When shopping for a digital camera, 5 megapixels is all you really need.

Tech writer David Pogue has a new Discovery Channel show coming out titled It’s All Geek to Me which I’m going to have to make a point of watching, but in the meantime I’ll just keep reading his articles in the NYT. One of the shows he just finished dealt with the topic of digital cameras and he spent part of it wandering into different camera shops posing as someone who didn’t know a lot about digital cameras and seeing what he was told by the sales clerk. One of the things he was told time and again was that he didn’t really need anything with more than 5 megapixels for prints up to a smallish poster size. He says every time he writes something like that in his column he gets tons of emails from people claiming he’s wrong so they decided to put the theory to a test:

On the show, we did a test. We blew up a photograph to 16 x 24 inches at a professional photo lab. One print had 13-megapixel resolution; one had 8; the third had 5. Same exact photo, down-rezzed twice, all three printed at the same poster size. I wanted to hang them all on a wall in Times Square and challenge passersby to see if they could tell the difference.

Even the technician at the photo lab told me that I was crazy, that there’d be a huge difference between 5 megapixels and 13. I’m prepared to give away the punch line of this segment, because hey—the show doesn’t air till February, and you’ll have forgotten all about what you read here today, right?

Anyway, we ran the test for about 45 minutes. Dozens of people stopped to take the test; a little crowd gathered. About 95 percent of the volunteers gave up, announcing that there was no possible way to tell the difference, even when mashing their faces right up against the prints. A handful of them attempted guesses—but were wrong. Only one person correctly ranked the prints in megapixel order, although (a) she was a photography professor, and (b) I believe she just got lucky.

I’m telling you, there was NO DIFFERENCE.

The digital camera we bought a couple of Christmases ago was a 4 megapixel from Canon and it’s been more than adequate for our needs producing beautiful pictures, but then we never go above 8×10 with our prints and 4 megapixels is just about perfect for that size of picture. It doesn’t surprise me then that 5 megapixels is good enough for up to 16×24 pics.

Keep in mind they aren’t saying that the higher megapixel cameras aren’t producing better detailed photos, just that at the sizes most people tend to print their pictures at (8×10 or smaller) the greater amount of data in higher pixel cameras is useless. This is especially true if you’re using the average consumer level photo inkjet printer. If you’re going to blow that picture up to huge proportions or you’re working with professional level printing devices then the more megapixels you have the better the image will be, but for the average consumer using the average equipment right now all you need is at most 5 megapixels.

Just something to consider when you’re shopping for a camera as a Christmas gift this year as there are a lot of good deals out there on 5 megapixel cameras.

28 thoughts on “When shopping for a digital camera, 5 megapixels is all you really need.

  1. More than that, I no longer print photos at all.  Every photo I take is intended for screen viewing, so even my little Minolta XG gets ruthlessly downsized for the web.  Having quit film entirely I want two cameras – a teeny one (which I already have) and a bigger one with a totally nondistorting flat-field fixed-length lens for my copy stand.

  2. We started using Ofoto a couple of years ago.  Our first 2.2M camera gave us better looking shots than our cheap 35mm.  I can’t totally say for the professional photography world, but as far as the amatuer stuff goes, digital is best.  They just need to improve on the “time to action” delays.

    I bet this is going to become one of those debates like the speaker cable debate.  People think they can hear the difference between a high dollar Monster type cable and plain speaker wire.

  3. Forgot to mention:  I was getting some decent photos off my HP inkjet (circa 1997) until HP did a driver upgrade that changed printer setting options.  After that, I couldn’t select the exact setting the Kodak camera and paper called for, and my photo quality went down.  Do ya think HP decided it was time for me to “invest” in a new “photo” printer?

    Irregardless, I prefer Ofoto (or others) since they make a photo, which will have a longer shelf life than my ink prints.  PC world, or Computer shopper, or some other did a photo printer/paper comparison a few years back.  Most didn’t have a lifetime near a standard photograph, but I remember that there was one combo of printer/paper that got rated with a longer life than a developed photo.  I don’t remember the brand, just that the lifetime stood out from everything else.  (yeah, I know, the punchline sucks)

  4. Marketers love love a single number or a single quality that indicates “goodness” to the consumer.  In digital cameras it is the number of maegapixels, in stereos the number of watts, in computer chips it was the number of gigahertz.  All these numbers have some value, but as the sole or primary factor on which to base a buying decision they fail.

    On the other hand, most people will get good results from just about any of the cameras they buy so it matters little to most.  Those who can and do take good pictures typically will have a better understanding as to how to evaluate cameras.


