Here's why your camera's megapixel count is less important than you think

Here's why your camera's megapixel count is less important than you think

If there's one myth that we'll never tire of debunking over and over again, it's the one concerning the "More is Always Better" mindset when it comes to smartphone cameras. "A 21-megapixel camera? Woah, quality must be crazy good!", right? No. At least not necessarily.

You see, while the number of pixels on board your smartphone's camera is a marketer's favorite selling point, an 8-megapixel camera, for example, isn't necessarily inferior to a 21-megapixel one. In fact, more often than not, the resolution of the photos ending in your camera roll is irrelevant at best, and a complete lie at worst. The why of this, however, is complex, and entails a whole bunch of factors. We'll start backwards, and you'll see why.

The resolution illusion


Let's say you know nothing or very little about imaging sensors, lenses, image processors, and so on — like the majority of users — and bought a crazy-good cameraphone like the Galaxy S6. Samsung's new flagship is among the best shooters currently on the market, but its 16-megapixels aren't as integral a part to its excellence as you might think. In fact, for most of us, these 16 megapixels will prove to be something of an illusion. And no, Samsung played no trick on you — you really are getting a 16-megapixel snapper — it's just that the stills it produces will almost never be experienced in their full glory.

Why is that, however? The answer is simple — most people take photos so they can share them with other people, usually on social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and others. Since any one social network is only as good as its network is vast, it follows that your favorite avenue is ultra-popular and boasts a user base in the hundreds of millions. This means that Facebook and the like must down-size and compress the images you upload, as doing otherwise isn't sustainable and will cost Zuckerberg and Co. mountains of cash. Even if that wasn't the case, Facebook would still need to serve these images to all your friends that decide to take a look, resulting in hefty bandwidth bills, slow speeds for users with poorer connections, and extremely strained data servers overall. So that glorious, crazily detailed image you took? It starts looking like this:

Original, full-sized image crop (left); same image uploaded to Facebook (right). Click to explore properly.

Original, full-sized image crop (left); same image uploaded to Facebook (right). Click to explore properly.


You're looking at an extreme crop from the same scene (seen below), and you'll need to click the image to zoom in enough to notice the significant drop in quality. And that's to be expected — our original image had a resolution of 5312 x 2988 pixels, and required 5.84MB to store. The same image, uploaded to Facebook, was downsized to 2048 x 1152 (2 megapixels), and its size dropped to 313KB (over 17 times less). 

Facebook isn't alone in this, however. Take Instagram for example — it brutalizes your photos by first applying a square crop, and then mushing them down to 640 x 640 pixels, or 0.4 megapixels. From a 5.84MB image, we quickly went down to a picture that only occupies 115KB on Instagram's servers, and that's with the high resolution setting on

Original, full-sized image crop (left); same image uploaded to Instagram (right). Click to explore properly.

Original, full-sized image crop (left); same image uploaded to Instagram (right). Click to explore properly.


But what if we told you that the above comparison is actually unfairly benefiting high pixel count images? That's because we're comparing extreme crops, and also the original image with the source image on Facebook's and Instagram's servers, which is larger than what your social circle will see on their display. 

On a 23-inch, 1080p monitor, the so-called Facebook theater image viewer gives us a preview of 1477 x 831 pixels, or about 1.3 megapixels. Instagram's photo viewer is even worse, as it creates a 612 x 612 pixel box with a thumbnail of your image inside. At those sizes, it doesn't matter if the original photo was 10, 16, or even 100 megapixels large — it will get squished. More importantly, however, and this is contrary to what you probably assumed — the image actually doesn't look any worse than the original unless you're using a super high-end monitor.

Don't believe us? Here's a side-by-side comparison of the original image and the one uploaded to Facebook. Neither has been edited. Spot any differences? Come on, stick your face into your monitor if you have to. No? Well of course you don't, they're too small a size for you to perceive! That's exactly what's going on with Facebook and Instagram, and any other image hosting site on the web — you're looking at full-sized photos pretty much never, and even if you were, all your glorious megapixels are for naught, as they're culled!

