradations (maybe not like 16bit medium format cams but still great). Also amazing dynamic range made 3 breaketing HDR almost unnecessary where you can create with 1 single image already.

    1. Very impressive picture you show there, considering it was at ISO 6400! But I’m just learning the post processing end (Lightroom 4.0), and would really like to see this same picture without noise reduction so I could better understand your point. Any chance of posting it?

      Oh, BTW, I am shooting with the Nikon D3200, and LOVE the 26 megapixels I have to work with and how I can just shoot a bit wider or shoot a long telephoto shot that I can’t quite “reach”, then crop it in Lightroom. Finally, when you hand your camera to someone nearby to take a snapshot of you and your family on vacation, to be able to just set the zoom so they get a wide shot, then in post processing be able to crop the picture so that is the best composure, something the general public is lousy at! LOL

  14. Matthew Robertson

    Interesting article, thanks for writing it. And best wishes on finally getting your D800 from Amazon – I picked mine up from a local camera store in April, and it has changed my life. Well, the photography part of it, at least.

    I agree with the future-proofing aspect – people now are expecting to be able to zoom in on images with their iThings and see more detail, and that’s only going to continue. It remains to be seen if photographers will allow those massive images to escape into the wild, and even though I won’t release anything in high resolution, it’s still useful to have for my own portfolio device.

    I don’t follow the cropping argument. If you’re cropping from the centre of the image then a D7000 will put more pixels on the subject, and we know that Nikon has another generation of cameras just around the corner. If that’s the need, then I’d wait a few more months.

    If cropping from different parts of the frame is the goal then that introduces all kinds of other problems. The D800 has poor AF point coverage on the periphery of the frame (compared to a DX camera) and cropping off-centre invites problems with asymmetrical lens performance. Coma, softness, mechanical vignetting and falloff, geometric and volumetric distortion, chromatic aberration: everything gets worse as an off-centre crop gets more pronounced.

    Finally, can you link to any of the sites of the many wildlife photographers you know who have switched to the 5D3 over the 7D because of the pixel count? I’d love to read more about their reasoning and experience. After all, there are plenty of ways a wildlife photographer would be better off with a 7D instead of a 5D2 – autofocus and build quality come to mind – that are non-issues with the 5D3. But saying that 21Mpx on a full-frame sensor isn’t enough to overcome the greater pixel density of an 18Mpx APS-C sensor, while a 22.3Mpx sensor is, seems rather extraordinary.

  15. It’s nothing new. In the past most photographers were quite happy with 35mm film. Some preferred medium format. A few shot with large format. Plenty of success stories among them all.

    Just chalk it up to sour grapes. We are just jealous. Many of us can’t afford the latest and greatest gizmos, and we have to wait a year or two for the sweet new features to trickle down. In the meantime I guess we’ll just have to concentrate on on other aspects such as the light and story telling. 🙂

    “I’m always amused by the idea that certain people have about technique, which translate into an immoderate taste for the sharpness of the image. It is a passion for detail, for perfection, or do they hope to get closer to reality with this trompe I’oeil? They are, by the way, as far away from the real issues as other generations of photographers were when they obscured their subject in soft-focus effects.” -HCB

  16. “Future-Proof Your Images with Higher Megapixel Cameras” … interesting thought. I think its one reason I have kept using film and scanning for my landscape photography. The detail i’ve been able to keep getting over these past few years has been great, and i’ve not wanted to give up on that for now. But MFD is getting cheaper and the quality is very good. And the new Nikon D800 is excellent for DSLR, so times are changing.

  17. A small point forgotten-Not all of us have an interest or need to work in low light. High megapixel is a big plus for studio photography, or any circumstance with adequate light. Or when your subject makes the light for you, case in point-Fire, fireworks, neon signage. That having been said, I trust my camera makers R&D on the newer models. They want to improve all the features but must in the end choose.

  18. GREAT article Jim. As usual!!
    But after reading it I have some questions about web sizing. I have been web sizing my images to 72 PPI at 600 pixels wide. Now I worry that this is outdated for today’s screens, namely iPad and iPhone? Should I be web sizing differently now?
    Any help would be appreciated, thanks Jim!

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