How Many Megapixels Is Enough In My Camera?

I have been using my Canon 20D (8Mp) for about four years now and have taken a little over 10,000 pictures with it. Apart from the tiny LCD on the back and a nagging suspicion that the auto-focus could be a little faster and more accurate, I have been extremely happy with it. Like many other photographers (I assume!), I have watched with interest as cameras have developed (is that still considered a pun?!), especially with regard to the number of megapixels they have.

When digital first came along I tried to calculate how many pixels would be needed to equal the quality I could achieve with 6x7cm film. I have seen this value “calculated” (I put the quotes around there in an attempt to suggest skepticism) a number of times by various people but I don’t recall ever seeing any results I felt I could trust. My own attempt to calculate a film-to-digital ratio resulted in a figure based on nothing more than an uneducated guess backed up by opinionated self-belief. My guess was “about 50 megapixels”. I suppose I wasn’t that far off, if we accept that the full-frame Canon 1Ds with its 21mp is about equivalent to 35mm.

I liked this number, mainly because it was obvious nobody was ever likely to make a camera with that many pixels and, even if they did, nobody would be able to afford it. Film was in safe hands, I had decided!

Anyway, along came digital SLRS and then they became available to ordinary people like me. The 20D suited me with its massive 8.3mp and possibly more importantly, with its PC socket to connect it straight to my studio flash. Now I’m not going to insult anyone with pretend science or anything, but to settle my curiosity I sent one of my images off to Photobox to be printed at around 16×12″ which was the biggest I had ever printed from 6x7cm film. The result really surprised me – the print from my 20D was as good (actually, I reckon it was better) than from my Mamiya RB67. Remember, there’s no science here – just me putting two prints side by side and making a judgement.

Now I have been lucky enough to upgrade to a Canon 50D in the last few weeks, which has given me almost double the amount of pixels. The camera is fantastic and I would say it is the perfect upgrade from the 20D, mainly because I bought only the body and everything else I already had fits it. I’m sure the 50D is well documented elsewhere, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say that the improvements in the auto-focus, image processing and so on over the last four years are quite evident in the handling.

However, I am having one issue; the file size. My memory cards are effectively all half the size they were, I use up twice the space on the hard drive when I transfer them and they take significantly longer to open and process. Now all of this is pretty obvious, really, but it does make me wonder what life is like for those people who have one of those 21mp or 25mp flagship SLRs currently on the market. I can only assume that if you can afford the top-of-the-range, you can also afford to install a bank of super-computers to do the processing work!

Alongside these processing/storage issues I find myself stuck on one burning question; how many of us really needs all these pixels? I’m not suggesting that nobody needs a 25mp SLR, or even that nobody will take advantage of this technology. What really strikes me is that I can’t see me ever needing more than 15mp and I really mean ever. So when Canon is developing the 60D/70D/80D or whatever is coming next, I want them to improve everything, just like they have been doing, but let’s please put a cap on the number of pixels.

The same goes for all the manufacturers – I’m only citing Canon because that’s what I use, but you are all as bad! Stop this “mine’s bigger than yours” culture and get back to the good old “mine’s better than yours” argument that kept us busy for so long!

3 Replies to “How Many Megapixels Is Enough In My Camera?”

  1. Another contented 8Mp Canon EOS 20D camera user for the past five years, but looking at upgrade options, its current successor (the 15Mp 50D in Canon’s case) certainly has the convenience of a larger screen, built in sensor cleaning, several years of technology and workflow improvements, and enough pixels to make monster enlargements should I want to (well, a 35% linear increase, anyway â?? but put that way, not that compelling an argument to spend over £800!).

    The next generation is rumoured to be a matter of weeks away – – so I will see if this delivers enough of a step change to be worth the upgrade.

    (… and not forgetting Nikon fans, try – although at the time of writing Nikon had only recently launched new models).

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