Here's why your camera's megapixel count is less important than you think
Here's why your camera's megapixel count is less important than you think

Noticed the apartment building we used already for the above crops to showcase the drop in quality? Yep, that's how far into the image you have to zoom in to perceive that loss of detail. It's fair to say that you won't be zooming as much. In conclusion, so far we learned that a higher megapixel count doesn't really matter for the majority of users because:

  • The services we use the most for photo sharing compress and downsize images significantly;
  • Unless you're browsing on a display with a crazy-high resolution, the drop in quality is not perceivable anyway;
  • Most of us waste internal storage and data without a particularly good reason

The megapixel fallacy


So far, we've established that even a really great, high resolution camera doesn't really mean much in the typical user's day-to-day usage. Not all high-res shooters are made equal, however, and herein lies the second argument against mindlessly chasing megapixels: they're by no means an indicator of quality.

Let's take for example the very current, very high-end HTC One M9 and its 20-megapixel main camera from Toshiba. Given the count, you'd expect it to offer detail surpassed by few others, right? Wrong. The One M9, in fact, resolves a shoddy level of details relative to its supposed resolution. Here's an example (extreme) crop from both the One M9 and the iPhone 6's 8-megapixel camera:

Detail comparison between the One M9 (left) and the iPhone 6 (right). Click to explore properly.

Detail comparison between the One M9 (left) and the iPhone 6 (right). Click to explore properly.


According to the two phones' specs sheets, the difference in detail has got to be significant — after all, Apple's flagship has less than half the resolving power. In reality, however, the One M9's otherwise gigantic photos are almost tied with the iPhone 6's in terms of depth of detail. This is a different argument, of course, but it's important — there's a ton of work that goes into making a great camera, and sticking as many pixels as possible doesn't mean much when the rest isn't up to par. This is especially valid with entry-level and mid-range devices.

Ultimately, megapixel count is a poor predictor of quality for smartphones. If you're going to oversimplify camera performance, it's actually better to bet on camera sensor size, even though that too can be misleading. In any case, a larger sensor can facilitate larger pixels, and larger pixels are almost always preferable to smaller ones — they allow more light to reach them and are less prone to artifacts, all things being equal.

It's not all for naught


For the sake of objectivity, we have to note that a higher resolution smartphone camera does have a few advantages, offbeat as they may be. For example, a larger image means you can crop areas of it to make them appear closer without an actual loss of detail — you aren't zooming in, you're just cutting a part of the photo. So long as the camera can actually produce the detail it promises to, this can be a pro for a tiny portion of the user base.

Another useful byproduct of a high megapixel camera is the ability to zoom into the distance with less significant loss in detail. Some manufacturers, such as Sony and Nokia, actually allow you to zoom into the image without any consequences to quality — you're just limited to x3 or x5 zoom, for example, beyond which quality starts going downhill.

Lastly, a high resolution camera can be useful for snapping photos that you then want to print out on physical photo paper and hang in your house. 

Parting words


Many of us have been led to believe that a higher megapixel count equates with better image quality, but that's just not the case. Quite frankly, beyond a certain threshold, diminishing returns kick in mercilessly, and more megapixels can actually hurt quality, not improve it. Even if they don't, the majority of the user base will never actually get their money's worth, as images simply aren't distributed this way. Whether we're talking about monstrous (but necessary) compression algorithms, or lack of physical space on your typical, 1080p screen, it's fair to say that your 20-megapixel snaps are only as useful as your image viewer's zoom feature is deep.

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95 Comments

1. Johnnokia

Posts: 1158; Member since: May 27, 2012

Nokia started creating this concept in users' mind, when they used to increase the number of Mpixels and give better and better imaging. So people believed the higher Mpixel is the better image

8. Spedez

Posts: 542; Member since: Aug 29, 2014

MP count correlates quite well with the quality but not always of course. Less if you only care about Facebook sharing but high MP cameras usually have better optics. Nokia used high MP count for interpolation and lossless zoom unless you already forgot. And even today, 5 year old n8's 12 MP camera is pretty much on par with most of today's flagship phones.

14. VZWuser76

Posts: 4974; Member since: Mar 04, 2010

To be fair the notion that higher Megapixels means better quality pictures was around long before Nokia started putting large MP cameras in their phones. It started with digital cameras. Point & shoot and DSLR models were the ones that started the MP race. Other smartphone OEMS also used the "more is better" in terms of MP to upsell their phones before Nokia launched their Purview campaign, Nokia simply took it to the next level.

