What is a megapixel?

PixelsDigital cameras capture images as pixel elements, known as pixels. Simply put, a megapixel is equal to one million pixels.

Digital images are made up of thousands of these tiny, tile-like picture elements. The more pixels, the higher the image resolution.

Resolution relates primarily to print size and the amount of detail an image has when viewed on a computer monitor at 100%.

Elements of picture quality

The number of megapixels is only one aspect relating to the quality of a camera, or the actual quality of a photo it is capable of producing. Factors such as camera sensor and processor, and the optical quality of a lens, play equally important roles.

Other elements determine the quality of photos and prints. They include:

  • Good lighting of a subject
  • Proper focus and exposure
  • Image clarity (lack of blur due to camera shake or incorrect shutter speed)
  • Shooting at the highest resolution and quality camera settings
Photo was taken with a 1.4 megapixel camera. The resolution is more than adequate for printing a 4x6" print. Click to enlarge.

Photo was taken with a 1.4 megapixel camera. The resolution is suitable for a 4×6″ print. Click to enlarge.

If you buy a digital camera with too few megapixels for your printing and editing needs, resulting prints will become degraded.  A photo made into a large sized print from a camera with a low megapixel count will look fuzzy, or pixelated. So will a digital image that is cropped too much.

Viewing images at 100%

A mistake many people make it judging the quality of an image when viewing it at 100% on a computer monitor. The image rarely appears tack sharp. However, when reduced in size for displaying online or printing, a quality image more often than not looks just fine.

Determining the number of megapixels

Deciding the number of megapixels you need does not have to be confusing. Don’t let a salesperson push you to buy a digital camera simply because it has a high megapixel count.

Before purchasing, do keep the following in mind:

  • the maximum print size you plan to make. If you capture that once in a lifetime photo, you may wish you had more megapixels to make a large print.
  • if you do a significant amount of cropping when editing or cropping in-camera. If you typically crop a lot of images, consider a camera with more megapixels than that listed in the table below.

Minimum megapixels for quality prints:**

Printed at 300 dpi

Max Print Size Minimum MP Resolution
4 x 6″ 2 megapixels 1600 x 1200
5 x 7″ 3 megapixels 2048 x 1536
8 x1 0″ 5 megapixels 2560 x 1920
11 x 14″ 6 megapixels 2816 x 2112
16 x 20″ 8 megapixels 3264 x 2468
16 x 24″ 12 megapixels 4200×2800

** Unless you have or buy a used digital camera, it’s near impossible to find one today with a megapixel count of under 10 megapixels.

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74 Responses

  1. Gail Bjork says:

    Angela, the Canon T3i and T3 are similar in many ways. Though the T3i has 18 megapixels as opposed to 12 mp for the T3, I honestly don’t consider this a huge difference.

    There are some differences between the two cameras but overall image quality should generally be the same. Some obvious differences are:

    The T3i has a slightly larger 3″ screen but, more importantly, it has a much higher resolution than the T3. Also, the T3i has a screen that twists and tilts, useful for taking macro shots and photos at unusual angles. For example, if you’re in a crowd and need to hold the camera high above the crowd, you can twist the screen down at an angle so you can actually see the scene. You can not do this with a fixed screen as found on the T3. The T3i has Spot metering, the T3i does not.

    If your husband has a real, and growing, interest in photography, it probably is worth paying a little more and getting the T3i. If his interest is just casual, the T3 should serve his needs.

    Here is a chart comparing the specifications of the two cameras.

  2. angela says:

    My husband asked for the Canon Rebel t3i 18mp, but it is a little bit more than I would like to pay. The Canon Rebel t3i 12mp is a little cheaper and I am willing to spend the money on it. Are there really a difference in the cameras or should I just go ahead and spend the money?

  3. Gail Bjork says:

    Pam, the Canon SX40 is an excellent superzoom. It’s an even better value now than it has been. The price has been dropping since Canon recently announced a replacement, the SX50. Panasonic also makes an excellent superzoon, the FZ200. It cost a lot but the price fluctuates at places like Amazon.

  4. Pam Kimmell says:

    I am considering the new canon sx 40.
    How would you rate this camera?

  5. anne noble says:

    Thank you for making things clear. You have helped me is deciding which digital camera is suitable for my needs.

  6. prince chandel says:

    hi. i wanted to know that for getting clear image what is needed in a camera.

