When it comes to digital cameras, most photographers (and salespeople) seem obsessed with megapixels — because “everybody knows” that having more pixels means better images (it doesn’t, by the way). What’s lacking in all this hoopla is a clear understanding of what pixels are and just how many of them you need.

The more pixels you have, the more RAM you’ll need to open the images and the more hard drive space to store them all. So it’s in your best interest to understand some of the technology behind the images you want to capture, manipulate, output and store.

In the beginning …

A close-up of TV picture elements, or pixels.

Essentially, computers, cameras, and video devices use pixels to express image information. Each pixel is a small square of captured light. The pixel is the smallest portion of an image that a computer is capable of displaying or printing. Too few pixels and an image will appear “blocky” because there is not enough detail to work with. Too many pixels and the computer or output device slows down because it has to process more information.

But where did the term pixel come from? Pixel is an abbreviation for picture element. The word was coined to describe the photographic elements of a television image. In 1969, writers for Variety magazine took pix (a 1932 abbreviation of pictures) and combined it with element to describe how TV signals came together.

There are even earlier reports of Fred C. Billingsley coining the word at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1965. Although the exact origins of the word may be disputed, its meaning is not. The word pixel quickly caught on, first in the scientific communities in the 1970s and then in the computer art industry in the mid 1980s.

What are megapixels?

The red circle shows an enlargement of the image. Notice how you can see actual pixels when you increase the magnification of an image. These squares of light are the building blocks of all digital photos.

When you shop for a digital camera, you are bombarded with talk of megapixels. Consumers are often misled about what megapixels are and how many are needed. A megapixel is simply a unit of storage, whether internal or on a removable card. A megapixel is one million pixels and is a term commonly used to describe how much data a digital camera can capture. As with your car, just because your tank can hold more gallons of gas doesn’t mean it’s more fuel efficient or better than your friend’s car.

For example, if a camera can capture pictures at 3000 × 2400 pixels, it is referred to as having 7.2 megapixels (3000 × 2400 = 7,200,000). If you were to print that picture on paper at 300 ppi (pixels per inch), it would roughly be a 10-by-8 inch print. Professional photographers may need more pixels than this, but a consumer may not. It all depends on how the pixels are meant to be displayed or printed.

The more pixels you capture, the larger the image is (both in disk space and potential print size). Consumer usage (such as email or inkjet prints) is less demanding than professional usage (such as art books or magazines). Professionals need more megapixels than consumers; hence, high-end cameras cost more because they are targeted at people who make money by taking photos.