The number of megapixels of a smartphone gets a lot of attention from smartphone manufacturers. It is one of the most emphasized specifications on smartphone product labels. You’ll find them in bold prints; sometimes 12MP, maybe 48MP, 50MP or even 200MP.
For some people it is confusing to decide how many megapixels are good enough. So, aside from manufacturers’ clever marketing tactics regarding megapixel count, how many megapixels does your current phone have and how many do you actually need?
Debunking the megapixel myth
Marketing campaigns from smartphone manufacturers have provided a very simple picture of what megapixels mean. They’ve made it seem like only megapixels determine how good your photos can be. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S20, S21 and S22 Ultra all come with a 108-megapixel sensor.
Samsung is proud to highlight the power of its 108-megapixel sensors and how it makes its smartphone cameras so much better than competitors with fewer megapixels. You might be tempted to think that more megapixels automatically means a better camera.
However, this reasoning crumbles when faced with devices like Apple’s iPhone 13 Pro Max and Google’s Pixel 5. The iPhone 13 Pro Max comes with a modest 12MP main camera. A 12MP sensor doesn’t stand a chance against a 108MP sensor, does it?
It would be wrong to think so. Of course, the iPhone 13 Pro Max has one of the best cameras of all commercially available smartphones. It outperforms the Galaxy S20 Ultra and Galaxy S21 Ultra in various camera metrics. Likewise, Google’s Pixel 5 Pro’s modest 16MP main camera doesn’t necessarily make it inferior to a device like Samsung’s Galaxy A52 with a 48MP sensor.
So, if more megapixels don’t necessarily mean a better camera, how do megapixels affect the camera and image quality? How many megapixels does your phone need to take good photos?
To answer that, you need to understand what a megapixel means.
What is a megapixel?
To understand megapixels, it’s important to understand their much smaller unit: pixels. Pixels are small light-catching blocks on the surface of your camera’s image sensor. Or you can call them a very small building block that contains visual data used to build an image.
A megapixel is a collection of a million of those tiny pixels. So when you say 1 MP, you mean 1 million pixels. And 12 MP would mean 12 million pixels. But how do these numbers affect camera and image quality?
How megapixel count affects camera quality
Light is very important in photography – it is crucial. Pixels catch light on the surface of a camera’s sensor, making them very important. Usually, the larger the pixel size, the more light it can capture. The more light your pixels capture, the better your images are likely to be. Conversely, the smaller the pixel size, the less light it can capture, leading to potentially poorer images.
It’s not all black and white though, there’s a bit of nuance to it, but at the fundamental level that’s how it works.
To be clear, the pixel size is not the same as the number of megapixels. They are two different things. Pixel size is the size of those tiny pixels on the surface of your camera’s sensor. A megapixel is a number, in millions, of those tiny pixels mounted on the sensor. But how does pixel size even matter? How does it compare to the number of megapixels?
Now imagine the two images below as your camera’s sensor and those gray boxes as individual pixels.
For this first image, the pixels (gray boxes) are larger. Because the pixels are larger, only a few will fit in the image (camera sensor).
For this second image, even if the image size (sensor size) remains the same, more pixels can fit in it because the pixels (gray boxes) are smaller.
The implication is that with the same sensor size, more “smaller pixels” can be placed, but fewer larger pixels. Keep in mind that larger pixels are usually better because they capture more light. So when creating a camera, the manufacturers may be faced with the choice of fitting in 12 million large pixels to get a 12MP camera or 108 million smaller pixels to get a 108MP camera sensor. Do you understand?
However, this does not automatically mean that fewer megapixels are better. Yes, in some situations it is, but it depends on several variables, including sensor size. But what is the sensor size?
Simply put, sensor size is the size of the camera sensor that those tiny pixels sit on. The image sensor itself is the part of a camera that produces images using the light captured by the camera. Sensor size introduces a new dynamic to the way you approach the subject in megapixels.
Take a 2MP camera for example. A large sensor could comfortably fit 2 million large pixels without sacrificing the size of the pixels. However, another 2MP camera with a smaller sensor would have to use smaller pixels to hold the full 2 million pixels. In a nutshell, the size of your image sensor determines how many pixels will fit on its surface and how large those pixels can be.
It can be counterproductive to force more megapixels on a small sensor. On the other hand, if you have a larger sensor, you can push in more pixels if you want. That’s why Samsung uses very large sensors (in smartphone standards) on its Galaxy S22 Ultra, which comes with 108MP cameras.
How many megapixels is enough?
At this point, it can be tempting to think that more megapixels don’t really do much. Well, not quite. More megapixels means more resolution or space for a higher definition image. This can be very useful when printing images or viewing them on large screens. In addition, more megapixels ensure that your image contains as much detail as possible.
Also, higher megapixels are important for zooming, especially digital zoom. Since digital zoom is basically cropping, a higher megapixel camera captures enough detail to ensure that when you crop an image manually or when your camera does it by digitally zooming in, the image doesn’t get pixelated. This can be very useful for smartphones that rely heavily on digital zoom rather than optical zoom for zooming.
So the higher the megapixel count, the more detail it can potentially capture. But you don’t necessarily have to get excited about the high number of megapixels. A higher number of megapixels does not automatically translate into better photos. You can expect more megapixels if:
- A large sensor is involved
- A good lens is involved. It’s hard to define a good lens, but the definition of a good lens these days is based on the brand. Brands like Leica and Zeiss are associated with quality lenses.
- Good software is involved. Samsung, Apple and Google have great computational photography software. Good software can get the best value from high megapixel cameras.
- Uses pixel binning. This technology digitally combines adjacent pixels to simulate larger pixel sizes.
The number of megapixels is more than meets the eye
While it’s tempting to get excited about the latest insane megapixel flagships, you should always ask, “what are their underlying technologies?” If the underlying technology isn’t good enough, it’s not worth spending more money on more megapixels.
If the underlying technology is good enough, definitely go for higher megapixels if you have the money. However, making buying decisions based on the number of megapixels is not entirely advisable.