23. raky_b

Posts: 369; Member since: Jul 02, 2014

you are wrong. it did meen something in era of VGA, when Nokia, but and all other went for higher. i guess that you are refernig to 41MP at Pureview,and if so...you are again wrong, because that sistem is something else, to put it simple: it's more similar to what is explained in text abowe, how FB,Twiter and rest of them do. making smaller pic, with less pixels without loosing qullity. but i would say Nokia did it better, so from 41Mp shooter you can get 8Mp pictures (not 41). and Spedez, i have N8 but i'm not using it for some time... it have one of best cameras, if not the best. i have (or had)One M8, SGS5, Sony Z3 and iP6, which is all last years flagships and N8 still makes better photos. too bad Nokia did go to WP instead of developing symbian more...

27. hound.master

Posts: 1044; Member since: Feb 27, 2015

5mp super sample mode and 38mp original one no 8mp.

49. TechieXP1969

Posts: 14967; Member since: Sep 25, 2013

Because it is. More megapixels matter for lots of reasons. A - If you want to see a phone in a high resolution than a 4" x 6" or an 8" x10" which were the 2 common photos sizes in the old days, than you need a camera with at least 8MP to make anythign above that look good. if you use a 1.2MP camera and take a 640p shot, and you try to resize it to just double, it looks like uttered crap. Megapixels don't make the whole photo, but ti does make it sharper and larger and as you make it even larger it can get much bigger before it starts to pixelate.

57. waddup121 unregistered

Sensor + Image quality > megapixels

78. MrElectrifyer

Posts: 3960; Member since: Oct 21, 2014

Except MP is a property of the sensor (bit.ly/1yxdZ2F), not some stand-alone feature

92. Shocky unregistered

True but generally speaking it doesn't work out like that, just look a the M7 and M8 4MP cameras, they were terrible and it had nothing to do with megapixels.

74. slannmage

Posts: 289; Member since: Mar 26, 2013

Nokia used the higher MP count for lossless zoom and oversampling. It is the best of both worlds since you can effectively make the higher MP sensor do the same job as a lower MP one with larger pixels, while having the option for digital zoom, cropping and more detail.

2. VLaRueC

Posts: 189; Member since: Dec 18, 2012

Must be a slow day at PA. Regardless of what is said here, there will always be a reason for more megapixels. We innovate and improve. That keeps us busy. This topic isn't like those magnetic wristbands or sketcher shape-up gimmicks. MP count has a purpose regardless what Instagram thinks..

11. Niva.

Posts: 440; Member since: Jan 05, 2015

This is a similar argument to going above 1080 on sub 6" devices. There comes a point of diminishing returns. Your phone, as amazing as it is, will never be as good at photos as a DSLR. Get a real camera if it's really that important. We've already reached the state of "good enough" for casual photography with phones.

93. Shocky unregistered

Not similar at all, images are meant to be extracted, edited, saved or printed. When I view my uploaded images on my computer I want to be wowed by the image quality and detail, not disappointed in a blurry mess on my screen.

3. haikallp

Posts: 319; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

I'M 12MP is ideal. Anything more is a great plus.

61. Z3R091 unregistered

16 MP it is. Been thinking G4 or M9

66. flipjzn

Posts: 257; Member since: Jun 22, 2012

I own the exact watch on your profile. :)

4. gaming64 unregistered

Sadly, some users here are specs wh*res(TechieXP1969) and will never understand this.

16. VZWuser76

Posts: 4974; Member since: Mar 04, 2010

That may be true, but hardware also plays a large part of it as well, you need both. By that I mean high spec unoptimized hardware will run as well as low spec optimized hardware, so the higher the specs, the better chance you have of getting better results, regardless of optimization. Lower specd hardware can be optimized to run as well as higher specd hardware, but if it isn't optimized, it will be inferior to higher specd unoptimized hardware. When you have high spec hardware that is optimized, you have the best you can get.

