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EDITORIAL: Stop the Megapixel Madness!

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EDITORIAL: Stop the Megapixel Madness!

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February 27, 2007

(Note: The opinions expressed in the following rant are mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the owner, management, or any other employees of Adorama Camera.) As we near PMA and new cameras are being announced almost every day, I see a growing level of insanity in the photo industry. Manufacturers are parading in front of us tiny little cameras with tiny little sensors with eight, nine, ten or even (heaven help us) 12 million pixels (MP) squeezed onto their diminutive surfaces with no thought to the quality of the images they produce. And they're charging top dollar for these cameras.

The following is true: At normal viewing distances, A 4MP camera, such as the Kodak EasyShare C432 (details here) provides sufficient resolution for a sharp 5x7-inch print. A 5MP camera (like these), is enough for a high-quality 8x10, and a 6MP camera (there are plenty here) will produce a fine 11x14. Unless you make poster-sized prints, you really don't need more resolution than that. Oh, and optical anti-shake technology is a useful feature to have. If you're a snapshooter, that's all you really need to know.

They should have known better

The manufacturers know better. They know that when you have more than, say, seven million pixels on a 1/1.8-inch CCD sensor, something has to give. They know each pixel has its own microscopic lens, and each lens is separated by a microns-wide wall, or septum, to prevent light from falling from one pixel into the next and thereby reducing image quality. And they know that to make room for eight, nine, or (heaven help us, again) ten million pixels, those septums get either unusably thin, or are removed altogether.

And the manufacturers know the result of removing septums is light spillover from one pixel lens onto its neighbor, which causes digital noise, also known as grain, as well as other artifacts, appearing on pictures taken at moderate to high ISO settings.

The buzz about speed

To add to this insanity, the same manufacturers are boosting the ISO sensitivity, to ISO 1600 or higher, on these sensors. Now, I recently bought an electric guitar and an amplifier, and I've learned by fiddling with the knobs that boosting the gain setting on an amplifier increases the volume, but it also produces distortion and feedback. That's OK if you're Jimi Hendrix, but not if you're a photographer: Boosting the ISO has a similar effect as increasing the gain on an amp, causing more distorting noise (what is often referred to as "grain") on the resulting images.

"But," you say, "if I have a camera with an eight, nine, ten or (heaven help me) 12 megapixel sensor, I'll be able to make bigger prints." Well, yes, but they'll be poor quality overall due to the problems described above. The poster-sized prints you might make from a 12MP compact camera may be unusable due to the matzah ball-sized grain.

If you're a snapshooter (and most people who buy compact cameras are), its unlikely you'll make any 11x14s and you'll probably make a only handful of 8x10 prints. In fact, photo industry surveys show that 96% of all prints made at a photo lab are 4x6 inches. At 4x6 inches, you won't see the difference between a photo shot with a 5MP camera and a 10MP camera (although you might see more grain on the 10MP print).

(Want to make sharp, beautiful poster-sized prints? Invest in an 8MP DSLR. It has a larger sensor that can handle all of those pixels without the technical compromises.)

Of pixels and junk food

So why do manufacturers continue to introduce cameras with so many undesirable extra pixels? Because we live in a culture where, if it's good, then a lot of what's good must be better. Like supersized fries at fast food joints and tubs of popcorn at the movies. Well it turns out supersized fries and the fake butter in that popcorn will clog your arteries, but we eat them anyway. Manufacturers surveyed U.S. consumers and found that they drooled more over 12MP cameras than over 6MP camera. And so, they make seven, eight, nine, and (heave help us) ten megapixel cameras, which are readily available at an inflated price.

Instead of surveying consumers, the photo industry should educate them about making intelligent camera-buying decisions that can save them money and give them better overall image quality.

But since they probably won't do this, I have a plan

Stop the madness!

My plan is for you, dear consumer, to vote with your pocketbook. When shopping for a digital compact camera, ignore anything that offers more than 7MP. Concentrate instead on things like the lens (3x zoom? 5x? Does it start at 28mm, a more useful focal length than 38mm?), image stabilization (optical is better), LCD size (2.5 inches is standard these days), and shooting modes (which can come in handy in tricky lighting). You'll be surprised how much you can save by limiting the pixels and concentrating on other desirable features.

Many cameras that fit the above criteria can be had for under $200 (go here to read about some of our favorites), so you can save your hard-earned bucks for things you'll really need, like memory cards (which are getting cheaper every day) and overpriced ink for your inkjet printer (which probably won't get cheaper--but that's another story).

Who knows? Maybe you, the consumer, can help bring sanity back to the photo industry.

The opinions expressed in the preceding rant are mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the owner, management, or any other employees of Adorama Camera.

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