  5. Huge megapixels will make a difference if you like to crop a lot.  You can buy an 8mp camera with a wide-angle lens, then crop to your heart’s content and still have good results (provided the optics are well above average and you can hold the camera steady).

    The photographer makes more difference than the camera.  Remember 110 film?  Came in a dinky little cartridge?  A young man I know (now an architect in Germany) went to Standing Rock national park with a cheap little 110.  Came back with incredible pictures.  They were grainy, yes, but his sense of composition was so incredibly good that it made no difference.  If anything, it raised the level of abstraction.

    Only problem was finding a place to make 11×14 prints from such tiny negatives.  Few enlargers have that much lift, and “Yes we know it will be grainy, but…”

  6. Our first digital was a Ricoh back in ‘99 when they were becoming popular, I think it was around 1mp?!, I bought a 3.2mp for home use and my daughter a slim 6mp before she left last summer. I have blown up photos taken in macro and regular settings from each and had them blown up for various reasons up to a 16×20. I’m no steady shot and everything about each picture turned out great.
    I regret getting rid of the Ricoh and I will never buy another digital unless it gets damaged. If you’re in the market for a new camera this holiday season, I would suggest the deciding factor be the features and ease of use, not the mp’s.

  7. I couldn’t pass up the deal Best Buy was having on these Fuji A600 6.3Mp cameras ($99 each!), and I swear by my little Fuji 5.1 Mp Z1, so hubby and the Princess will be getting new cameras for Christmas this year; along with a 512mb xD card and an accessory kit for each. I can’t wait to see their faces Christmas morning. grin

    More of our pictures end up in web galleries than printed, so there’s really no reason to spend ridiculous amounts of money on a digital camera. If for some reason I need a large print of better quality than our printers can handle, taking the file down to CVS or Costco to print is easy and cheap.

    Remember 110 film?  Came in a dinky little cartridge?

    Even dinkier… I’ve got some old negs that were made from Kodak Disc film. There are very few places that can process it anymore, so developing it is really expensive; but very soon I’ll bite the bullet and send them off to be processed, because a couple of the discs I have contain the last pictures I ever took of my Dad before he passed away in 1987 (and the prints have faded and turned colors, dammit!).

  8. I was going to echo DOF on the idea of cropping photos being the best reason to have higher MPs.  But I also agree with the premise of the article that something in the 5-8 MP range is more than enough for anyone but the most professional.

    Regarding prints—I still do some, for the walls, office, etc.  But 99% of my photos are only online (or on CD)—which, honestly, worries me a bit, but …

  9. I know I’m a professional and this debate is not aimed at me, but I have a 5MP camera and a 13MP camera and the difference is so big, that I can certainly tell the difference even in down-sizes images for the web. You would have to be legally blind to fail that print test with the two cameras I own (both Canons).

    As dufus_a_roo hinted at above, all megapixels are not created equal. Here’s a good read for those of you that are interested in this stuff:


  10. Brooks has a good point.  One of the reasons I picked a Kodak is that PC Magazine had done a comparison test of the leading models back in 2001 or so, and printed the test photos taken with each camera in the magazine.  You could glance at the page and see differences between two cameras at the same resolution.

    The point about not seeing a difference between resolution would really apply to a difference in resolution, but with essentially the same processing circuitry. 

    Reminds me of the PC tests when they would say Dell’s ZZT100 is better than Acme’s DUDX, but neglect to mention the differences in bus speed, drive speed, cache, etc.  That really annoyed me to the point I never read system comparison articles.

  11. Brooks: all megapixels are not created equal.

    Absolutely right.  Even if it is saving in RAW format the camera does a lot of image-processing, and the differences can be huge if it saves in .jpg.

    For example my 2.1mp Olympus makes undistorted, very crisp pictures but does not handle highlights well.  Its .jpg compression is very conservative which accounts for how it preserves detail (that and Zuiko optics).  Though with the low resolution, you can’t crop much.  My 3.2mp Minolta Dimage XG, on the other hand, must compress the hell out of the picture because there are visible compression artifacts around point details. 

    A friend’s Canon (I think 8mp) has some kind of onboard color processing that I do not care for. So there may be more differences between Brooks’ 2 cameras than just the megapixels.

    My Minolta has proven extremely durable.  It rides everywhere in my shoulder bag (think mountain bike transportation) and once fell off the top of a 6’ ladder onto a lower step, total fall onto carpet 7 feet, and was just fine.

