Points of sufficiency: do you really know how much is enough?

The never-ending photographic arms race got me thinking recently about sufficiency: how many pixels, fps, AF points, ISO settings, etc. are enough? The troubling thing is that I thought I used to know the answer: I’m no longer sure it’s quite as clear cut. See, the thing is that if you’re viewing images online, in theory, anything close to your screen resolution (leaving space for UI elements, text, menus etc.) should be sufficient – 1000px wide is more than enough for most purposes. The images on this site are mostly 800px wide, for reference. In theory, that should mean an iPhone is overkill. Yes and no; just because resolution sufficient, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to have enough dynamic range, or color depth (or accuracy).

This raises a hypothetical question: suppose we could have say a ‘perfect’ 3MP – in a compact camera, with a reasonably good zoom lens; if we put those 3MP into a 2/3″ or 1/1.7″ sized sensor, we could probably get a fast-sh 24-120mm f2-4 equivalent into something that would be reasonably pocketable. The relatively low pixel density would mean several things – good acuity, low noise, good color accuracy, and much higher forgiveness of the lens quality. With today’s technology, I don’t see why you couldn’t get a clean ISO 6400 and useable ISO 12800. Even with a lens of moderate speed, that’s a more than sufficient shooting envelope for most photographic purposes. Add a good optical stabilizer, fast AF, 14 bit RAW, responsive buffering and controls, and most people would be set. And with raw files that small, you could probably get 10,000 of them onto a 32GB card.

But, nobody would buy it and it would be a commercial failure. Only 3MP? Really?

That’s the kicker. If you’ve ever had a really high quality, but small-ish file, then you’ll know that you can actually do quite a lot with it; I remember seeing some images from the 2005 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition – prints, at 40×60″ or so – which were shot with a Nikon D1H: that’s right, all of 2.7MP. Did they sing? You bet. Did they look grainy, or pixellated? Not especially so, but I’m sure you’d see the difference if you shot the exact same scene with a D800E. The shot that won would no doubt still be a great capture even twenty years from now. A hundred years from now. Does the equipment matter? Insofar as it didn’t get in the way of the capture, no.

In a more realistic scenario, a proper 300dpi print (actual pixels, not printer ink dots) looks extremely sharp. 200dpi is still acceptable; do you know what most computer screens are? Closer to 110. Sharp images still look sharp, don’t they? And the reason things appear pixellated is because the pixel mask of the screen gives each pixel a hard edge. If the edges of each dot were just a tiny bit fuzzy and overlapped the next dot, like in a print, then things would look just fine. The reality is that short of sticking yourself a few inches away from the display, you’re not really going to see the individual pixels. I have to be honest; the Macbook Pro’s 220dpi ‘retina’ display doesn’t look all that different to my 15″ non-retina from healthy viewing distances. But it requires four times the amount of graphics power to run, because guess what: every graphical element requires four times the pixels.

Most people print no larger than 6×4″, or perhaps out to 8×12″ for special images; survey a group of enthusiasts on the largest print they’ve made, and you’ll probably find 13×19″ a good end point. There are two reasons why: cost, and lack of display space. Enormous prints are great, but you’d also better have enormous walls to hold them.

So what does a 1500×2000 pixel, 3MP file get you? At 110dpi, 13.6×18.2″ – lo and behold, that’s pretty darn close to 13×19″! The one problem with this scenario is that it assumes that all photographers using the ‘sufficient’ camera have the shot discipline to get things perfect at the pixel level, and that they’re really getting the full resolution of the sensor. Sigma/ Foveon shooters will know what I mean by this – the files may be small, but the real resolving power is pretty darned high. Higher than the sensor’s pixel count would lead you to believe (but not as high as Sigma’s marketing department would like you to believe).

Even for use on a next generation ‘retina’ display, you could still get a 7×9″ image out – comfortably fitting the display size. You could probably interpolate it a little too, and not see too much degradation in quality.

Let’s put this all into context. The recently-released Sony RX100 (reviewed here) has 20MP effective – that’s a whopping 5500×3600 or so pixels, or enough for a 50×33″ print – I don’t have enough space in my house to hang more than one or two of those, and at that size, I’d struggle to think what image I wouldn’t mind looking at for hours on end. Yet there are still people crying ‘not enough resolution!’. At that sensor size, pixel density is so high that critical focusing and shooting discipline become very important; I notice that the stabilizer seems a lot less effective than lower-pixel count cameras, but I’m now starting to suspect it’s because it’s got to work quite a lot harder to maintain perfection at the pixel level.

