The quest for quality photography
In the past, not only did film go through technical improvements to improve photos, but cameras improved, first by adding assists such as rangefinders and exposure meters, to eventually automating many aspects of taking a photo. Of course, modern photographers can still operate in manual modes when desired, but modern equipment brings many advantages.
While features were being added to cameras over the years, there was one aspect where quality was being reduced – the film size. What is commonly thought of as the film standard (35mm) was at one time a compact film, and a compromise in quality to make smaller cameras. Sometimes innovations are in areas that create less quality, but are otherwise compelling – in this case, being less expensive and smaller, which is often a virtue when carrying a camera around.
In the early days of digital, improvements came pretty quickly. Every couple of years saw a significant jump in the pixels that make up the sensor (and resulting image). A jump from 1 megapixel to 2 is huge – literally a doubling of the data. Going from 2mp to 3 is still huge, even though it’s not a doubling. You probably could notice this difference even on typical 4x6 prints. An 8x10 print with a 3mp camera probably would not look great, though. Moving up to 6 or 7mp, now a quality 8x10 was possible, but much larger, and results might not be great. So, what we see is a steady increase in not just quality overall, but tangible results in being able to print at larger sizes.
How many pixels do you need?
Cameras were sold for years based upon the number of megapixels. It made sense, as typically more mp meant higher quality. At some point, does adding more mp do you any good? I’d say that this is both yes and no. At some point, you reach a limit where you can perform pretty much what you need to do. For years, I’ve been using a 16mp camera, and I can pretty much print at whatever size I want.
So, is that it? Is 16mp the magic number? Perhaps just for me? Perhaps, perhaps not.
For the most part, 16mp is enough for me. However, there are situations where even if I have enough zoom, I need to crop the resulting photo. Photographing airplanes at an airshow or birds-in-flight, for example, it’s hard to ensure you keep the target in the frame, with all the motion. In that case, if I have to crop my 16mp photo down to, say, 8mp, it’s still pretty usable, but I might not want to print too large at that point. If you start with more mp, you have more leeway for cropping, when desired or necessary. However, I think we’re fast approaching the point of “good enough”.
Sensor size matters. It really defines how much light can be gathered, in addition to the lens. Larger is better. So why have small sensors? As was the case with 35mm cameras, the smaller size results in less expensive cameras, as well as compact size. Most people are now willing to use their phone as their camera, and the quality is getting quite acceptable for casual use. For best results, ensure there is plenty of light.
Cameras can be measured in terms of dynamic range and color as well, however, most advanced cameras are good enough these days. Having said that, there are situations where more dynamic range makes a noticeable difference, and allows one to bring up more detail in the shadows, for instance.
Lenses need to be of higher quality to make use of higher megapixel counts.
Autofocus systems have improved greatly in recent years, and that might be reason enough to want to upgrade your camera at some point.
There is more to consider if getting more into photography, but I mostly wanted to suggest that there is not as much of a need to worry about the megapixel count in today’s cameras, as diminishing returns starts to kick in for most of us, and other factors also become important. There still are some people who frequently upgrade their cameras, sometimes every time a new model comes out, but this should not be strictly necessary. However, a professional photographer could more easily justify upgrading more frequently than a hobbiest or amateur photographer.