How many megapixels must digital camera have?

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Many digital camera buyers wonder: how many megapixels does my digital camera need to have when I buy it? Here’s the background information on pixels, sensors, resolutions and what to look for when buying a digital camera:

How many megapixels does a good camera have?

You can base your camera purchase on budget or the resulting poster size.

Photos taken with a smartphone go up to A4 size (12 MP).

How many megapixels must my digital camera have?
Let’s have a quick answer: If you make the megapixel resolution of your camera purchase dependent on the poster size you want to hang on your wall, you can read off the megapixels from this *fotowissen megapixel calculator:

Accordingly, the following answers are possible:

DIN-A3 poster = 16 megapixels.
DIN-A2 poster = 30 megapixels.
But now a little more theory for those who want to know more and are interested in the technology and results:

Compact camera, bridge camera, SLR, smartphone – megapixel resolution is overestimated.
As a photographer, sometimes you almost want to answer: The main thing is that you have a camera with you. How many beautiful motifs are lost to us just because we don’t take a camera with us at the right time or it’s not ready in time?

The best digital camera is the one you have with you.

Sometimes a six megapixel cell phone camera is enough for us. But if you are thinking about buying a camera, now we will do everything we can to find a basic and perfect answer for you:

A digital camera should have at least six megapixel image resolution. If you want to buy a small compact digital camera, then the camera should not have more than 16 megapixels, otherwise the result will currently have too much noise or too little texture (look muddy) in low light.

More megapixel digital cameras means more noise
If we want to get a little more into the nitty gritty of the question “How many megapixels does my camera need to have?” the following explanations are useful:

The megapixel upgrade of digital camera manufacturers is slowed down by the noise performance of digital cameras in low light. The more millions of pixels there are on a small chip, the more noise there is in the resulting image when I take it in a dark environment. If the issue of noise were not so difficult for manufacturers, then more and more pixels per sensor area would probably be used in most cameras.

Many manufacturers are going the route of fitting too many pixels onto sensors that are too small. These companies artificially suppress noise in low light using software in the camera. The result is mostly “muddy”, soft photos with little texture coming out of the camera.

1 megapixel = 1 million pixels

Good tool / good camera is helpful
However, photography is really fun with good, smart tools and even better know-how. Good tools are always there for you. First of all, make sure that the camera fits well in your hand and that you like it. Second, it is important that your camera offers a viewfinder, as you can design better with a viewfinder camera. Thirdly, the sensor size is also decisive (e.g. APS-C). Only as fourth you pay attention to the millions of pixels of the digital camera. More about that in a moment…

More important than the megapixels is a viewfinder in the digital camera.

Tips for the camera
Tip 1 good digital camera / hand-held camera
When buying a camera, pay attention to how the digital camera feels in your hands (hand flatterer) and whether you like it. If you like the camera, you will surely prefer to take pictures with it!

Tip 2 good camera / viewfinder
Essential: A good digital camera offers a viewfinder (OVF / EVF). No matter which viewfinder, optical or electronic, the image will always be better through the viewfinder than if you look at a display with your arms outstretched.

Tip 3 good camera / sensor
Pay attention to the sensor size. Compact cameras have small sensors (often specified as 1/2.4″ inch). Small sensors often produce large noise or muddy images in low light.

Tip 4 good camera / megapixel camera
When considering a megapixel digital camera, pay attention to the sensor size. Compact cameras with more than 12 megapixels produce a lot of noise in low light and high ISO. If already 12 megapixels then on a larger CMOS (sensor). Here, more than 12 megapixels (16-24 MP) are also allowed.

Waiting time with many megapixels
A camera with more than 30 megapixels is designed for advertising, fashion or other fields of photography and is correspondingly expensive. This is also due to the big, better lenses needed for such cameras. One of the disadvantages of so many megapixels is the amount of data you load onto the memory chip and later onto your computer. A RAW photo from a high-resolution camera (RAW makes sense in professional photography) is from about 33 megabytes on the memory card.

The size of the images on the memory card alone is not a problem with falling prices of SD cards or CFExpress cards, but if you open the photo in an image editor, it will take longer, because it is 85 megabytes when opened (at 8-bit color depth). If you work with a RAW photo, then you will work even with 16 BIT color depth and then the photo is 170 megabytes in open state. If we open a photo library with 500 photos from a 30 megapixel camera, then it will take a correspondingly long time to evaluate those photos and separate the good from the bad.

