Learning about the Mega Pixel myth, the hard way

I can’t remember the first camera I operated but I think it was a Kodak disposable. The first piece of equipment I chose was a Panasonic Mini Dv camcorder that took 1.3 megapixel stills. I started getting excited when my cell phone options began to include image taking capabilities and I made sure I got the iPod Touch 4th gen (the first with a camera) when it came out so I could start capturing pictures and video. The iPod stills weren’t that bad until I found out they didn’t even qualify as one megapixel.

I didn’t pay much attention into what effect a megapixel has on an image until I knew my equipment was deficient. I planned on nabbing an iPhone 4 because I heard that it packed a pretty decent 5 megapixel camera. I was all set and ready to go. It turns out my pictures still seemed somewhat dissatisfying to me. I began looking into a point and shoot pocket sized camera and wondered why anyone would buy one when smart phones could do the same thing. The same thing crossed my mind when I saw Costco stocking super zooms and DSLRs. I didn’t the slight increase in image quality was worth carrying all those lenses and that meaty body. My assumptions were obviously all wrong.

The Mega-Pixel Myth…..ever heard of it? It basically states that anything above 5 megapixels yields photo print quality and the human eye will not easily distinguish the resolution differences. So all those camera ads touting the newest camera punching an extra 2 megapixels actually adds no discernible difference in quality.

Life is about options and the iPhone didn’t give me much. It’s in phone camera app gave me a focus lock, HDR, and that’s pretty much it. Even third party apps that added exposure locks lacked any serious control over basic settings that most pocketable point and shoots came standard with.

My phone did offer zoom though. I thought that was great until I actually used it and wondered why it turned out such shitty images. Turns out the iPhone and other forms of digital zooms relied on a processor to guesstimate what the image would look like closer. Many dedicated pocket cameras and all those Costco super zooms had optical zooms that didn’t require guessing because the actual lenses where at play here not some program.

The biggest problem I had was where I was taking these photographs. Outdoors I could usually produce some decent shots but indoors or at night time these images would become saturated in graininess. DSLRs had the large sensors that are roughly the size of a stamp versus the ibuprofen sized sensors found in pocket friendly cameras. These large sensors were more receptive to low light conditions. They also had many setting options like aperture (controlling how much light passes through the lens), shutter speed (which also affects light entering the sensor once the shutter button is pressed), and ISO sensitivity. I could also select what kind of lighting situation Im under, change white balance (no more orange tinged indoor shots) and the biggest selling point of a DSLR, the type of lenses I could use. Telephoto, 50mm, wide angle, and macro are just a few of the many available lenses that suit all sorts of situations while providing a nice shallow depth of field. These lenses more than megapixels are what produce sharper images.

So I went out and bought a used Sony a300 knowing all of the above and happily new I was going to be able to capture beautiful photos. Then I got caught up in one article after another and started getting bother that my first DSLR only had 10.2 megapixels. I had pixel envy at the newer Canons and Nikons that sport 16, 18 and 20 plus MP. I took my time and pounced when I saw a deal on a brand spanking new Sony a57 sporting a whopping 16.1 megapixels. I popped on my favorite Minolta 50mm f1.7 lens and snapped some pics. I opened Aperture on my Mac and was surprised that I wasn’t blown away. I took my old a300 and took the same shot with the same lens and settings and remembered, the Mega Pixel Myth. See for yourself.

Composition and creativity do more for a photograph than the density capabilities of a camera. Check out the cheap camera challenges of pro photographers at Digital Rev. At the end of the day, I was part right in getting excited over my iPhone. It’s a device that I need to have and Chase Jarvis made famous the saying “the best camera is the one that’s with you.” With the amount of money I’ve spent though, I’m making sure I take my a57 everywhere, including bed. Good night.

Sony Alpha a300 on the left vs. Sony Alpha SLT-a57 on the right
Sony a300 10.1 megapixels
Sony a57, 16.1 megapixels
Sony a300 10.1 megapixels
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Sony A57 Review

So it goes, “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” It looks like Sony remembered that video is the master of pictures in motion. That’s my take on Sony’s new mid-range A-mount camera in it’s Alpha series. The Sony SLT A57 is a fast, quality camera with impressive video capturing capabilities.

