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Proliferating pixels

Nandagopal Rajan | Print Edition: Aug 19, 2012

Eight years ago, I graduated from a film to a digital camera. It was a Canon A400, a 3.2 megapixel (MP) camera with a 2.2X optical zoom, then considered 'awesome'. I took well over 10,000 pictures with it. Today, when the average smartphone has an 8 MP camera, I would be embarrassed to display my old A400 in its presence.

Most entry-level cameras, at least those under 12 MP, are hard put now to compete with the top-end camera phones. The recently launched Nokia 808 Pureview has a 41 MP camera phone which can put even some mid-level digital singlelens reflex (DSLR) cameras to shame. The pressure from camera phones has been such that many camera makers have abandoned altogether the entry-level segment and now focus on the MP competition. Their mantra: the more, the better.

Nandagopal Rajan
Nandagopal Rajan
So, what exactly is an MP? Simply put, a pixel is the smallest unit, or picture element, that makes up a digital photo. An MP consists of a million pixels. If, for instance, you have a 12 MP camera, it will take images which have a resolution of roughly 4,000X3,000 pixels which works out to 12 million pixels.

Average users need not bother with these numbers. For them the MP count makes little difference. My old 3.2 MP Canon and a brand new 12 MP camera will produce similarlooking postcard size and/or 6X4 prints. But you will see a difference in quality if you blow up both pictures to poster size or more. Or, if you crop a small part of the picture and blow it up to, say, 6X4 size. Not many of us need or bother to do that.

It does matter, though, to professional photographers. More is definitely better for this tribe. If a photographer takes a long shot of a political rally using the latest 36 MP Nikon D800 he will be able to crop a portrait of one of the leaders on the dais and print it, with the distinctive features of the leader intact. This would be impossible with a 12 MP camera.

Canon has not yet seriously joined the MP race, but may soon do so. Its flagship DSLR, the EOS 5D Mark III, is a modest 22.3 MP. In comparison, arch-rival Nikon's latest entrylevel DSLR camera, the D3200, is all of 24 MP. During a recent interaction, Masaya Maeda, Managing Director and Chief Executive of Canon's Imaging Communication Products, told me he believes high resolution cameras should be for professionals alone. "We are focused on providing such solutions soon," he added. He said it was important to strike the right balance between the sensor, lens, auto-focus and related features, and that was what Canon would strive for. The chances are Canon's next professional camera will be high on the MP count. How high only time will tell.

But it is a win-win situation for consumers, who do not have to pay all that much more for the extra pixels populating their camera sensor. The D3200 is not priced much higher than other entry-level DSLRs , though it promises double the resolution. Most new entry-level DSLRs also feature at least an 18 MP sensor. Remember, these cameras are meant mainly for amateurs.

There is more good news for camera buyers. Along with the MPs, an average 'point-andshoot' now offers at least 20x optical zoom, Wi-Fi capability, high definition (HD) video recording and some basic editing facility.

The purists might call some of these gimmicks, but there is nothing wrong in having a handful of unnecessary features in the kitty, especially when you are not paying for it. Meanwhile, researchers at Duke University have developed a 960 MP camera. Yes, you heard that right. And just in case you are wondering, it is equivalent to a gigapixel (GP). Seems the MP race has just begun.

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