The spec sheets on today’s flagship digital cameras are impressive to say the least. Nikon offers 36, Sony 42, and Canon’s 5DS a staggering 51 megapixels. And that’s just right now, and that’s not touching the likes of Hasselblad and Phase One 100MP offerings. Ever since digital cameras began to supplant film as the industry standard, resolution has been the headline feature of every camera along the way.
The trend of packing more and more pixels onto our image sensors doesn’t seem to be slowing down, as every year we marvel at the newest staggering megapixel number, only to see that number surpassed mere months later. However, in this relentless contest for king of the resolution mountain, it seems rare that we stop and ask the question: how much resolution do we actually NEED?
Naturally, the answer to this question will be a personal one and dependent on a number of factors, but there are a few constants that can help you as a photographer, to answer it for yourself. For example, we have standards in place to describe the abilities of the human eye, and unless your intended audience is a nest of bald eagles, these guidelines can suggest the point of diminishing returns, resolution-wise.
What Is Resolution?
First, it’s important to understand what we’re talking about when we describe the resolution of a photo. Resolution is essentially the ability of the human eye, camera sensor, printer, or screen to differentiate between two points. To calculate this ability, you need two key pieces of information: the distance between the two points, and the relative viewing distance from those points. Imagine that you’ve lit two candles, placed them 1 foot apart, and drove a mile away from them. At this distance, you would most likely be unable to tell if you were looking at one candle or two. In order to see that there are, in fact, two candles, you would need to move them further apart, or get closer to them.
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