Take the argument a notch further: okay, so there are still reasons to have something with interchangeable lenses. And those things always come with bigger sensors (okay, so not the Nikon 1 cameras, but they haven’t exactly been a commercial success – expensive, small sensor, low pixel count; even if the pixel quality is reasonably high and the cameras are extremely responsive). Bigger sensors mean more expected resolution. I’m going to bypass M4/3 and APS-C for the time being, because they all top out at reasonably similar resolutions; there isn’t that much difference between 16 and 24MP – remember, area scales with the square of length. Let’s go to full frame DSLRs – one of the most common questions I’ve received via email in the last few months is ‘I have a D700. Should I upgrade to the D800/ D800E?’ The fact that that question is even being asked signals that the marketing department has done a good job. They’ve sold you on the lure of the enormous number of pixels; you haven’t bothered to do a bit more reading to find out that a) you’re going to need much better lenses; b) shot discipline once again becomes critical; c) stability is a hot topic; d) your AF system might not be quite as accurate as you thought – especially if you’re using auto-area and letting the camera do the thinking for you.

The answer to this question is simple: how big do you print, and do you need video? If the answer to the latter is yes, go ahead and buy it; video isn’t something the D700 can do. The former is a bit more subtle: if you can’t get a good 45×30″ or so print out of the D700, then your shooting technique needs work. I’ve had images shot under ideal conditions printed to 40×60″ for exhibitions – they still looked great. Granted, the subjects weren’t crammed with fine detail like leaves and grass, but they weren’t high-bokeh content portraits, either. So, if you’re not making say 20×30″ landscapes on a regular basis – do you really need the heartache that comes from having to revaluate all of your lenses, and shunt around 50MB RAW files? Probably not. But, the bragging rights are a different matter altogether.

One of the reasons why the photographic industry is still growing despite passing saturation point some time ago is because of the photographers themselves: they don’t know when to stop. Canon will happily sell you a 50/1.2 for three or four times the price of the 50/1.4, which itself is three times the price of the 50/1.8 – simply because there are people who will pay for that extra half a stop. (And it may be an extra half a stop of aperture, but it’s almost certainly less than half a stop of transmission.) Let’s be realistic: the camera’s metering doesn’t gauge scenes that accurately; I routinely make adjustments of +/- 1 stop, and that’s with Nikon’s super-accurate matrix meter in the D700 or Olympus OM-D (I consider both to be more reliable than the D800, which has a tendency to put too much weight to the active focus area). The Sony RX100 is out by so much that I have to constantly use exposure compensation or risk an unsalvageable image. With the degree of adjustment latitude our modern sensors give us, whole stops changes are what you have to be making before you see any appreciable differences in image quality.

Here’s another curious thing: equipment with more conservative specifications often performs better than more extreme gear, even though the extreme gear frequently costs several times more. This is because we’re dealing with known technology, with greater tolerance for error: this is why there are many superb 50/2s or 50/2.8s that perform excellently wide open, but few 50/1.4s and faster that do. It’s also why lenses with higher resolving power – take the macros for instance – have modest apertures. It’s easier to correct for smaller apertures. Same thing with sensors – it’s easier to get good dynamic range and a high signal-to-noise ratio out of a sensor with a larger pixel pitch; the supporting electronics for each photosite has to be of a certain size, and if there isn’t much area to go around in the first place, that circuitry starts to make a significant and noticeable difference to the light-collecting ability of the sensor.

The bottom line is very Socratic: Know thyself. Specifically, think carefully about which pictorial limitations are due to the photographer, and which are because of the camera. Low light performance? It’s probably your gear. Poor composition? More pixels isn’t going to help you. Blurry images? More pixels definitely aren’t going to help you; examine your technique first.

The recent series on inspirations from older cameras was posted specifically to illustrate this point: just because a camera is old, it doesn’t mean that it’s no longer capable of producing good images. If somebody could use it to get the shot when they had no other choice, it means that you can still do that. The important thing to remember is that most of the time, the limitation is in the user, not the equipment. So next time, before buying more gear, think about spending money on improving your skill level first. I guarantee that you’ll see a much bigger improvement in your images. MT


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  1. Thanks again Ming, I replied on the thread you recommended this post. Cheers from Miami.

