Camera Parts

What is a megapixel?

Written by Gail Bjork

Deciding the “right” number of megapixels when buying a digital camera doesn’t have to be confusing. Find out if more megapixels are always better.

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.

About the author

Gail Bjork

Gail Bjork, who is passionate about digital photography, is the owner and editor of Digicamhelp.Gail is the author of three illustrated ebooks about digital photography. A number of her photos and digital photography related articles appear at other websites.In 2006, a series of her photos, People in the Louvre, were exhibited at the Underground Photo Gallery
in Iisalmi Finland. Eight of her photos taken in the Florida scrub are on permanent exhibition at Parrish Medical Center in Titusville, Florida.Gail served twelve years as an elected member of The School Board of Palm Beach County, Florida, one of the largest school districts in the U.S. She has also been the editor of a small town newspaper and a free-lance writer. Gail and her husband owned and ran several small businesses.

74 Comments

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

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

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • HI,
    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 🙂

  • 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.

  • Looking for a decent digital camera. About 14 megipixels. So many to look at. Any ideas. You have to join Consumers to see what they recommend. I have Windows 7. Thanks Gail

  • What is the main difference between megapixel count of Mobile Camera , A Digital Camera , & a professional DSLR camera!!!!!!!
    Because At Same Megapixel Qualities of photographs!!!!!

  • Kevin, Check the resolution settings in your camera. You can decrease the size, making images more suitable for sending as email attachments. Or, if you’re so inclined, shoot at full resolution then reduce the file size when editing. Check your photo editing help files for how to reduce images in size. If you have a free program, such as Picasa, it can resize and automatically attach images to an email. And Fastone offers free software specially made to resize images.

  • My new camera I assume is manufacture set so I made no adjustments. However, I downloaded 7 pictures to be sent via e-mail only to have it say it was too large to be sent. Where do I make these adjustments? Image size is currently set at L 4:3…

  • Megapixel, increase the resolution and quality settings in your camera to their highest. If you’re submitting edited JPEGs, make sure you save them at the maximum setting for the largest file size.

  • How do I know When I am shooting at 3 megapixels and above? I took a photo to submit for download sale and was rejected because it was below the required 3 megapixel.

  • Latisha, glad you find the information helpful. A digital single lens reflex camera will give you the best performance, however they are big and bulky compared to compact cameras. Some of the peppiest compact cameras have back-illuminated CMOS sensors. If you’re looking for a compact, take a look at some of these cameras featured in our Buying Guide. A camera with optical image stabilization will help prevent camera shake. Here are some tips for photographing a moving child.

  • This stuff is so helpful I’m looking for a camera for at home use as well the one I have always makes my pics come out blurry if the person moves any?? What would i need for pic of on the go kiddos.

  • Sandra, in that price range, take a look at the Canon SD4000 and the Canon SD4500. They’ve both come down considerably in price since the came to market about a year ago and are fine cameras, which features such as semi-automatic control not found on many cameras in this price range. The SD4500 may be more useful of the two since it has a 10X zoom that might come in handy for swim meets. The SD4000 has a wider angle but only a 3X zoom. Both have back-illuminated CMOS sensors, which make them peppier than compacts with CCD sensors, and do relatively well in low light considering the small sensor size. They are both very easy to use (I owned the SD4000).

  • Hi– I’m looking for a camera to take pics at parties and just for general use. I also need the camera to take very good quality pics at a swim meet. Mind you, I’m usually sitting in the bleacher/stands up top. Price range $200-$250. The camera is for my personal use, and I’m a true novice at this. Thanks for any advice that you can give me.

  • Take a look at some of the “older” Canon Rebels, such as the XS. If you’re looking for a DSLR with movie mode, look at the Canon T3. They are entry level DSLRs with very fine image quality. I’d personally spend a few more dollars and get something like the T3 with ISO performance up to 6400 (The XS only goes to ISO 1600). If you want an entry level camera with more features, look at the XSi and T2i or T3i. They are considerably more expensive though. I own the XSi and love it, though I wish it had higher ISO options.

