Archive for Sunday, February 22, 2004

Is the pixel war over, or has it just begun?

February 22, 2004


This past September, at the Photokina show in Cologne, Germany, Canon and Kodak introduced new digital SLR (single-lens-reflex) cameras with 11 and 14 megapixels (millions of pixels), respectively.

Before the introduction of these cameras, 4-, 5- and 6-megapixel digital cameras were the choice of photographers who wanted film-quality photographs. How was the quality of the images taken with these cameras? Well, at one 2002 trade show, I saw a 4x6-foot print that was enlarged from a file taken with a 6-megapixel camera. In the print, you could see the subject's every eyelash. So you could imagine what an 8x10-inch enlargement on a home inkjet printer looked like.

Back in 2001, when 3-megapixel cameras were coming down in price and up in quality, I saw several digital photography magazine covers that were taken with 3-megapixel cameras. They looked great.

Lately, I have been using a 4-megapixel camera and have been very pleased with the results. Several of my friends also have 4-megapixel ones that take very good pictures, from which outstanding prints are made.

So what are the advantages of having digital cameras with loads and loads of megapixels? For some serious photographers, there are several.

First, the new 11- and 14-megapixel cameras have sensors that are larger than the sensors in previous 4-, 5- and 6-megapixel ones. They are the size of a 35mm film frame. That means that SLR lenses retain their effective focal length. That's unlike older model digital SLRs, where a smaller image sensor meant that SLR lenses lost some of their effective focal length.

What's more, when making enlargements from the newer megapixel cameras (with larger image sensors), the magnification ratio is less. So, in theory, because you are not enlarging the image as much, you should get a sharper picture.

More pixels should mean that more detail is captured. Many snapshooters don't need to capture more detail; they are happy with the detail in the pictures they get from their 4-megapixel cameras. But for some pros, those who shoot landscapes and especially weddings (where you have intricate patterns on a white wedding dress), more pixels should mean capturing more detail.

So the question is, are the pixel wars between the manufacturers over, or have they just begun? It will be interesting to see how many pixels can be crammed onto an image sensor. Maybe someday soon we will see a digital camera with a 20-million pixel image sensor. When that happens, we'll have an image sensor that can theoretically capture as much information as is in a 35mm negative, which some photo experts say is equivalent to a 20-megapixel image sensor.

- Rick Sammon is the author of 21 books about photography and marine conservation.

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