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Holiday Camera Guide: Do Megapixels Really Matter?

Monday, December 9th, 2013 by | Filed Under: Digital Photography

When it Comes to Cameras, Do Megapixels Really Matter? Digital cameras (are there any other kinds nowadays?) are hot-selling items, especially during the holiday season. But how do you pick the best model?

One way that advertisers try to sway buyers is by bragging about how many “megapixels” their cameras have. In simple terms, a megapixel is a tiny dot of color that makes up a larger image. It’s essentially the same technology that TVs and computer screens have used for decades. But, when it comes to taking great pictures, do megapixels matter?

Well – yes and no; how’s that for a firm answer? The answer is “yes” in that, all other things being equal, a camera with more megapixels will, on average, deliver more detailed images. This means they look more real. It also means they won’t become grainy if you make large copies of them. On the other hand, megapixels take a back seat to what’s called sensor size. This refers to the size of the sensor in the camera, the one that takes the incoming light and turns it into a digital picture. The larger the sensor, the brighter and more life-like the final image will be.

This is a fact that many camera manufacturers don’t talk about. They use terms like, “10 MP (for megapixels;” “12 MP,” “16 MP,’ and so on. What they don’t mention is that the sensors inside the product they’re pushing are often quite small, making the whole megapixel count besides the point. It’s kind of like having a delicious pie and slicing it into ever-thinner pieces. Eventually you get to a point where the dessert loses its taste. The only solution is to either get a bigger pie or go on a diet, something no one wants to do during the holidays.

With this in mind, how can you make sure you buy a quality camera? That’s where it gets complex. There are tons of charts and articles on the web that go into detail on the topic. Trouble is, they get really technical really quickly. So here’s a quick-and-easy guide that cuts through all the fancy terms:

● If you just want to take snap shots to post online or put in a scrapbook, then virtually any of the name-brand cameras on the market will do nicely. So don’t worry about any of this.

● On the other hand, if the camera’s purpose is to take portraits or sweeping outdoor vistas, then a digital lens single reflex (DSLR) camera is a great overall choice. They have large sensors that capture lots of details. DSLRs usually come with a good all-purpose lens. IMPORTANT: some DSLRs are sold as “body only.”

This means that you will have to buy a lens separately. Avoid these models unless you or the camera’s recipient wants to get into photography either professionally or as a serious (and potentially expensive) hobby. A good DSLR can be found for as little as $200.00 on sale, although $400.00 is a more realistic price for starting models.

● Some people don’t like DSLRs because they’re too big and bulky for their taste. If this is a concern, then a mirrorless compact might be the right choice. These models have large sensors like DSLRs and take high-quality photos. But they’re much smaller; many can fit into a shirt pocket. As with DSLRs, some of these are sold as “body only.” So watch out for that when you’re shopping.

Hopefully, this post clears up the myths about megapixels and gives you some clear advice on choosing the right camera. Happy shopping!

~ Bill Wilson

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3 Responses to “Holiday Camera Guide: Do Megapixels Really Matter?”

  1. Stanley C Huslin says:

    Good explanation. However if manufacturers don’t like to talk about the size of the sensors, how do your determine which is the largest, or best?

  2. Robert La Pontny says:

    Is there sensor info in the spec’s as to size ? Did you ever consider in your replies. The over use of SIMPLE, REALLY SIMPLE can be offensive to a persons intellect. He should have discovered the answer on his own. There are endless words to make a person feel good about asking the question. TRY THIS, I CAN HELP YOU, ETC.

  3. Tim M says:

    Sensor size on “compact” cameras are often not even advertised. As the author of the article says, if you simply want an easy to use, decent camera, it’s not that important – they’ll all do a good job unless you want to print large (like poster size) or zoom in on small parts of the photo.

    On the typical (35mm) DSLR, the sensor size is pretty much always given in the camera specs, because you’ve moved up to a higher end class of equipment. There are primarily two sizes, usually referred to as full-frame and APS-C. The full-frame sensor is the same size as 35mm film would be, so it’s going to have greater detail than the APS-C sensor, which is about 2/3 the size of full-frame. The exact size of an APS-C varies by manufacturer, but as a category, you can compare megapixels of any brand APS-C with any other brand APS-C and figure they’re pretty close to each other.

    So the full-frame cameras do take larger photos, and you can zoom in closer and still have nice details. Or you can print poster size and look great. But that comes with a price.

    There are also medium and large format cameras that have larger sensors, but if you’re looking for those you’re probably not reading about them here – that’s a professional system and you already know all of this :)

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