The general camera-buying wrongly thinks that more megapixels in a camera means better photos. And marketers and salespeople are happy to perpetuate the myth that compact cameras with 10 or more megapixels can take photos that equal a similarly rated digital single-lens reflex camera.
But they can’t and they won’t. You simply need to understand what a megapixel rating means, what camera specifications are truly important and what really separates great photos from the average.
Debunking the Marketing
A megapixel is a measure of resolution. According to photographer Ken Rockwell, “Doubling pixel count only increases the real, linear resolution by 40%, which is pretty much invisible.” That means that, all other things being equal, a 5-MP camera’s image won’t look much different from one taken with a 10-MP camera. The megapixel rating is, however, an excellent indicator of how many photos your memory card will story, and how big you can print before the image gets fuzzy.
I use a Pentax K100D Super SLR camera equipped with a variety of lenses from brand-new to 1970s-vintage. With the camera’s 5 MP image sensor, my images are suitable for framing at sizes even beyond 16 by 20 inches. I’ll sometimes take the same photo with a 8.1-MP Samsung S860 compact camera for fun. In comparison, it’s images are washed out and have a slight fuzz (you can see comparisons better than mine at www.kenrockwell.com). Why is this? Read on.
The Specs that Really Matter
The image sensor is truly the heart of your camera. And big image sensors result in big, beautiful, colorful images. The image sensor in SLRs is exactly why they outperform almost every compact camera (I concede there may be some crappy off-brand SLRs and some outstanding compact cameras, like those by Leica). A credit-card-sized camera has a postage-stamp-sized sensor. And smartphone cameras have even smaller sensors. Some SLRs have image sensors as wide and tall as entire compact cameras. That gives it more surface area to take in light. And light is what it’s all about.
Also, consider the format of your camera. A camera that can snap RAW image files rather than just JPGs will always capture a richer level of color and detail. Good SLRs can switch between JPG and RAW, with some newer models able to do both simultaneously (great for being able to send them to friends without processing from RAW to JPG while still keeping the more detailed image for manipulation when you want to frame or print).
And don’t forget lenses. They’re an immediate upgrade when going from compact cameras to SLRs. If you have an SLR that is backward-compatible with old lenses (as my Pentax is), you’ll have access to high-quality, relatively inexpensive glass. Granted, most of it will require you to shoot on manual. But that’s good for your skills.
The Biggest Spec of Them All
Of course, the most important feature of all is behind the camera – you. Do you leave your camera on AUTO mode? Do you know ISO from f-stops? Do you know how shutter speed and your depth of field affect each other? What about white balance? Ever heard of the rule of thirds?
If this is Greek to you, there’s no getting around it: Most of your photos will be mediocre. You might get lucky now and then – but you will not get the most out of any camera without educating yourself.
So ignore the buzzwords. Instead, get to know and understand your camera. Know what the little buttons do, and what the different settings mean. Take a photo class at your local community college or a camera shop.
Then travel somewhere cool, apply what you learned, print some shots, frame them and watch people ask where you bought your art.
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