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How Many Megapixels Do You Really Need?

With the recent announcement of the 36.3 megapixel Nikon D800 and D800E, I figured it was high-time I write a blog post about megapixels and how many you really need.

First things first: You should understand that I'm not a gear head. I love my equipment as much as the next guy, but to me, these are just tools in the hands of someone who knows how to use them or not. I don't care about Nikon vs. Canon, I don't need a coffee mug shaped like my favorite lens, I don't want a wrist-band that looks like the lens barrel of my 24-70mm and I'm not about to wear a t-shirt that announces my brand-loyalty to the world.

So when I talk about gear and camera specs, I'm looking at it from a realistic, practical application type viewpoint. No MTF charts, no side-by-side images, no bias towards one brand - I'm giving it to you straight. I'm also trying to talk you out of spending more money, so listen up ­čśÇ

Alright, so let's get down to the nitty gritty: How many megapixels do you really need?

To put it simply, it all boils down to how big you want to print. Or better yet, how big you will print. That's a more realistic way to look at it. Because I would love to print gallery-quality billboards, but let's be honest, I'm not going to.

Let's look at some common print sizes and see how many megapixels you'd need to print that size natively (meaning straight out of the camera with no "blowing up" the image). These calculations are done with a 300 DPI print quality for all prints below 20" in the long edge and at 200 DPI for anything above 20" in the long edge. Why? Because that's how photo labs work.

But really, where do most people's images end up? Facebook, email, Flickr, etc. Not many people print very many of their images. It's almost all digital sharing now. So let's look at the megapixels required for some common digital sharing avenues.

So think about all your pictures and where they all end up. How often do you print 24x36? What about 16x24? How about anything above 8x12?

The truth of the matter is most people's pictures rarely end up larger than 8x12. Even fewer go above 16x24. Hardly any print at 20x30 or larger. Of course I'm not talking about professional photographers, but even then, anything above 16x24 isn't the lion's share of their work.

But let's say you do want the ability to print all the way up to 30x45. Does that mean you need a 54 megapixel camera? No! Of course not! 54 megapixels is what you'd need to print straight out of the camera at 30x45 with loupe-worthy detail. You don't need that. With just a little blowing up of the file using software like Alien Skin Software's Blow Up (that's what I use) or Photoshop's built-in resizing tool, you can get great results from 18 megapixels. I know that sounds hard to believe, but I've printed at 30x45 from my 12.8 megapixel camera with results that were good enough to sell as fine art pieces to an art buyer.

The quality of a blown-up file definitely isn't as good as a native 54 megapixel file, but trust me, the difference in quality isn't worth the $31,000 price tag. Plus, you have to realize that larger prints are always viewed from further away. A huge 30x45 print isn't meant to be viewed from 3 inches away. People will look at it from whatever distance allows them to see the entire image. The bigger the image, the further back they need to be. And the further back the viewer is, the better the quality will look.

I print gallery-quality 20x30 prints all the time from my 12.8 megapixel files. That means I blow my files up to nearly double the original size and the results are great!

But if you have the money, why not buy the highest-megapixel camera you can? Well, there are a couple drawbacks to having a ton of megapixels. The first is measurable and obvious: more megapixels means bigger files. Bigger files means more memory cards and more hard drive space. For instance, my 12.8 megapixel camera produces RAW files in the neighborhood of 13 MB. So, I can fit around 79 photos in 1 GB. A 21.1 megapixel RAW file is around 25 MB. So, you could fit 41 images in 1 GB. And the Nikon D800 with its 36.3 megapixel sensor will produce RAW files around 40 MB. That will give you a mere 26 images in 1 gigabyte. That's less than a roll of film!

Given that memory cards and hard drives are pretty cheap nowadays, that might not be a big deal to you. But the other thing that people fail to acknowledge is the extra strain on your computer. Processing 36 megapixel RAW files will take quite a bit more computer power than processing 12 megapixel RAW files. Your computer will act sluggish when you work and you'll have a harder time running multiple programs at once. You may have to get a new computer altogether.

Another drawback to ultra-high megapixels is a little less measurable but, ultimately, much more expensive.

An ultra-high resolution sensor will create ultra-high resolution images that, when viewed 100% on the computer, will reveal every single little flaw in your lenses, subjects and your technique. Your 18-135mm lens that looked great on your 18 megapixel camera suddenly looks a little soft at 36 megapixels. Also, all those little blemishes that make us all human now look like huge blemishes!

This will lead to new, more expensive lenses in that never-ending quest for perfect sharpness and lots of extra Photoshop time removing blemishes. And it will all be for nothing, because although now your 36 megapixel images look great at 100% on your computer, all of your money spent on top-notch lenses and Photoshop plugins will be lost on the 0.7 megapixel file you sized-down for email and Facebook.

So really, don't put down a deposit on the D800 just yet. You probably only need about 18 megapixels at most. No reason shelling out $3000-$4000 so you can throw away half your megapixels with every image you take.

5 Quick Bits of Advice for Beginning Photographers

I've got a lot of teaching experience under my belt. I've heard every question and I've taught students of every skill level. I've taught people with zero previous experience all the way up to professional photographers with years of prior training.

I thought I'd give 5 quick bits of advice for anyone setting out to learn photography.

Beware of Other Photographers

1. Beware of other photographers.

The photography community has the same problem as most technical, artistic fields: there are tons of people who have no idea what they are talking about, but are great at sounding like they do. Your fellow beginner photographers are the worst at this. They just learned something from a book, friend or instructor and they are just foaming at the mouth to pass that information on to someone else. To them it's fact, undeniable truth, because they heard it from...somewhere. They want to sound like a pro, so they will pass on information any chance they get. Problem is, a lot of the time this information has been altered somewhere in the translation...or it's just plain wrong.

