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The Megapixel Myth

Monday, November 10th, 2008 by | Filed Under: Digital Photography

The Megapixel Myth

It’s not the number of megapixels that matter, but it’s the size of your camera’s sensor that counts. Believe it or not, but megapixels don’t really matter anymore. That might sound strange at first since most people regard the megapixel count as the main indicator of their camera’s picture taking quality. In reality, megapixels are a measure of how many pixels you can “stuff” into a camera’s sensor: the digital equivalent of film. One megapixel means one million pixels. You need just three megapixels to print a standard 4R picture and eight megapixels are more than enough for an 8R (8X10) inch print.

If you don’t have enough megapixels and you’re trying to print a large picture, the print won’t turn out very sharp. All diagonals will become jagged instead of being smooth. However, as all new compact cameras now have at least eight megapixels and some have hit 14, you don’t have to worry about having insufficient megapixels anymore. So, when you’re deciding which compact to buy, the number of megapixels doesn’t really matter.

What’s more important for good picture quality in a compact camera is the size of the sensor. The bigger the sensor, the better the photo will be. Bigger sensors capture more light and more light captured means better colors and contrast. With bigger sensors, photos taken indoors without flash or when the light is failing, have less picture noise. Sadly, compact cameras cannot have huge sensors, because they need to stay, well, compact. The sensor in a compact camera can be as small as the nail on your pinky finger. That’s why compacts are poor in shooting in low light conditions without a flash.

Here’s an extra tip: check the sensor size! It could be listed under CCD, CMOS, imagine element or image sensor, but the dimensions will always read something like “1/2.3 inch,” which is the size of the sensor. The smaller the denominator, the bigger the sensor. In comparison, the sensor of a professional DSLR is 30 times that of a compact, which explains why DSLRs are so much bigger.

Ironically, the solution to improving photo quality in a compact camera is to reduce the megapixel count. All things being equal, having less megapixels means that each pixel in the sensor can now have more light, which in turn, improves picture quality. And now you know what lies behind the megapixel myth!

~ Ramachandran Kumaraswami

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