How Many Megapixels Does Your Smartphone Need?

The megapixel count of a smartphone gets a lot of attention among smartphone manufacturers. It is one of the most emphasized specs on the labels of smartphone products. You’ll find them in bold prints; sometimes 12MP, maybe 48MP, 50MP, or even 200MP.

For some people, deciding how many megapixels are good enough is confusing. So, beyond the smart marketing tactic pushed by manufacturers regarding megapixel count, how many megapixels does your current phone have, and how many do you actually need?

Debunking the Megapixel Myth

Marketing campaigns by smartphone manufacturers have crafted a really simple image of what megapixels mean. They’ve made it look like megapixels solely decide how good your pictures can be. For instance, the Samsung Galaxy S20, S21, and S22 Ultra all come with a 108-megapixel sensor.

Samsung takes great pride in emphasizing the strength of its 108-megapixel sensors and how it makes its smartphone cameras so much better than competitors with less megapixel count. You could be tempted to think that more megapixel automatically means a better camera.

However, this line of reasoning crumbles when faced with devices like Apple’s iPhone 13 Pro Max and Google’s Pixel 5. The iPhone 13 Pro Max comes with a modest 12MP main camera. Surely, a 12MP sensor doesn’t stand a chance against a 108MP sensor?

You’d be wrong to think so. Of course, the iPhone 13 Pro Max has one of the best cameras of any commercially available smartphone. It outperforms the Galaxy S20 Ultra and Galaxy S21 Ultra in several camera metrics. Similarly, Google’s Pixel 5 Pro’s modest 16MP main camera doesn’t necessarily make it inferior to a device like Samsung’s Galaxy A52 with a 48MP sensor.

So, if more megapixels don’t necessarily mean a better camera, how do megapixels count impact camera and picture quality? How many megapixels does your phone need to produce good pictures?

To answer that, you’ll need to understand what a megapixel means.

What Is a Megapixel?

To understand megapixels, it’s important to understand its much smaller unit—pixels. Pixels are tiny light-capturing blocks on the surface of your camera’s image sensor. Or, you can call them very tiny building block that contains visual data used to build an image.

A megapixel is a collection of a million of those tiny pixels. So when you say 1MP, you’d mean 1 million pixels. And 12MP would mean 12 million pixels. But how do these numbers impact camera and picture quality?

How Megapixel Count Affects Camera Quality

Light is very important in photography—it’s critical. Pixels capture light on the surface of a camera’s sensor, which makes them very important. Typically, the bigger the pixel size, the more light it can capture. The more light your pixels trap, the better your images are likely to be. Conversely, the smaller the pixel size, the less light it can capture, leading to potentially poorer images.

However, it’s not all black and white, there’s a bit of nuance to it, but at the fundamental level, that’s how stuff works.

To be clear, the pixel size is not the same as the megapixel count. They are two different things. The pixel size is the size of those tiny pixels on the surface of your camera’s sensor. A megapixel is a number, in millions, of those tiny pixels that are fitted on the sensor. But how does pixel size even matter? How does it relate to megapixel count?

Now, picture the two images below as your camera’s sensor and those gray boxes as individual pixels.

For this first image, the pixels (gray boxes) are bigger. Because the pixels are bigger, only a few can fit into the image (camera sensor).

For this second image, even when the image size (sensor size) remains the same, more pixels can be fitted into it because the pixels (gray boxes) are smaller.

The implication is that given the same sensor size, more “smaller pixels” can be fitted in, but fewer bigger pixels can fit. Remember, bigger pixels are typically better because they trap more light. So when making a camera, the manufacturers could be faced with a choice of fitting in 12 million large pixels to get a 12MP camera or 108 million smaller pixels to get a 108MP camera sensor. Get the drift?

However, this doesn’t automatically mean that less megapixel is better. Yes, in some situations, it is, but it depends on several variables, one of which is the sensor size. But what is the sensor size?

To put it simply, sensor size is the size of the camera sensor on which those tiny pixels sit. The image sensor itself is the component of a camera that produces images using the light trapped by the camera. Sensor size introduces new dynamics to how you approach the subject of megapixel count.

Take a 2MP camera, for instance. A big sensor could fit in 2 million large pixels comfortably without sacrificing the size of the pixels. However, another 2MP camera with a smaller sensor would have to use smaller pixels to be able to accommodate the entire 2 million pixels. In a nutshell, the size of your image sensor determines how many pixels will fit on its surface and how big those pixels can be.

It could be counterproductive to force more megapixels on a small sensor. If you have a bigger sensor, on the other hand, you can push in more pixels if you want. That’s why Samsung uses very large sensors (in smartphone standards) on its Galaxy S22 Ultra, which comes with 108MP cameras.

How Many Megapixels Is Enough?

At this point, it could be tempting to think more megapixels don’t really do much. Well, not entirely. More megapixels mean more resolution or room for a higher-definition image. This can be very useful when printing images or viewing them on large screens. In addition, more megapixels ensure your image accommodates as many details as possible.

Also, higher megapixels are important for zooming, specifically digital zoom. Since digital zoom is basically cropping, a higher megapixel camera captures enough details to ensure when you crop an image manually or when your camera does it by digitally zooming in, the image does not pixelate. This could be very useful for smartphones that rely heavily on digital zoom rather than optical zoom for zooming.

So, the higher the megapixel count, the more details it can potentially capture. But, of course, you shouldn’t necessarily get excited about the high megapixel count. A higher megapixel count doesn’t automatically translate to better pictures. You can fancy more megapixels if:

  1. A large sensor is involved
  2. A good lens is involved. It’s hard to define a good lens, but the definition of a good lens these days is based on brand. Brands like Leica and Zeiss are associated with quality lenses.
  3. Good software is involved. Samsung, Apple, and Google have great computational photography software. Good software can juice out the best value from high megapixel cameras.
  4. Uses pixel binning. This technology digitally combines adjacent pixels to simulate larger pixel sizes.

Megapixel Count Is More than Meets the Eye

While it’s tempting to get excited about the newest flagships with a crazy megapixel count, always ask: “what are their underlying technologies?” If the underlying technology isn’t good enough, then more megapixel count isn’t worth spending more cash on.

If the underlying technology is good enough, then by all means, if you have the funds, go for higher megapixels. However, making buying decisions based on the megapixel count is not entirely advisable.

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