Is there such a thing as too many megapixels?



 Fuji X-T1 - Fujinon XF 14mm f/2.8 lens

Canon, the biggest selling camera company in the world and the producers of the gear most likely to be seen in the hands of professional photographers seem to have no problem with offering 22MP as their highest pixel count. Pretty small considering what others come up with. And yes rumours keep circulating about them developing some monster sensors, but these never seem to get past the rumour stage. So if less pixels is good enough for them, why isn't it good enough for the rest of us?

Well, in fact for most purposes anything over 12MP is easily enough, in fact probably more than enough. We've all seen press photographers with their D4's and 1DX's, shooting for newspapers and magazines. And these have the picture editors most notorious for cropping images, so this relative lack of MP's doesn't seem to be a handicap there. Several factors influence this. 

Firstly, it is the quality of those pixels that count. The infamous Nokia camera phone with its 40+MP's is testament to that. By reducing the images shot on that phone to around 6MP you get a reasonable image that isn't unpleasant to view (assuming you are shooting in bright sunlight of course) but viewed in their full-sized glory (?????) the images are truly awful. Unlike the aforementioned Canon 35mm / 'Full-frame' images that can probably upsize 200% and still produce stunning results. 

Secondly, most publishing needs require smaller images than these cameras actually produce and print reproduction can make quite small files look very good. I've had full A4 pages printed from a 4MP camera, upmarket glossy magazine covers from a 6MP camera and most impressive of all a 48-sheet billboard from a 5MP camera. And all of them look very good indeed. 

Thirdly, how you shoot, how you process and how you print makes a lot more difference that the file itself. An inept processor can make even huge MF files look terrible if they don't know what they are doing. 

Now I've always been 'impressed' by cameras with high MP counts, but gradually over the last year or so I've come to realise that these large files do very little to earn me any extra money and don't necessarily reproduce better. I've been shooting for the past couple of years with 36MP cameras such as the Nikon D800E and Sony A7r. And how many of these pictures have I sold during that time that have been used at their 36MP size full size? Precisely none. 

Now I'm not saying that it isn't nice to have high MP count pictures and often what I shoot with my A7r and the resolution I get is astounding, but pixel peeping on a computer is about the only place to see this. And despite their highly specified D800 and D800E, Nikons flagship, top of the range camera is the 16MP D4s. A camera used by all kinds of photographers, not just those who shoot for newspapers and websites. I also remember a spokesperson from Canon saying when the 18MP 1DX was announced, that if people wanted or needed bigger images then just upsize them. And when you consider that virtually any image shot on a decent digital camera from m4/3 upwards is capable of being printed at double it's pixel size with very little loss of quality I sometimes wonder what these enormous pixel counts achieve.

Finally, 35mm film has always been considered to compare with around 10-12MP. And certainly from my film scans I would agree with that. And look at all the classic photographs taken on that format. Cartier-Bresson, Capa, David Bailey and Don McCullin shot some or all of their most famous pictures with 35mm film cameras and I don't remember anybody saying that they should have been using something bigger. Maybe it's a sign of insecurity to keep chasing bigger and bigger MP counts and I'm probably not immune to that. We may not know whether our pictures are any good but at least we can brag about how much detail they have in them. But then quality and quantity are nice if they coincide but it's not essential that the former needs the latter. 

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