Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Is More Better when it comes to Mega Pixels?

This debate will continue into the next century: Whether higher pixel counts in digital cameras make for better photographs. Let's clear up a few things right away.

First, better photographs are more a function of the photographer than the camera. I've seen $5000 cameras, in the wrong hands, make absolutely terrible pictures. On the other hand, I've seen professional photographers make stunning photos from a one-megapixel camera phone. So, let's get the notion that more megapixels is better out of the way right away.

All the above said, will a pro photographer be able to take better pictures with a 10-megapixel camera than with a 6-megapixel camera? The answer is: It depends. If the only thing that differentiates between the two cameras is the sensor (more pixels packed in the same area), a pro might be able to take a better photo with the 10 than with the 6. That's if, and only if, the sensor, camera processor, and all other factors can deal effectively with more pixels per same area. And that's a big IF.

You see, when more pixels are packed into the same small area, noise becomes a real factor. Light gathering also becomes a factor. The same amount of light is hitting the sensor, but each pixel is effectively getting less light, proportionally, in a 10-MP camera versus a 6-MP camera.

One could surmise, then, that to get better images out of a 10-MP camera, versus a 6-MP camera, one would have to build a bigger sensor. And this might work. But now, your lens and other optical qualities of the camera may come into play. Use the same 50mm lens on an APS-C-size sensor versus a 35mm-size sensor, and you get less light concentration on the bigger sensor. Noise would be lower, in general, because each pixel would be farther apart, but vignetting might become a real burden.

Who knows? The best pros use the highest resolution dSLRs with the biggest sensors. But hand them a 6.1-MP SLR with an APS-C-size sensor, and many, if not all, observers would be hard pressed to be able to tell the difference between pictures taken by either camera.

Photography is such a subjective art, like all art, that the method for the output is far less important than the output itself. The discerning eye, the composition, the lighting, the perspective -- all are far more important than the camera.

Pros use SLRs because they allow, or enable, more creativity. You can alter the shutter speed, the aperture, change the ISO, etc., while capturing as much image detail as possible. Many pros also favor camera RAW, which uses as little camera processing as possible. Then they use post-processing software in the digital darkrooms to output the best possible photos.

After saying all of the above, it's still easier to sell a 10-MP camera than a 6-MP camera, at the same price point. Just remember, as with everything, you usually get what you pay for. Better camera = more money.

But just as a Formula 1 driver could beat you in a race on the street in his loaner Fiesta, a pro photographer could better you in the image department with his disposable camera. Tools are just that: Tools. In the right hands, greatness can be realized. Quality tools in quality hands gives the chance at perfection.

More megapixels, better photos: Fact or fiction? | CNET

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