    My next digital will probably be an Olympus Stylus 720sw, small and rugged like my Minolta but with better optics and more conservative compression.  This is borne out by results of a friend who owns one.

    Probably more important than megapixels or anything else, look at the camera and make sure the controls make sense.  Can you use it?  Will you?

  12. Probably more important than megapixels or anything else, look at the camera and make sure the controls make sense.  Can you use it?  Will you?

    Or will it reduce you to a Luddite? wink

    Speaking of durability, our first Kodak, a DX3500, has taken two 4 ft falls to hard floor.  The slide power switch is broke in two, battery door now has duct tape holding it shut, there’s a loose piece rattling inside, and it still works fine(electronically, that is).

  13. Correction: Masking tape holds the battery door shut.  Duct would leave a mess when I had to change the battery.

  14. On the show, we did a test. We blew up a photograph to 16 x 24 inches at a professional photo lab. One print had 13-megapixel resolution; one had 8; the third had 5. Same exact photo, down-rezzed twice, all three printed at the same poster size. I wanted to hang them all on a wall in Times Square and challenge passersby to see if they could tell the difference.

    Here’s the problem I have with this test: Same photo, down-rezzed twice? So essentially they took a 13 megapixel camera, took a shot, then downgraded the resolution using software? That’s not the same as taking a 13, 8, and 5 MP camera into the studio and taking the same photo, and then printing it without alteration.

    If you use a 13 MP camera to start with, there’s more data there than if you used a 5 MP camera to start with. Each camera has it’s own way of handling the data for each pixel, some will do it better than others even at the same res. I have a Fuji FinePix S602Z that has a sensor that is really 3 MP or so and interpolates up to 6MP. Every store adevertised it as 6MP when it really was not. I bought it anway because I thought it took great pics even when set to 3MP, native resolution. I just replaced it with a smaller Canon A620 that is 7.1MP. Got it on sale for $214, and it takes really nice pics.

    Meanwhile, I’ve got tons of 4×6 prints that I love, all taken with my old Olympus that’s 1.3 MP, and printed on an old HP 840. My wife carries that one around. It’s so cheap to go to CVS and print pics that I don’t even bother with the $500 epson printer I bought and used all of 4 times. Shame. They don’t even make that one or the 6 ink cartidges anymore.

    My son’s got my old Casio QV-10, the first digicam I had, I think it’s 320×240. Cant get the pics out of it because i’ve got no serial ports any more. My little boy does not care.

  15. My 1.2 Megapixel camera works fine for me. I’ve had it for years, and I feel no need to upgrade.


  16. My major reason for upgrading (well, two if you count the tape holding it together) was an increase in time to action from .8 seconds to .3 seconds. 

    I use the taped up 2.2M on my bike trips.  I don’t worry about it getting damaged or stolen as much as I would the newer one.  And it still takes great pics.

  17. Not at all.  Nikon D50 is one hell of a good camera.  You wouldn’t be sorry for buying it if a dSLR is what you want.  (Friend of mine has a D70 and it totally rocks.  You can see some of his work here, along with his skill at Photoshop.  Try refreshing the page several times to see several examples)

    I have to go for something about the size of a deck of cards or I’ll never have it with me.  Found out a long time ago that the camera you have with you is the best one for taking pictures (as opposed to the one you left at home).

    I do have a need for a dSLR though, just not as an everyday camera.  If I tripped over a winning lottery ticket I would definitely be thinking Olympus E1.

  18. Digital sux!  OK, just kidding… sorta.  A lot of the comments here are right on about “all pixels are not created equal”, the other factors that affect picture quality, etc.  The major camera manufacturers LOVE digital because they can churn products.  Since you can’t just upgrade the sensor, you have to buy an entirely new camera once they “improve” things.  When Kodak, Fuji or Agfa made a new film, what was the investment?  A few bucks and BINGO your camera was even better than before!  Granted, the new film didn’t make better photographers of the 99% of people who bought the film.  And that hasn’t changed.  In fact, I think it’s WORSE.  Using most digital cameras is actually harder than the classic cameras of the 60s through early 80s.  The early to mid 80s, IIRC, is when manufacturers started putting lots of fancy automation in cameras, supposedly to make things easier.  I sold a bunch of those as a sales clerk.  Know what?  IT MADE THINGS WORSE FOR THE AVERAGE JOE!  Yes, there were people who exploited the new features to great effect.  But 99% of the time they were good photographers anyway.

    Add to the digital camera “revolution” all the intricacy of translating a poorly captured, poorly processed file, and then get it onto good quality paper … it’s a mess for those who buy the whole line from the manufacturer of doing it all at home.

