How Many Megapixels is Enough?

As the camera companies continue to churn out cameras at an alarming rate (considering their business seems to be decreasing dramatically) it appears as if the “megapixel wars” have begun anew. What seemed to be an end to the battle as everyone settled into the 24 (ish) megapixel area, has turned out to be nothing more than a temporary cease-fire.

Megapixel count is nothing more than a marketing ploy (for the most part) by the camera companies to entice you into buying the latest model because it’s “just that much better”.

They, and the gear shills on YouTube would have you believe that while two years ago 24 megapixels was fantastic, now it’s horrible. You NEED whatever the new number is.

Let’s look at some of the newer (ish) cameras for a minute:

Nikon Z7 – 45.7 MP

Canon EOS R – 30.3 MP

Canon EOS R5 – 45 MP

On the other hand:

Nikon Z6 – 24.5 MP

Canon EOS R6 – 20.1 MP (!) Not sure about this one.

Sony A&III & A9 – 24.9 MP

So, now we are all over the map with megapixel counts with the manufacturers having you believe that a premium camera has to have a higher megapixel count, it just has to, and if you are not using it, your photography will suffer. Unfortunately, too many people fall into this trap.

Resolution, in the form of megapixels, costs money. As businesses the camera companies want money. The best way to get it is to introduce a new product with MORE POWER! Resulting in folks who haven’t entirely thought this through shouting “take my money!” just to have the latest and greatest.

There are reasons to buy megapixels, but there are more reasons not to. For instance most of the newer cameras are being marketed as pseudo flagship models and carry a premium price of at least $3k USD or more, and then you are buying into an entirely new lens mount, and most are only offering premium lenses so far. That’s a lot of money. Then there is computer power. It takes a lot of processing power to work with a 45MP image. So you can probably plan on spending a few thousand more on a new, upgraded, computer capable of efficiently handling large files.

Of course there are reasons to buy megapixels. If you are a wildlife or action sports photographer, you can crop in to a long shot without loosing resolution – cropping is the primary reason to have a natively high MP count, even for commercial work. I sure hope you are doing paid work though, as you are about to drop around $10k USD for a camera with a couple of lenses and a new computer.

Don’t talk about ginormous enlargements. Those have been made billboard size forever with low resolution and work just fine because they are meant to be viewed from a long distance. We could talk about print quality, but very few people print their work nowadays so that argument really doesn’t hold up. Besides, you can get great images and prints from fairly low megapixels as we’ll see shortly. Most people post their images online at low resolution. The fact is though, you can get a really good 8”x10” print from a 3 MP camera.

There was a point around 2008-2009 that National Geographic magazine, which you have to admit in known for superb photography, stated the the minimum resolution for publishing digital images was 8 MP, and now, they don’t even have a statement regarding megapixels in their guidelines.

Having said that, it’s really a question of how many megapixels you want, not how many you need, and that’s just a matter of preference.

Now lets look at some images. We’ll start at the low end.

Taken with a FujiFilm Finepix S3000 at 3.3 MP circa 2008

Salton Sea CA 2009 – Fuji Finepix Copyright 2020 used with permission

Taken with a Nikon Coolpix L11 at 6 MP circa 2008

Grand Canyon 2007 Nikon Coolpix L11 Copyright 2020 Jim Rush

Taken with an Olympus eVolt 500 at 8 MP circa 2009

Olympus eVolt 500 Circa 2009 Copyright 2020 Jim Rush

Any of those photos are highly useable both on the web and as prints up to 8″x10″. Admittedly they may even work for larger prints, but I’ve never tried. Though I am tempted to try an A3 print with the 8MP image just for fun.

Moving forward about 10 years:

Taken with a Canon EOS 50D at 15MP circa 2018

Canon 50D, EFs 18-135 copyright Jim Rush 2020

Taken with a Sony A7II in 2019

Sony A7II FE 50mm f/1.8 Copyright Jim Rush 2020

I don’t  have any photos with higher resolution but the internet has plenty if you want to compare. Obviously there is a notable difference between 3 and 24 MP, but not so much between 3 and 8 MP, or between 15 and 24 MP. Even at 3 MP details are still sharp. The question is, is this an attribute of MPs or advances in sensor technology? Would the 6 MP images be similarly sharp as the 24 MP image with current sensor technology?

As you can see, for website and social media use, I am certain that anything 3 MP or greater is going to work just fine. Heck, even Adobe Stock sets their minimum at 4 MP for commercial use images. That should be all the information you need. 

Now, honestly, there are no new cameras for sale that offer 3MP. Most everything is pretty much 20MP or greater. At 20+ MP you are going to be in good shape for most anything you want to do. So choose your gear accordingly and don’t succumb to the advertising.

As a last point of irony, two of the most praised and popular digital cameras from the past, right now, are the Nikon D700 and the Canon EOS 5D. Both 12 MP cameras and both highly regarded by the so-called experts, who have stated all over the internet that they are even good for professional use. Thus the argument for lower megapixel and used cameras grows even stronger.

Remember, I am only discussing resolution via megapixels in this post, not features and benefits of newer cameras or really even sensor technology. The point is, make your decisions accordingly and that “more is better” when it comes to megapixels is just not true, so don’t fall into the trap.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Stay safe and see the world you own way.

Thanks for reading.