What Do Megapixels Mean?

Nokia Lumia 1020

Rarely does a smartphone camera get a mention these days without its megapixel count appearing in the same breath. Manufacturers have seemingly set themselves upon a headlong race to push the numbers associated with their devices as far as possible, giving new handsets something to really boast about.

High-end smartphones like the Nokia Lumia 1020 and Sony Xperia Z1 are amongst such devices, with their respective 41 megapixel and 20.7 megapixel counts being amongst the highest ever seen. But do these big numbers really mean that you’ll get better quality photos, or is there more to it?

What is a megapixel?

A megapixel is a grouped term for one million pixels, and when applied to a camera it defines the detail in which images captured with that device will appear. Literally, a one megapixel camera will capture photos made up of one million coloured dots. The more megapixels, the greater the detail in the image, making for crisper and clearer photos overall.

Sony Xperia Z1 Camera App

This factor is something that is especially useful when enlarging an image, as the greater amount of fine detail means that there will be less of a loss of quality as the photo is upscaled.

Do more megapixels mean better photos?

This is the big question, and the truth is that a greater number of megapixels does not necessarily mean that a camera, or smartphone, will take better photos. Lots of factors can come into play, such as the quality of the other components that make up the camera itself.

It’s in this area that Nokia’s long-running affiliation with Carl Zeiss is a big plus for the firm, as Zeiss lenses provide an outstanding level of quality and clarity. Rather than just looking at the megapixel count, a camera’s capabilities can be judged on many factors, such as the way in which it handles low light and colour reproduction.

Can I capture great pictures with a lower megapixel count?

You can, as HTC proved this year with its leading HTC One handset, which only has a four megapixel camera. Admittedly, the Taiwanese firm did some very clever stuff with the way in which its handset’s camera works, layering three levels of sensors and using a process called oversampling to create a better quality image. Nevertheless, the firm has shown that its not all about statistics.

HTC One Camera

In another example, some recent leading handsets are equipped with eight megapixel cameras but can capture very high quality images, as can some even older ones with only five megapixel sensors. Again, much of this quality comes down to factors such as colour reproduction and low light performance rather than the number of pixels in an image.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that many professional-quality cameras that can cost hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds have sensors that range from 12 to 25 megapixels. Nevertheless, such devices will easily outclass any smartphone in terms of final image quality.

So a high megapixel count doesn’t mean anything?

A high megapixel count isn’t an absolute rule to judging how well a smartphone’s camera will work, but it can be used as a guideline when thinking about buying a handset. While a high number of megapixels doesn’t guarantee great pictures, rarely will a manufacturer install an incredibly powerful sensor and accompany it with a poor supporting equipment.

Nokia Lumia 1020

So for example, while the incredibly high megapixel counts of the Lumia 1020 and Xperia Z1 may not truly reflect their capabilities, it would be safe to assume that smartphones with camera statistics such as those are going to be able to produce images that are at the top end of the quality scale.

Our advice? Look around online for examples of images taken with the smartphone that you’re thinking about buying, rather than just going with the specs that you see listed. These will give a better impression of exactly how a particular phone’s camera works and what it can do for you.

For some advice on getting the most out of your device’s camera, read our tips on taking pictures with your smartphone and to get an idea of how some of the flagship handsets of the moment shape up, take a look at the comparison video below.

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