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Buying A Digital Camera: How Many Megapixels Do You Need?

By: Andrew Goodall

Tips and Advice 'Megapixel' is one of the most overused words in the language of digital photography. Is it just another buzz-word, or do megapixels really matter?

Tell anyone you are thinking of buying a new digital camera, and the first question they will probably ask you is "How many megapixels does it have?" In my gallery I often overhear comments like "I would love to take better photos, but my camera doesn't have enough megapixels."

Like computers and the internet, digital photography has bred two types of 'expert.' There are people who know a lot. Then there are the people who know just a little, but think they know everything. Many of these people have been persuaded (most likely by a salesman trying to increase his commission) that the key to good photography is a high megapixel rating. By clinging to this notion, they may well be ignoring more important factors that could help them become better photographers.

The number of pixels in a photo determines how much you can enlarge the picture without losing image quality. The more megapixels, the bigger the print. But how important is this really, for most photographers in today's digital world?

Let's forget about the size of the enlargement for a moment. How many photos these days are ever printed at all, let alone enlarged to poster size? Gone are the days of shooting photos on negative film, and printing them to see the results. These days we see the results immediately in the camera, and can look at them in better detail on the computer screen. In fact, by eliminating the cost of film and developing, more people are taking more photos than ever before.

But back to the question: of all these millions of photos, how many are ever actually printed? Most pictures live their lives on a computer screen, where we see a small version of a photo at 72dpi. In fact, if we want to share them in emails or add them to webpages, we have to make them even smaller to travel in cyberspace.

Of course there are people who print a lot of their photos. I encourage everybody to print their best photos, frame them, hang them, give them as gifts...after all, what is the purpose of all these photos if we don't do something with them? But do we need a lot of megapixels to create a good print?

In most cases, the answer is no. The vast majority of printed photos are 6x4 or 5x7 inches, and very occasionally 8x12 inches. Very few photographers (apart from professionals) will ever print a poster sized enlargement. They might think they will; but almost certainly, they won't.

So, do we really need all these megapixels? I equate it to buying a car than can travel 200 kilometres per hour in a country where the speed limit is 100. The power is there, and it may give some inward pride to know it is there...but it is wasted power all the same. Apart from bragging rights, in some ways you equally well served by an old hatchback that just gets you from Point A to Point B.

Andrew Goodall's ebook "Photography in Plain English" is a great place for any beginner to learn about photography. Visit http://www.naturesimage.com.au and while you are there, sign up to the free online newsletter for even more tips and insights.
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