Anti-Megapixel Rant

Regrettably this week's feature photograph and the photographs in this section could not be of Thailand subjects.  I’d have preferred them to be, but I wanted to make a point about the image being about the photographer and not the camera and going back 5-12 years for examples I discovered I wasn’t in Thailand during the periods I used certain cameras. Still, I hope you’ll find the samples and explanations as useful as ever.

In the last 6-12 months we’ve had a record number of DSLRs come on the market and I get many questions about which camera is the best and why, if someone should upgrade from their “old” model to a new model (often at a cost of $3000-$8000 USD), and if the new camera will allow them to take better pictures.  The answers are as varied as are the skills of the people asking the questions.  Certainly the newer cameras have higher image quality in most cases and useful new features.  The real question is if the individual asking the question(s) would benefit at their current skill level and with their current needs and type(s) of photography.  In most cases the answer is “yes, but only marginally.” By marginally I mean by a barely perceptible / visual amount.  The exception to this would be those upgrading from a non-DSLR or someone upgrading from a APC sized DSLR to a full frame DSLR.  There is a huge difference in features and image quality between a consumer point and shoot and ANY DSLR, or the small APC DSLR sensor and a full frame DSLR sensor.

And then there’s the famous “the new model has more MEGAPIXELS, isn’t this important?  Won’t my pictures look better if I shoot a DSLR that can capture 21mp instead of my 8mp model?”  And of course even the consumer point and shoot market is being hyped by the marketers claiming more megapixels make a better camera.  Everyone seems to be impressed by more megapixels!  It’s not about the megapixels, it’s about the person pressing the shutter release.

What exactly will more megapixels do for you?  Under optimum conditions they will provide marginally more detail in the scene allowing you to make bigger prints or perhaps more useful allow you to crop the image to taste to a greater degree after the image is captured.  Most of the samples I’m about to show you were captured using a Nikon D2h 4mp DSLR.  Yes, you heard right, only 4mp!  And I’ve sold many 20x24” prints from these files!  How much bigger will you print?  20x24 inches is a pretty big print.  Yes, when I upgraded to my Canon 1dsMarkII with 16.7 megapixels I had more detail in my images, but not enough for the average person looking at prints of the same scene to be able to pick out with any degree of reliability which camera produced which print.  I purchased the Canon 1dsMarkII for reasons other than megapixels.  I do admit, the extra megapixels allow me to crop after the fact for a more pleasing composition and still maintain enough megapixel real estate for a good sized print, but I wouldn’t upgrade my camera just for this feature.

Taken with a 4mp Nikon D2h

This image of the eagle was captured with the Nikon D2h 4mp camera, the lens was wide open at F2.8, the shot was hand held, and the ISO was set to ISO 1000!!!  To further make my point as I’m sure you can see how sharp this image is, how defined the eye and the tines of the feathers are, this is a crop of the main image (eagles are difficult to get close to), about 10% of the original 4mp frame!

Taken with a 4mp Nikon D2h

From the same outing, I captured several hundred eagle pictures that day, all more or less of the same sharpness and quality.

Taken with a 4mp Nikon D2h

This shot is of an African Crane at a wildlife park.  The crane is in standby mode.  This was also shot at F2.8, handheld, but at ISO 200.  This image like all the images here have been reduced by a factor of roughly 5x for web presentation.  The original makes excellent 20x24” prints.

Taken with a 4mp Nikon D2h

From the same outing, same African Crane, but no longer in standby mode.

Taken with a 4mp Nikon D2h

This is an elk in the wild from a distance of about 200 meters.  Same lens and body as the shots above, same F2.8 aperture, handheld, ISO 200.  The amount of detail in the full size original is amazing.

Taken with a 4mp Nikon D2h

I know some will ask “a capture of an animal is great, but what about a landscape with much more detail?”  Above is your answer.  This shot of Crater Lake is also reduced by a factor of 5x for web presentation.  It was taken with the Nikon D2h and Nikkor 12-24mm lens, handheld, F8.  This one was published in a backpacking magazine.  Only 4mp folks!

Taken with a 4mp Nikon D2h

And someone else will ask “but is 4mp enough for portraits?”  The above image is a crop, about 7% of the original frame, of a portrait I did with the 4mp D2h.  This was has even been heavily “softened” because the detail was so extreme it showed all the skin pores.  Notice the amount of detail in the iris of the eyes?

Taken with a 2mp Olympus point and shoot!

Just to drive home my point a bit the above shot was taken with a 2mp, yes 2mp, POINT AND SHOOT Olympus in 1998.. This is one of my favorite scenes.  Sure, I wish I’d had the future Canon 1dsMarkII with me on this day and it probably would have made a better image.  What was I doing with a point and shoot 2mp camera in this position after hiking for hours to get to this vantage point?  I was using the point and shoot camera as a light meter for my film camera, the same $65 pawn shop special I used to capture this week's feature photograph.  P&S cameras make excellent ‘live’ light meters which allow you to transfer the settings very near straight across.  After dialing in the consumer 2mp point and shoot digital, I knew exactly which settings to use on my film SLR.

I understand getting the newest DSLR is a great deal of fun, but let’s not kid ourselves into believing the camera will make you a better photographer.  Also, whenever new cameras come to market all the old cameras end up as excellent deals on EBay and other used venues.  If you can’t afford or just don’t want to spend the money for the latest and greatest, perhaps your budget will allow the purchase of last year's barely used DSLR?