RECAP: A DSLR (digital single lens reflex) is the digital version of the same flipping mirror technology that has dominated serious photography of the past half-century. You look into a view finder and when you snap a picture, the mirror that you were actually looking at flips out of the way so a sensor can make a copy of what you saw.  Sony, with it’s SLT line, fuses a forgotten technology with it’s background in electronics to make a completely innovative camera that threatens the royal DSLR family of Canon and Nikon.

Instead of a flipping mirror, the a57 uses a semi-transparent one that doesn’t need to flip which enables this $700 camera to take rapid 8 (full control), 10 (aperture control), and all the way up to 12 (cropped resolution) frames per second. In this respect, the transparent mirror is allowing Sony’s SLT cameras to compete with others 4x it’s price. That stationary mirror is paired with an acclaimed 16.1 megapixel CMOS sensor that has a very fast phase detection auto focus.

The A57 has all the other details a DSLR would afford you. The things that work especially well are its ISO performance, up to 16000 for quality in low light conditions. It has a host of fun borderline gimmicky options like auto-portrait framing where the Bionz processor takes a look at a photo and crops it using the rule of thirds. The in camera digital zoom works unexpectedly well allowing my kit lens to get some respectable macro shots. It houses a larger battery than it’s predecessor, the well-received A55, allowing up to 550 shots on a fresh charge. Memory Pro Duo and SD cards (class 10 recommended for keeping up with a57‘s decent buffer) are accepted in the larger rubberized grip.

Sony’s newest offering is larger than the model it replaces inspiring confidence that the company was listening to customer feedback. It turns out mid-range DSLR customers didn’t want smaller and delicate in their models but something more substantial with plenty of grip options and spaced out controls for one-handed activation for most features. Sony’s live view has been excellent since it entered the DSLR market after acquiring all things Minolta. It’s fully articulated though it’s majorly annoying that it’s hinged on the bottom, which means even on a tripod it’s difficult to do self capturing. The electronic view finder (since its not a true DSLR, no flipping mirror remember, everything’s recreated digitally) is easy to use and greatly enhanced from the A55, though still no OLED inherited from the higher end A65 and A77.

If you have a collection of Minolta Lenses or have one of the first few Sony Alphas that didn’t record video, then the A57 represents digital SLR movie making in it’s prime and now would make right for an upgrade. Video capture is where Sony’s camera shines utilizng its in-body camera stabliziation (they call it Steady Shot) and its constant phase detection auto focus. Regardless of price, few DSLR’s can compete with how fast and accurate the A57 is when recording in movie mode. There’s no flipping mirror so auto focus is never turned off or in need of readjustment unless you want full shutter and aperture control. For indie film makers, probably the most important thing of note is that Sony’s new SLTs record in full 1080p at 60 frames per second and now also 24 progressive frames a second. The A57 records video at a bitrate up to 28 mbps which is a bit less than a hacked Panasonic GH2 or Canon’s T3i but neither do 60 at 1080p. Unless your going to do extensive and repeated digital manipulation to your videos, my opinion is 28 mbps is of very high quality.  In any case, shooting video with a DSLR and the many lenses that offer up a shallow depth of field can yield expensive looking results.

There’s a lot of fanboy-ism when affiliations are made to a camera manufacturer. Nikon and Canon make excellent products in the DSLR market, Panasonic does well with its micro four thirds system and Sony’s stronghold as underdog may well change with it’s SLT line of semi-transparent mirrors. With any of the above you get large image sensors and full manual control options over exposures which is why they yield better results than cheaper point and shoots or typical smart phone affairs. In my opinion, what it really boils down to are the lenses. Not the mirrors, definitely not the megapixels and not the brand’s name. If you have a bunch of Canon or Nikon lenses then stick with Canon or Nikon. However, if you have old Minolta lenses (don’t forget all Minolta Maxxum A-mounts work with all Sony A-mounts) or are starting from scratch then consider the A57. It’s the cheapest Sony camera that does 24p and, like all Sony DSLR and SLTs, have both in body stabilization (negating the need for the more expensive stabilized lenses) and a built-in auto-focus motor. The last two things simply mean that you could save money in the long run if you plan on buying a few more lenses.

Did any of this make any Flipping sense?

Note: Sample photos and test video clips are here and here.