What Resolution Should My Digital Camera Be?

If you read the photo magazines, you might get the impression that the most important factor in a digital camera is the number of megapixels or its resolution

Well, yes, it is true, to a point. It is a lot like the nothing-beats-cubic-inches argument for automobile engine size. You do not want to be underpowered when it comes to taking great photos. You need enough information saved when you press the shutter button to make a sharp detail rich photo.

But you can have too much of a good thing

Some of the top end digital cameras have image chips recording well over 10 megapixels (16.7 megapixels for the Canon EOS1Ds Mark II). This translates into a huge, large file on your computer (even in a compressed JPEG format). Getting a resolution too large for your needs may make you feel like trading in that huge engine for a nice efficient subcompact.

So how much resolution do you need in a digital camera?

It is different for different needs. I do think there is a minimum you should consider for any digital camera no matter what you use it for. While a professional will definately see advantages in very high resolutions, especially for some puposes, there also is a level that reaches too much and becomes an inconveinience when it comes to saving those digital photos an working with them.

To get a good digital photo lets compare digital to film

I am going to use film quality as a measure for the quality to expect in a digital photo. Why? First because 35mm has become the standard level of quality for most types of photography. We are all familiar with the quality from a 35mm film camera. Second, you are going to pay much more for a digital camera than you would a film camera with the same basic features. It would make sense to me that if your going to pay more, you should at least get the same quality. If you go to an expensive restuarant you would be upset if all they did was run across the street and bring you a hamburger from a fast food chain.

What resolution digital camera will equal a film camera?

The level of resolution in a digital camera need to match the quality of a 35mm film camera is about 6 megapixels. Even on a very big enlargement, a good 6 megapixel digital camera will produce photos that will equal or better a 35mm film camera. This is the resolution I would recommend you use as a minimum when you choose a digital camera.

Why not a lower resolution – I do not make many big photos?

Again, you are still going to pay a lot for a digital camera. Paying just a bit more for a 6 megapixel vs. a 4 megapixel camera to get a quality level equal to what you would get with film just makes sense. It will help insure you are not looking for a new camera next year. The extra resolution will also help if you decide you need to crop in around a subject.

If you really do not care about quality you could get away with a 5 megapixel digital camera

I do not recommend it. I think in the long run, you will be much more satisfied with a 6 megapixel camera. Eventually, everyone takes that once-in-a-liftime picture. It would be a shame to find out that you cannot enlarge or crop as much because of a lower resolution digital camera.

What about higher resolutions?

If you are not concerned about the cost, I recommend them. You will enjoy greater flexibility in enlargement and cropping. It will not make too much difference in the typical 4×6 print but you will see a difference around 8×10 size and larger.

I have a few warnings about higher resolution digital cameras

As of Spring 2006, I do not recommend you buy a anything more than an 8 megapixel camera and you may even want to stick with digital point-and-shoot cameras in the 7 megapixel range. Because the image chips in point-and-shoot digital cameras are so small, as they add resolution to these chips, there is a tendency for noise to increase. It was noted in photo trade magazines that soon after manufacturers introduced their top of the line 8 megapixel point-and-shoot digital cameras, the next generation of top line digital point-and-shoot cameras were actually lower in resolution in the 7 megapixel range. This tends to be more of a problem at higher ISOs (light sensitivity settings) like 800 ISO.

This is not a problem with the Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras

They have larger size chips. This reduces the amount of noise they have. You will find that an 8 megapixel digital single lens reflex will produce a better photo then an 8 megapixel point-and-shoot digital camera. This will be even more true at higher ISO settings like 800 ISO. The 16.7 megapixel Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II has become known for fantastic results at high ISO settings.

The other problem with higher resolution digital cameras is the file size

The higher resolution your digital camera has, the more memory you will need. A 6 megapixel camera will fit about 75 uncompressed digital photos or about 150 compressed JPEG digital pictures on a 512 megabyte memory card. This is the largest size memory card that will fit comfortably on a CD for storage. Also, you will find larger file sizes will slow down your computer when you work on them at home. If you purchase a camera with more that 8 megapixel resolution, make sure your computer at home has a DVD burner not just a CD burner for saving your photos. You will also want to invest in larger memory cards and lots of them.

Just to summarize choosing the resolution of your digital camera

Look for a digital camera in the 6 megapixel to 8 megapixel range. If you are looking for a point-and-shoot camera maybe stay in the 6 megapixel to 7 megapixel range. This resolution will give you results equal or better than 35mm film cameras. Going higher than 8 megapixels in point-and-shoot digital cameras will increase noise problems.

Now you know quite a bit more about the digital camera you will be looking for. Next we are going to look at the different types of memory digital cameras use

What Type of Memory Should My Digital Camera Use?


About James Thoenes

James has spent most of his life involved in photography. He is now dedicated to producing portraits that his clients will treasure for the rest of their lives.