In the market for a new, used or refurbished digital camera? Many advertisements tout the number of megapixels, or the millions of tiny digital dots that make up a picture. But for the casual photographer (and smart consumer) opting for one with lots of megapixels is probably unnecessary.
A Question of Quality
Megapixels "don’t denote anything about quality,” says Terry Sullivan, a Consumer Reports expert on digital cameras and digital imaging. “They primarily affect print size and the size of images themselves.” Especially if you’re a casual photographer who just emails pictures and posts them online, quality lies in the sharpness, brightness, color and contrast of photos. More pixels (or picture elements) per inch can make for larger pictures, but on a computer screen, a camera with eight or 10 megapixels is not a must.
Back when a three-megapixel camera was the best on the market, comparison shoppers demanded the highest number possible in their price range. But these days, when 10 megapixels or more is the norm, most consumers share their photos online and by email than by printing them out. So, ironically, megapixels isn’t the primary concern.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions about megapixels depending on image quality. Truly, for most average people, the number of megapixels on a camera these days doesn’t make a heck of a difference,” admits Canon spokesman Chuck Westfall (Stock Quote: CAJ).
If you’re sharing your pictures electronically, the biggest difference you’ll see is that the more megapixels your camera has, the more space is required to store them on your memory card or computer. So in that sense, more megapixels may actually not be a good thing.
Even when you need prints, megapixels probably won’t matter. People usually want a 4-by-6 inch or a 5-by-7 inch print, and for these sizes, three or four megapixels is fine. It’s rare that a consumer would want an 8-by-10 inch print or larger, for which more megapixels would be beneficial, says Sullivan, who worked at Nikon before joining Consumer Reports.
When You’ll Need More
If you’re taking pictures from far away or plan to edit your photos, that’s where more megapixels makes a difference.
“If you’re going to do lots of cropping, it gives you more flexibility,” Sullivan says.
With more megapixels you can focus in on a smaller piece of a picture and blow it up. You might be constrained if you’re editing photos taken with a three or four megapixel camera.
Also, if you’re planning on getting a very large print (for example, creating a life-sized picture of yourself), the more megapixels the better. Unless, of course, you want to end up looking like a character from an old video game.
What You Should Be Looking For
Face detection and blink detection technology, which reduce the number of shots you end up having to delete, also help improve focus and color balance, Westfall says. Some cameras even have a face detection self timer, meaning there’s no need to run to get in front of the camera when you want to be included in a shot.