ISO the new megapixel – Really?

The short answer is yes, the long answer maybe not. At this point many savvy buyers get that megapixels aren’t that important, but we suspect that most people still don’t realize its largely a marketing tool.

Low noise in high ISO is a much better thing to look at, largely because its harder to fake, it requires some sort of objective performance measurement. Our article on true resolution talks a bit about why we prefer to actually calculate resolution instead of using the rated number.

One thing I wanted to address was whether ISO should be the new megapixel.  Ignoring noise reduction algorithms and advancement of ccd and cmos tech and assuming we’re comparing two cameras with similar gen tech, the noise performance is largely a result of how much light each pixels is getting.  The amount of light is directly related to the pixel size in microns – you can search for cameras with the biggest pixels on our site (which we think is a really cool way to find high quality cameras) and not surprisingly they tend to excel at low light shooting as well as many other areas.

Funny the bigger the pixels the less megapixels the manufacturer can stuff in a given sensor so perhaps big pixels should be the new megapixel – resulting in cameras with less megapixels – ironic.  And yet we’re already seeing that.  Many high end cameras are using the newer backlit 10MP sensor while cheaper cameras are throwing in smaller 14MP sensors.

Consider the D3x vs D3s – both current gen top of the line SLRs from Nikon – so why the huge difference in mega pixels, high speed shooting is definitely a reason but when you look at their DXO mark ISO scores you start to see that big pixels might just be the real reason behind the difference.  The D3s has pixels which are twice the size 71.1 vs 35.2 microns of surface area and offers a significant advantage when shooting in low light.  Everything is just faster and better on the D3s.

12 clean megapixels is more than enough, heck most manufacturers should just stuff a slightly bigger digicam sensor with 6MP in their entry level cameras and the photo quality of most cameras would go through the roof: less compression needed, faster to process, faster shooting and response time, less noise, better color and dynamic range, etc.

Remember when you watch a great encoded blu-ray on a 80″ screen you’re watching 2MP and it looks fantastic, so of course you can do large prints with a really clean and sharp 5 or 6MP.