  • The lenses are EF mount … any recommendations on on a good digital camera around $500.00 ?

  • kristina, the older FD lens format was replaced a few years ago with the EF mount. The mounts are incompatible without modifying the lenses, a complex process. You are probably better off buying new or more recent used lenses.

  • I have a Cannon EOS Rebel 2000 old timey film version with several lenses (takes great pics). I would like to update to a digital camera ( have a nikon coolpix – hate it horrible pictures) would like something I could use the lenses I already have with. I take lots of pictures mainly of grandkids and cheerleading events, not professional but would like good pictures. Any recommendations?

  • melissa, If you want to take professional level photos, you may want to start with an entry level DSLR. If you get a camera a year or two old, you’ll save money and get excellent image quality almost all lighting conditions. There are other types of cameras available, too, such as listed here.

    Most professional photographers use Adobe Photoshop CS, which is considered the “gold standard” in image editing software. It is very expensive but, if you’re a student (no matter what your age) you can get a significant discount. It’s little brother, Photoshop Elements, costs under $100, is quite full featured and is a good intro to Photoshop CS should you decide to buy it in the future.

  • I want to start getting into photography, I love taking pictures but i have never had the money to buy a real camera to be able to take pictures and edit and all that good stuff, i would love to be able to start taking professional type pictures and edit and hopefully one day take a course in photography, what do u recommend?

  • Aqua, the are both fine cameras. The SX130 has a 12X zoom; the G12 has a 5x zoom. The G12 is a much more sophisticated camera, though it can be used in full auto mode. It also has a faster lens and larger sensor, so it will do better in low light. If you need a longer zoom and do a lot of photos outside in good light, the SX130 would be a good choice. However, if you do a lot of low light photography, the G12 will yield better results. A very good compromise would be a camera like the Fujifilm FinePix F300EXR, You can get some basic facts about the Fujifilm here. It has a 15X zoom and a Super CCD sensor which does better in low light than many other compact digital cameras.

  • I want to buy a camera. I’m choosing between Canon SX 130 IS and Canon G12. I’m not so serious in photography, I just want to capture the moments and still learning some photography tips. Which one of them would you recommend me to use. Or maybe you have some suggestions. Thank you.

  • @Justine, it’s not only about the Mp but also about the pixel quality. Canon dslr’s will have more megapixels, but they score a lot worse then Nikon sensors. If you have any questions, feel free to  mail
    BigReview@hotmail.com – a new show about photography broadcasting on youtube soon.
     
    Greets,
     
    Syd

  • justine, if your main goal is a long zoom the SX130 has a 10X zoom; the G12 has only half the reach at 5X. But the SX130 will not do as well in a variety of lighting conditions as the G12 because it has a smaller sensor and more megapixels packed onto it. More megapixels is not necessarily better.

    The G12 also has a faster lens throughout the entire length of the zoom (F2.8 – F4.5 vs F3.4 – F5.6) The G12 is double the price but has much more sophisticated features such as an optical viewfinder and twist and tilt, higher resolution LCD. Because of the faster lens and larger sensor you will get better overall image quality in a wider variety of lighting conditions.

    However if primarily take photos in good light and want five times more zoom, the SX130 is a very fine camera. Get the one with the features you’ll use the majority of the time.

  • ok im still alittle confussed bout the megapixels, the 2 cameras im looking at are the cannon g12 and the cannon sx130. the g12 has 10.0mp and the sx130 has 14.1mp. i just wanna take clear photos and would like a good zoom.. i dont do editing and all that..please help me..

  • Shannon, can you give a bit more information. The T2i is considered an entry level DSLR. When you say you’d like something a bit more entry level, are you talking about a non-DSLR camera? If so, let us know and we can give some suggestions. Also tell us the type of photos you like to take (macro, telephoto, wide angle, etc). BTW, if you’re talking about a more basic DSLR, the Canon XS is a fine choice. It is, in many ways, similar to my Canon XSi, though it doesn’t have quite as many bells and whistles. However, image-quality wise, it’s a very good camera and is rated highly by users.

