Every year we see phones with even more megapixels in their cameras. But does it really make a difference if the picture is taken with 8MP or 28MP?
Phone cameras can be confusing sometimes, and just because some have a higher number of megapixels it doesn't mean they are better than other, smaller cameras. We find out just how many megapixels you need to take a great photo, and what really matters when you're upgrading to a better smartphone camera.
We used the following phones and megapixel settings to perform this test:
All cameras were left on their auto setting, unless specified.
The word megapixel literally means 'one million pixels'. The term is used to measure the amount of pixels that are in the picture your camera takes, so it's easy to assume more megapixels should make a better, sharper picture.
A pixel is the name for the tiny dots that make up the picture on your screen. If you have a 1080p screen, your resolution is 1920 x 1080 which gives you 2,073,600 pixels, or 2.1 megapixels.
You might think that having more pixels in your picture is better, but things are never that simple – and there's much more going on inside your camera than just the megapixel count. The sensor size, quality of the hardware and the software that's interpreting the image all affect the quality of your photos.
It's not just the amount of megapixels that counts towards a great photo, but how good your pixels are at capturing light. The science behind this is very simple, really - photography is about capturing light to produce a picture. The better your camera is at capturing and interpreting light, the better your pictures should be.
The argument for having more megapixels is based on picture detail and the ability to zoom 'digitally' using software, rather than 'optically' using different lenses. Imagine a mosaic: if you only had a few pieces, the picture wouldn't be very detailed. If you had thousands of pieces, you could make a much more detailed image.
The problem is that while manufacturers are adding more megapixels, camera components are getting smaller. This means we're cramming a huge amount of pixels into a tiny space. This causes a big issue - each individual pixel sensor has to be smaller in order to fit, and so can't capture the same amount of light that a larger pixel could. To compensate, your phone may attempt to artificially improve the light levels, which can create a poor picture.
The key here is to strike the perfect balance. If you add too many megapixels, you risk the pictures losing quality, but if you have too few megapixels then your pictures won't have as much detail. As technology changes, so does the number of megapixels your phone needs to take the perfect photo.
While some new phones push the limits of digital photography, most high-end smartphones tend to have around 12 megapixels. Some like the HTC U11 use something called ultrapixels, which are larger pixels that can absorb more light than smaller pixels. We've compared similar photos from some of our favourite smartphones to show just how different these cameras can be, even when using the same number of megapixels.
We found some of the most loved 12MP smartphone cameras currently available, and took them out in the field (well, a local park) to see how they handled in different circumstances.
We compared the 12MP iPhone X and Pixel 2 phones against the 23MP Asus Zenfone AR to see which gave the best results. While most photos are the same shape, some photos appear wider or thinner depending on the type of lens used.
We took photos of a moving flag with the HTC U11 and Nokia 8, and compared them against the same photo taken on the higher resolution Asus Zenfone.
We compared the wide-angle lenses of the Moto X4 and the Samsung S9 against the Asus Zenfone to see which captured a better image.
Selective focus allows you to focus on something close up and something further away with just a quick tap of the screen, which lets you take a wide variety of photos without having to move the camera. This should only take a fraction of a second, and can give some great looking pictures when used correctly.
We've compared some of the selective zoom features out to find just how responsive they are on each phone.
Is 12 megapixels the sweet spot for a smartphone camera? Well, with most manufacturers choosing 12 megapixel cameras for even their top-end phones, it certainly seems so. Even cameras with as few as 8 megapixels can still take amazing photos, but any fewer than that and we start to see a loss of detail and poor low-light images.
Do megapixels matter to you? Do you agree with our assessment of the comparison shots? Let us know in the comments below.