Do Megapixels Matter? – by Jack Kurtz

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This picture was made with my Olympus E-P5, a 16 megapixel camera. It was turned into a mural and hangs in BMW's North American headquarters. You don't need 30+ megapixels to do high end work.
This picture was made with my Olympus E-P5, a 16 megapixel camera. It was turned into a mural 5 feet wide and hangs in BMW’s North American headquarters.

The answer is yes, but the bigger question is “how many megapixels is enough?” That’s a much more complicated question to answer.

I’ve been working with digital cameras since 1997. The first event I covered with a digital camera was the 50th anniversary of the UFO crash in Roswell, NM. The camera I had then, the EOS DCS3,  was a loaner from Canon. It came with a whopping 260 megabytes of storage on a built in internal hard drive and shot 1.3 megapixel pictures that measured 1,268 horizontal x 1,012 vertical pixels. I had to hook the camera up to my laptop with a SCSI (pronounced “scuzzy”) connector because the storage was not removable from the camera.

Once you got past the cool factor (no need to process film or scan negatives) using it was a pretty miserable experience. Your exposures had to be perfect. Overexposed highlights had a god awful and uncorrectable magenta color cast. Blocked up shadows had so much digital noise (grain) even an ISO200 photo looked like it was made at ISO3200.

And then there was the file size. 1.3 megapixels: 1,268 horizontal x 1,012 vertical pixels. Most newspapers were printing color photos at 200 dots per inch. A medium sized photo that was eight inches wide needed to be about 1,600 pixels wide (200 X 8). We had to upsize most pictures just to get them to the resolution needed to run them at the size the newspaper wanted. Cropping meant more upsizing, which led to image degradation.

It’s the reason so many photographers then worked with both film and digital bodies. Film for most of our work, digital when we knew we had to turn it around right away.

When I was issued a Canon D30 (not to be confused with the 30D. I mean really, what was Canon thinking when they named their cameras?), with its 3 megapixel sensor I thought I was in heaven. Three megapixels meant we could actually do a little cropping and didn’t have to upsize every single photo.

The first digital camera I bought for myself (as opposed to using cameras issued to me) was the Canon D60 (not to be confused with the 60D). It weighed in at a whopping six megapixels (3152 x 2068 pixels) and was the first digital camera, that for me, came close to achieving what I could with film. The negative scanner I had at the time (for my film cameras), was a Nikon LS-2000 Super CoolScan. It output files that were 2700 pixels on the long dimension which was a little smaller than the files from the D60.

Canon, and other camera companies, kept upping the megapixel ante. The EOS 20D was an eight megapixel camera (3520×2344 pixels) and offered enough file size that we could comfortably crop pictures if we needed to.

The Canon EOS 5D was a 12 megapixel (4368 x 2912 pixels) and for me this was the first camera that caused me to ask – “how many megapixels is too many megapixels?”

One of the advantages of coming of photographic age in the days of color transparency film and early digital cameras was that you had to have strong technical skills, the ability to fill the frame when you shoot, properly expose the picture and working within the parameters of color balance and color temperature. The better your original exposure, the less work you had to do to the digital file and that almost always translated to a better picture in the newspaper.

With the tremendous latitude of the 5D raw files and generous size of the files you could make a lot of mistakes and then fix them on the computer.

I was covering an event in Yuma, Arizona, for a wire service and after I transmitted my photos, the editor in Washington DC complimented a specific frame but said it was a little too loose. He asked what camera I was using and when I told him I had the 5D he told me to crop the picture by about 40% and send it again. When I hesitated he said something like, “come on, that’s a 12MP file. It can take it.” I would not have been able to crop that file if I had made it with my old three megapixel D30.

Canon has held steady at about 22 megapixels (5616 x 3744 pixels) for a few years now (both the 5D Mark II and 5D Mark III are basically 22MP cameras). But Nikon and Sony have stormed the megapixel gates with 36 megapixel cameras. Both cameras use sensors made by Sony.

Even smaller cameras, like APS format cameras and Micro 4:3 are raising their megapixel counts. Nikon’s APS cameras are about 24MP and Canon’s right around 20MP. Olympus and Panasonic Micro 4:3 cameras are 16 megapixels (4608 x 3456 pixels).

You have to ask yourself, do you need 36 megapixels? For most people I think the answer is no. There are real disadvantages to these megapixel behemoths.