    One of the major hurdles, as DOF has sorta implied, is the difference between screen display and prints.  I recently re-processed this shot (http://www.flickr.com/photos/97373293@N00/255304548/) for printing), and took the file into a local drugstore with a self-serve kiosk.  Since I sorta knew what I was doing, the resulting prints looked better than on the screen.  No way would I print at home from digital.  Now for “real” photos, yeah, I’m in the darkroom.  B&W on fibre … can’t be beat.

    Oh, and do get me started on zoom lenses…

  19. The darkroom? Good riddance! At 42, you can bet I’ve spent a few hours in that god forsaken place.

    Really, I enjoy the hundred fold control I have here in the digital age. As far as printing goes, it really doesn’t take much time or money to calibrate a monitor and get a custom ICC profile for your printer if you’re using good equipment to start with and this sort of thing is important to you. When I have an image on the screen, I know exactly what the print is going to look like. Thanks in part to color guru Andrew Rodney and the custom profile he made for my Epson 2200. http://digitaldog.net

    My portfolios are printed with this setup and they are beautiful (regardless of the subject matter). grin


  20. 42? You’re a youngster!  wink

    For me, darkroom is a Zen time. Some don’t experience that way, so I understand that.  And, for me, computer/monitor/printer is definitely NOT Zen, but that’s me, YMMV.

    In any event, as I noted, my interest/work is mostly b&w.  I’m sure there are great papers/inks for a digital b&w workflow, but a great b&w paper processed in Amidol is really, really special.  Then there’s platinum…

  21. Three comments on this.

    First of all, I was told at a photography store that the number of megapixels was only ever relevant if they boosted (I believe) the frame size at the same time—and that upping only the number of megapixels might actually give you more artifacts.

    Also, I can personally say that I took a decent 3MP hi-res JPG shot on an older Kodak model, and had a co-worker use Noise Ninja and Photoshop to clean it up..and it printed beautifully at 18×12. So I have to say that I agree with the 6MP is probably all anyone really needs.

  22. JethricOne: I believe the megapixels are found by multiplying the frame size.  So if one is increased, the other has to go with it.  I think what you are referring to, is what NurseDaddy said:

    have a Fuji FinePix S602Z that has a sensor that is really 3 MP or so and interpolates up to 6MP.

  23. You win OLD MAN. grin Anyway, even though it’s not that many years comparatively, half of my 42 years were spent in the darkroom, so it seems like a long time to me.

    I guess I think of it like music. I like to move on there to. Not a lot of the 70’s music I grew up with on heavy rotation around here.


  24. I prefer my Crown graphic with Tri-X to my digital camera wink  The Crown Graphic an be used as a weapon.

  25. The Crown Graphic an be used as a weapon.

    … and still take pictures afterward!

    WD has a point about the relative simplicity of old photo equipment.  When i try to explain exposure compensation to anyone, they say; “Is that what nighttime mode does?”  (or any other relevant or irrelevant mode) 

    I have seen what all those “modes” do and they are not as effective as a user who has taken the time to learn a little bit about making images.  Plus, photo knowledge applies to any camera whereas you learn the “modes” of one camera, only to discard that knowledge when you get another.

  26. Brooks:  I can understand.  It’s a “horses for courses” thing.  Right now I am sans darkroom, so I am also a bit nostalgic.  Keeps me from dragging out the Toyo 45A and Fujinon lenses.  As with the (battered) Crown Graphic … 4×5 negs.  YUMMMMMMMY!

    itdontmatter:  Yeah, big Tri-X negs are very special.  Right now I am (still!) mourning the loss of APX100; there’s still some 35mm & 120 around, but the sheet film is long gone.

    Just to be clear, I DO have a digital camera, and it sports a measly 2.1MP.  It has a good Zuiko lens, focuses relatively close (one of the requirements when I bought it), and has full manual control capability.  When I stick it on manual exposure, the lowest ISO and highest uncompressed quality (TIFF), it makes good exposures with good colour and reasonable dynamic range.  I haven’t played with getting large prints form it, but maybe I should.  I sorta doubt they’ll look like a good Kodachrome shot, though.  cheese

    My problem with the design of most current digital cameras is that stuff gets in the way.  I’ve read that setting up the custom options/buttons on some DSLRs can turn it into a pretty efficient shooting machine, e.g. the E1 has the capability.  And at a measly 5.1MP, the files from the E1 are “overachievers”.  But I just don’t like how it feels in my hand, and there is a dearth of fast primes for it.  I don’t like zoom lenses.

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