What are megapixels and do they matter?

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By Peter Cruickshank , 19 Apr 2018
Megapixels hero image

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.

What is a Megapixel?

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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.

How do Megapixels work?

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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. 

How many Megapixels is enough?

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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.

Comparing the results

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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.

Close-up photography

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.

 
 
 
 
Pixel 2 close up
 
 
 
 
iPhone X close up
 
 
 
 
Zenfone AR close up
1.

Google Pixel 2 (12 megapixel lens, default settings) - link to original image

2.

Apple iPhone X (12 megapixel telephoto lens, default settings) - link to original image

3.

Asus Zenfone AR (23 megapixel lens, default settings) - link to original image

Moving objects

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.

 
 
 
 
HTC U11 moving flag
 
 
 
 
Nokia 8 moving flag
 
 
 
 
Zenfone AR moving flag
1.

HTC U11 (12 Ultrapixel lens, default settings) - link to original image

2.

Nokia 8 (13 megapixel lens, default settings) - link to original image

3.

Asus Zenfone AR (23 megapixel lens, default settings) - link to original image

Landscape photography

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.

 
 
 
 
moto x4 landscape
 
 
 
 
Samsung S9 landscape
 
 
 
 
Zenfone AR landscape
1.

Motorola Moto X4 (8 megapixel wide-angle lens, default settings) - link to original image

2.

Samsung Galaxy S9 (12 megapixel wide-angle lens, default settings) - link to original image

3.

Asus Zenfone AR (23 megapixel lens, default settings) - link to original image

Selective Focus

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.

 
 
 
 
iPhone X selective focus close
 
 
 
 
iPhone X selective focus far
 
 
 
 
moto x4 selective focus near
 
 
 
 
moto x4 selective focus far
1.

Apple iPhone X near focus (default settings) - link to original image

2.

Apple iPhone X far focus (default settings) - link to original image

3.

Motorola Moto X4 near focus (default settings) - link to original image

4.

Motorola Moto X4 far focus (default settings) - link to original image

 
 
 
 
Asus Zenfone AR selective focus near
 
 
 
 
Asus Zenfone AR selective focus far
 
 
 
 
Samsung s9 selective focus
 
 
 
 
Samsung S9 selective focus near
5.

Asus Zenfone AR near focus (default settings) - link to original image

6.

Asus Zenfone AR far focus (default settings) - link to original image

7.

Samsung Galaxy S9 near focus (default settings) - link to original image

8.

Samsung Galaxy S9 far focus (default settings) - link to original image

The perfect camera?

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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.

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