The Megapixel War Is Over (and has been for a while)

Since the dawn of the digital photography age, a key selling point for digital cameras has been their pixel count. In a vastly simplified way, the number of pixels a camera could record was related to image quality, and this “magic number” was seized upon by the sales departments of everyone involved, from the blue shirt at Best Buy to the marketing departments at Nikon, Sony, Canon, and on and on.

One way we can tell that selling this number is specious is that marketing teams have always said the same thing about it, usually with terms like “stunning” and “amazing,” whether it was the 5.47 megapixel Nikon D1X, or the 22.3 megapixel Canon 5D III.

Netizens on sites like photo.net or dpreview.com use words like “obsolete” and “outdated” as a continuous assertion that if you have older equipment, or your camera doesn’t have enough pixels, that your photography, and by proxy, you, won’t be good enough.

My bread-and-butter camera for news and magazine, the Nikon D2H; I shoot RAW files and edit them in Adobe Photoshop's Camera Raw dialog, which yields amazing results.
My bread-and-butter camera for news and magazine, the Nikon D2H; I shoot RAW files and edit them in Adobe Photoshop's Camera Raw dialog, which yields amazing results.

The internet is not known for its understanding and compassion. Disagreeing with anyone will light a disproportionate firestorm of retribution against you and your idea, particularly when your idea conflicts with their tightly-held beliefs, no matter how absurd of irrelevant those beliefs are.

So many posts on internet photography forums start with, “I an currently shooting with a XX megapixel Brand-X camera. Should I upgrade?” My answer is sure, you need to upgrade. There is no chance it will make you a better photographer, but it will help the economy (except your own), and you get to play with a shiny new toy instead of actually making pictures.

On one forum I read recently, a poster was criticizing an “obsolete” camera because it only had a 2.5-inch monitor. I have to say, you have to be pretty spoiled to think 2.5-inch monitor is so small you need to upgrade.

Netizens and photographers in general can sometimes forget who our audience is. If we are wedding photographers, for example, our audience is the client, usually the bride and groom or their families. As a rule, the client doesn’t care about file size, frame rate, noise levels, highlight protection, or any other technical detail. Weddings aren’t about camera performance, they are about memories and moments.

As the Editor and Chief Photographer for Ada Magazine, I have found that I am entirely happy using images from my Nikon D2H, a 4.1 megapixel camera, as large as I need, sometimes double-truck full-bleed (which is printerspeak for filling two facing pages to the edges without borders.) I shoot RAW files with it, and edit them with Adobe Photoshop’s Camera Raw, and the quality is outstanding. If you get the chance, pick up Ada Magazine and check out my images. You will find that 4.1 megapixels is without a doubt enough.

I’ll add this point too: sometimes I pull out an older camera just to challenge myself, usually with excellent results. It turns out that the beautiful images we were making in 2003 with 2003 technology are just as beautiful in 2012. I have a buddy, Robert, who has been shooting news recently after being away from photography for a while, and he’s using a beat-up Nikon D100, with which he is making spectacular images.

Another thing that troubles me about all this tacit pressure from the internet to buy more, newer cameras is that some of these new toys cost three or four thousand dollars, and I just don’t see spending that kind of money on anything until all debt is paid off, including mortgages. I’m sure that there are millions of dollars of credit card debt racked up every year on cameras people don’t really need. I know this isn’t confined to photography, since I am aware of people who have both staggering debt and staggeringly large big-screen televisions.

For me, then, the ultimate camera is, very simply, the one in my hands, and I spend very little time thinking about upgrading, and lots of time making pictures with my “obsolete” cameras.

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3 Comments

  1. All true, Richard. I personally don’t understand it. I’ve only ever bought a new DSLR to replace one that actually was failing, or at least beginning to fail, and cannot understand why an older camera would now be considered obsolete — if it still works.

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  2. Could not agree more. When I was not so constrained by budget I bought the Olympus E-10, it was a good camera then, and guess what, it still is. I have a Nikon D2Hs, I use it all the time. I love the handling, it meters with all my lenses, it gives excellent colour and sharpness straight off the sensor (which my D1x does not) and I have had enlargements to unbelievable sizes from those 4M pixels. Will I upgrade, sure, but only when it breaks or I have no other need for my hard-earned cash.

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  3. This entry also points to an important buying strategy for me: when the Hardon 2015 comes out in 2015 for $3000, it’s the perfect time for me to buy the Hardon 2011, which sold for $3000 new but is now about $600 on eBay.

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