Another photography forum meme is that “my old camera with fewer photosites produces sharper images than your newer camera with more photosites. In fact, I have carefully inspected 100% crops from both and the evidence is clear.”
Not so fast.
Let’s imagine that the comparison is being made between the full-frame 12MP Canon 5D and the full-frame 21MP Canon 5D2, both of which I own and use. If you put the same lens on both cameras, set the lens to the same aperture, and point both cameras at the same subject, the lens will project exactly the same image onto the sensors of both. Let’s say that you do this under controlled conditions, and you decide to compare the two captures to see if the 21MP camera is really sharper than the 12MP camera.
You want to compare closely, so you display both images as “100% magnification crops” – portions of the image that show each individual pixel from the original photograph as an individual pixel on your screen. You display the two images side by side and, squinting closely and looking back and forth between the two, you notice that the 21MP original is certainly no sharper than the 12MP original and that the 21MP image actually looks a bit less sharp! You decide that a) higher MP cameras are less sharp than lower MP cameras (you have the evidence!), and/or b) the camera companies are pulling a fast one on us.
When gazing too long and too intently at a computer screen, it is all too easy to forget that the real world is not always represented accurately on the screen. In this case, the error is a result of viewing on a computer screen rather than making more realistic comparisons, for example between two prints of equal size. With the screen image comparison, you might overlook a fact that explains why the sharper (or at least equally sharp) camera appears to be less sharp. A look at the above illustration will help.
The image includes two copies of a full-frame photograph. Think of the one on the left as representing the photograph made on a 12 MP camera (like the 5D) and the one on the right as representing a 21MP camera (like the 5D2). The original 5D image would be 2912 pixels wide, while the original 5D2 image would be 3744 pixels wide. The full-color area of each image represents the part of the original image that would fill the screen of a 1280 x 1024 monitor when the originals are viewed at 100% magnification.
The important point that is illustrated here is that the 1280 x 1024 “slice” of the 21MP image shows a considerably smaller portion of the overall image, and in order to fill the same size screen it will have to be magnified more than the image from the 12MP camera. If the two images are equally sharp to begin with, the one that has to be magnified more to fill the screen will lose more of its original resolution because you are looking more closely at a smaller portion of the image.
In the end, if you were to make two prints of the same dimension from the two original images, the higher MP original would look at least as sharp as the lower MP original, and if you use good lenses and good technique (and print large enough that it makes a difference) the higher MP version has the potential to resolve more detail.
(See related post: “Myth: Diffraction and Motion Blur Worsen With More Megapixels”)
G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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