Every year or so, I get up on my soapbox and rant about how camera manufacturers insist on cramming extra pixels into their compact digital camera sensors, to the detriment of the final image. Looks like I have to do it again.
Here’s a quick pop quiz:
Q: How many Megapixels do you need to get a photo-quality 8x10-inch print at normal viewing distance with a compact digital camera?
A: 6 Megapixels.
Q: What percentage of prints ordered in the United States are 8x10 or larger?
A: Less than 5%.
Q: What percentage of prints ordered in the United States are 5x7 inches or smaller?
A: Over 95%
Q: So…how much resolution does a typical snapshooter need in a compact digital camera?
A: 6 Megapixels
Q: How many 6MP stand-alone digital cameras are currently in production?
Q: As of last month, what is the highest resolution compact digital compact camera being made?
A: 16 Megapixels!
This Canon A3300 is one of more than a dozen 16MP compact digital cameras that were introduced last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It may produce good shots at the lowest ISO setting, but I have a feeling the high ISO shots won’t look so good.
Last year, when the top pixel count reached 14MP, I dutifully tried a few of these cameras out. Many claimed high ISOs of 1600, but when I actually took pictures at these inflated speeds, the digital noise was so unacceptable that the resulting images were a pointillist mess. Even at ISO 400, a speed that should generate pretty good results, many images were noisy. Now, they’re doing it again. This time, the latest round of compact cameras top out at 16MP.
Pixel Theory Revisited
Why are more pixels worse? Every time a camera maker puts more megapixels on the same size sensor, each pixel must be shrunk, which means less light will be allowed in at each pixel. (Remember how smaller apertures let less light in? It applies the same way with pixel size!) In addition, larger sensors or sensors with fewer pixels have a septum separating each pixel that block stray light from entering neighboring pixels. With each micron of space at a premium on the sensor, these septums are removed, and the result is light spilling from one pixel into another. This is what gives images shot by high megapixel sensor cameras a foggy, low contrast look in certain situations.
New technology sensor and image engine innovations have reduced the problems described above, but the problems are still noticeable enough to make you wonder why your “better” camera is producing worse pictures.
Now that CES is done, we know the megapixel madness took a step in the wrong direction as several camera companies unveiled compact digital cameras with tiny sensors that somehow hold 16 Megapixels.
So once again, I throw a challenge at camera companies: Rather than increasing pixel count, why not improve overall image quality by pulling back to, say, 10MP and put R&D into improving noise reduction and reducing shutter lag?
Serious photographers are willing to pay a premium for relatively low resolution pocket-sized cameras like this Panasonic Lumix LX-5 because, at 10MP, it produces better overall image quality than compact cameras with 14MP or 16MP sensors.
The “Supersize Me” Trap
Camera makers have fallen into the “Supersize Me” trap, where the uneducated consumer is convinced that more is better. But as we now know, supersized helpings of junk food cause obesity and other serious health problems… and supersized pixel counts lead to poor images.
And guess what, folks? The camera companies know this, too! Almost every digital camera maker’s premium cameras—the ones they market to enthusiasts (who presumably have a better understanding of how cameras work and a more sophisticated appreciation of a good, sharp photo)—have 10MP sensors. Not 14MP. 10MP. Why? So the cameras can produce technically better images!
Advice to snapshooters and hobbyists
I have had many a point-and-shooter come up to me and tell me “hey, what’s wrong with my camera? The pictures look all foggy. It’s 14 megapixels, isn’t that better?” These are intelligent people who have fallen into the Megapixel Madness trap. Whenever someone approaches me for camera-buying advice, I tell them to stay away from the high megapixel marketing and to instead go for 10MP compact cameras.
And that’s my advice to you. 10MP cameras may not deliver DSLR-quality results, but some models, like the Panasonic Lumix LX-5, the Canon G12, and Nikon P-7000, deliver images that hold up very well, even up to 11x14 prints at ISO 400 when shooting a JPEG with noise reduction. A 14MP camera may give you grainy garbage at high ISOs, and who knows what you’d get with a 16MP camera!
Already own a 14- or 16MP compact? Don't panic!
A note to those who feel they must have a 14 or 16MP resolution compact camera (or you've alread bought one or got one as a gift): At ISO 100, they're quite good. I strongly recommend never using them at a higher speed than 100. Work within that limitation, and you should be reasonably happy with the results. If you do set your camera to a higher speed and are disappointed by the images, remember: I told you so.