***UPDATE 3/12/2008 – Nikon D3x

With all these new digital cameras coming out with higher and higher pixel counts raises the issue of what is enough. Obviously there are advantages of higher resolution images: better detail, more ability to crop etc, but there are a number of drawbacks as well: smaller pixels, higher noise levels etc. SO where is that optimum trade off? Why do those pixel counts keep jumping?

It is not that well known, but the resolution of today’s 7, 8, 10, 12 megapixel cameras is better than that of a traditional frame of 35mm film. So why are those numbers jumping? What is with this meagapixel race? Megapixels are easy to sell, sales assisstants and consumers alike have been taught that more megapixels = better pictures.

If we look at the newest DSLR offerings from Nikon (24mp D3x, 12mp D3/D90/D300/D700), Canon (10mp EOS 1D III, 21mp EOS 1Ds III/5D II, 15mp EOS 50D) and Sony (24mp A700, 14mp A350) it looks like there will continue to be a rise in the megapixel counts. What will the next generation bring with it?

From a technical point of view there are limitations with cramming more and more pixels onto a sensor. The biggest sensors in a DSLR is the same size as a frame of 35mm film (36mm x24mm) to cram 12 million pixels onto it means there is plenty of room, but to fit 21 or 24 million pixels onto it means the photosites (the light sensitive bits) get smaller which leads to lower sensitivity which means more problems in low light. Keep in mind that the sensor in a compact camera is about the same size as your fingernail (5mmx4mm to 7mmx5mm, exact sizes here) so those photosites are getting very small and the newest generation have 12-14mp in them.

If you look at my kit you will find that 12mp is where I work. BUT all of my cameras have a well known ability in low light, for the DSLR’s this is easy, but for the Fuji F100fd this is amazing as the photosites on that sensor are amazingly small.

Back to the question, how much is enough? I would say that 12mp is about as large as you want to go with a APS-C crop sensor (15x23mm approx) DSLR, and for a full frame (ie 24x36mm sensor) DSLR then 12mp is where they are best atm but the Canon 21mp and Nikon 24mp are only just approaching the equivalent pixel denisity/photosite size of a 12mp APS-C sensor. In compact cameras, go with the 10mp range and be aware that it will be hard to get good images in low light.

For Nikon/Canon/Sony PLEASE stop this madness, dont go more pixels at the expense of quality!!!