When Steven Sasson designed the first digital camera way back in 1975 it had a 0.01 megapixel sensor. That wasn’t its only problem, but resolution was a serious issue. By the early 1990s we had got up to 1 MP, and resolution has been increasing ever since.
The thing is, though, how many megapixels do you actually need?
You’d have to really try to get a screen resolution above 3 MP, and the vast majority are well under 2 MP.
A print at 300 dpi (best quality photo print) from a 10 MP camera will be 12.91″ x 8.64″.
I don’t know many people who are going to need more than that, so cameras have had enough resolution for a while now.
So why then, is the first specification on a product label in any store is the MP value?
The reason, unsurprisingly, is marketing by numbers. It’s much easier to sell a product based on it having a bigger number than its competitor, rather than the quality of its lens which can’t be quantified.
This kind of marketing has been especially successful with compact cameras, where there is very little real difference between manufacturers at a given price point. It has been exaggerated by people zooming in to 100% on their computers to see minute levels of detail rather than enjoying the picture they’ve taken.
The good news is that the ‘bigger is better’ mentality seems to have had its day, and surprisingly its the manufacturers, not the consumers who have led the way.
In 2009 Olympus announced it was no longer going to compete on resolution. They were quickly followed by Pentax. Just last week, Nikon UK’s Jeremy Gilbert was interviewed by Ephotozine, and he claimed Nikon haven’t been chasing megapixels since the D3x was released in 2008.
While I’m usually loathe to swallow the company line, I’m inclined to believe the manufacturers here. We’ve just about reached the limits that sensors can take without some severe trade-offs in terms of diffraction softening images and the like.
So if the age of the megapixel is over what has taken its place?
Well here’s some good news; feature based marketing. In non-jargon this means that the manufacturers are trying to sell their cameras on the basis of the benefits they offer to users.
Let’s look at an example of a TV advert for Sony’s NEX 5. (There’s a new NEX 5N advert that’s airing currently, but I couldn’t find an online version. Both highlight similar points.)
Here are the key phrases used.
- Quick Response
- Background Defocus
- Full HD Video
- Performs like a pro, feels like a compact.
Each of the tag lines refers to a feature that the camera offers. Sony are trying to sell the camera to you on the basis of what it can do rather than a number. This can only be good news for consumers.
Just to hammer home the point I’ll use a few other examples.
Panasonic G System
- Full Manual & Auto Modes
- Small Size, High Quality
- Small camera, epic shots
- Selective Colouring
- Flip LCD
- Full HD Video
Nikon are focusing slightly more on a lifestyle based approach than Sony and Panasonic, but again there’s no mention of numbered specs.
The major advantage of this kind of marketing to consumers is that we can see the similarities and the unique features of the products, which helps our decision making. It also drives innovation as manufacturers look to for new features to differentiate their products.
For example Olympus has been advertising their new Pen camera, the E-P3, on the basis of it having the world’s fastest autofocus. Samsung have created a new line of Multiview compact cameras with versatile screens.
Obviously I’m not saying you should take what you hear in adverts at face value. The manufacturers will try to present their products in the best possible light, which can lead you to believe the product is more capable than it is in practical use.
Look at this advert for the Sony Ericsson Xperia Ray.
At 0:49 we are told the phone is capable of, “Perfect pictures, even in low light”. Given that Sony, themselves, are selling £1000+ cameras in order to achieve this, it seems difficult to envisage that a camera phone is the camera to make the breakthrough.
To illustrate the difference in capture capabilities between a phone camera and other cameras look at the sensor size comparison from Wikipedia.
The smallest sensor size (1/2.5) is still bigger than that of the Xperia (1/2.8). It’s quite intuitive to see that the larger the sensor, the better its light gathering capability. So if you want perfect low light images I’d suggest a camera phone is not the best way to get them.
To wrap up, enjoy the marketing phase we are in. It might not be perfect, but it’s a huge improvement on the Megapixel War.