Megapixel sizes in megabytes and poster size
Here is the megabyte size of an opened photo in image processing (usually 8 BIT color depth, in professional photography 16 BIT). Also, the poster size at 300 dpi, up to which photographers can enlarge without upsizing the image, at normal viewing distance:

21 megapixel chips are found in many DSLR / digital SLR cameras, 12-20 megapixel chips are found in bridge cameras and DSLRs, but now also in compact cameras, 8-20 megapixel chips are found in some smartphones.

The photo of an 8 megapixel camera when open about 24 megabytes in size and opens accordingly a little faster. A photo from the 8 megapixel camera is about 20 × 30 cm at a photo software setting of 250 dpi (which is the resolution per inch needed to print or print a photo well). This resolution is sufficient for smaller posters (about A4 size).

I claim that most amateurs have their photos developed in 10 × 15 cm or 13 × 18 cm format. Accordingly, 8 megapixel cameras would be perfectly adequate for amateurs. I don’t need 250 dpi for a stretcher frame, so I can enlarge the photo accordingly. I have already enlarged photos with an image resolution of 8 megapixel cameras with excellent results on 90 x 60 cm stretcher frames and even photo prints. An 8 megapixel camera is also sufficient for most digital albums. So why more pixels in the camera?

Video resolution for printing / poster

Crops become possible
One of the reasons for more pixels can be that I like to edit the photos and choose cutouts afterwards. To choose a crop in the photo and still be able to enlarge the photo to poster size, I need many pixels on the camera chip. A good value for an ambitious amateur, but also professional, who corrects the photos on the computer, is 12 to 24 megapixels for a camera. With that, most purposes can certainly be fulfilled. A photo from a 12 megapixel camera will provide prints of about 30*40 cm at 250 dpi. On stretcher or inkjet print also larger posters. Many of the good SLR cameras have 16 to 24 MP sensors.

Chip sizes and megapixels in comparison
iPhone 8 – (sensor size 1.22 x 1.22mm), 12 megapixels, 12 MP
iPhone X – (sensor size 7.01 x 5.79mm), 12 megapixels
Sony Cybershot DSC-HX5V – CMOS sensor (sensor size 5.92 x 4.57mm), allegedly 12 megapixels, but according to the website only effectively 10.2 million pixels
Sony RX100 VA – CMOS (sensor size 13.2 mm × 8.8 mm / “1 inch sensor”), 20 MP
Canon 500D – CMOS APS-C sensor (22.3 x 14.9 mm), 15.1 MP
Canon 7D – CMOS APS-C sensor (22.3 x 14.9 mm), 18 MP
Canon 5D – CMOS sensor (35.8 x 23.9 mm), 12.8 MP
Canon 5D Mark II – CMOS sensor (36 x 24 mm), 21.1 megapixels
Nikon D3100 – CMOS APS-C sensor (23.1 x 15.4 mm), 14 megapixels
Nikon D700 – CMOS sensor (36.0 x 23.9 mm), 12.8 megapixels
Nikon D800 – CMOS sensor (35.9 x 24 mm), 36.3 megapixels
Fujifilm GFX 50S, 50R – CMOS sensor (43.8 x 32.9mm), 51.4 megapixels
Fujifilm GFX 100 – CMOS sensor (43.8 x 32.9mm), 101.8 megapixels
Inside/light gray: compact camera 1/2.4″, middle/medium gray: APS-C sensor, outside/dark gray: full frame sensor
It is now interesting to compare how many pixels are accommodated on one square millimeter of the sensor:

iPhone 8 – approx. 715,000 pixels per sq. mm.
iPhone X – approx. 296,000
Sony Cybershot DSC-HX5V – approx. 350,000
Canon 500D – approx. 47,000
Canon 7D – approx. 54.000
Canon 7D Mark II (20.2 MP) – 63,040
Canon 5D – approx. 15.000
Canon 5D Mark II (21 MP) – approx. 25,486
Canon 5D Mark III (22.3 MP) – approx. 27.000
Canon 5DS R (50.6 MP) – approx. 61,410
Canon EOS R5 (45 MP, 8,192 x 5,464 pixels) – approx 51,806
Leica SL (24 MP) – 29,100
Nikon D3100 – ca 40.000
Nikon D700 – approx. 15,000
Nikon D800 / D810 (36.3 MP) – approx. 44,000
Sony Alpha 7S II (12.2 MP) – approx. 15,100
Sony Alpha 7 II (24.3 MP) – 29,750
Sony Alpha 7R II (42.4 MP) – approx 51,651
Sony Alpha 7R IV (61 MP) – approx 70,601
Pentax 645D medium format* (40MP) – ca 27.200
Fujifilm GFX 50S / GFX 50R medium format* (51MP) – 35.669
Fujifilm GFX 100R medium format* (100MP) – 70,644
Hasselblad X1D-50c medium format* (50MP) – 35,300
*The term medium format in the digital age is confusing: the film of an analog medium format camera was at least about 56x56mm (3,136 sqmm). Today’s “medium format” sensors are “only” about 44x33mm (1,452 sqmm).