  7. Gail Bjork says:

    alejandra. if you want to take professional quality photos, consider getting a DSLR. Even though a dslr is larger than mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, a DSLR offers the best overall performance and features, fast shot-to-shot time and exceptional low light photos taken at high ISO. While the Nikon 1 is a very interesting camera, it has a smaller sensor and limited lens options at this time. The Nikon 1 has several other drawbacks as you can read about in this review. Nikon DSLRs are highly regarded cameras; they come in many styles and prices that vary from modest to very high. Get the one at a price you can afford.

  8. alejandra says:

    Hello, I recently was taking photography classes, so I am debating on what camera to buy. I was thinking either the nikon 1 v1 or a D-slr like the nikon D3100. I want to take professional photoes, so which one would you suggest?

  9. Gail Bjork says:

    vijay, an entry level DSLR would best meet your needs. You can compare specs by using this tool. DSLRs by Nikon and Canon are good choices.

  10. vijay says:

    hi,i want to know the specifications to be checked before buying a digital camera.
    and i am following my hobby of photography since 4years just with the help of N73 mobile camera…now i want to buy camera to capture landscape,sports,people,nature,,etc.as objects.
    So please help me which camera should i prefer along with brand name.

  11. Gail Bjork says:

    William, the T3 should meet your needs but watch the shutter speed in low light. There are times the ISO will need to be raised to increase the shutter speed to prevent camera shake. Investing in a faster, USM lens with an ultrasonic focus motor will help a lot, but such lenses are quite expensive. I’ve used my Canon 450D to photograph my grandson playing basketball. The camera did okay but I got as close as I could to him, and shot at a fairly wide angle so more light got to the lens (plus my 450D only goes to ISO 1600). I cropped later when editing. Also, don’t forget to check the white balance to suit the lighting in the room. Auto WB doesn’t always cut it.

    Finally, practice a lot before that very special game. If they allow you to walk fairly near to the action, do it. Or arrive early and get a strategic location.

  12. William says:

    Hello, my kids play basketball and i just ordered a canon rebel T3 DSLR 12.2 MP that comes with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II lens, and extra EF-S 55mm-250mm f/5.6 IS II lens. I guess what I want to know is if this is a good camera to use for their sporting events and when we go on vacations? I wont be printing anything bigger than a 5×7 or maybe 8×10 if its able. basically was it a good buy? thanks william

  13. Gail Bjork says:

    Megan, consider getting an entry level DSLR; while bigger and bulkier than compact cameras they have the best overall performance in speed and high ISO/low light performance. If you get a DSLR made within the last few years, make sure the kit lens that comes with the camera has image stabilization. You can get an inexpensive, fast 50mm lens for around $100 such as the one I use on my Canon XSi. As time goes on, you may want to invest in better lenses. Take a look at the Nikon D3000 or D3100, or the Canon Rebel T1 or T1i, T2 or T2i or T3 or T3i. If you don’t want a large camera take a look at Sony Nex and other mirrorless cameras.

  14. Megan says:

    Hello, I dont hardly know a thing about cameras. I am just starting my research. My main reason for wanting a higher quality camera rather than a standard nikon, kodak, etc. camera is I am having a baby in April. And, I dont want to ever take them to a photographer. I want to be able to do it myself. What would you recommend me starting out with, but something that will last me a long time. I want that “professional” look.

  15. Gail Bjork says:

    Tim, the NEX 5N is a terrific camera. Like any digital camera, it has it pros and cons but, with the large sensor it should give you spectacular shots in all types of lighting conditions. I owned the NEX 3 and loved it. Would love to get the NEX 7 but too expensive right now, especially since I recently bought the Canon S100. Enjoy your new camera! if you have other questions, let us know.

  16. Tim says:

    I love taking pictures and is thinking about buy a camera that will give a more “professional” look to the pictures i want to take. I am currently looking at the Sony Nex 5N and is in love with it, but i am not sure if it will give the professional appear to the pictures or not.

    PS. i am a begginer and have only started taking pictures for fun.
    thank you :) any advise would be great :)

  17. Gail Bjork says:

    Amit, non-technically, there is not much of a difference between the types of cameras you mention. What is important is not so much the megapixel count but the sensor type, and other factors such as the quality of the lens. And obviously, the higher more megapixels, the larger memory card you’ll need.

  18. Gail Bjork says:

    Gail, it’s impossible to recommend a camera. What type? How much do you want to spend? What subject matter will you photograph? Our buying guide section should help answer some of those questions.

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