DPP Home Gear Cameras Will The Megapixel Wars End?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Will The Megapixel Wars End?

As resolution climbs into the stratosphere, pixel counts aren’t necessarily the most important specification in a D-SLR

This Article Features Photo Zoom

The single most important specification driving camera sales in the digital era has been the megapixel count. You see the number in advertisements from big-box retailers like Best Buy, you see it in TV commercials, and it’s the first question someone asks you when they see a camera in your hand: “How many megapixels is that?”

The preeminence of the megapixel count as the driving specification has come about natu-rally as digital-imaging technology has evolved. It began when, quite understandably, photographers were comparing their film cameras to the capabilities of the early image sensors. There’s a small amount of irony here, though, since you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone in a camera store buying a roll of the latest Ektachrome or Fujichrome emulsion and asking the guy behind the counter about the film’s RMS granularity or the resolving power in millimeters. How many photographers ever even looked at the datasheet that came in every box of 4x5 Fujichrome?

A sensor with lots of megapixels means little unless the camera has a processing system equal to the task. Nikon’s D3X features EXPEED processing that turns out excellent 24.5-megapixel, full-frame images at 5 fps. Below, Canon’s newest pro camera, the EOS-1D Mark IV, features an APS-H sensor with 16.1 megapixels and can shoot at 10 fps and, like Nikon’s new 9 fps, 12.1-megapixel full-frame D3S (far left), goes to ISO 102,400.
Early Days
As soon as digital technology came out, resolution suddenly became very important. Why? Frankly, it was because the resolution of early digital cameras just wasn’t very good. As cameras approached the 1-megapixel barrier, it became clear that digital technology was going to be the wave of the future, but that future wasn’t here yet. In the photo industry, measurements of film resolution started to appear, and it wasn’t long before theoretical comparisons of the megapixel count on a piece of film versus a sensor showed up in print.

At this stage, camera design experienced a kind of freedom that had never previously existed. Without the constraints of a roll of media that needed to move from spool to spool, suddenly designers could come up with models that reimagined what a camera should look like. It was the late 1990s, and most professionals were still on the sidelines as interested observers. Digital cameras were for consumers or for scientific purposes, not high-end image crafting.

Even in these early phases of the digital camera evolution, the opening salvos of the megapixel wars were being fired. The race to 1 megapixel led to the race for 2. At 2 megapixels, we started to hear a question from some manufacturers: “Shouldn’t 2 megapixels be sufficient for the majority of photographers?” In retrospect, it sounds like the statement that’s often attributed to Bill Gates, although he never said it, “640K should be enough for anyone.”

The Perfect Specification
Marketing a new technology has never been easy. How do you convince potential customers of the benefits of something that they don’t know they need? Everyone had a camera. Film wasn’t inexpensive, but people were willing to pay for it and the processing. Furthermore, printing at home was both difficult and yielded suboptimal results. The Internet was yet to be overrun by Facebook and Flickr. In fact, the world was still on dial-up! In this environment, marketing departments yearned for something that would be simple to understand, be easy to remember and give an immediate and direct element of comparison: a single number. Suddenly, it seemed that no other specification in the world even existed, much less mattered. It was all megapixels, all the time.


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