Now I’m not saying I know a damned thing about photography. I know what aperture does to your depth of field, I know why high speed film is grainy (even when it’s high speed digital “film”) and I know why a fast 1200mm lens makes an excellent christmas gift, but that’s mostly about technology, not photography. The kids in Born Into Brothels didn’t know any of that stuff and they shot more powerful photos with dollar store 35mm point and clicks than I will likely ever manage with cameras far more spiffy than I will ever buy. Photography is about taking the things that you see in the world and capturing them so that other people (including future instances of yourself) can see them the same way you did. In a sense this is, of course, impossible for a host of reasons but basically you take a photo so that later you can look at the photo and go, oh yeah, remember that?
Since the end goal is pictures, printed or on-screen, a certain contrarian attitude has emerged among the would-be elites of the digital photography circuit. It goes, to a first approximation, like this:
The human eye can only recognize 200dpi or so, so even for an 8×10 print, which is as big as I would want to get, [the argument is always phrased in a run-on sentence with comma-splices] you’re only looking at 1600x2000pixels, which is 3.2 megapixel, therefore the idiots buying 5, 7, or 10 megapixel cameras are just tools of the corporate whore neo-fascist consumerism brainwash, and their purchasing of these cameras affirms their sheephood. Burn.
The problems with this argument are myriad, but since it tends to come up a lot I figured it was worth laying out at the very least some general outlines. First off, let’s agree with some of the spirit of what’s being said, to wit: a lot of twits with more money than brains think they can buy themselves status by deciding they are somehow purer of heart than the other dilettantes, and buying professional grade SLR backs and lenses and tripods and cases and light meters and battery packs… and then leaving them carefully packed away at home because they’ve lost interest. This is a very valid observation, and all right minded people should join hands, light candles and, much as they did in the seventies, beat the living shit out of these people and take their cameras. But this observation does not, in itself, invalidate the market for cameras above 3.2 megapixels.
We all agree that actual pros are perfectly justified in owning the top of the line, because we imagine their print needs are far beyond our own, and we’re not entirely wrong, though a lot of pros don’t need 12MP on every assignment, or maybe ever. Herein lies the first problem with the myth of the 3.2 MP barrier which, as I have already anticipated in the title, I will henceforth abbreviate to “the megapixel myth” or just “duh.” The fact is that pros are also more demanding on their camera’s engineering, optics, and feature set, and are willing to pay for it, so those are the cameras that get the best work. Buying a higher MP number doesn’t automatically get you a better piece of kit, but it often does, and it’s relatively rare if it gets you a worse one (at least from the same manufacturer, and with the note that there are exceptions to this.) The sensor might not be worth it to you, but the quality definitely might be.
The quality argument goes further too. A higher pixelcount often means imperfections in the lens(es) become more evident, both in the quality of the glass, and in the construction of the barrels. Maybe you think your 1.5MP phone cam takes fine pictures insofar as you can still recognize people and all, but it’s amazing how much easier it becomes to do little things like focus, when your optics are helping instead of hurting you. Quality, in photography, often means becoming invisible — not assisting or altering so much as failing to detract. Obviously camera makers are incented to put that extra work into cameras with higher MP counts where a) people might actually notice and b) there is any pricing margin whatsoever to squeeze it in.
But the big one, the huge elephant in the room when it comes to people making this argument, has nothing to do with professionals, in fact it almost makes it sound like pros are the only ones who should be allowed to own low MP digitals. Here’s the thing: most humans who pick up a camera and point it at things can’t frame a shot to save their lives. Don’t blame them, they’re just trying to snap pics of things that are interesting, but every one of them gets home and looks at their photos and is disappointed at how small the leaning tower of Pisa is, or how the great shot of their niece at the beach is ruined by that guy peeing in the background. The reason more pixels is good is so that you can decide which 3.2 million of them to use for your print. This isn’t hard any more. With the advent of things like picasa everyone can do easy cropping jobs to get in closer, remove distractions, and make the picture match the experience it’s supposed to be capturing. Remember how that is what photography is about?
A couple examples might help, but understand that the purpose here is to demonstrate the benefit gained by focusing on a portion of the original, not to exhibit my photography prowess, to which we’ve already established I make no claim. If you draw from this series a general principle that shots get better when you get closer to your subjects, then you are right.
And in a particularly extreme case of cropping in to get at a detail
Hello Mr. Guy in Seat 1A!
The takeaway here is not that you are stupid to buy a camera you can afford, and must instead buy some monstrosity. High resolution has its own problems, not the least of which is the very practical matter of being able to fit fewer images on a card. And if you buy a camera more expensive than you can tolerate placing in harm’s way, you will leave it at home and take exactly NO high resolution pictures of anything. All of that would be much worse than just shooting with a low res camera. All I’m asking is that you not deliberately go cheap in service to this notion that a 5MP or 7MP camera is somehow frivolous conspicuous consumption. I came by mine honestly enough, someone broke into my house and stole my old one – the Canon S70 is a delightful little 7MP gem, but I didn’t pick it, my insurance company did. Even if you did buy it with your own money though, I promise I wouldn’t disapprove.
[Credit for the linked photos at the beginning of this rant is gladly and gratefully given to fantasygoat, though he is likely not the photographer for any of them.]