Megapixel Count Isn’t Everything When Buying a Camera Phone

At a time when most phone makers are fighting a spec war in an attempt to set them apart from competition, Apple has time and again proved that not just raw numbers, but the entire user experience matters.

Cameras, and with that the megapixel count, have become an important factor when people set out to buy new phones, but this number can be extremely deceiving, especially when stated without much context.

CNET explains why the megapixel count isn’t the only thing that matters when looking out for a good camera phone. This of course won’t exactly be a great revelation for photography experts or for the technically inclined, but most phone buyers do not fall under this category.

The CNET piece underscores the importance of the camera sensor, the part responsible for capturing light coming through the lens. Most modern smartphones’ jam packed internals put an upper bound to the size of a camera sensor, which houses all those pixels manufacturers boast about.

The size of the image sensor is important, and generally, the larger the sensor, the larger your pixels, and the larger the pixels, the more light you can collect. The more light you can catch, the better the image.

In the race to make a phone with the highest megapixel count, certain manufacturers reduce the size of a pixel and keep the sensor size the same. This, as you might have guessed, greatly reduces the amount of light that can be captured, leading to an inferior photograph.

Besides the camera sensor, CNET also highlights upcoming trends in mobile phone cameras like a dedicated imaging chip (separate from the CPU and GPU), and backside illuminated sensors to aid in low light photography.

Apple already ships the iPhone camera with a backside illumination sensor, and is known to be exploring possible image processing techniques at the hardware level, as per patent filings.


When the iPhone 4 was introduced, Apple echoed the same sentiments when talking about the 5MP camera on the device. From Steve Jobs’ WWDC 2010 keynote:

“Everybody loves to talk about things that are very tangible when it comes to photography like megapixels, but we tend to ask the question, ‘How do we make better pictures?’

They’re different things. Megapixels are nice, but what cell phone cameras are really about is capturing photons. Because the cameras are so small, sensors are so small, lenses are so small, it’s all about capturing photons and low light photography.”

When Apple moved from a 3MP camera in the iPhone 3GS to the 5MP camera included in the iPhone 4, the engineers managed to keep the pixel size the same, ensuring that the amount of light captured doesn’t reduce. Fast forward one year (actually slightly more than a year) to the iPhone 4S launch, and we again see that Apple created a great imaging device without an extraordinarily high megapixel count.

While shrinking pixels works really well when increasing screen resolution (Retina displays), the same math can’t be applied to image resolution, unless what manufacturers really want are low quality pictures.

Head over to CNET to read the whole article.