Megapixels Explained: We'll explain what they are, why they are important, why they have an important impact on your editing options and the downside of having too many. Read on.
I’ve been shooting for long enough to be able to look back at some of the mistakes I made at the start of my love affair with photography and laugh. That said, I also look back at the results and later frustrations caused by my ignorance and, well, I cringe!
Megapixels Explained was written because I wish I'd understood them at the start of my photo journey. Let's get started.
Back on the 17th May 2003, Lisa and I received our first digital camera (actually our first camera) from Lisa’s parents. It was the day before we set out on our motorcycle journey to ride around the world. What did we know about megapixels and camera craft? Mmm,...think, ’clueless’ but on steroids!
Our shiny new FUJIFILM S3000 had a whopping 3.2 megapixels and I had ‘absolutely’, zero-clue what a megapixel was! None, nada, zilch!
Today, as a ‘slightly’ more seasoned photographer having photographed 6 continents, I understand only too well, the importance of choosing the right camera for the job. And, why one of the key factors to consider when selecting a camera is its megapixel size. Bearing in mind that those pesky megapixels, determine the physical dimensions of the images and that those dimensions constrain the maximum size that you can print any image from your camera.
What Are Megapixels? (In the simplest of terms.)
Megapixels refer to the number of pixels, or tiny dots of color, that make up a digital image. The higher the number of megapixels, the more detail and resolution the image will have. For example, a camera with 24 megapixels will produce images with more detail and clarity than a camera with only 12 megapixels. The clues definitely in the number :-)
OK, so why is this important and what’s it got to do with the ‘regret’, that I mentioned at the start of this article? Well, when it comes to editing and cropping images, a higher megapixel count gives editors (that’s me and you and anyone who wants to process their images) more flexibility to adjust the composition and framing of an image, without losing detail or resolution.
This is because a higher megapixel count means the image has more ‘information’, allowing editors to crop in closer to a subject while still maintaining a high level of detail and a healthy printable image size. The 'regret' is because, back in 2003 and while stood in the centre of Moscow's Red Square, I dialled down our camera's megapixels to just 1 megapixel, having no clue what it meant. Sadly, today those images shot in Red Square are so small, that I can't print them much larger than a postage stamp :-(
OK, so let's look at today's reference photo of Lisa in the jungles of Indonesia. Have a quick look at the reference photo at the top of this article, just for a quick comparison. The original image (seen below) had a lot of sky and and jungle and foliage that didn’t add anything to the photo. In fact it distracted the viewer away from the story of the shot, which was Lisa, on her bike taking in the view of the distant volcano and sunrise. Having a larger megapixel sensor allowed me to crop (cut out) a sizable portion of the image, creating a stronger story while still retaining enough megapixels to be able to produce a good size print. I’ve printed the cropped edited image at A4 and it looked fantastic!
Camera body: Nikon D3
Lens: Nikkor 16-35mm
Focal Length: 16mm
Focus Mode: Auto
AF-Area Mode: Single
Shutter Speed: 1/160
Exposure Mode: Manual
Exposure Comp.: +-2EV
Metering: Center weighted-Average
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 200
Film Emulation: [NL] NEUTRAL
Here is the processed and cropped final image. I chose this crop because it made for a stronger image that placed Lisa and her BMW F650GS in the centre of the story and then pushes your eye past and onto the jungle and distant volcano.
Megapixels Explained: The Ultimate Beginners Guide.
Let's say you're shooting a portrait of a person, and you want to emphasize their eyes, and you want to be able to print the final cropped image as a double-page spread in a magazine. If you have a camera with a high megapixel count, you can shoot the image with a wider composition that includes more of the subject's face. Then, in post-production, you can crop in closer to the eyes and still have enough resolution to maintain sharpness and clarity.
On the other hand, if you have a camera with a lower megapixel count, you'll have less information to work with when cropping and editing. This means that if you try to crop in too close to a subject, you may end up with a pixelated or blurry image, or an image who’s dimensions are so small that it can’t be sensibly printed or even seen on the screen and retain any impact.
It's important to note that while a higher megapixel count is generally better for editing and cropping, there are other factors to consider when selecting a camera. The quality of the sensor, lens, and image processor can all impact the overall image quality and clarity, even if the megapixel count is high. But that’s an article for another day.
A higher megapixel count almost always means larger file sizes, which can be a concern for photographers who need to store and transfer large numbers of images or are traveling and don’t always have access to power and a laptop.
At the end of the day, it’s important to balance the need for high resolution with practical considerations like storage and processing power. The larger the megapixel count the more demanding the ‘image files’ will be on your computer's resources, which can slow things down when you are editing. A real consideration if you have an older Mac, PC or laptop.
Ultimately, the megapixel count of a camera is just one factor to consider when selecting a camera for photography. It's important to choose a camera that meets your specific needs and shooting style, taking into account factors like image quality, low-light performance, autofocus speed, and lens selection.
As a photographer who has traveled the world, and made my fair share of ‘dumb mistakes’ I've learned the hard way, that understanding the role of megapixels in producing high-quality, editable images, should never be undervalued if your looking to take your photography to the next level.
TIP: Remember if you have more megapixels you will have to have larger memory cards to record the images and more hard drive space to store the images .
Good luck and have fun.
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Professional photographer and motorcycle adventurer based in Wales, United Kingdom, and founder of LIVING LENS PHOTOGRAPHY and 2 Ride The World. Simon, with his wife spent 17-years travelling the world by motorcycle, exploring some of the most remote and beautiful location on earth across 6 continents. His editorial and photographic work has been featured in publications all over the world, and his commercial clients include brands such as, BMW Motorrad, Adobe and SENA.