The first one, and one that a lot of people don’t think about, is that all that resolution really stresses your lenses. It’s no coincidence that Zeiss and Sigma are both coming out with very high grade lenses that in most cases test better than the Canon or Nikon lenses (even the high end pro grade lenses from Canon and Nikon) they compete with. Older and inexpensive kit lenses are out resolved by the bodies they’re marketed with.

These pro level lenses are very expensive. Canon’s 24-70 f2.8 L zoom is about $2,100 (US). Canon’s 85mm f1.2 L prime lens, a legendary lens, is also about $2,100, which seems cheap compared to the Zeiss 85mm f1.4 which will you set back an astonishing $4,500.

The second drawback is storage. I can get about 270 full resolution 22MP files onto an eight gigabyte card. Doing the math, the 36MP Nikon and Sony files are about 36% bigger than the 5D Mark III 22MP files (give or take). The eight gig card in my 5D Mark III, that holds 270 images, will only hold about 190 images from a 36MP camera.

Now extend this throughout your workflow. How many files can you get on your two terabyte hard drive? Divide that by ⅓. If you plan to get by using one 2TB hard drive for your images for the year (what I am on track to use this year) you need to buy at least a 3TB drive.

How long does it take to import and edit your files in Lightroom? It’s going to take longer, in the case of importing files, a lot longer, to do the same work if you’re shooting 36MP files.

For me, the the 16 -22 megapixel files from the Olympus or Panasonic Micro 4:3 or current Canon cameras have emerged as the sweet spot. I think they’re a good choice, especially for photographers who know what they’re doing, what Thom Hogan, who recently wrote about this, would call an “optimal” photographer.

By that I mean photographers who would consider themselves intermediate level or higher. They understand the principles of filling the frame, they have the right selection of lenses and they use their equipment to its full potential. (Lens selection is not universal and depends on what you photograph. A sports or wildlife photographer needs long fast lenses, a street photographer needs lenses in 24mm to 100mm range, in full frame terms, and someone who photographs bugs and flowers needs macro lenses.)

It’s interesting that both Nikon and Canon have, for the time being, held their high end professional cameras (the D4S and 1D X) to under 20 megapixels. These are the cameras they sell to their most discerning customers.

A lot of this depends on what the final use of your photos is. If you’re photos are mostly going online, whether on a personal blog or Facebook, I can guarantee you that 36 megapixels is overkill. Heck, the 16MP of the Micro 4:3 cameras is overkill for those uses.

If you’re printing your photos, it depends on the size of your prints.

Sixteen megapixels can be printed to at least 15 inches on the long dimension (at 300 dots per inch – 4608 ÷ 300 = 15.36). With careful editing and resizing you can easily print 16 X 20, assuming you don’t crop too much.

American Frame, one of the many online print vendors, recommends a minimum print resolution of 130 dpi (minimum meaning the lowest recommended resolution, not the best resolution). At that resolution, a 16MP camera will allow you to make a 24″ X 36″ print. That’s a big print. A full resolution file from a 36MP camera at the same resolution can be printed to 30″ X 45″, which isn’t really that much bigger. A photo I made with my Olympus E-P5, a 16MP camera, was turned into a mural 5 feet wide (1.5 meters) and hangs in the BMW North America headquarters. They didn’t come back and ask for a bigger file (although I did send them the original raw file so their printer could upsize to their specifications).

What 36 megapixels does give you is wiggle room. If you’re photographing something that requires a 400mm or 500mm lens, for example, and all you have is a 300mm lens, the extra resolution of your 36MP camera means you can comfortably crop in to a view you would get with that longer lens. If you regularly find yourself in the position of having to significantly crop your images that drastically you should either buy a longer lens or refine your technique.

There are some people whose work requires the 36MP or higher cameras. They’re high end commercial photographers who work for the most discerning clients and have the cash flow to support those cameras.

Not everybody, not even all professional photographers fall into that category.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about using Micro 4:3 cameras and how we were moving past the one size fits all era of digital cameras, into a time of different digital formats for different purposes. The 36MP cameras from Nikon and Sony represent that trend. Those cameras, although they accept lenses designed for traditional dSLRs, really compete more with medium format cameras, like the Pentax 645D.  I’m comfortable with 22 megapixels from the 5D Mark III and 16 megapixels from the Micro 4:3 cameras.