Don’t Be a Casualty of the Great Megapixel War

After a brief respite, the Great Megapixel War is back in full swing. It seems camera manufacturers are upping their cameras’ megapixel ratings on almost a monthly, if not weekly, basis.  Unfortunately, there are other factors far more important than the number of megapixels crammed on that camera’s sensor, and most digital camera purchasers don’t have a clue what those factors are.  To illustrate my point please allow me to relate the following story:

I started using 35 mm cameras well over forty years ago, starting with a Petri 7s Rangefinder I saved up for and purchased when I was around fourteen or so.  I’ve been using SLR cameras since 1974, when I received on Christmas morning a really nifty Canon TLb.  Both cameras taught me a lot about photography, as did my all-time favorite book on photography The Honeywell Pentax Way by the late, great Herbert Keppler.  Because I was so enamored from such an early age with the 35 mm format, I delayed going to a digital SLR (DSLR) until someone came along with a (relatively) affordable “Full-Frame” version, meaning a sensor approximating the size of a 35 mm frame.  I was overjoyed when my old friends at Canon did just that with their breakthrough camera the Canon EOS 5D back in 2005.  When I finally got my 5D, my trusty old Canon EOS 10S was reverently and lovingly placed into semi-retirement, but still stands ready for those times when I want to revert back to 35 mm photography.

Alas, there are times when it’s just too darned inconvenient, cumbersome, or obvious to lug around such a huge camera and assorted lenses.  This is especially true when traveling abroad or in areas where thieves covet such gear.  I’m thinking specifically here places such as Rome, Athens, Barcelona, and Paris, where professional thieves working in packs can strip you practically down to your underwear in seconds.  Thus, I found myself just over a year ago in the market for a small travel zoom that I could take with me into areas or situations where a large, bulky DSLR just isn’t practical.

So it was in the early Spring of 2009 that I started shopping around for small camera that would give me at least acceptable pictures—not on par with my DSLR, of course, but at least something that would produce pictures I wouldn’t be embarrassed to show.  There were several competing cameras in the travel zoom category by then, including some rather nifty examples from my beloved Canon.  Indeed, many of these cameras offered 12 megapixels or more.  But being the photographic enthusiast that I am, I knew that megapixels do not necessarily equate to resolution, which is far more important.  Also, a higher megapixel rating often goes hand-in-hand with reduced low-light performance.  Obviously more pixels means smaller pixels for a sensor of any give size, and the smaller the pixel the more susceptible that pixel is to digital noise.  More digital noise means you have to lower the ISO setting of the camera to compensate.

After tossing aside megapixel considerations, I fixated on what is probably the most important yet also most neglected camera component—the lens.  Anyone who takes travel shots which, by definition, are landscape-centric, will tell you that wide angle performance is much more important than telephoto considerations.  My personal magic number for this is 24, which means I want a lens that gives me the 35 mm equivalent of at least a 24 mm lens.  If I can get below that magic number then all the better.  If I can’t, I want to get as close to that number as possible.  That means 28 mm or narrower just doesn’t do it for me.

Well, that magic number of mine immediately disqualified all the usual suspects. Canon, Nikon, and Sony started out at 28 mm to 38 mm on the wide side.  That left me looking at Panasonic, a brand I had never even considered before.  The Panasonic models closest to my magic number were the Lumix DMC-ZS1 and DMC-ZS3.  Both came equipped with the same Leica-manufactured 12X  4.1 mm to 49.2 mm zoom lens,.  For the size sensor in the ZS1 and ZS3, that worked out to the 35 mm equivalent of a 25 mm on the wide angle side zooming out to an incredible 300 mm on the telephoto side.  It was also the fastest lens of the bunch, f3.3 to f4.9 depending on the level of zoom.  Between the two, the ZS3 had the larger, higher-resolution LCD screen.  A large, bright LCD is essential in direct sunlight, so I sprang for the higher cost and happily left the store with my ZS3 even though it effectively had “only” 10.1 megapixels.  I was later vindicated in that decision when DPReview rated image quality for the ZS1/ZS3 line, both for daylight and low-light situations, above offerings from Canon, Olympus, and Samsung, and on par with the Sony H20.  If you glance at the specifications for the cameras tested, you will notice that the ZS1/ZS3 also happened to have the lowest megapixel ratings of the entire bunch.

