Can Cameras Have Too Many Megapixels?

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In our "more is better" society, camera manufactures keep increasing the resolution of their cameras. Consumers are told that more megapixels mean better pictures. But do they? The problem is they are cramming higher resolutions onto smaller sensors, and ultimately undermining the quality of the final picture. While the loss of quality might not be noticed on a typical family photo, macro imaging depends on sharp details.

What Is A Megapixel?

When you look at a digital photograph, you are actually seeing millions of dots, each of a single color. Each of these dots is called a pixel. A picture that is a thousand pixels wide and thousand pixels tall has one million pixels, or one megapixel. So if you buy a camera with 4 megapixels that means it takes pictures with approximately four million little dots of colors. The number of pixels is referred to as the camera's resolution.

So a camera with more megapixels takes better pictures, right? After all it seems clear that the more pixels, the finer the detail that can be captured. Macro imaging is all about the detail, so many amateur photographers think the best way to get the sharpest pictures is to buy a camera with the highest megapixel rating possible. However it's not quite that simple.

Understanding Sensor Size

When you take a picture, the image is captured by a sensor. The sensor determines the colors of each pixel in the image. The more pixels in the image, the less space on the sensor dedicated to that pixel. And the smaller the space for each pixel, the fewer photons of light it can gather and the less accurately it will correctly reproduce the fine details of your subject.

This wouldn't be such a problem if camera manufacturers increased sensor size as they increased resolution. However not only are sensors not growing, they are actually shrinking. People want smaller cameras, and you can't have a small camera if you have a large sensor. So a typical modern consumer camera is less capable of sharp macro imaging than a camera from ten or twenty years ago.

Professional Quality

This confuses amateur photographers when buying cameras. They might find a camera for $100. Then they find another camera that is $10,000 and offers the same or even lower resolution. Why, they ask, would anyone pay that much for a camera?

Try macro imaging with the cheap camera and the expensive one and you'll see why. The expensive camera is for professional photographers and offers a level of quality that the cheap camera won't come close to. Features such as a larger light sensor and better lenses greatly enhance the final image. While this is overkill if you are just updating your blog photo, this level of quality is essential in endeavors such as scientific photography.

People who intend to do a lot of macro imaging should invest in high quality photography equipment. Those who use macro imaging less often might not be able to justify the expense, but rather than settling for inferior equipment, hire a commercial photographer to do the work.

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