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Pogue’s Megapixel Madness

The New York Times’ David Pogue has a fairly good takedown of the “megapixel myth” but I think he conveys a not altogether accurate impression of how camera design and marketing works. He also uses an awful lot of words to make a very narrow point.

First let’s acknowledge that Pogue’s fundamental point, however narrow, is accurate –megapixels don’t matter nearly as much as people think they do. In low-light settings, more megapixels can even be detrimental to image quality. The megapixel race has long since eclipsed the point where the number of pixels alone has any meaningful relation to picture quality.

All true.

Pogue writes: But you can repeat this lesson until you’re blue in the newspaper column, and some people still won’t believe you. They still worry that their 5-megapixel camera from 2005 is obsolete. They still feel sales pressure when shopping for new cameras.

Is Pogue really right to suggest that you won’t get more from a 2007 7-megapixel camera than a 2005 5-megapixel camera other than higher resolution (which you don’t need)?

Not really. A lot of other things have changed in that time. Let’s ignore the increase in megapixels – you’re still looking at (on average) a faster camera, a larger LCD screen, better image processor, better movie modes, better battery life and more image controls. A 2007 camera will also, most likely, offer support for SDHC memory cards. These are all things which Pogue clearly implies (and certainly knows) matter far more than the number of pixels on a CCD.

What’s more, you’ll probably be paying the same, if not less, for that 2007 camera than you paid for your 2005 camera.

Let’s take Canon as an example – since they have sold quite a few cameras and have a fairly good level of consistency in their model lines, which will give us an apples-to-apples comparison. If in 2005 you bought an A-series camera, the 4-megapixel A520, you spent $299. It offered a 4x optical zoom, 1.8-inch LCD screen, ISO 400, 13 scene modes, 30 seconds worth of VGA/30fps movie recording and a DIGIC processor.

If in 2007 you wanted to update your camera, and stay within the A500 series, you could buy the 7-megapixel A550. You’d get a larger LCD screen (2-inches), higher light sensitivity (ISO 800), unlimited VGA/30fps video capture, DIGIC II processor, not to mention a lighter camera (5.6oz vs. 6.3oz), support for USB 2.0 and SDHC memory cards. All that for $100 less than you spent in 2005. Not exactly a rip-off.

But let’s move behind historical comparisons and take two contemporary models offering differing resolutions. Is there a big difference between a 5- and a 7-megapixel camera?

Let’s stay with Canon’s entry-level A-series models – the A550 and the A460 – as they’re new and give us a very good apples-to-apples comparison. The A550 is a 7-megapixel model for $199 and the A460 is a 5-megapixel model for $149. They are quite similar in many respects – both have a 4x optical zoom, 2-inch LCD, AA batteries, SDHC memory and DIGIC II processor.

So what does the extra fifty bucks get you?

A faster lens (f2.6 vs. the A460’s f2.8); higher ISO (800 vs. 400); better movie mode (VGA/30fps vs. VGA/10fps); a faster burst (1.7fps vs. 1.5fps); a longer batter life (140 images on standard AAs vs. 120 images) an extra scene mode (11 vs. 10); USB 2.0 vs. standard USB; a lighter, smaller camera (5.6oz vs. 5.8oz).

Whether that’s worth $50 is a matter for the reviewers but it underscores that Pogue’s point is a very narrow one: all things being equal, adding pixels is a bad reason to upgrade or pay more for. But all things are not always equal.

That bump in pixels is more often than not accompanied by additional enhancements, of varying utility. For many manufacturers, megapixels are an easy way to indicate that the more expensive camera has better features besides a higher resolution (though in some cases price-steps are just a matter of extra pixels). But in order to get the consumer to look at a more fully featured camera, you’ve got to catch their eye and, like it or not, that’s the role that pixels play.