image conscious

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 April, 2008, 12:00am

When I first started ogling digital cameras, a snapper capable of taking 3-megapixel resolution photos was pretty splashy. Now, you expect at least double that figure.

A megapixel is equal to 1 million pixels, which are the small tile-like picture elements that make up a digital image. Resolution refers to the amount of detail an image has when printed or viewed on a monitor.

Camera makers are constantly flagging up the number of megapixels as a selling point. Their message seems to be: 'Unless you have billions of megapixels, your photographs will suck and your closest friends will desert you.'

But a study plastered over the internet proclaims the opposite: 'The more pixels, the worse the image.' The thinking is that once you exceed 6-megapixel resolution, the 'noise' factor kicks in and you wind up with a snowstorm on an otherwise clear shot.

That intriguing theory, however, should not be taken too seriously, according to famed American photographer Mark Robert Halper (www.studiomark.com) of Los Angeles, in the United States. He says the claim has 'only a very small amount of potential truth ... As a general rule, the opposite is true.'

For Halper, the focus should be on hardware - a top-notch lens and slick mechanics - not resolution. Cameras capable of producing so-called Raw image files - sometimes referred to as digital negatives - provide better detail than snappers that produce JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group)-standard compressed images.

The Raw format is relatively unprocessed information, which yields better quality even than a TIFF (tagged image file format) file. JPEGs are by definition compressed files, which makes them inferior.

Photography blogger Dion McInnis (www.dionmcinnis.com) agrees pixels are overrated but acknowledges they open up possibilities. 'Prints for family?

Bill-fold images for wallets? Web use? All can be accomplished with the highest resolution possible,' he says.

McInnis - who runs a workshop called 'It's the seeing, not the taking' - says the key issue is learning to refine your ability to see. He urges digital photography enthusiasts not to get hung up on megapixels. Generally six will do, he says.

Avid photographer Anthony Citrano (www.citrano.com), who published the world's first's Web magazine, The Virtual Journal, in 1993, also suggests the value of megapixels has been distorted.

'Consumers, even so-called 'prosumers', are easily distracted by numbers because it gives them an easy way to compare products on a buying check-list,' says Citrano.

But it's deceptive. Pixels, he adds, should rank between five and 10 - rather than between one and three - on a photographer's check-list.

Again, it all depends on the quality of the digital camera, especially its image sensor - the device inside the machine that converts an optical image to an electric signal.

Citrano claims few observers can tell how many pixels one has paid for when taking pictures. 'Give me the warm glow of the late afternoon sun here in Venice, California, a good 6-megapixel camera and a great lens, and I'll challenge anyone to tell my picture apart from a 20-megapixel [photo] in the same environment,' he says.