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DSLR vs Phone Camera: Do megapixels really matter?

With smartphone cameras going higher than 100 megapixels these days, the average consumer is now seeing less and less reason in buying a dedicated camera. And for the most part, they’re right. The average consumer these days only needs a picture that looks good on their phone screens. Most smartphones get that right. If your only purpose is to take a picture that looks great on your stories and Instagram feed, you’re good to go.

However, things are different on the professional side of photography. You’ll hear most photographers say that megapixels don’t really matter all that much. So what is the metric for a good camera?

The camera sensor

The size of the camera sensor determines how much detail the camera can capture and ultimately, that matters way more than the actual megapixel count. For instance, my Canon 200D is only about 24.2 Megapixels. In fact, all the images that you see in my articles are taken at 3.8 megapixels only.

If that doesn’t sound like a lot, that’s because it isn’t.

My DSLR only goes as high as 24.2 MP

The main difference here is that a DSLR packs in a much larger sensor than a smartphone. That sensor is responsible for the difference in image quality that you see. Of course, there are the optics and processing, but the sensor forms the core of the system.

Also read: How to clean your camera sensor and lenses?

How does sensor size matter?

Before we delve into how much megapixels affect an image, let’s understand what they mean.

Every camera sensor has tiny spots on it called photosites. Each photosite is a real-life equivalent of a digital pixel, and once light falls on it, it determines what colour the resultant pixel should be.

Obviously, you’d want a lot of these photo sites to get a high-quality image. One million photosites make up one megapixel.

However, what matters a lot more than the sheer number of photosites is the actual size of these photosites.

A Full Frame sensor (red) vs a Crop frame sensor (green) vs a Phone sensor (yellow) | Not illustrated to scale

As you can see, the sensor size varies vastly in the image above (not illustrated to scale). Now consider megapixels bowls in a tray. As the tray gets bigger, you can place bigger bowls in it, which in turn can store more food or image data in our case.

Similarly, as the sensor size gets bigger, the megapixels can save more and more image data which eventually results in a higher quality image.

Also read: Camera Optics 101: Prime lenses and their benefits

So how to decide on a camera?

Well if you’re buying a smartphone, you don’t really get much of a choice when it comes to the sensor size. Still, don’t run blindly behind megapixels.

When deciding on a camera, make sure you take into account the sensor size. If you’re getting a crop sensor camera, note how much the crop factor it and how will you work your ways around that.

Generally speaking, any camera in the range of 10-12 megapixels with good enough sensor should suffice even for printing high-quality pictures. Anything above that is just going to be extra. It will still add to the image quality, but you don’t really need all that in most cases.

All-in-all, it’s not just the megapixels that count, there is much more that doesn’t meet the eye, or rather the marketing banners.

Also read: Camera Optics: Which lens to choose and when?

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