Cell Phone Real Estate Photography

Megapixels Don’t Matter Anymore

Here’s Which Camera Specs to Look For

For years, smartphone makers have been caught up in a megapixel spec race to prove that their camera is better than the next guy’s. But we’ve finally come to a point where even the lower-end camera phones are packing more megapixels than they need, so it’s getting harder to differentiate camera hardware.

Without that megapixel crutch to fall back on, how are we supposed to know which smartphone has the best camera? Well thankfully, there are several other important specs to look for in a camera, and it’s just a matter of learning which ones matter the most to you.

Why Megapixels Don’t Matter Anymore?

The term “megapixel” actually means “one million pixels,” so a 12-megapixel camera captures images that are comprised of 12,000,000 tiny little dots. A larger number of dots (pixels) in an image means that the image has more definition and clarity, which is also referred to as having a higher resolution.

This might lead you to believe that a camera with more megapixels will take better pictures than a camera with fewer megapixels, but that’s not always the case.

The trouble is, we’ve reached a point where all smartphone cameras have more than enough megapixels. For instance, a 1080p HD TV has a resolution of 2.1 megapixels, and even the highest-end 4K displays top out at 8.3 megapixels. Considering that nearly every smartphone camera has a double-digit megapixel rating these days, your photos will be in a higher resolution than most screens can even display.

Simply put, you won’t be able to see any difference in resolution between pictures taken by two different smartphone cameras, because most screens you’ll be viewing them on aren’t capable of displaying that many megapixels.

Really, anything greater than 8.3 megapixels is only helpful for cropping. In other words, if your phone takes 12-megapixel photos, you can crop them by roughly 50%, and the resolution will still be just as high as a 4K TV.

Pixel Size is the Real Difference Maker

The hot new number to judge your phone’s camera by is the pixel size. You’ll see this spec listed as a micron value, which is a number followed by the symbol “µm.” A phone with a 1.4µm pixel size will almost always capture better pictures than one with a 1.0µm pixel size, thanks to physics.

If you zoomed in far enough on one of your photos, you could see the individual pixels, right? Well, each of those tiny little dots was captured by microscopic light sensors inside your smartphone’s camera.

These light sensors are referred to as “pixels” because, well, they each capture a pixel’s worth of light. So if you have a 12-megapixel camera, the actual camera sensor has twelve million of these light-sensing pixels.

Each of these pixels measures light particles called photons to determine the color and brightness of the corresponding pixel in your finished photo. When a bright blue photon hits one of your camera’s light sensors, it tells your phone to make a dot with bright blue coloring. Put twelve million of these dots together in their various brightness and colors, then you’ll end up with a picture.

But photons aren’t exactly predictable, and they can bounce around quite a bit. A stray red photon might hit one of your light-sensing pixels in an area that should otherwise be blue, which means that if you zoomed in on the finished photo, you would see a random red dot in a sea of blue pixels.

To correct for this, the light-sensing pixels measure more than one photon, then software averages these pixels out to determine the right shade and brightness for each pixel in the finished photo. If four out of five photons captured were blue while the other one was red, your phone would know to disregard the random red one and display a blue pixel instead.

Now you can see why bigger light-sensing pixels would be helpful. If the actual surface area of a pixel is larger, it captures more photons. If it can capture more photons, the software will have a bigger sample size to work with when averaging color for each pixel, which will ensure more accurate color and brightness for each of the tiny dots that makes up your finished photo.

But with smartphones, space is at a premium. Every hardware component has to be as small as possible in order to fit inside that handheld frame, and camera sensors are no exception. If we kept adding more megapixels, this size limitation would mean that the light-sensing pixels would have to be smaller in order to fit inside the same physical space.

This is why most smartphone manufacturers have stopped with the megapixel spec race. By sticking with a reasonable resolution like 12-megapixels, they can ensure that each light-sensing pixel inside of the camera is as big as possible. In turn, this means that each dot that makes up your finished photo has more accurate colors and brightness, which reduces noise and grain in all of your pictures

Typical Cell Phone Pixel Sizes

Mobile Phone Sensor SizeMobile Phone Sensor Size

Here’s a table showing a number of common smartphone resolutions, the sensor type, size, and pixel size in microns, along with a link to more detail on each smartphone:

8 megapixelBSI1/3.2inch1.4 micronsApple iPhone 5
8 megapixelBSI1/3inch1.5 micronsApple iPhone 5S, 6, 6+
12 megapixelBSI1/3inch1.22 micronsApplie iPhone 6S, 6S+
12 megapixelBSI 1/2.5inch1.4 micronsSamsung Galaxy S7
12 megapixelBSI1/2.3inch1.55 micronsHTC 10
12 megapixelBSI1/3inch1.15 micronsMoto G, Huawei P8
16 megapixelBSI1/2.6inch1.12 micronsSamsung Galaxy S6 Edge
20 megapixelBSI1/2.3inch1.12 micronsSony Xperia Z3
20 megapixelCMOS1inch2.4 micronsPanasonic Lumix CM1
21 megapixelBSI1/2.4inch1.1 micronsMoto X Style
23 megapixelBSI1/2.3inch1.1 micronsSony Xperia Z5 Premium
40 megapixelCMOS1/1.2inch1.4 micronsNokia PureView 808

Typical DSLR Camera Pixel Sizes

Full-frame and other sensor data-lazy-sizesFull-frame and other sensor sizes

Here’s a table showing a number of common full-frame camera resolutions, the sensor type, size, and pixel size in microns, along with a link to more details on each camera:

12 megapixelCMOSFF8.4 micronsNikon D700, Canon 5D, Sony Alpha A7S
16 megapixelCMOSFF7.3 micronsNikon D4 / D4S
18 megapixelCMOSFF6.9 micronsCanon 1D X
20 megapixelCMOSFF6.56 micronsCanon 1D X Mark II, Canon EOS 6D, Nikon D5
22 megapixelCMOSFF6.25 micronsCanon 5D Mark III
This is the Camera we use for100% of our Photography Shoots30 megapixelCMOSFF5.36 micronsCanon 5D Mark IV
36 megapixelCMOSFF4.9 micronsNikon D800 / D810
42 megapixelBSIFF4.5 micronsSony Alpha A7R Mark II
50 megapixelCMOSFF4.1 micronsCanon 5DS / 5DSR