  • Hello,
    For two years I’ve been looking to purchase a Canon DSLR.  Recently, I thought I’d get the Rebel T2i but now I think I’d like to own something a bit more entry level but not professional.  Does anyone have any suggestions?  I’d like to do my research and read about whatever you suggest.  Thanks a bunch!
     

  • Ok thanks a lot only thing I wonder if there could be a diffirence between brands for print capacibillity cause this week I saw a print of 2m x 2m shot with a nikon 12 MP dslr that really looked great, but on the same size and same material the canon photo’s also from a 12 Mp canon dslr looked really noise and unsharp. the pictures were also shot with + – the same quality of lens but still the Nikon looked a lot sharper and less noisy.

  • Syd, depending on the pixels per inch you choose when editing an image, you should be able to print up to about 32″ wide for a photo quality image. This chart will give you additional information.

  • Hey I was wondering what the maximum print size would be for my 16,2MP(Dx format sensor) Nikon D7000 reflex. I would like to make big prints but how big can I go with this camera(pics in RAW).

  • Mcihelle, look for some of the same key features in a camera phone that are found on digital cameras, realizing of course that there will be less available features.

    Eight megapixels should be more than enough. But look beyond megapixels for things like the quality of the lens and the resolution of the screen used to frame shots and change settings. Some camera phones have a built-in flash; they are so-so, but are occasionally useful. If you get a camera phone with a zoom, make sure it’s optical zoom, not just digital.

    I’m sure you will find this review of the best camera phones helpful.

  • Hi, I’m interested to buy a new mobile which i want it to be good to take photos as well. If it has 8 mega pixels is it good enough, and what other features do I have to look for please?

    Tks a lot

  • Hi there I took a pic, dowm loaded it, enlarged it and its a bit fuzzy not much but fuzzt, can I change the megapixel on my camera and or computer and re downloan and re-enlarge it or is the way I take the pic the only way to use it… Help

  • Like a good number of digital cameras, yours does not have features that make it suitable for low light without using a camera support such as a tripod, or putting the camera on a flat level surface and using the self-timer to trigger the shutter release button.

    The lighting was probably not strong enough to raise the shutter speed. Because of this the photos are blurry due to camera shake.

    Your camera has three modes that can be useful at night: Night scene, Night portrait, and High sensitivity. Please check your camera manual for more information about using each. Shooting in low light can introduce noise into an image but it is often preferable to blurred images or no images at all.

    I want to emphasize again that your best results will come when you use a camera support for these types of photos.

  • I recently bought a Vivitar Vivicam 8025 camera, I took a trip up to New York city and decided to try my new camera out.  The pictures I took during the day came out great but when I decided to take some pictures of the theater marquees at night I noticed that the pictures came out all blurry and distorted I was wondering  what I could do to fix this problem.  Could the bright lights surrounding the Marquees have something to do with the distortion if so how can I fix this?

     
     

     

     

  • Either camera is a fine choice, xy. Choose based on the features you’ll use most….and that you can afford. Since you’re buying into a system, take a look at the lenses available (and prices) and determine which manufacturer has the lenses that will best suit your needs. You may find these series of articles helpful as to what features to look for.

  • thanks for your article 😀
    i was thinking of buying a dsrl.. but i dunno whether canon 550D or 500D would be a better choice?  how to choose a dsrl that suits you?

  • Tammy, either camera you mention would be a fine choice. Both Nikon and Canon cameras have excellent image quality. Get the one that has the features you want most, such as the swivel LCD. Remember, when you buy a DSLR you buy into a system. Many DSLR accessories for one camera usually can’t be used on another brand. Lenses are expensive so chose carefully the types you will need for your shooting style.

