Everyone knows that bigger is better right?
Well, yes and no. It depends.
If you’re new to photography and you’re looking at smartphone cameras, having more megapixels shouldn’t be your most important factor.
If you want a higher megapixel smartphone camera, one with a huge number of megapixels, there’s a few choices now (see later in the article for examples).
Several smartphones have 200 megapixels now! The iPhone 14 Pro, has 48 megapixels, but you still have to manually select 48. As standard, it shoots at 12MP with four pixels binned to give more pixel area. Around 12 megapixels is still the norm in most smartphones.
But, does that mean the Samsung S23 Ultra produces better quality images than the iPhone 14 Pro? Not necessarily.
You see, as well as the number of megapixels, the sensor size is just as important. We’ll get onto the sensor size later, but first back to pixels.
Let me explain as simply as I can what megapixels are And how they effect your images.
What are megapixels?
A pixel, is a single point of light. On a camera sensor, it’s usually red, green, or blue (occasionally yellow). So, a megapixel is 1 million pixels.
Therefore, a 108 megapixel camera has 108 million individual pixels on it’s sensor.
The main practical benefit for a photographer of having a higher megapixel smartphone camera, is the ability to shoot the subject from further away. Then, crop the photo.
The cropped image would still have sufficient pixels to make a decent size print, without losing too much quality.
The downside to ultra-megapixels, is the images often appear fairly grainy around the dark, or shadow areas.
In fact, Samsung’s 108 megapixel camera utilises nona-binning to improve the quality of the images. By default, it combines 9 pixels (3×3), into one much bigger pixel.
This gives you a 12 megapixel sensor (108 divided by 9).
So, unless you tell the camera to shoot a 108 megapixel image, you’re going to get a 12 megapixel image anyway.
(nb. This pixel-binning happens on just about every smartphone camera with higher than 12 megapixels.)
Why do higher megapixels sometimes mean lower quality images?
The more room there is for each pixel on the sensor, the more light it can ‘collect’ in a specific time frame.
Imagine for a moment that you have a bucket and teacup. You place each of them in your garden, while it’s raining heavily.
After 30 minutes, you’ll have significantly more rainwater in the bucket, than in the teacup. The same holds true for your camera’s sensor.
When you fire your shutter, each pixel will collect significantly more light on a sensor with only 12 million collectors, than on a similar size sensor with 108 million.
So, are more megapixels a good thing, or not?
Generally speaking, a higher megapixel smartphone camera is a good thing.
As I mentioned before, having a high number of megapixels will boost the resolution of an image. And you have the ability to produce a detailed image, even if you have to crop.
The issues really come if you try to shoot with ultra-high megapixels in poor lighting conditions, or if you want to shoot low light images. Which is why, higher megapixel smartphone cameras usually pixel-bin by default.
Having a camera that produces a 12 megapixel, excellent quality image by default, then a great quality high pixel count image under the right conditions, gives you the best of both worlds.
Why does sensor size make a difference?
The sensor size is the second part of the quality equation. Or more specifically, the size of each pixel on the sensor.
Obviously, the bigger the sensor is, the larger each of those pixels can be. Increasing the amount of light each pixel can collect.
The iPhone 13 Pro Max has an individual pixel size of 1.7 microns (µm) at 12 megapixels.
The Samsung S22 Ultra has an individual pixel size of 2.4µm, at 12 megapixels (9 combined pixels).
I owned the Huawei P30 Pro for about a year. It has a 40 megapixel main camera with a pixel size of 1µm. Although I usually used the pixel-binned 10 megapixel option giving a pixel size of 2µm.
If, after doing your research you’d like a bigger sensor, there are several smartphones that have 1″ sensors.(Motorola Edge 30 Ultra, Xiaomi 12S Ultra, Infinix Zero Ultra, etc.) Although please be aware that 1″ isn’t always 1″ 🙂
So, should having a higher megapixel smartphone camera be the most important factor?
In most circumstances I would say no. After all, photography isn’t just about the number of pixels.
I believe there are other things that are just as important:
- What is the size of each pixel in the camera’s default pixel count? (ie 0.8µm, 1.7µm, 2.4µm, etc.)
- Do you like how the camera renders an image? (colour tint, contrast, etc.)
- Is the smartphone storage sufficient, or can you use an sd card?
- Do you like the design of the phone generally?
Personally, I think it’s important to decide on the type of images you want to take. Some smartphone cameras are better for certain types of photography.
If you don’t know yet, then think about the basics. Things like…
- Are you likely to be shooting indoors most often? ( A smartphone camera that produces a warmer image may be better)
- Are you likely to be shooting low-light images? (Some smartphone cameras have great low-light capability)
- Do you prefer being outdoors? (A more water resistant smartphone may be better)
- Do you like photographing moving objects? (A higher megapixel smartphone camera will probably be a better option, so you can crop.)
If you find that ultra-high megapixels aren’t that important, check out smartphone camera reviews online and pick the smartphone that seems to meet your needs.
1 Several Xiaomi smartphones have 108 megapixels, but they use the Samsung sensor.