Pixel This: Camera Sensors (Digital cameras part 1)

You know the digital camera revolution is nearly complete when Nikon, one of the best-known camera manufacturers, announces it’s discontinuing most of it’s film cameras. In only a few short years, the world of photography has been turned upside down. Unless you’re a professional photographer, there is no longer any reason, other than cost, not to use a digital camera.

Even people without a computer can now enjoy the benefits of digital cameras since drugstores and photo labs now offer printing right off the camera’s memory card, and having the photos put on a CD replaces film negatives. Digital Camcorder owners can have their video put on a DVD. Photos on a CD can be played on many DVD players, making it easy to bore your family stiff share your photos of Aunt Edna’s antics with the whole family.

The first specification you’ll likely see for a digital camera is how many megapixels it has. Just exactly what does this mean and how does it affect me? The word pixel is short for Picture Element – it is one dot on a picture. If you magnified one, it would look like a tiny colored square. You can never have any picture detail smaller than 1 pixel, thus the more pixels, the sharper the image. Pixels are arranged in a grid to create the picture. For instance, if you have a picture that is 1280 by 960 pixels, that would be 1,228,800 pixels, or 1.2 megapixels for short. (mega=Million.)

How many pixels do you need? The salesman will tell you that you need as many as you can afford. You need to ask yourself what you’re going to be doing with the pictures you take. Most folks will just e-mail them to friends or print them in the standard 4 X 6 size that fits in photo albums. If you never plan to do more than this, a 3 to 5 megapixel camera, or maybe your phone, will do just fine. If you plan to improve on your pictures by cropping them or otherwise editing them, get at least a 6 or 8 megapixel unit. For enlargements up to 8 X 10, 5 to 8 megapixels will work well. If your plans are more elaborate than this, then follow the salesman’s advice and get the highest rating you can afford. Be aware, though, that pixel count is not the only thing affecting image quality. Some image sensors have lots of pixels, but they’re so small you still get a low-quality image. A larger image sensor will usually give better quality. So will a better lens.


Closely related to the number of megapixels is the size of the resultant picture file. Large files at the highest number of pixels will take up a lot of space on your memory card, and you will annoy your friends if you e-mail those huge files to them. By all means, take your pictures at the high quality setting of your camera, but make copies of them resized to no larger than 640 X 480 pixels for e-mailing. Microsoft makes add-ons for Windows that make resizing and e-mailing pictures painless and easy. The most useful is the Image Resizer for Windows; you can find and download it easily using Google. Your friends with slow Internet connections will thank you.

You might also look into one of the best free photo organizers out there, the free and excellent Picasa. This can help you organize, email, print, order prints, make photo gifts, back up your photos, and much more.

This post has been adapted from my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now! Click here to read all about it.

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