    • Isn’t part of the obsession with ‘more’ about not only getting the image but also “how” we got it? Catching a great fish with a rudimentary fish net is maybe not quite as exhilarating as doing it with the latest “high-powered” angling equipment. Although in a macho kinda’ way, one could boast that he or she did it with less. I guess what I’m getting is a debate between product and process. If photography for you is all about the former, then gear is merely a means to an end. If it’s the latter, then yes by all means, give me more pixels and faster apertures.

      That said, I’ve just been looking at the famous Afghan Girl picture, and as a viewer I couldn’t how he got it. But I wonder as a photograph if it’s as simple as that.

      • EDIT:
        Isn’t part of the obsession with ‘more’ about not only getting the image but also “how” we got it? Catching a great fish with a rudimentary fish net is maybe not quite as exhilarating as doing it with the latest “high-powered” angling equipment. Although in a macho kinda’ way, one could boast that he or she did it with less. I guess what I’m getting at is the debate between product and process. If photography for you is all about the former, then gear is merely a means to an end. If it’s the latter, then yes by all means, give me more pixels and faster apertures.

        That said, I’ve just been looking at the famous Afghan Girl picture, and as a viewer I couldn’t care less how he got it. But I wonder as a photographer if it’s as simple as that.

      • Actually, I think if anything there’s more satisfaction with the rudimentary net. You’ll never quite know how much was your rod and how much was your skill, otherwise. And a good angler can always do more with better equipment than a mediocre one.

  2. Very good analysis. That’s why, when I change a body, I keep an older body so that I have the best of both world while my wallet is not to sad.

  3. “…just because a camera is old, it doesn’t mean that it’s no longer capable of producing good images….”

    Ming, your above statement is one of the best kept secrets in photography. Ironically, the endless parade of new models has created a phenomenal buyer’s market for excellent older cameras. Consider the following: A Nikon D70 for $150 (wonderful sharpness out of the box due to its fairly weak AA filter — think of it as the poor man’s D800E). An Olympus 5050 for $45 (one of the best compacts ever made — Magnum Photography President Alex Majoli shot two wars and the 2008 presidential election for National Geographic and Newsweek with this camera — and won the award for International Photographer of the Year). And finally, the Nikon 105mm 2.5(AIS) lens — beautifully constructed and one of the truly great portrait lenses — it should cost $1200, but instead can be had for an insane $120. Great gear can be surprisingly accessible if we really think about the points made in your article.

  4. For somebody who owns the latest gear in photography (D800E, RX100, etc) this comes off as preachy. If you truly believe what you wrote here, then you shouldn’t feel the need to own the latest stuff, no?

    I usually like your write-ups. Not this one.

    • I own the tools I need to give my clients what they want. Despite what you might think, I don’t like working with enormous 36MP RAW files; it’s slow and overkill for most things.

      Note that for my own personal work, I still use a GRDIII, D700, iPhone and Pen Mini. None of which are ‘latest gear’, highest resolution or anything to preach about. They are more than sufficient for my own personal uses – I don’t print large, but I might prioritize size, or depth of field control, or something else. It’s personal work, so I don’t share it publicly. I know what is sufficient for the specific output or task; I wouldn’t be so quick to accuse me of being preachy without having more information.

    • Ming, you produce excellent images using simple equipment. However, I think that is more a result of your superb photography than an objective conclusion about different equipment. What works well at your artistic level may not work as well for somebody else.
      You have much to teach us about photography, but I would leave subjective statements about the evolution of photographic technologies and equipment to the side if I were you.
      I am a bit resentful of the fact that you helped Nikon bury the facts about the D800 focusing problems. We still do not have the facts in that case and I feel that sooner or later we deserve to know the truth.

      • My views on photography are linked to my views on equipment because they aren’t separable: you need one to make the other. And they’re just that: views and opinions. We can agree to disagree. The world would be boring if everybody thought the same way 🙂

        As for you being resentful: you forget that I was the first one who discovered and publicised the issue in the first place! Without public awareness of the issue, who knows if there would have ever been a fix or acknowledgement at all? I have NO commercial relationship with Nikon whatsoever. I get the same privileges as every other qualifying NPS member, and that’s all. I’m equally annoyed as the next purchaser when I buy a defective body: I have to make a living with it too. It makes no sense to any party that I would highlight and be vocal about an issue that has undoubtedly cost a company sales then helped them to bury it. As you know, I welcome objective, open discussion and challenge on any topic, but illogical accusations based on assumed information will not be tolerated. I give a huge amount of my time for free to run this site and create these public resources in the spirit of sharing and learning and do not deserve your insults.