47. TechieXP1969

Posts: 14967; Member since: Sep 25, 2013

You love my user name don't you. First off, I use to be a freelance photographer for the Suntimes newspaper in Chicago. I know a lot about cameras to a point. Here are the facts - Megapixels do matter to a point. yes, a camera with very good optics and low MP's can take pictures that look better. However those pictures will have other lost benefits. Example, HTC little 4MP camera yes took great low light pictures. But when you resize them up, they pixelate faster due to low amount of Megapixels. We are taking consumer grade cameras vs professional grade cameras. Lets take Pros off the table because none of us here are PROS. Unless you are gettign paid money to take pictures, you arent a pro. So for smartphones, the math is simple. More magapixels means the photo is very sharp at low resolutions and when those are increased, the quality of the picture stays high at several sizes. For a camera to be really good, which takes ALL consumer based cheap smartphone cameras off the list, you need a camera with a shutter that allows for more variable speeds and controls, you need lower aperture, you need quick auto focus and image stabilization. When i t comes to phones dude, those sensors cost roughly $30. You can't expect professional level performce for $30. Yes for a while the iPhoen for example was taking better pictures than many phones, because those phones even now have terrible cameras. Samsung and Apple usually use the same Sony Sensors in their phones. But Samsung does better with them and they offer more options for manual usage on their phones vs Apple. A 16MP camera 9 times out of 10 will take a better picture than an 8MP one. HTC's 4Mp camera was designed to take better low light pictures, but then it sucked at everyday pictures. Samsung had their camera set to take better pictures with decent lighting. Why? BECAUSE MOST PICTURES ARE TAKEN IN DAYLIGHT HOURS. I personally could care less if a camera can take pictures at night or dusk. Most peopel usually take pictures in a well lit area. If you are a pro and you want perfect night pictures than you need a DSLR PERIOD. if you go out an but a $200 phone an expect $3000 level pictures than you're a fool to begin with. Specs do matter. Apple 8MP camera is terrible vs The Note 4, and S6. In fact it doesn't even take better pictures than Samsung iSOCELL 16MP inside the S5. The S4, iPhone 4, 4S, 5, 5S, 6 and 6+ all share the same camera sensor from Sony, yet even the S4 takes better daytime pictures. Stop using my name telling me specs don't matter. They do matter. For one, if I am goign to pay $1000 for my phone I need the best possible specs, because I wont have to question whether something will be good or not.

60. ecmedic4

Posts: 520; Member since: May 02, 2013

iphone 4 had a 5MP camera. The iPhone 4S is the first iPhone that started using an 8MP camera sensor. Also I have to say that I've always gotten great pictures when I had the iPhone 5/5S and now with the 6 Plus.

87. nwright94

Posts: 211; Member since: Oct 14, 2014

Most things you said are absolutely true except the bit at the end with the S4. I'd trust Dxomark who currently has the S6 at number one for best smartphone camera, then the Note 4, and then the iPhone 6/6+. They're a pretty well respected photography website so I'd say they know what they're talking about and they definitely don't place the S4 above the 6/6+.

94. hound.master

Posts: 1044; Member since: Feb 27, 2015

Actually you shouldn't trust them Lumia 1020 have the best smartphone camera also LG g4 Samsung s5 note 3 and Lumia 1520/930 have better camera than iPhone 6 and many more phones that is not well known.

95. nwright94

Posts: 211; Member since: Oct 14, 2014

They take speed and all that into account too when testing the cameras. They haven't gotten to the G4 yet so I'm sure that will push the iPhone down a notch but many many websites consider the iPhone 6 to have one of the better cameras out there, even MKBHD. The S5 and all those have great cameras too but I'm going to trust well respected tech reviewers over PA readers.

52. TechieXP1969

Posts: 14967; Member since: Sep 25, 2013

You cant speak for me. The more megapixels the better. Show me a camera on a phone that takes better pictures than the 41MP Pureview camera on the Lumia. THERE ARE NONE. Here is what MORE MEGAPIXELS helps with. if the subject is far away, more megapixels will keep the image sharp so you dont have to use a zoom to take a shot. The more pixels in a shot, means for a sharper, crisper, and a picture than can be resized larger before it pixelates. I dont think we need to take larger sized pictures. But we do need clarity. I know what specs a camera needs to take a good photo. But I want more pixels too. They do matter. But liek any hardware, a certain level of performnce is expected whn the numbers go up. So obvious a CPU that is 2.0Ghz is expected to perfrom better than one that is 1.2Ghz. A CPU with 4 cores is expected to work better than one that si dual core. Images on a 4K display are expected to look better than one on 2K. Higher numbers matter. Now, the backend work is what makes that a true statement. if you buy a camera that is 16MP and it takes worse pictures than one with 8MP, its because the OEM did terrible background processing in their software, it doesn't mean they used a cheap crappy lens. With hardware, most deficiencies is in software, not hardware. Hardware is make to a spec. Specs are designed to be high and good. if you cant see it the hardware isn't your problems. I am sure I know just as much about what to expect from a spec than you do as I am an engineer by trade.