  • First of all, thanks. I found your article very helpful.  I’m new to photography and I’ve been doing a lot of research into entry level DSLR’s.  I’m going to be purchasing one very soon and I need to make every dollar count.  I’ve narrowed my choices down to two: the Nikon D5000 with a 12.9 megapixel count and the Canon EOS Rebel T1i with a 15 megapixel count. I have to admit I was at first seduced by the higher megapixels on the Canon however after doing some more research I am now thinking the Nikon might be better. Because of all of the features it has that the Canon doesn’t, and because of the swiveling LCD for taking shots at odd angles. (I’m taking a filmmaking class right now and I really appreciate the swiveling LCD on my HD video camera. But I don’t know if it is a neccessity for still shots.) What are your thoughts?  I’m an amateur looking to move into  professional work with weddings, birthday parties,  fashion, food, products, and some print/online editorial if I can get the work.  I do anticipate producing  larger prints, particularly with wedding portraits. Of those two which would you suggest? Or would you advise something different altoghther?

  • Most new digital cameras come with 10-14 megapixels, more than the average photographer needs. So it’s more important that you find a camer with the features you need, than choosing a camera because of the number of megapixels.

    There are two main reason why more megapixels are desirable:

    If you make very large prints of your photos
    If you do a lot of cropping when editing.

    Here is some related information about the suggested number of megapixels: Megapixels and print size

    We have some featured digital cameras in our Amazon store. Get a camera based on the features you want and don’t be overly concerned about the number of megapixels.

  • i am really interested in taking pictures and i want to buy a new really good quality digital camera. but i am confuesd about how many megapixles i will need to make my pictures look great. but i dont want to spend to much money. what size megapixel would be perfect for my needs?

  • If I understand you correctly, if you have a program such as Photoshop or Adobe Elements, open an image and check the image size (Image menu > Image Size). It will tell you the number of pixels for width and height (pixel dimensions). You can change the pixel dimensions via that dialog box too. Also, if you right-click an image and select Properties, then click the Details tab, it will tell you the pixel dimensions (this is for a PC, not sure if it’s done the same way on a Mac).

  •  If i know the size of a photograph can i know the megapixel of that photo. Please let me know the formulae for calculating the megapixel

  • Elizabeth, without seeing sample images, my guess is that you may be using a digital zoom. That will cause images to degrade. Does your camera have both optical and digital zoom? If so, you should primarily use your optical zoom. One of the first things I do when getting a new camera, is shut off the digital zoom setting. If you’re in the market for a new camera, you may also want to consider getting one with a longer focal length so you can get in closer to the subject or a distant scene.

  • My question is that I am a beginner in taking pictures but want a camera that when I zoom in doesn’t get grainy. Ex: if I take a picture of mountains and want to zoom in on a certain part of that mountains I will zoom in and take but when I get it home and put onto computer to print it’s grainy. I want to zoom into something and take the picture and it come out perfect on computer as if I was still there.  They say that the higher the pixel is not necessary is this true?  I have looked online at ones that have 15.1 MP, 12.9MP and 13.1MP. Any advise as to which one knowing that I am a beginner in photography?

  • so which factor should we consider in buying a digital camera for home use. first thing written above that no. of megapixel should be considered but not only this. then what are the another things.

  • If other CDs work in your CD slot, then you can assume it’s not a hardware issue.

    Is the CD software it compatible with your Operating System? If not, go to the manufactures website and see if you can download a compatible version of the software there. If that doesn’t work, call the camera manufacturer tech support and ask what they recommend. If you’d like to give us more specifics (camera brand, computer brand, OS) we may be able to provide more help. However, please make inquiries of this type in our Q&A Forum. Hope it all works out!

  • I am new at using a computer, and only bought it for the purpose of printing pictures to put on Tshirts. However the cd which came with my camera is suppose to fit any standard pc cd rom drive. It does not. It slides out and the door opens back up. Therefore preventing me from down loading. can you please help?