Scitech | Capturing the “megapixel myth”

Evaluating the trend of cameras with increasingly numerous megapixels

Today’s consumers are always in search of the newest piece of technology on the market. This insatiable desire for faster, smaller, smarter, and better products could simply be part of our human nature. However, it seems that much of this demand is fabricated by mass marketing that makes our current possessions seem obsolete and inferior. Often times, there are few primary statistics that both consumers and producers use to measure the quality of products. It seems that, no matter the quality of a product, today’s mantra is: bigger is better. When it comes to digital photography, the crux of a camera’s performance is thought to be the number of megapixels it has. It is believed the more megapixels you have, the better your pictures will be. In fact, many camera when producing new models, save for the number of megapixels it has. Does having more megapixels really result in better photos? Or is there a “megapixel myth” created by companies to continue selling their products?

Digital photos are made up of tiny elements known as pixels. A megapixel is equal to one million pixels. The more megapixels a photo has, the higher its resolution – the number of pixels per unit area – will be. However, resolution only becomes important when one wants to print large images. This phenomenon is comparable to watching a standard resolution video versus a high definition version; the difference is only visible at a larger scale. When viewed on smaller screens, the difference becomes irrelevant. Media companies that need to display images on large screens, for example, may want a higher resolution in order to have crisp, clear pictures. These images can be blown up to huge building size posters and still be detailed. The resolution of a photo has absolutely no bearing on the quality of the photo itself, it simply means that there is more flexibility with the scale of production.

Even when it comes to resolution, megapixel count is not an accurate indicator of performance. A photo with three megapixels (or three million pixels) will have a resolution of approximately 2048 x 1536 pixels. One might think that a doubling the number of megapixels would double the resolution, but, in fact, a photo with six megapixels will have a resolution of approximately 2816 x 2112 pixels. This is actually a less than 40 per cent increase, which is hardly noticeable in image quality.

In addition to this, photographers must remember that the more megapixels a photo has, the more storage space it will require on your memory card and computer. For many photographers, the trade-off of reducing the potential number of shots in order to gain a small improvement in image resolution is just not worth it. Too many megapixels may also even lessen the quality of a picture due to an increase in the graininess of an image.

Victor Tangermann, Photo Editor for the McGill Daily, said, “Along with sharpness, contrast and especially colours, have been lagging behind in terms of quality compared to the exponentially rising number of megapixels that the sensor can pick up. When I went to South America in 2009, I took a 3.2 megapixel Panasonic with me (a model from about 2003), which at the time could have been easily considered a very low number of megapixels. I was surprised to find that the contrast and colour far surpassed the contrast and colour of my current dedicated camera equipment, which I left at home.”

It is also important to note that cameras only actually capture a third of the pixels that they claim to have, creating the other two thirds with a complex algorithm known as Bayer interpolation. The use of Bayer interpolation has a huge effect on the quality of an image, but has nothing to do with how many megapixels there are.
Bayer interpolation is just one example of the technologies that affect photo quality much more than megapixel count does. Essentially, the number of megapixels a camera has is not the deciding factor in a camera’s picture quality. This raises the question of whether the megapixel myth was formulated by camera makers and companies as part of a “marketing strategy”?

While companies do nothing to dispel the “megapixel myth,” they are also responding to consumer demand. Consumers have believed the “Megapixel myth” because of their desire to simplify everything. All of us want to be able to judge the quality of an object based on a very limited number of factors: price, singular product specifications, and model number are all examples of this. When it comes to digital photography, this assumption lends itself to potentially disappointing pictures. Much of what makes a good photo is controlled by the photographer, not the camera. Photography, like any other art form, is not defined by the sophistication of one’s equipment. It is an expression of the photographer’s imagination and creative vision. The spirit captured in photos has nothing to do with whether they are displayed with 2 million or 12 million pixels.


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