Digital noise
Since all manufacturers use a similar technique to remove noise from the photo in lower light and higher ISO (light sensitivity), now guess which cameras struggle with more noise. Many megapixels on a small chip at high ISO -> big noise. Limiting this, it has to be said that a lot has happened in the last few years. The Canon 500D and 5D are relatively old cameras and should not appear in the test at all. In contrast, the Sony DSC-HX5V, Canon 7D and 5D Mark III, Canon 6D, EOS 5DsR, Sony Alpha 7R IV and the Nikon digital cameras are newer (Nikon D810, Nikon D700, … ). Of course, the prices of the cameras are also completely different. The comparison is only for the chip sizes and pixels per square millimeter!

Finally, the print size of a 21 megapixel camera at 250 dpi: about 40*60 cm.

Alternative solution for the resolution of your camera
Maybe a slightly different approach for the choice of the camera: If you expose a lot of photos, i.e. if you are more experimental and want to take the camera with you quickly and easily, then a digital camera with less pixels (12-16 megapixels) is worthwhile. If you plan carefully, select and rather take only 5 landscape photos per day, then a camera with >20 megapixels may be worthwhile. Logically, if you are a professional photographer shooting fashion, a 30+ megapixel camera is almost always worth it. If you often shoot in low light, then at least an APS-C sensor camera with less resolution is better. A prime example of great image quality in extremely low light is the full-frame Sony Alpha 7S / 7S II camera.

Conclusion megapixel digital camera for purchase decision
With the question “How many megapixels digital camera to buy?” you already realize that your camera depends on your personal preferences, the purpose and your wallet. It may be only the finance minister in your household that prevents you from buying two different cameras for different tasks.

Many of us love the idea of carrying a fast compact camera with +12 megapixels for on the go (bridge cameras or some system cameras also come into question, possibly still for the pocket) and for days when you want to take special photos with higher resolution for posters, to put a larger, heavier, more expensive and above all more unwieldy SLR or small mirrorless system camera with 16-26 megapixel resolution or more in your photo backpack.

An excellent camera with more than 40 megapixels is worth it:

If you want to hang large posters over one meter edge length (photo gallery, exhibition).
When you want to get crops of images (e.g. fashion, portrait, studio, product).
Tip: Be sure to have a poster made of your best pictures. Keeping the pictures in the computer is much too bad!

Let poster size decide
As mentioned at the beginning, you can put the cart before the horse and use the table to think about how big your posters should actually be. If in doubt, actually opt for a 50 megapixel camera that will allow you to hang the photograph of your loved one, dog, cat even large on the wall.

If in doubt, think about more megapixels, then the poster can be larger

Here is another simplified table with poster sizes and resulting megapixels of your digtial camera (rounded):

Tip Camera Purchase #1
The best camera is also the one that feels good in your hand. Hardly anyone thinks about this when buying a camera, but it is essential. The weight can also be decisive in whether you like to take the digital camera with you later.

Tip for buying a camera #2
Be sure to go to a good dealer and buy your camera there. Only the dealer can give you good advice if you are not an expert. This can save a lot of money and you can also always buy accessories there and hold them in your hands and try them beforehand. Do not buy after the advice on the Internet, otherwise there will soon be no advice, but only online trade without advice. The advice is very valuable!

Tip camera purchase #3
Taking pictures with the display is always more difficult than taking pictures with a viewfinder. The camera viewfinder provides better grip, less wobble, better framing and better subject vision primarily in sunlight due to head contact.

Three selected cameras for different budgets
I have selected three cameras for you, according to the latest information, that I particularly like. They are a compact camera, a bridge camera and a mirrorless system camera. You can grow and get creative with all three cameras (links to Amazon and Calumetphoto):

Best compact digital camera with viewfinder (!) and folding display, 20 MP.

Sony RX 100VA

This is my own always-on camera.

Test report >>

© Peter Roskothen is a professional photographer, media designer, photo journalist and writes on the topic: How many megapixels must my digital camera have?
In own thing (advertisement for the individual photo course):

Tip photo course
In your photo course at Fotoschule Roskothen, I will also advise you on your camera equipment, the right lenses and more. The camera does not make the photo, but the person behind it does. With your photo course you will learn to take better photos, no matter with which digital camera! This course is great fun and will help you:

Photo Course Information >>

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