Why the Megapixel Race Needs to End

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Charlie Sorrel explains that megapixels, like megahertz before them, are the big consumer swindle of the camera world.:

Fast ISO

ISO ratings on digital cameras mimic the different sensitivities of film, but they don’t quite work in the same way. The same information falls onto the same sensor, but at higher sensitivity settings the signal is simply amplified to make things brighter. Unfortunately, any noise is also amplified, which is why we normally see noisy images at high ISO settings, despite improving noise-reduction software in cameras.

And the more megapixels on a sensor, the more noise; those pixels are so small and so close together, especially on the tiny sensors in compact cameras, that information bleeds between them, a kind of visual cross-talk. Nikon was the first company to have the cojones to release a flagship DSLR, the D3, with “only” 12.1 megapixels. This relatively low count, coupled with a full-frame sensor, means that the D3 can shoot amazingly low-noise photos at ISO 6400, with pretty good images all the way up to ISO 25600. This has left Canon, still focusing on pixels, scrambling to catch up.

Burst Mode

Almost every compact camera comes with a video mode, and many shoot in high definition. If pixel counts were to top out at, say, 8 million, the camera’s processors will soon be powerful enough to shoot video at full resolution. Why do you care? Because if a camera can grab frames that fast, shutter lag (still a problem on compacts), blinking subjects and forced smiles are all moot: You simply review the burst of images and pick the one you want. Sure, this will fill up your memory cards quicker, but that’s just another reason to keep pixel counts low. Casio already does something similar with its Exilim EX-F1, which shoots 6-megapixel images at 60 fps.

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