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Do More Megapixels Cause More Problems?

I frequently hear that cameras with more megapixels are more unforgiving and thus can cause more problems than models with fewer megapixels. But the truth isn't quite this simple.

One straightforward but questionable interpretation of this idea would be that camera manufacturers achieve higher pixel counts as affordably as they can by reprioritizing spending towards the sensor and away from other aspects of their products. Higher megapixel sensors do cost more, so camera makers could be tempted to keep overall costs down by skimping more in other areas. That way, they could advertise high megapixel cameras at competitive prices. But those who bought such cameras would thereby be buying a mess of troubles related to those cost-cutting measures. Such a camera likely would have more problems from cutting all those non-sensor corners. While having a great sensor, other components wouldn't be of equally high quality. But this would be a rather cynical, and almost certainly incorrect way to understand this "more megapixels, more problems" idea.

Another possibility, and one often heard, is that higher megapixels seem to have more problems because they make lens defects and poor technique problems all the more obvious. If you zoom all the way in on a twenty-plus megapixel image, any existing problems would be magnified when compared to a full one-hundred percent zoom of a six or ten megapixel image. This interpretation seems eminently logical and is in fact true. If you can see image defects more clearly, they would of course be more obvious. If you can't see them as closely, they might escape detection. A small amount of chromatic aberration or lack of sharpness in a lens could be considered acceptable so long as you can't really see it in the resulting images. Hand hold a camera with more megapixels and the possibility of seeing the resulting slight motion blur would increase if you can resolve finer details in the resulting images.

But such a comparison wouldn't really be apples-to-apples. If you zoom in beyond one-to-one on the low-megapixel image, the higher resolution image would still show any defects more clearly. No additional detail or clarity would be added by zooming beyond one-hundred percent on the lesser resolution image. Only on crime drama re-runs on TV can you identify the guilty party by zooming in and sharpening the reflection in the eye of an innocent bystander. But if instead you zoom out such that objects appear the same scale in the high-megapixel image as they do in the full scale lower resolution image, the two should appear pretty much the same. The high-megapixel image may contain evidence of problems, but only if we look closely, and we have here chosen not to in order to so as to create a level playing field for comparing images from the two sensors. Problem solved. We can solve those pesky high-resolution problems just be not looking at our images very closely.

But that seems beside the point. There would be little purpose in buying a higher megapixel camera if you never enlarged your images any further than was practical with your old camera.

Imagine you buy a new flat screen TV that supports 4K resolution. But you only have a Blu-ray player that supports 1080p, the resolution that used to pass for high resolution before 4K came about. Your new television has revealed the shortcomings of your Blu-ray player. That Blu-ray is just as good as it has always been, and if you watch its output at 1080p, you should be happy with it with either your old or new TV. But then what was the point of buying a shiny new 4K TV? If you want to get the most out of your new 4K flat screen TV, you'll have to upgrade the rest of your components to support passing a 4K signal to it. That could be considered a problem, but it could also be looked at as an opportunity. And one that you hopefully would have realized before deciding to upgrade your television. If you're not into the whole 4K thing, pretend I'm talking about trading in your old analog picture tube TV and getting yor first flat screen forcing you to get a better DVD player. Or think about finally getting rid of your trusty old VCR tape deck. Whatever.

In the same way, your new camera with more megapixels presents the possibility of capturing a higher resolution image. But if you want to get the most out of your new camera, you might need to upgrade other components of your gear and perhaps refine your technique to take advantage of it. That could be viewed as a problem if you hadn't previously thought your lenses were higher quality than then turned out to be once you could see the difference. But it could also be looked at as a necessary step and opportunity towards creating better images.

And that seems likely to be the reason why you bought a new camera in the first place. In other words, the Chinese symbol for megapixels probably means "opportunity" more than it does "crisis." Or something like that.

And yes, I'm thinking about getting a 4K television. Wish me luck with all my new problems.

Date posted: June 25, 2017


Copyright © 2017 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Digital File Sizes: Not All Pixels are Created Equal
Just How Big is a Pixel?
A Few Megapixel Mega-Myths

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