68. razraptre

Posts: 168; Member since: Oct 21, 2014

I have to agree with everything you said, except for not finding a better cameraphone than the 1020. I own a 1020, and while I love the photos it takes and the images are nothing short of superb, it still suffers from warm tinting and a slow speed, with images out of focus every now and then, and blurriness in the corners. Of course, none of that has to do with the MP count so... xD

53. TechieXP1969

Posts: 14967; Member since: Sep 25, 2013

Also, let me tell you what YOU don't understand, since you want to tell me. Lets just take 2 phones known for taking great pictures. So lets take the iPhone vs the Galaxy S. We know as a fact that Apple and Samsung both use the same sensors from Sony. Can we agree here? Question, how is it Samsung gets better photos? You all complain about Samsung's camera bump. Have you ever ask why Samsung cameras are so big, even though the sensor is small? Here is why. Samsung phones have larger camera bumps because Samsung chose to use better hardware processing og photos vs using software tricks. Example, if you use a phone with a lower Aperture, then you dont have to try to make the software compensate for low light shots. This leads to a more natural looking low light photo. Havign a larger lens means you an take wider or taller shots and you an do them from farther away. Take an iPhone 6 and a S6 and take a wide shot and see how much the iPhone cust off the picture. It is cut because the lens inside the iPhone is not wide angle cabale so it cuts off the shot and it actually makes the picture look bad. What the iPhone does do very well is take very good close angle shots. But if you are in your car and you want to take a nice skyline shot of a city from a bridge that is 5 miles away or more, the iPhone will chop off most of the shot. In fact you lose as much as 15% from both sides. Apple uses a smaller lense. Which means a smaller shot. Which means in family shots everyone needs to be on top of each other vs the Galaxy where we could spread out. Even if the iPhone had a 16MP camera, if they keep it small, the problem will be the same. Why are lenses on a DSLR so big? have you ever asked or looked it up? Its the same reason why telescopes have larger lenses. Larger lense, means more light can get to the sensor, it gives the camera a larger field of depth. When you have high megapixel, you can capture that large field just as your eye sees it and it wont be cut off. I don't know where you live. But it is summer almost. Where I live I get a very good view of the sky. The camera on the S6 is so good, I took a shot of the Moon and Venus and I thing the 3rd planet is either Jupiter or Saturn. It is very clear and accurate for objects that are 1000's of miles away. Same shot with an iPhone 4S I still have? Blurry, pixelated, wrong hue and cut at the edges. Megapixels matter they just arent the 31 spec, but it is one of the top 5 IMO.

5. UglyFrank

Posts: 2190; Member since: Jan 23, 2014

The HTC M7/M8 rebuttal

6. yoosufmuneer

Posts: 1518; Member since: Feb 14, 2015

Waiting for AlikMalix to comment..

41. AlikMalix unregistered

Wow, thanks of thinking of me.... But all I know is that my iPhone 5s is taking very good photos and videos. And cameras are a only a single part of many factors when it comes to choosing a smartphone. There are better photos coming from note 4 but I have taken better photos at the same party than the same Note 4 - not as often but a few. You will probably see me comment when someone says iPhones camera is garbage or useless or crap compared to other phones - which isn't true. Note 4 will have a better result more often, but like I said there are more things to consider in smartphones than just a camera. Some android cameras are better and that's a fact based on many articles, but I haven't seen any photos that are better than my 5s when it came to dim lit areas and video recording quality and slo-mo smoothness for my 2 year old phone is exceptionally good (not to mention a newer iPhone 6 and 6+ with OIS). UI of the camera app is also extremely good on iOS. The manual settings that require frequent fiddling are now gesture based (even Samsung is copying the exposure bar) - it's that well thought out. So there's that to consider. Basically iPhone camera is not useless, trash, etc. just ranks slightly below on overall comparisons, and many times stil on par give its still 8mp vs the 12/16 on other flagships. But seriously, even if you meant that as an insult, I feel honored.

69. hound.master

Posts: 1044; Member since: Feb 27, 2015

http://www.gsmarena.com/camera_shootout-review-1104.php No iPhone camera is not good and video recording you know that iPhone can't even record stereo sound don't know about 6/6 plus through.

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