That Spring, during a 54-day cruise, I went head-to-head against fellow passengers with DSLRs and equipment costing ten times or more what I spent on my diminutive Panasonic.  During a shipboard photo competition in which there were three categories, that little ZS3 produced 8 x 10 photographs that took first place in landscapes and third place in people.  Not bad.

Just a few months later Panasonic upgraded the ZS line with the ZS5, ZS6 (only available at Costco), and ZS7.  The sensor was now packed with 12.1 megapixels.  I wouldn’t have bit on this new line for the increased megapixel rating, but I did covet the manual modes this new line offered.  I was concerned that the smaller, more densely packed pixels would degrade low-light performance, but Panasonic managed to somewhat mitigate that problem by upgrading their Venus processing engine.  So, after due consideration I went ahead and purchased the ZS6, but only because of the increased control over aperture, shutter speed, and the ability to go into full manual mode when needed.

Sure enough, ISO performance slipped a little. Whereas I will push the ZS3 to ISO 400 with confidence, I find myself limiting the ZS6 to no more than ISO 200 unless I really have no choice.  And if I know I’m going into a low-light situation, as I did when I took these shots of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, I revert to using the tried-and-true ZS3 if I don’t have access to my much more capable EOS 5D.

Now Panasonic has yet another new ZS line, the ZS8 and ZS10 with a new Leica 16X zoom that starts out at the 35 mm equivalent of 24 mm (they finally hit my magic number) and zooming out to an incredible 384 mm.  This new line also comes with a mind-boggling 14.1 megapixels crammed once again onto a sensor measuring only 6.13 mm across, 4.6 mm high, and 7.8 mm when measured diagonally.  This is known as a 1/2.33” sensor, and it’s smaller than the nail on your pinky finger. The internal processing engine remained pretty much the same with enhancements geared toward video capability, so I just knew there were going to be problems.  No way was I going to fall for this one.  And, boy, was I right.  The first review is in and CNET’s findings are not encouraging.  Even in good, bright light the pictures are coming out “soft” and there is observable “noise” at even ISO 100.  Image quality has dropped to the point that CNET advises against making prints any larger that 8×10, whereas I’ve had exceptional results with prints as large as 16×20 with my first-generation ZS3.

What a shame. Yet another senseless, tragic casualty of war . . . the Great Megapixel War.


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2 responses to “Don’t Be a Casualty of the Great Megapixel War

  1. Thanks for your “expertise” in the camera department. I love the way the Nikon DSLR (not sure what model) captures pictures. Any thoughts on this brand and an affordable price range? I met a guy who bought like a hybrid – Nikon and Canon? combo? He loves it.

  2. Mike, the top, most innovative DSLR manufacturers are in my opinion Sony, Canon, and Nikon, and in that order. I stick with Canon because I’ve been using them since the early ’70s, but if I weren’t accessory- and lens-committed, I’d be seriously considering some of the newer Sony offerings.

    Price ranges depends on the features you most need and your budget, and that’s always a delicate balancing act for most people. If you’re seriously into photography, make sure you get a camera that allows you the most amount of creative control. If you’re not, go with one that has the most presets and scene modes. Raw is fun to play around with as well, but you’ll probably do most of your shooting in JPEG just for the convenience.

    Not familiar with any Nikon/Canon hybrids, as those two are fierce competitors. Perhaps you’re thinking of Sony/Minolta? Minolta sold out their camera business to Sony many years ago, and many older Minolta lenses and accessories will work on Sony cameras as a result. Indeed, the lens mount is identical on both lines as a result of that merger.