The internet is the worst for this kind of stuff. Thousands of beginners congregate in forums to share advice and tips. But it's all beginners, so it's the blind leading the blind. Camera clubs are second only to the internet for the same reason. But it's not just beginners. I've heard "pros" give out horrible, wrong information. I've seen blatantly incorrect information in a major mainstream how-to photography book published by a big name "reputable" photographer! False information is everywhere.

So beware of other photographers. Don't automatically take what they say as fact - even if they are a pro. Especially if the advice or tip is unsolicited. Get your information from reputable sources with a good track record and a portfolio to prove it.

2. Look before you listen.

That brings us nicely into my second bit of advice: look before you listen. Meaning, look at a photographer's work before you listen to any advice or tips they have to offer. If they are shouting tips and advice from the rooftops, but their work is crap, then it's elementary - they must be wrong. If the photographer's work is top-notch and they are offering up a tutorial of how to do things, then pay attention. This goes for me, too. If you don't like my work, don't listen to what I have to say. But if you like my work and you like my philosophy of getting the image right in-camera and not relying on Photoshop, then you might want to hear what I have to say.

Open your eyes to the person's work before you open your ears. If you take their advice, you'll start shooting like them. So make sure you want to shoot like them.

Used Car Salesman3. Camera store salesmen are good for 2 things: checking prices and checking stock.

I have nothing against camera store salesman as people, but as purveyors of information, they are no good. Their business is selling cameras, not teaching photography. I can't tell you how many bits of false information and horrible advice I've heard from camera store salesmen via my students. I've actually gone into camera shops with a question I already know the answer to, just to test the guy behind the counter, only to get a wrong answer. Many of them need to wear the pants in the customer/salesman relationship, so they dish out advice - often times unsolicited - just to sound like a big shot. But think about this: Would you take driving advice from a salesman at the car dealership?

There's that old saying "those who can't do, teach." As a teacher, I can't help but disagree with that statement because even the greats like Galen Rowell and Frans Lanting did/do teach photography workshops. But a statement like "those who can't use cameras, sell cameras" might be more accurate.

Tricks are for kids4. Don't use "learning tricks."

A lot of photography instructors try to use "tricks" to help students learn some basic photography concepts. A real common one is the "the shutter, aperture, ISO triangle." They are supposed to make learning easier and help you remember some of the more foreign material.

I, personally, don't use any learning tricks. I find most of them are flawed in some way and can ultimately be misinterpreted depending on who's looking at it. And my logic is this: did you use any learning tricks to remember how to get home from work or to remember your address or to learn how to drive or to figure out how to operate a computer? No. You just learned how to do it. It was understanding it and then repeating the process until you learned it permanently. Photography is no different. You just need to learn the concepts, understand why things work they way they do, and then repeat.

I feel that instructors turn to "learning tricks" when they can't adequately explain something in terms the student understands. If you have a good instructor who can communicate a concept in such a way that you actually learn it, he/she won't need to use "learning tricks."

5. Don't seek approval from others. 

I get a lot of requests to critique photos. I understand that with my considerable experience and knowledge, you might think my opinion of your picture is important. But let me be frank: it doesn't. My opinion doesn't matter and neither does any instructor's. Your friends' and family's opinions don't matter either. You're the one taking the picture. If you are happy with it, then mission accomplished. Of course, this is different if you are trying to please a client. Then it's your responsibility to seek their approval. But if this is just your hobby, then don't try to please anyone but yourself.

As you get your work out there more, people will start to serve up their opinions without really being asked. You'll get a hundred positive opinions for every 1 negative opinion. The 100 positive responses will dissolve entirely in the acid of that one negative response. But just keep in mind that the negative feedback is worthless and is usually grown from a negative personality, not from truth. Most people are too polite to debase your work even if what they have to say is valid. The ones who voice their negativity are usually failed artists themselves and they just need to bring you down to their level. Don't let them.

Becoming a Professional Photographer

A lot of people nowadays have great aspirations to become a professional photographer. They just picked up some professional equipment, they got themselves a professional website, they had a professional logo designed by a professional graphic designer, they have professional business cards all ready to go and, most importantly, they already have some paid gigs under their professional belt.

Well, if they are getting paid to take pictures, then they must be a professional photographer, right? Sure. No doubt about it. Because if you look under "professional" in the New Oxford American Dictionary, one entry is as follows:

professional
adjective
(of a person) engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as a pastime

So, yes, they are technically a professional photographer. Technically. But most people seem to overlook another entry you'll find under "professional" in the dictionary. It's a definition that I think says much more about a person. It's a title one must earn through hard work, practice and patience. It's not something one earns with a cleared check. It's the definition we should all strive for over the latter:

professional
adjective
having or showing the skill appropriate to a professional person; competent or skillful

Having or showing the skill appropriate to a professional. Competent. Skillful.

These are the things every photographer should strive for. Not just the ones looking to make a buck with their photography - everyone. We should all strive to be competent and skillful. Whether you collect payment for applying these skills is irrelevant. Family pictures, travel shots, party pictures...doesn't matter. If you are competent and skillful, you will enjoy photography and you will have great pictures to show for it.

If you do want to make money from your photography; great! There's never been a better time than now to do it. The sky is the limit and you can create a successful photography business faster than ever before. But don't be just another paid amateur. Be competent. Have the skills appropriate to a professional photographer. Know how to operate your camera with your eyes closed, be able to rattle off the shutter speed that will lighten your exposure by 2 stops, know exactly what depth of field you need, don't ever forget that a smaller f-number is a larger aperture.

Be competent. Be skillful. Be professional.

Regardless of what your financial goals are in photography. Earn the title. Earn it through training, experimenting and tons and tons of practice. Collect payment or don't. But never stop striving to be professional.