What is a megapixel and how many do you need?

When camera shopping (or even just phone shopping these days), you’ve likely seen the megapixel count of a camera prominently advertised.

Even in the current cellphone arms race, manufacturers like Apple and Samsung are throwing out insane megapixel numbers, pushing far past even most professional digital cameras.

But wait, why would a cell phone even need more megapixels than a professional camera? What the heck?

In this article, we’re going to deep dive into the world of megapixels to dispel some misconceptions and talk about what they are and how many you actually need (spoiler alert: you don’t need the “48” megapixels of the iPhone 14).

Let’s jump in.

man holding A LOT of cameras
What are megapixels and why do they matter? (I couldn’t resist using this picture…)

The Basics of Megapixels

To start, let’s talk basics.

What are megapixels?

A megapixel (mp), to put it simply, is a quicker and easier way of saying “one million pixels”. The way total pixels are calculated is by multiplying the resolution (dimensions) of an image.

For example, a 1920×1080 image (the standard size of many TVs/displays) would be equal to 2,073,6000 pixels, or, in other words, 2.07 megapixels. 

Most modern cameras, such as the Sony a6000, shoot around 24 megapixels or more. This translates to a roughly 6000×4000 image, or 24,000,000 pixels.

There are some cameras, however, such as the Sony a7rIV that can shoot as many as 61 megapixels, created by a standard resolution of 9575×6370.

One thing to keep in mind is that megapixels do not equal video quality. Video quality is measured and expressed differently (1080p, 4k, etc.).

What about phone camera megapixels?

When we delve into the world of cell phones, megapixels start to get a little bit weird.

Certain phones boast an insane amount of megapixels. The Samsung S22 Ultra, for example, offers 108MP (that’s 108,000,000 pixels). These numbers are absolutely mind-boggling on paper.

However, it’s worth remembering that, although megapixels may be high, a phone is still substantially limited by the physical size of its sensor.

You see, larger sensors (such as those present on dedicated cameras) allow more light/data to be recorded, thus resulting in a sharper, cleaner image with a stronger and more prominent depth of field.

Don’t get me wrong, these ultra-high megapixel phone cameras put out incredible photos, but they’re still incomparable to using a real camera due to having the limitation of a smaller sensor.

So do megapixels even matter?

So, do megapixels ACTUALLY matter at all or is it all just a marketing tactic?

Well, the answer isn’t quite that simple. A lot of it comes down to exactly what you’re trying to produce.

When do megapixels NOT matter?

Social Media Snaps

First off, it’s important to note that if you are uploading content to social media (Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, etc.), having an ultra-high megapixel count doesn’t matter as much.

The reason for this is that everything that gets posted on social media is hyper-compressed (reduced in quality) anyways, so you won’t be taking as much advantage of the high resolution. Heck, even a 4k resolution display can only showcase 8 megapixels of a photo.

When I first started photography, I used a 12mp Canon T3. It had, literally, half the megapixels of my current camera, but in social media posts, you can’t even tell the difference.

Casual Photography

For super casual photographers, megapixel count usually isn’t going to be that big of a deal.

If you’re just taking snapshots at family get-togethers, you likely won’t need to crop in or retain an extreme level of detail.

billboards in times square
Sometimes megapixels DO matter, like when your work is going to be printed on billboards.

When DO megapixels matter?

On the flip side, there are many situations where a high megapixel count is critical.

Large (literally huge) Prints

The main strength of high-resolution cameras is their ability to produce high-end prints. Now, don’t get me wrong, the 24 megapixels offered on most modern camera bodies (such as the a6000 or a7iii) are more than enough for small prints, but not for gigantic ones.

If you’re printing billboard-size images, for example, it may be time to consider picking up something like the 61mp a7rV. However, for the vast majority of photographers, 24mp is more than adequate for 99% of prints.

Lots of Cropping

The next major use of a high-megapixel count is if you plan to do a lot of cropping of images. You see, when you crop in (“enlarge” an image) on a lower-resolution camera, the low pixel density becomes quite obvious.

On a higher-resolution camera, however, you can crop in and retain more details. This is especially handy if you’re photographing things at a distance, like birds or animals.

So how many MP is a good camera?

So, how many megapixels are good? This, once again, comes down to what you’re planning to shoot.

If you’re an aspiring wildlife photographer who needs all the pixels you can get, then purchase a high-resolution camera (Sony’s A7R lineup starts at 42 megapixels).

However, if you’re like 95% of other photographers, get something mid-range. The Sony a6000 and a7iii both offer 24 megapixels which are more than adequate. 24MP is a sweet spot that still offers high-resolution images without the gigantic file sizes (and accompanying lag in editing software).

And that’s really all there is to megapixels! If you’re new to photography and want to learn more, consider checking out the rest of the website. You’ll find anything you’d ever need to know (and more!). Thanks for reading. 🙂