        If you want the facts about the problem, contact Nikon yourself. I did not say the problem was completely resolved, only that it was resolved for my camera. There is a difference. I did not pursue the issue further because I have much better uses of my time. Perhaps you should be as precise with your language as you wish your focusing to be.

  5. Good article. 🙂 And while many probably don’t need a new camera, me included, there is nothing wrong with wanting one.

    Regarding dynamic range, I’m not sure I agree with you though. Dxomark which measures these things claims that the D800 has better dynamic range than the much more expensive, with much bigger pixels, D4. If this is discernible in real life shooting situations I wouldn’t know.

    • Thank you. Yes, the D800 ha the best DR of any camera I’ve seen to date with FX sensor or smaller, regardless of pixel pitch. That said, we don’t know if another, newer sensor with the same architecture as the D800 but larger pixels exists – perhaps the D600? I would imagine that would have the same or even better DR.

      • The results are in. 🙂 Dxomark has tested the D600, and it has pretty much exactly the same DR as the D800. Interestingly, if you compare the D4, D800 and D600 it seems to me that smaller pixels are better for color depth and dynamic range, while bigger pixels are better for low light/high iso. But that’s just looking at numbers, what this means in the real world, I don’t know. I don’t own any of these cameras.

        Regarding DR, which is of particular interest to me, how much is enough? And can you have too much? I’ve heard too much DR can make an image look flat, but I don’t understand why that might be. It seems enticing to be able to buy a D800 and immediately get less problems with highlights being blown. As it is today, if I expose for the shadows, the entire sky is blown. If I try a more centered exposure, parts of the sky is still blown. If I expose for the sky, I get shadows with no detail. Either I need to use a tripod and bracketing more (but how is leaf, branches of the tree and other things that move in the wind handled?), or I need some graduated filters. All of which I imagine would slow me down when shooting. A D800 seems to me like an easy and quick fix, although I know I’m nowhere near needing 36 MP. Do you have any thoughts on this?
        As it is right now, I don’t even print, but I’m getting to a point where I think I would like a select few of my images on the wall. Poster size is completely out of the question though, so I don’t know how the extra detail of the D800 is going to help me. What is the consequence of scaling down, to say 16 MP or even 12MP? Is detail thrown away, or can a 36 MP image scaled down to 16 MP look better than if it was captured at 16 MP in the first place?

        • In my testing so far (review tomorrow) – I agree mostly with DXOmark. DR is the same, ditto color, but the pixels seem to have a bit more ‘integrity’ to them at higher ISOs – files look better than the D800 or D700. Sweet spot? Maybe. I don’t think the improved DR is because of smaller pixels (look at M43, or compacts) – it’s probably because of technological advancements in sensor technology.

          More sensor DR doesn’t change the presentation method – the display dynamic range of screen or print stays the same, and is less than what the camera can capture. It’s up to you to figure out a tone curve that maps the input dynamic range to the output in a way that looks natural. More input DR gives you more options. Images look flat because they have low contrast or flat tone curves.

          You need to shoot raw. I’ve had few situations in which even the D800 couldn’t capture the available dynamic range with some tweaking. The D600 might be a better way to go for you if you want the performance of the sensor, but not the resolution. Downsized images always look better because there’s more information to each pixel. I don’t know if you want to deal with the enormous raw files though.

  6. Mark Hoffman says:

    “Know thyself” is great advice for photographers and is vastly more important than “Get thyself the latest camera”. I gave up on DSLRs just over 18 months ago when even the relatively small Pentax K-7 proved to be a burden when fishing, kayaking or hiking. I switched to an Olympus E-P3 which turned out have just as fast AF, as good image quality up to 1600 ISO but it is so much smaller and lighter that I can wear it on a neck strap all day long. Sure I lost a nice OVF, some megapixels and some FPS, but the important thing was that when I analysed what was important to me about my photography, I found it was to be able to “photograph while doing”. Once I reached that understanding the choice of a compact system camera was a logical and satisfying outcome.

    • And with the improvements in even smaller sensors – I don’t see why you couldn’t go even smaller. The RX100, for instance, has even better image quality than the Pen Mini.

      • Mark Hoffman says:

        Hi Ming, I am actually thinking along those very lines but am waiting to see one in the flesh before going all the way – it is kind of scary that such a small sensor can perform so well. Also it seems to makes the “need” for a very expensive, fixed lens FF compact like the RX1 almost redundant except for the most ardent FF devotee.

