Debunking the myth: why megapixels aren’t everything

Debunking the myth: why megapixels aren’t everything

With so many phones being released each month, it is hard to clearly tell the difference between them all. Gone are the days when you only have ten models to choose from; now if you walk into a store you have to wade through the multitude of mobile phone jargon. With talk of megapixels, ppi, screen resolution, processor speeds and operating systems, buying a new phone can often be more of a chore than a joy.

When I conducted a brief survey in the office, it emerged that one of the features that mattered most when choosing a smartphone is its in-built rear camera quality. However, most users often find themselves unable to establish what exactly makes a good camera.

Most phone manufacturers will have you believe that the higher the megapixels in a camera, the better quality the photographs can be produced. Here we set out to debunk the age old myth and to establish why megapixels aren’t everything.

What are megapixels?

A megapixel is essentially one million pixels. Pixels are the tiny dots that make up a whole picture, and are what you can see if you zoom too much into an image, or if you press your nose up against your computer screen.

Most smartphones released in the past year or so will feature at least a 5 MP camera, though the more modern handsets have 8 MP cameras built into them. Typically, one would assume, as I did until very recently, that the more megapixels a camera has, the better photographs can be produced.

The truth about megapixels

The idea that more megapixels equals a better image is a myth promulgated by mobile phone and camera manufacturers, and has been a topic of debate for some years. However, critics have argued that after 8 MP, photograph quality can actually get worse because pixels are being too tightly packed together.

This can not only distort the picture by making it look blurry, it can also reduce the camera’s ability to capture light effectively. For example, if you were to road test the Sony Xperia T when the sun was shining on a British summer’s day, you would probably get great results. When my colleague reviewed the 13 MP camera on the Xperia T in fact, he found that when photographs taken with the phone in low light were compared with other, lower megapixel cameras, the images weren’t anything special. To see evidence of the camera quality, read the Sony Xperia T Review.

What is image resolution?

The image resolution of a picture is also something that tech geeks often talk about when referring to mobile phone cameras. Resolution is basically how many pixels are counted horizontally or vertically in a given image.

This again is an example of how bigger isn’t necessarily that much better. For example, a 3 MP camera, such as a BlackBerry Curve 9320, has 2,048 pixels horizontally. When this is compared with a camera with a whopping 14 MP, which has 4,500 pixels horizontally, you can see the difference is slight; especially considering the megapixel count varies so much.

This goes to show that even if you double the megapixels of a camera, it doesn’t actually double the resolution of an image. In fact, the difference between a 5 MP and an 8 MP camera is only 40 per cent more pixels in a square function.

What does make a good camera

The sharpness of a photograph when taken on your mobile phone often has less to do with the camera’s megapixel count, and more to do with the photographer and their subject. For example, if you are trying to capture the registration plate of a moving vehicle, doing so on an 8 MP camera probably won’t give you any better results than doing the same thing on a 5 MP camera. The problem here lies in the fact that any camera tends to have issues with capturing objects that are moving at a great speed, or by people who don’t keep their hold completely still.

The features that do make cameras produce better quality photos, however, is their lens, flash and sensors. These are the things that will make your phone’s camera stand out when the light isn’t particularly great, or when you are zoomed to maximum capability.

In fact, Steve Jobs himself was a firm believe that bigger wasn’t better in relation to a camera’s megapixels as he fought off pressure to increase the pixels of the iPhone 4’s rear-facing camera. He chose to leave the phone’s 5 MP camera intact, instead boasting about the perceptiveness of the camera’s sensor. However, later versions of the iPhone have since sported an 8 MP camera to keep up with trends set by other smartphone manufacturers.

What remains clear, though, is that it’s much easier for larger corporations like Apple to try and debunk the myth that more megapixels make for a better camera; it is unlikely that the myth will be broken unless manufacturers start marketing the other features of their cameras above the importance of its megapixel rating.

Megapixels in action

We decided to conduct a little experiment just to see whether you could tell any noticeable difference between phones which have different megapixels. We used the Galaxy Nexus, which has a 5 MP camera, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, which sports an 8 MP camera, and the aforementioned Sony Xperia T, with its massive 13 MP camera.

Using the same scene, we used the three phones to capture photographs firstly in the artificial glow of a strip light, then in the dark using the camera’s in-built flash. Finally, we decided to also take a photo of the same scene in total darkness, to see whether the camera’s sensors would be able to pick up on any light to capture an image which wasn’t totally black.

Here are the results:

Galaxy Nexus Galaxy Note 2 Xperia T

As you can see, the images taken in full light by the Galaxy Nexus and Xperia T look identical, whereas the Note 2, with its 8 MP camera, looks less detailed, with the photograph having a slight yellow tinge to it. The 13 MP camera perhaps looks a little sharper than the other two images, but the difference isn’t that obvious.

When the cameras were tested in the dark but using the flash, again, none of the phones tested were outstanding. The Sony Xperia T was good in that it didn’t reflect the usual white glow that is so common in pictures where the flash is used, and the Note 2’s image is slightly sharper than that of the Galaxy Nexus. That said, the photograph taken by the 13 MP camera did not stand out from the other two whose megapixels are dramatically lower.

Galaxy Nexus Galaxy Note 2 Xperia T

What I found really interesting with this experiment was when I took the same photograph with the three cameras in total darkness. While the 5 MP camera picked up absolutely nothing, revealing just a black screen, the result was identical to the 13 MP camera. However, the Note 2 picked up on the image, albeit with difficultly, which demonstrates the phone’s ability to take good quality photographs in low light (though perhaps not as low as this!).

Galaxy Nexus Galaxy Note 2 Xperia T

I decided to test the Note 2’s 8 MP ability with another 8 MP camera: the iPhone 5. As you can see, the iPhone 5 picked up on the image in total darkness miraculously well, and even looks akin to images when the light was switched on. This goes to show; two 8 MP cameras, two very different photographs.

Galaxy Note 2 iPhone 5

Finally, when I took a close-up of an image with all three cameras, the results of the 13 MP camera did not prove to be anything spectacular compared with the other two. Though the zoom on the Note 2 was not capable of capturing the image as closely as the other two, the image that has emerged is probably the clearer of the three. Saying that, the close-up from the 13 MP camera is also quite sharp, and looks remarkably less pixelated than the Galaxy Nexus’ photograph.

Galaxy Nexus Galaxy Note 2 Xperia T


So there you have it. Although our experiment was less than scientific, it clearly demonstrates that when we’re talking about megapixels, bigger isn’t necessarily better. One would assume that if this was the case, the Galaxy Nexus’ photographs would look dramatically inferior compared with the Xperia T’s, and this simply isn’t the case. This leads to the conclusion that every phone’s camera really is different, and must depend on its other features, not just its image resolution. After all, the Note 2 and the iPhone 5, both having the same number of megapixels, produced very different looking photographs.

So while looking at how many megapixels a smartphone has may be a guide to how good the camera is, it is only that, and certainly shouldn’t be considered the be- all and end-all.

Written by Charlotte Kertrestel

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