I often get asked which camera to buy, and practically in the same breath now I also get asked how many megapixels in a camera do I need. There is really no simple answer to this, but typically I try to quickly gauge the needs of the individual I am talking to and make a quick recommendation. I enjoy researching the latest cameras available, so typically I have a decent idea of what to suggest. It is getting harder and harder these days though as the options continue to expand and get better at all levels of cameras.
There are three general groupings or levels of cameras often referred to, consumer, pro and the ubiquitous somewhere inbetween now coined as prosumer.
Consumer cameras are what the average family can buy and be happy using. The current crop of cameras will typically fall between 4 and 10 megapixels, and most do a fine job capturing the snapshots that most people are looking to capture. These images will print as a 4×6 and often up to an 8×0 with very good clarity and colors. The flashes on these are average and in general the best photos are taken with outdoor or brighter lighting.
Prosumer is really a fancy way of saying these cameras cost more and give the user more features to control how the camera is capturing photos. For those wanting to dabble in photography I general steer them in this direction as the cost is more attainable and you don’t have to worry about all the additive cost for the variety of lenses you might need on an SLR. Prosumer cameras have a fixed lens, but typically one that yields a fairly good range from wide to telephoto to meet your creative needs.
Pro cameras are those big, bulky SLRs that photo enthusiasts are buying into today. You can use the full range of lenses just like the high end pro does, or pick from cheaper to mid priced/quality offerings that every brand has in their line up. The cost can be much higher with these cameras, including a wide variety of options in body types, including cropped and full frame sensors. Many enthusiasts are entering this level of camera though with the low priced options from Canon and Nikon, along with other brands working their way into this market.
With that summary aside, not all megapixels are created equal; the digital camera industry is just like any and subject to the spin of the of the marketing department. Marketers know that most consumers think that a bigger must be better, so an 8 megapixel camera is better than a 6, right? Yes and no. Having more megapixels can be a good thing, but what the camera does to achieve that resolution can greatly impact the quality of the photo in the end. Without getting too technical, if a camera is using the same size of sensor to give you a larger number of megapixels, it is squeezing in the photo receptors into a smaller space, often resulting in more “noise” within your image. As technology continues to improve, this problem is improved upon, but take care in researching the output quality of the photos produced by a camera along with the resolution.
A great site for seeing in-depth reviews that I use is dpreview.com. You can see all the details, including sample photos produced by a camera and even compare the details of different models side by side.
Now down to what got me started on this topic today. I read an article posted recently at Digital Pro Talk about how many megapixels are enough. This is one of the best, real life analysis discussions I have read about why having a few more megapixels can matter depending on the type of photography you do. Set in the context of wedding photography, the question posed is how many pixels does it take to produce a clear image of a face when capturing a group photo.
Up close portraits lend themselves to working just fine with fewer megapixels because the face is filling the frame and utilizing most of the pixels available. In the case of group photos, there are far fewer pixels dedicated to the details and making up the face of each individual.
This holds true of any situation where you subject is further away from camera and only a portion of the overall photo. Think of this in terms of concert photography, which is a frequent part of my camera use. If you are able to get in close or zoom to your subject, then your sensor capacity is dedicated to getting all the details of the face and person you are capturing. If you are either further back or choosing to capture the overall scene of the stage, far fewer details are captured if the individual entertainer(s), and having a lower megapixel camera will mean far less detail will be displayed in your final image.
Give it a read and see if this helps you when you consider your next camera purchase, which we all know will be sooner than you think!
Canon 20D, EF-S 18-55, 1/40 at f/4 and 800 ISO
see the large version on flickr
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