        • Yes and no – the RX1 will have even better low light performance, and much better DOF control than the RX100, which is good in the former, and still very much like a compact for the latter.

  7. Wesley, let me know when is your seminar coming too. And thank you for sharing this lovely article from Ming Then.

    MT has nailed it very well. I read every single bit and I must say this article sums up everything very well.

    Almost every other photography enthusiast I come by are better called collectors. There is this constant drive to own the next best lens and of course, how they regard the full frame sensor as the holy grail in photography. Upgrading to full frame is often an “I am there!” thing but there is little to no regard when it comes to techniques, let alone knowing what they actually need.

    Suffice to say the general consumer upgrades to take the same nonsense as they did before, albeit at better sharpness, contrast and image quality.

  8. Bro, I would like to invite you to speak in my upcoming printmaking seminars based on this article. It’s gonna ‘rock the boat’ but as always, the truth always hurt. I’ve been sarcastically telling people why they need such high MP DSLRs without ever making a print or even appreciating all that the camera can actually do for them. All that they shoot are for FB, etc. Such a sorry state of photography….

  9. From reader Chris Kern:

    I thought your essay “Points of sufficiency: do you really know how much is enough?” was quite thought-provoking, but there a couple of points I would make in response, or perhaps in addition:

    (1) The Old Geezer Phenomenon

    Who buys DSLRs besides people who are trying to make a living at photography? I guess there must be some young hobbyists (enthusiasts, whatever you want to call them), but most young people I know use smart phones or point-and-shoots to make pictures and I suspect the consumer population for DSLRs is skewed heavily toward old aficionados like me who can’t or won’t lug around extremely long or very fast lenses — they’re just too heavy — but have their own reasons for wanting cameras with large sensors. I know a lot of people sneer at cropping, but I bought a D800E precisely so I could use a relatively light “prosumer” lens like my Tamron 70-300 and crop from the center of the frame to create the equivalent of long tele shots. (I’ve attached a sample of a picture I never could have made with my other DSLR, a D90.) Same thing for low available light. I upgraded to a D800E in part to get the benefit of the high-ISO sensitivity of the current generation of sensors, because even though I can afford fast glass (at least, as long as I don’t tell my wife what I’m spending), the fast “professional” lenses are too big, bulky and heavy for me.

    (2) The Dynamic Range Phenomenon

    I don’t print big, at least for now. But we’re building a larger new home and in addition to getting more wall space to display prints, I’m seriously considering the installation of a couple of large, high-resolution displays to serve as dynamic photo viewers — the equivalent of those digital photo gizmos that people buy to display family snapshots. The contrast ratio of a good monitor dwarfs any printer-paper combination I am familiar with, including anything available at my local custom lab, even without using the full resolution of the sensor data — and I suspect really high-resolution display technology isn’t too far in the future. The newer sensors, processors and firmware provide a good justification for upgrading to current camera technology even for those who only display their photographs on a computer monitor. Maybe especially for those who do because you can really eke out an incredible amount of detail from both highlights and shadows on a good monitor.

    (3) The Other Side of the Coin

    Yes, I’ve seen first-hand the need for rigorous shot discipline with my D800E and I’ve been humbled by the reduction in my keeper rate. To the extent that autofocus technology has not kept up with the sensor technology, I think that’s an inherent flaw in the new cameras. (My own experience parallels Lloyd Chambers’ complaint about the low “precision” of my D800E’s phase-detect AF subsystem.) But to the extent that you can attribute poor results to sloppy technique which has until now been concealed by lower inherent image quality, a more demanding camera is a useful instructional tool. I’m still using my D90 quite a bit when shooting subjects for which the D800E would be overkill and I am absolutely persuaded that I’m getting better results with it because I have transferred some of the technique I’ve learned from the more-demanding camera to the less-demanding one. For that matter, even my iPhone pictures have improved since I got the D800E.

    Chris Kern
    Washington, DC

  10. Another excellent article. I read a forum post recently in which a photographer felt his older 6MP Nikon’s (i.e. D50, D70, D40) just had a better “look” than his newer Nikons — he was promptly trounced on by the other forum posters. However, one poster did observe that the older Nikons had better pixel density and larger pixels with plenty of breathing room and light gathering ability on the sensor — i.e., no overcrowded, smudged pixels. Ming, subjectively or objectively, who’s right?

