Debunking the Megapixel Myth

Back in 2012, just when we thought the Megapixel Race was over, Nokia released the 41 Megapixel 808 Pureview. 41 megapixels seemed quite impressive for a phone camera, and still is quite impressive. Apparently that wasn’t enough to save the Nokia 808 from the Symbian jinx. I mean, who puts 41-megapixel Carls Zeiss lens on a dying OS?

Fast forward over a year later and Nokia are about to release another 41 megapixel camera phone – the Nokia Lumia 1020 – this time running on the Windows Phone 8 OS.

I think the design is pretty slick, considering how much power those lens behind pack. The Nokia Lumia 1020 is due for launch on July 26th, exclusively on AT&T in the US.

But I’m not here to do a pre-release review, I am not worthy. My only aim here is to debunk the myth that megapixels are the ‘be all and end all’ of image quality.

What really is a megapixel?

An 8 megapixel phone camera basically means that the image sensor captures a resolution of 3,264 pixels (across) by 2,448 pixels (downwards). Multiply those 2 figures and you get 7,990,272 which is approximately 8 million – 8 megapixels. In the same way, an image sensor that captures resolutions of 2,592 X 1,944 pixels will produce 5,038,848 – 5 megapixels.

pixel dots
8 megapixels

While a higher number of megapixels is definitely instrumental to producing quality images, the number of megapixels is only one of the many factors that determine the quality of an image. There are many 8 megapixel phone cameras out there that take terrible photos in comparison with their cheaper 5 megapixel counterparts.

What other factors matter?

The size of the sensor, size of individual pixels, the quality of the lens, shutter speed and imaging processing software are amongst many other factors that determine the quality of a digital camera.

For example, the HTC One ‘Ultrapixel’ phone camera is just 4 megapixels. Yes, 4 megapixels. This is because, the size of its pixels are way larger than the average pixels you find in any other phone camera. So each pixel occupies more space on the image sensor. Consequently, the image sensor takes in more details, resulting in image quality that easily levels with a lot of 8 (and even 12) megapixel phone cameras out there. And it’s only just 4 megapixels! It isn’t about the megapixels alone!

How many pixels is too much?

A typical HD monitor can only display a resolution of 1920×1080 (2 megapixels). So in theory, 8 megapixels already seems like overkill for the average computer user.

If all you want is to view photos on your computer, share on Facebook/Twitter or upload on your blog, you really do not need more than 3-5 quality megapixels. Note the use of “quality”.

As stated earlier, most monitors can’t even display more than 2 megapixels resolution. Which means that after Facebook crops your uploads, you usually end up with a sharp 1 megapixel image at best.

Even for the enthusiastic printer, a well-shot 8 megapixel image is capable of producing professional looking 8 x 10″ prints – about the size of the standard N50/N80 photos you snap at weddings and owambes.  Again, note the use of “well-shot”.

And don’t forget memory space. More megapixels means more MB taken, so what’s the point of having more megapixels than you’ll ever need?

If your end-game is full-scale prints, billboards and the like, we can start talking about 12 megapixels upwards. But even at that, the relevance of over 12 megapixels is debatable. There’s only so much edge more pixels can get you. In short, the camera can only be as perfect as its user.

So why are cameras of over 5 megapixels still being produced for regular users?

You can blame that on the Megapixel Race.

Back in the day, in an effort to  tout “superior” specs, phone makers employed ‘guerrilla tactics’. They began to cramp more and more pixels into image sensors, without bothering to increase the size of the image sensor accordingly. So a phone would have an image sensor that cramped 8 megapixels into the same space that was meant for 3 megapixels. All the responsibility of balancing out the unwanted effects, produced by such practices, was pushed to the image processing software. Software that was hardly ever developed properly so you ended up with average looking images. So why not just get it right from the moment of capture?

What’s most innovative about Nokia’s Pureview technology is that it addresses these issues. In order to better accommodate the humongous number of pixels, Nokia increased the image sensor size by a multiple of up to 3 times the normal size of other phone cameras. Coupled with their oversampling technology, the end result is high resolution images with near “lossless” zoom quality.

It would be interesting to see how well the Nokia Lumia 1020 will fare against competition with its 41 megapixel and Windows Phone 8 combo.

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12 comments

  1. I mean, who puts 41-megapixel Carls Zeiss lens on a dying OS?

    Nokia needed renaissance, the Windows Phone OS couldn’t handle the PureView tech, and it was ready. What were they supposed to do? Sit on their asses while Microsoft is trying to upgrade the OS’s capabilities?

  2. I really don’t understand Nokia, checked out the specs of the phone no USB otg, hdmi and other features packed in my old N8. I’m running out of patience Nokia …..

  3. Well, humans will keep trying to better whatever they’ve created by improving what’s on ground or discovering a better way of going about it. Nokia’s approach seems to be yielding better results than competition and HTC’s approach looks very promising but needs further tweaking while Samsung and Apple seem to continue in the traditional approach with Apple doing better in the old regime.

    I think the company that will combine all these various approaches effectively will be the feature champion but before that happens, Nokia will still remain the king of mobile phone camera but if they need to remain there for long, they need to even do more and that’s why the megapixel race will continue. I strongly believe that the trio of Apple, Samsung and HTC are going to treat us to some awesomeness of the own camera phone offerings before this year runs out.

    Talking about why we need more pixels than we can consume, the smartphone cameras still lag the professional cameras and so that’s where we are headed – smartphones equipped with digital cameras of professional quality. Better is always and better if it can be better, why not?

  4. @Harry, increasing just the number of pixels isn’t going to put phone cameras at par with professional ones. The other factors such as the lens quality and the image sensor would have to be tweaked too. Just because you can increase the megapixels doesn’t mean you should

  5. I really like the new Nokia Lumia 1020 from what I saw in the YouTube videos. Nokia still holds the ace when it comes to camera phone.

    The HTC One ultra pixel feature is only good at lowlight photography. Its daylight pics are average.

    But Nokia shoots excellence in both daylight and lowlight as proven in Lumias 920, 925, 928 and now 1020.

  6. Nice article. I love camera phone and Nokia is just giving me what I want.

    like Mr. Mo pointed out, 5MP is more than enough to give a decent pix if its well polished. This is why in the 808PV, the default MP is 5( then option to play around with 2,3&8) and in the L1020 it’s still 5MP.
    the attempt by Nokia to push it further is aimed at doing optical zoom in a “digital” form. The last test by Steve just showed that from the same distance, the image of an object at 10x optical zoom by galaxy S4 zoom just left the 808PV’s 3x pureview image from the same point in the dust.
    I think this where Nokia will be heading to. To increase the pureview zoom to a sign cant number which may end up increasing both the MP and sensor except they adopt the new acquired pelican sensor tech.

  7. This is technical stuff.But its good that those who know are helping us to understand the antics of these guys.

  8. Packing all these megapixels in these small sensors is just foolish. I’d gladly compare photos from my 8 mp Canon DSLR with even the 41 mp cell phone camera. It takes more than megapixels to produce good photos, such as sensor size, optics, and processor along with expertise.

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