How Many Megapixels do you Need?

The recent release of the Nikon D800 has thrown into sharp relief the fact that the megapixel war is most definitely not over. In the last few years, there has been a brief lull in the battle, a sort of phony war where the major manufacturers had been quietly suggesting that they had reached the optimum pixel count. Nikon’s D800 is almost certainly the open shot of a new battle for megapixel supremacy. So with this in mind, today, we are going to take a look at how many megapixels you really need.

Where Did The Battle Begin?

Time was that 6mp was deemed more than enough for anybody. Those days seem to be in the dim and distant pass, but yet in certain circumstances, it may be true. Perhaps the true answer to how many megapixels do you need is in fact, as many as I need. By this, I mean that different people will have different resolution requirements.

Horses for Courses

Lets take a look at the occasional amateur. This is someone, who enjoys photography but does not spend huge amounts of time or money on it. They most likely only ever look at their images on a computer monitor or TV screen. At best they may print their images up to 8×10 inches once in a while. The 6mp limit is probably quite suitable for them, quite capable of giving a nice quality print or screen image.

Day 26 - My Darkroom
6MP is plenty if this is their final destination – by brianjmatis, on Flickr

Next up would be the Enthusiast. This is someone who takes their photography seriously, they may have aspirations to become professional or they may be happy just shooting for the personal satisfaction. Either way, the chances are that they will want to print some of their images big and will want them to be sharp as well. The enthusiast will probably want a camera in the 12-24mp range. The upper range here may allow the photographer to produce exhibition quality prints up to 40×60 inches but of course the downside is that to obtain this quality there will need to be investment in good quality lenses as well. The average kit lens will start to show its deficiencies at this size.

Arun on the Wall
If you are going to start printing large, 12MP is your minimum – by Stuck in Customs, on Flickr

The Professional. So at the professional level, why would they need a camera of 36mp. Well there are a number of factors that come into play. Sometimes a pro may not be able to get into exactly the shooting location they want, having 36mp allows them to crop into the image significantly more than lower resolution cameras. Landscape and portrait photographers are always looking for the ultimate in resolution and until now that has only been obtainable with medium format backs.

Of course there are many factors in play when deciding how many megapixels are good enough for you and only you can decide what that number is. Of course all pixels are not born equal and you need to consider whether the increase in resolution will lead to a loss of high ISO quality, or perhaps whether your computer and hard drive are up to storing thousands of 36mp images and indeed whether you will ever truly need all those pixels.

Nikon D800
Obsolete in how many years? – by Dee7000, on Flickr

I am going to end with a little reality check. Make a note in your diary to come back and read this article in five years time. I can tell you now that whilst most of the arguments will still be relevant, we will be laughing, perhaps with scorn, at the fact that we ever managed to get by with just 36 megapixels. That, in a nutshell is the reality of digital photography.

Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. You can follow him on Facebook or visit his site, The Odessa Files. He also maintains a blog chronicling his exploits as an Expat in the former Soviet Union

3 thoughts on “How Many Megapixels do you Need?

  1. Thorstein K. Berg

    Many good points here, and yes I must say I agree that the megapixel one need is dependant upon what type of output one have in mind. For the happy snapper, a descent smart phone camera with 8 MP is more then enough as much of these images will only end up on facebook. But for the pros and enthusiast, it would be nice to have the choice of both “35mm” cameras and medium format cameras that don’t cost as much as new car. In the days of film, a top end 35mm and a descent medium format camera were priced around the same, so why not the same with digital?

    1. Fahrertuer

      Short answer:
      building larger chips reduces the yield of a wafer. Not because fewer chips fit on a single wafer.
      But: because there a larger waste areas and because tiny defects in the silicon that can’t be avoided (last figure I read was 0.0002 defects pers mm² for CPUs and memory chips, but I think this can be used as a base for image sensors as well) that ruin a complete chip.
      Consider this:
      0.0002 defects per mm² mean that every other APSC sized sensor prodcuced has to be binned.
      Up the size to APSH sized sensors as used by Canon and some others and every wafer has to be prechecked for defects on a molecular level. Or they just produce and hope, binning up to 100% of a production run.
      I think that explains the price difference between cameras with APSC sized sensors and thos with FF or larger sensors.

  2. Hal

    I am just amazed by the pics from my D800. I zoom in on the eyes to check the focus in Lightroom and I see no pixels. Only pores. Yes, disc space is cheap but even with a fairly recent Intel Quad processor and 8Gb of system RAM just browsing the large files in Lightroom was painfully. slow. I put in a new SSD for the system and Lightroom and Photoshop and a second SSD for the scratch files and that sped things up nicely. The only other option would be a .completely new motherboard, IVY bridge processor, and 32 Gb of system memory. Maybe later.

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