    • Thanks James. I think all of the cameras are capable of great results in the right hands. The difference is probably down to the native tonal response of the sensor, which differs between generations as the earlier bunch were CCDs as opposed to CMOS – which is a lot more linear and can look ‘flatter’.

  11. Willi Kampmann says:

    Regarding the pixel count I think this is an interesting discussion, but I believe this time you are approaching it from the wrong end.

    Even though I might get backfire for this: more megapixels are almost always better. In contrast to analog images, digital images don’t look good upscaled. Ever. You can scale them up slightly with advanced scaling algorithms that make the output look okay – but it will definitely be worse than an upscaled analog photo. So with digital images you are basically stuck with what you have in terms of resolution (and, therefore, viewing size).

    Now you say, well, what do I need higher resolutions for anyway? I won’t need that much in print and I certainly don’t need it for Facebook, that’s like 800px wide. True. Today. But pixel densities increase, displays get sharper. You are proposing a 3MP camera; but my iPad already has more megapixels than that. My iMac, too. And in a few years from now, the iMac will have a Retina screen as well! Today it’s 2560×1440. Quadruple it (that’s how Apple has done it so far) and you are at 5120×2880, that’s a whopping 14.8MP! Sure you can upscale a lower resolution image, but judging from my iPad it will look inferior most of the time. And who knows, maybe in the future display sizes will increase as well? 15 years ago display sizes around 15–17″ were the standard. Now you can buy 24″ screens for little money and even consumer products go up to 27″ – and there are even 30″ on the professional side. Chances are, in another couple of years we will work on even bigger screens still. So more megapixels means more future-proof.

    But all of this still assumes that we only want to view images as a whole. What happens when I want to zoom in on an image? See details up close in an image? Also: More megapixels open up the possibility of digital zoom (see Nokia’s PureView) and (accurate) reframing. You yourself wrote a very interesting article some time ago about the future possibility of creating new images by heavy cropping, i.e. reframing. That’s only possible if you have enough megapixels “on backup”.

    On the technical side, more megapixels do not</em necessarily increase noise. Noise will increase on the pixel level (“100% view”), but not when viewed at identical sizes. See NEX-5N versus NEX-7 or D800 versus 5DMK3 for example. Moreover, noise will decrease with every technological generation, so 20MP today look better than 2 years ago. There seems to be a correlation in dynamic range (Nokia’s PureView for example doesn’t appear to have higher dynamic range than other smartphone sensors with equal pixel pitches), but it’s not clear if this is linear or what. The NEX-7 ranks pretty high in dynamic range at DXO despite its small pixel pitch, same goes for the D800. In the future, higher pixel counts could even <em<improve dynamic range. Imagine, for example, a high-resolution sensor with electronic shutter, that could read out the different photo sites at different shutter times. Every second pixel would be exposed twice as long and the result would be merged. An 80MP sensor could deliver a 20MP image with an extremely high dynamic range. I’ve read there are even sensor technologies in development that have a much higher dynamic range to begin with. But my point is: you can always downsize high-res images; you can’t really upsize low-res images.

    I agree that at the moment megapixels in the range of 16 to 24 are probably the sweet spot. But this is a relative sweet spot that’s always dependent on the current state in technology. I’ll bet in another few years from now the sweet spot will be much higher. I don’t think it makes sense to limit yourself to a lower pixel count like with your theoretical 3MP camera. Progress is a good thing.

    (Sorry for this long post)

    • Willi Kampmann says:

      Just to be clear, this is only about where technology should be heading. I don’t think people should upgrade from the D700 either if they are still happy with it. Camera upgrades should make really sense, otherwise that money might be better spend on lenses or books. Technology doesn’t progress that fast that you’d need a new camera every few years. (I admit, I switched from a NEX-3 to an OMD; but the main reasons were the EVF and IBIS, not the image quality)

      • I think it’s even simpler than that: know exactly what it is that you want which your current camera isn’t giving you before buying a new one.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I agree and disagree:
      1. The reason why digital displays require more resolution for finer pitch is because the dots are discrete. We don’t have that problem with print because of dithering and ‘soft edges’ to the individual dots. Same goes with the real world. I think in the long term, display technology will move this way and render the actual resolution irrelevant, especially once an intelligent algorithm for feathering edges from lower native resolution files is created.
      2. If you want to zoom in on an image, either you should have composed it tighter to begin with, or suffer a little pixellation (or not, as per 1.). I don’t think it’s an unacceptable compromise since most of the time viewing sizes are going to be respective to the whole image.
      3. An 80MP sensor downsampled to 20MP output is still 20MP…
      4. We haven’t quite reached the limits of technology, but there are fundamental quantum physical limits that draw a line at just how much more improvement we’re going to get – and once we reach a point where the photosites occupy 100% of the photosensitve area, then there’s not much more you can do for dynamic range sensor-to-sensor – larger pixels will always win. (You could use say multishot HDR technology, but then the larger pixeled sensor would benefit equally.)

