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Editorial

Is The Megapixels Race (Really, Finally) Over?

Every new digicam seems to sport a 12 megapixel resolution image sensor these days. More megapixels generally mean more pixels to capture an image — and hence theoretically more detail that can be captured by the sensor.

But is that true in practice? Do you see better image quality as megapixels increase?

As every kid who tries to eat too many chocolates in one sitting quickly learns, there is a point of diminishing returns. There comes a point when the extra pixels that are crammed onto a tiny image sensor just do not contribute to better image quality as common sense dictates — or marketers would have us believe.

We seem to be witnessing a continual decrease in image quality in almost every new generation of digicams since they passed 7MP.

But some image sensor designers have pointed out that this is a fallacy — that their research shows that every increase in megapixels have succeeded in preserving image quality.

That may be true (and they seem to have the research papers and stats to prove their point), but then we can’t help asking the following questions:

  1. Digicam image quality has not been especially good to start out with, especially at high ISOs, so there is nothing to be proud about.
  2. If there has been no gain in image quality, why do we even bother increasing the pixel count?
  3. Some camera manufacturers throw away lots of the pixels before saving a smaller file to memory card, so those higher megapixels can often be just wasted.

It is not our experience that amateur photographers are complaining about not enough detail in their images. However, we hear lots of complaints about poor image quality in low light situations (i.e. when using high ISOs). Hence the need for image sensor designers / digital camera designers to concentrate in improving the low noise high ISOs capability of their digicams, not continue to foster the “more megapixels is better” illusion when applied to tiny image sensors.

We’re starting to hear a concentrated chorus of agreement among concerned reviewers and photographers that we seemed to have indeed reached the point of diminishing returns in the megapixel race. One after another, voices are being raised that image quality in every new generation of digicams seems to be diminishing even as more megapixels are being offered.

How is that possible? More megapixels crammed onto a tiny image sensor generate more noise in images. Camera manufacturers are therefore using aggressive noise reduction to reduce (smooth out) the noise. In so doing, they unfortunately also succeed in smoothing out the detail. So we end up with this contradiction in terms that more megapixels are producing images with less detail and reduced image quality!

The good news is that a number of camera manufacturers are wisely bowing out of the megapixels race. Instead, they are concentrating on improving the quality of low light images. But there is only so much you can do through pixels binning and other clever pixel manipulation.

If the image quality we are seeing in the newer 12MP digicams are any indication, we may be really, finally seeing the end of the megapixels race — at least where tiny image sensors are concerned.

Eventually, digicams will have to start incorporating the larger image sensors for better low light (low noise high ISOs) performance that every photographer is clamoring for.

What do you think? Do you believe that digicams with more megapixels have better image quality these days or not? Share your personal experience.

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