How Many Megapixels Should I get in my New Digital Camera?

People often ask me – when buying new digital cameras – “how many megapixels should I get?”.   Most people shopping for digital cameras believe that “more megapixels” equatea to a higher quality digital camera, and most digital camera manufacturers would like you to believe the same thing.  The fact of the matter, however, is that a camera’s “megapixels” (MP) are relevant only in considering how you will print your photos.  So while a 6MP $1000 DSLR camera may give you the ability to take better pictures than a $300 6MP point-and-shoot camera, this difference has little to do with the fact that both of these cameras are 6MP devices.

When Thinking about Megapixels, Think about Printing and Printed Output

The choice of megapixels in your camera is a critical one, but this decision is one that should be made in light of printing capabilities.  The list below will show you how many megapixes you “need” in order to print a  photo of a certain size (not that dpi can factor into this list as well, so this list is simply a general guideline):

To print high quality 3×5, you need around 2 megapixels.
To print high quality 5×7, you need around 4 megapixels.
To print high quality 8×10, you need around 6 megapixels. jumping up the size scale a little bit….

To print high quality 11×14, you need around 8 megapixels.  So what the list above tells you is that if you want to regularly print 11×14 pictures, you should be fime with an 8MP camera.

If Both Cameras are 6MP Cameras, how can I tell them Apart?

Ultimately this megapixel-to-printing conversion is important to consider when buying your digital camera — if you never intend to print larger than 11×14, then you really don’t need a 12MP or a 15MP digital camera; these high-megapixel cameras are overkill.   But if you are printing very large poster-sizes prints, then naturally a high MP camera will be what you need.

Moving back to the first example where I talked about the $1000 6MP digital camera taking better pictures than the  $300 6MP digital camera, the reasoning behind my logic in this example is due to  the features likely available on the $1000 DSLR vs those found on the point-and-shoot.  (And note this comparison completely ignores lenses, you can have a $5000 DSLR with a low-quality lens and your pictures will not be “$5000 worth”.  Further, your point-and-shoot cameras don’t always have great lens quality)

But the real difference between two cameras is the feature set.  Forgetting about the fact that many new high-end DSLR cameras come with video ability, there are features that some higher-end cameras have that other DSLR cameras don’t, or that certain DSLR camera bodies do better than other bodies.  There’s the quality of the materials, the size of the LCD screen, and even the positioning and availability of buttons and some output features.  And while this is by no means an extensive list, the take-home message here is that a digital camera is way more than just a reflection of it’s “megapixels”.

Final Digital Camera Buying Advice
So when buying a new digital camera, determine the megapixels that you will likely need, and stick with that number.  Instead of purchasing an 18MP camera when you only need 10MP, save your money and use the leftover funds for better lenses (if you have a DSLR), or for simple things such as more memory cards, extra batteries, and a great and practical camera bag.

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