      • Hello,

        Just out of curiosity,

        Do you think that the RX100 would have been a better camera if they had chosen a 10MP sensor instead of 20MP or is a large pixel count for a fixed lens camera better because you have more post shoot composition possibilities (or acceptable digital zoom)?

        • I think it would have probably been more forgiving of poor technique, but then again it seems that at the pixel level, this sensor is a generation ahead of the 10MP unit in the Nikon 1. I don’t crop, so I’m not worried about the post-shot composition options. I suppose if we had a *new* 10MP sensor, we’d have even better low light performance – and I’d be fine with that.

  12. Just discovered this blog and that’s a brilliant post, I think I will find good information here.

  13. brilliant post! I use a Nikon D70, and its perfect. I think I still have a lot further to go before I reach its limitations.

  14. Well said.
    I agree on your comments about resolution sufficiency.
    However, there are other reasons why I am still looking for my next camera, and it has to do with dynamic range and to a lesser degree with depth of field.
    A single photographic exposure will never yield a visual impression equal to that produced by your naked eye. This is because your eye looks at a small, central area at a time and readjusts exposure and focus while scanning an object or a landscape.
    Producing a photograph comparable to what you actually saw would require merging a large number of photographic exposures to an overall in focus, high dynamic range image attempting to replicate what you saw.
    The shortcomings of photography have then become celebrated and elevated to an art form in for example low dynamic range such as high contrast black and white photography and in purposely stunted depth of field producing exaggerated bokeh.
    As much as these art forms can produce interesting and entertaining images they belong in the artistic fringes of photography.
    The reason I am still looking for a my next camera is because I do a lot of photography in low light which makes the shortcomings of even the best of cameras painfully obvious. First of all, forget shooting in automatic, program or even aperture priority. The camera seems to think that you want a daylight picture, as opposed to a realistic resemblance of the real and naturally lit scene. With all the ridiculous art settings found in some cameras I often wonder what happened to the setting “existing light”. Give me an exposure that mimics what I actually saw, no more, no less.
    With this in mind we all recognize how ridiculous my expectations are of my next camera.
    However, it also points out that cameras will never be good enough.

    • I don’t think what you want is that difficult to achieve, actually. Low light usually isn’t daylight – and the WB/ Kelvin temperature could be used as another clue to the camera’s metering to dial back the exposure, along with whatever pattern recognition it might already have inbuilt.

      You can never have too much dynamic or tonal range at the capture end, but don’t forget we’ll also need suitable devices capable of displaying it on the output side…

  15. Excellent article. There still seems to be very little real thought into extending and improving the photographic usability of cameras in many cases. For example I find it unbelievabe that a landscape-oriented camera like the D800 does not have an orientable screen. There’s little point in Live View without one. And another thing, changing camera often means throwing away years of experience with its predecessor, and knowing exactly where the controls and menus are can often be far be critical than a few extra megapixels or a stop more low light sensitivty…

    • Thank you – yes, you made a good point on controls: if you have to re-learn everything, the chances of missing a shot are higher even though the camera itself might be more capable. And the increasing complexity of the equipment itself doesn’t help, either.

      As for the D800 and live view…the option to display wide open and a useable picture rather than actual shooting settings is also quite useless, especially if you’re working in manual with flashes and live view.

  16. Robert Stark says:

    I recently bought a Nikon D800 and its resolution was the least of the reasons. You commented in your superb analysis, “Enormous prints are great, but you’d also better have enormous walls to hold them.” I’d like to add that you’d also better have enormous distance from which to view them satisfactorily — and when you stand back at that ideal distance, the fine detail won’t be seen (unless you use binoculars). When in Paris recently, I visited the Jardin des Plantes, an important and most beautiful botanical garden. Exhibited along one of the walkways were very large photographs by National Geographic photographers. They were spectacular photographs — but lo and behold when one viewed them close up (far closer than the comfort level for viewing them), they were all “unacceptably” pixelated (one could say the same thing about seeing brush strokes when standing too close to the large water lily murals of Monet at the Musée de l’Orangerie). As you articulate so well, there are many other reasons for buying an advanced digital camera than fine resolution of detail — and many other reasons for not buying one. I decided on the D800 for its versatility because I only want to work with one camera. When one decides to have only one of anything, one has to make compromises. Hmm, the same goes for marriages too.

