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. G,day just found your site yesterday and now today already I am making a comment.

    I have had this in my mind for a long time.Even though I have just started using a DSLR I can remember when digital came about I also remember the man in the store about megapixels the more megapixels there is the better the image will be for P/S I am talking about.

    I can’t remember how many my first digital had but in those days it was not many I can remember when them getting more and more megapixels and me seeing my images getting better and better

    I was not into photography back then like I am now and that was about a year and half ago I got my first DSLR camera the Nikon D3100 like most of I us I started to shoot in Auto and moved on to manual shooting now I shoot in raw only

    At that time I could not believe how much better those extra MPs added to my photo but for me adding M to the dial adding ISO f/stop and SS I am now seeing much better photos then I have ever done.

    I am on a forum where this same topic come’s up a lot I think what you say is spot on. I look at the gear and find that those that say more MPs are better are those with the higher MPs and vise versa

    So isn’t it so if you have higher ISO or higher MPs your going to get more noise in low light so IMO one for one and one for the other.

    Now if we lived in a perfect world and the software companies can find a way in the noise removing tools to have so it only removed noise and quality sharpness of the image.

    But they have not yet found a way of doing so we all just have to live with the noise regardless to High ISO or more MPs I know for me more MPs is what I want and that is why once when the D5200 is released I will be considering an upgrade with 24.1 megapixels

    Thanks for this write up very well done I say and for going against the grain of most hip hip hooray for you. 🙂

  2. I’ve been shooting with my Nikon D800 for about six months now and I love it for all of the reasons you mentioned. I haven’t heard many other people making these arguments so its definitely nice to hear.

  3. Wow,lots of opinions. I’m struggling with getting yet another body. I love my D700 with killer low light capabilities but really could benefit from higher resolution, due to needing to crop (no, sometimes you can’t get closer Mr Capa). Is 36 mp too much for a FX size sensor? Is 24 the optium size? Can’t find that answer anywhere…….just rumored. 14 years of semiconductor background and CMOS isn’t a Canon term….I understand sensor technology, just can’t seem to find a credible answer. Please point me to the answer… D600 or D800? (not a price issue or feature issue, understand them) just with the 800 FX are we just throughing away “pixels” ?

  4. I LOVE my D800! Yes, the file sizes are HUGE, and that was a big adjustment for me. But when my clients ask if they can enlarge their photos really big, I tell them they can make billboards if they want! I recently, was also able to go back to a family photo and crop in tight enough to give the dad a headshot for his lanyard at work. Let’s face it…everyone has a nice camera nowadays, but this is something that definitely sets mine apart from any that my clients may have at home. 🙂 I also love having the ability to get creative with the crops in post production.

  5. I love higher megapixels and I love cropping too. With lower megapixels I can’t crop perfectly. Higher megapixels also show detail like this one “http://inspirearena.com/amazing-macro-photogaphy-nadav-bagim/”

  6. I just bought a Sony A6000 and it is rated at 24 megapixels.. But in my first day of shooting, the megapixels vary between 8 and 10.

    Shots are both in bright sunlight and indoors.

    Am I doing something wrong or not understanding how MPs work?


    1. Grant, i guess you are mixing things up here by looking at megabytes of the resulting filesize of your photos instead of megapixels.
      Megapixels are the actual captured picture points by the sensor, in your case 6000×4000 pixels, which results in 24 million (mega) pixels.

      The megabyte filesize on your storage device is just the necessary space to store that information. This varies because it is compressed by algorithms and works differently effective depending on content.

      (thats some old thread you dug out here… ;))

  7. you obviously do not know what you are talking about! You want bigger sensors, not more megapixels.

    It seems it’s only novices who think they need to keep changing cameras, for more pixels.

    Keep in mind, it’s the sensor that’s important. The more pixel count, is a marketing hype that you have obviously fallen for !

    1. Did you even read the article, Jon? I think I laid out clear and logical arguments for why it is so useful. Your response is just “It’s marketing hype! We want bigger sensors!”

      That doesn’t exactly contribute to the conversation. You’re welcome to disagree, but at least state logical reasons for it.

  8. Mike Cozzetti

    And be aware that actually REALIZING the resolution made available by that high pixel count, your technique and lenses had better be flawless.

  9. jean pierre (pete) guaron

    Hi Jim

    Love your article. Sorry my comment is untimely – I only just came across your article.

    I think it’d be fair to say there’s no “one size fits all” – because different photographers are seeking to do different things, and to hit different targets.

    I do think there’s a level where there are simply too few pixels – I’ve come across it post-processing other people’s shots for them, when they were shooting with a compact. A characteristic of it is shadow areas that failed to capture enough detail – sometimes they look more like something painted into the image, than a “photographic” image, which makes them instantly recognisable.

    I also suspect that there’s a limit to the pursuit of more pixels – as you mention in your article, creating more in the same size sensor means making smaller ones – and smaller ones don’t appear to be capable of capturing the same amount of information.

    Of course that’s subject to advances in technology too, and so far the technos have been able to keep increasing pixels without running into too many problems of that nature. But I imagine that sooner or later than must run into a brick wall, and any significant jump beyond that would be best left to using medium format gear instead of DSLRs.

    And for those among us who still print our photos, the commonly used inkjet printers introduce a limit – DPI counts on the inkjet printers! Depending on the size of the print that’s being produced, this commonly makes huge pixel counts rather pointless. Even where photos aren’t printed, but viewed online, the screens on which they are viewed can’t really use all the pixels available in the original image, unless the image is enlarged enormously on screen.

    Personally? I shoot three different formats – depending what I’m trying to shoot for. And yes, I love my D810 !!! But it’s not the only cam I use, and I love the other two formats just as much, for the purposes for which I use them.

  10. I see how 36Mp and larger images have their uses, but most of the time (now and, I suspect, for a long time to come) most of that extra resolution is wasted. I know that down-ressing can yield better technical quality but the difference it makes is too tiny to be worth the bother.

    Meanwhile, I can print (much) larger than A3 with images from my 8.2Mp EOS 1D ii N, and still not show all the detail that is in the file and my main camera returns a 16.7 Mp image that could easily print larger than A2 and still look smooth from 6 inches away. Is that not future proof enough.

  11. Why do so many photographers on the Internet feel the need to persuade people to agree with their viewpoint. Just leave us alone, stop implying that we would be idiots to disagree, and stop the hectoring.

    If you have good reasons for shooting with a very high megapixel camera then just do it and stop lecturing everyone about it. I shoot images at everything from 8Mp (often cropped down to about 5Mp) to over 50Mp depending on what I am shooting, what the conditions are, and what I intend to do with the images. It is not as if I am too stupid to realise, when I am using an 8, 10 or 12 Mp camera that I cannot crop so much and that the images are not so future-proof as those with more pixels.

    And 8Mp is not exactly a small number of pixels. Smart software can interpolate very effectively to make large prints, and the same technique will probably make usable images For whatever high-res displays the future brings … though I see no point in any screen with a higher pixel-density than Apple’s Retina display, as it is at the limit of what the human eye can resolve. I reckon anything with 8 or more Mp has many years of useful life, if it is an image worth looking at.

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