How Many Megapixels?

(commentary)

For some reason my In Box seems to be filled with “no more megapixels” messages from site visitors lately. Virtually everyone then goes on to say that the reason is they don’t want to buy a new computer. 

Tech is relentless. Once you’re on the wagon, it’s tough to get off. 

I got on the computer  wagon with 8-bit 8080 processors and 256 bytes of hand-soldered memory. That was in 1976. We’re now 40 years later and the wagon is more like 64-bit i7 processors with at least 16GB of computer-soldered memory. I’d tend to say that only the solder remains in common, except that even the solder changed during that period.

Given that ramp, I’d say it’s foolish to think that I can stay competitive in any way (in any form of my work or play) by just shutting down my computer upgrades and sticking with what I’ve got forever. For someone as close to retirement as I am—and as any many DSLR users are—that sounds like a nirvana: something I wouldn’t have to spend my meager retirement savings on in the future. 

But I think that’s wishful thinking. It’s funny how fast we forget where we were and what we struggled with not so long ago. The notion of sharing images via the Internet wasn’t really in existence until this century, for example. But that also means that kids finishing high school soon will have lived their life entirely in a “photos only live as bits in the ether” world soon. Those same children don’t remember 48k baud modems and how slow data transfer used to be (let alone the predecessors). Their children won’t remember how slow LTE was or how data-constrained their phones were. 

Tech is relentless. 

Which brings me back to megapixels. Many of the writers of those emails I received seem to think that “I’ve got enough.” Well, yes, in one sense, you do. Indeed, if you aren’t printing larger than a desktop inkjet printer will let you, you may have more than enough pixels. Except

Digital cameras are, by definition, digital. They perform analog-to-digital conversion. The Bayer cameras perform interpolated data processing to get full color. I’ve mentioned this before, but if you want to truly get best-possible RGB data for a 4K video screen—which by one definition is 8mp—you actually need almost 40mp from a Bayer sensor. And the TV makers are already talking about 8K video. 

But it isn’t just that. More pixels is the equivalent to more digital sampling. More digital sampling means that the shape and size of the analog data is more accurately recorded. Those of you who have D810’s probably know where I’m going here. Try outputting an 8mp image from your 36mp NEF file with good processing techniques. The accuracy and even punch of that 8mp image is clearly better than you achieved with 8mp cameras. Edge acuity rocks. Antialiasing effects of the digital processing and Bayer demosaic disappear. 

So, yes, 8mp may “be enough.” But it’s not nearly optimal. You’re going to see images taken by the guy with the “more megapixel” camera and they’re going to look better than yours, even in smallish sizes, and thus you’re going to…eventually…give in to buying more pixels. 

Which will trigger you buying more computer and more storage and faster bandwidth. But you’ll already be buying more bandwidth if you’re trying to keep up with what your latest TV or even your phone is doing. Heck, you may be buying more storage already to deal with all that data that the additional bandwidth is pushing at you. 

Put simply, you’re on the wagon and it’s tough to get off. 

Want to really get off? Buy a film camera—great ones in excellent shape cost less used than a D3300 these days—and shoot film. Oh, wait. You’ll be constantly spending money on film, on developing, on printing, and heck you may decide that you need to digitize those images and then, sure enough, you’re back on the tech wagon again. 

wagon wheel

What I think that all those emails are actually telling me is something a bit different than at first glance. What you’re really saying is that megapixels alone simply aren’t compelling to you to upgrade from your current camera. You’re on the wagon, but you think the current wheels will last another few kilometers, and the new bigger wheels don’t seem to make you go any faster. 

That said, Sony has pretty much said that their design goals for their sensors are more, more, more. More pixels, more dynamic range, more speed, more of anything they can stick in. Given Sony’s Intel-like position at the center of things for cameras, that means that the more pixels push won’t be stopping any time soon. I have no problems with that: I always want more sampling if I can get it. 

The other thing that people are discovering is this: digital photography can be more expensive than film photography. With film, you rarely bought a new camera, and you had film/processing/printing costs that varied with use and thus were manageable by use. While film and processing might keep nickel-and-diming you to death, that was tolerable. I was shooting maybe 300 rolls of film a year, with an implied cost of US$3000 annually. But with digital I’m upgrading US$3000 bodies every two years, upgrading US$3000 computers every couple of years, adding storage at maybe another US$1000 a year (cards and drives), and so on. The implied cost is actually as high if not higher than with film. The less you shoot, the more the implied cost goes up per shot compared to film. Which is one reason why we’re losing the casual shooters and only the true enthusiasts and pros are still upgrading regularly: the costs are too high. 

So if the on-going costs of digital photography are too high and your smartphone already takes adequate photos for your needs, guess which device you upgrade regularly? Yep, the smartphone. And the smartphone’s camera gets better with each iteration, too, pushing the bar that the dedicated camera has to jump over higher and higher, which in turn pushes the implied cost of using such a camera up. 

But let me put a thought in your head (warning: foreshadowing): images have value. Great images have greater value. I believe in that, and I believe that every photographer who really considers themselves a photographer needs to embrace that thought and promote it. It isn’t about how cheaply you can shoot a wedding, it’s about how well you can shoot a wedding. It’s not about how you’d trade free photos for easy access, it’s about how great your photos can be with the right access. And if you want to take great photos you want optimal data in your capture. Which means more megapixels.

So get used to being on the wagon. It’s rolling faster than ever. Tomorrow we’ll be able to take even greater images than today, and images that potentially have more value. Isn’t that a good thing?

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