    • It all goes back to purpose: if your livelihood doesn’t depend on having the best tool for the job to maximize your hit rate and throughput, then compromises are fine, and can sometimes force you in a different artistic direction to what you originally intended. This can be a good thing. If not, and you know you need X Y or Z to get the job done, then it’s just a poor tool. I wouldn’t have this many lenses or cameras as an amateur – and I never did – but when I’m working, not getting the shot isn’t an option.

      • Robert Stark says:

        You are so right. If indeed I were a professional photographer — or an amateur with unlimited time to devote to photography — I would buy more tools of the trade. As it is, at least for now, I need to learn how to use this one camera and the several prime lenses I own. Hmm but then I sometimes fantasise that I would like really to simplify my life, concentrating solely on black and white photography using only the Leica monochrome with one lens to keep me from straying. Now, back to my paid work….

  17. Ming, great article, fabulous. I think one should think twice and consider all aspects before so called upgrading that might not be an upgrade at all but if someone is starting afresh he would like to go for the latest and best if affordable.

  18. Great article! You very clearly defined the issue. Thanks.


  1. […] megapixels” and more complexity. Whatever happened to simplicity? I’ve been preaching sufficiency for purpose since the early days of this site, but it seems that everybody has gotten so caught up in the GAS […]

  2. […] a shame really: It’s probably all I actually need.  The talented Ming Thein has a great post on the subject here.  It is quite damning really…to me, […]

  3. […] pretty much matured, I feel this is the best strategy now for most photographers. We’re past the point of sufficiency, which means that the limitation in the imaging process is almost certainly going to be the […]

  4. […] of specs: we’re all aware that cameras passed the point of sufficiency some time ago. Haptics and handling are far more important criteria determining whether a camera […]

  5. […] Para referencia a posts en los que hablo de estos temas, leer Opinión Sony A7,  Review Sony A7, Ming Thein 3Megapixeles son suficientes y Ming Thein […]

  6. […] that’s the problem with the RX10: sufficiency. It is far more capable in every way than most people will ever need; to be honest, I could get […]

  7. […] cara (comparada con una 5D). Y es que hoy en día con relativamente poco dinero puedes usar equipo que es mas que suficiente desde el punto de vista […]

  8. […] of specs: we’re all aware that cameras passed the point of sufficiency some time ago. Haptics and handling are far more important criteria determining whether a camera […]

  9. […] large. Suppose you shared your images online or at most made 8×12″ prints. Remember the points of sufficiency; if your display medium is going to be that severely limited, then the reality is you might not see […]

  10. […] to shoot solely with a fixed-lens, small-sensor point-and-shoot camera. I have also talked about points of sufficiency, and knowing precisely how much resolution or how much told you need for the job at hand. What I […]

  11. […] the levels – prosumer compact, mirrorless, entry DSLR, pro DSLR – are all far past the point of sufficiency for most users; those who require more will already know they require more. In the right hands, any […]

  12. […] to 25×40″ or so, before a significant difference would be discernable. Score one for the argument for sufficiency! I’m pleased to report that everybody had a great time and learned a lot (or at least were […]

  13. […] Olympus E-PL5 and E-PM2. It’s clear that smaller sensors are here to stay – remember sufficiency for the masses – and viewfinders are becoming an increasingly rare spec. The X-E1 is probably […]

  14. […] The never-ending photographic arms race got me thinking recently about sufficiency: how many pixels, fps, AF points, ISO settings, etc. are enough? The troubling thing is that I thought I used to know the answer: I’m no longer sure it’s quite as clear cut. See, the thing is that if you’re viewing images online, in theory, anything close to your screen resolution (leaving space for UI elements, text, menus etc.) should be sufficient – 1000px wide is more than enough for most purposes. The images on this site are mostly 800px wide, for reference. In theory, that should mean an iPhone is overkill. Yes and no; just because resolution sufficient, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to have enough dynamic range, or color depth (or accuracy).  […]

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