Pixel This


Q: I’m shopping around for a digital camera, and I’m pretty mystified as to how many megapixels I need. All the salesmen have been pushing 5-megapixel cameras, lots of which go for $700 or more. Should I just suck it up and lay out the scratch, or am I being conned here?

Unless you’re a serious photo enthusiast—you know, the sort who nears climax at the mere mention of the word “f-stop”—5 megapixels is definitely overkill. Even if you’d like to print out the occasional 8 x 10, a less sophisticated camera will do the trick nicely. In fact, odds are that anything above 3 megs will be way more camera than you really need. So do yourself a favor and ignore the specs-list hype, a move that should save you upward of $400.

For the unschooled, a megapixel is equivalent to a million pixels. And a pixel (shorthand for “picture element”) is the most basic building block of a snapshot. The more blocks you’ve got, the bigger a structure you can make, right? In the photo realm, that truism means higher-meg cameras are better at taking wider, longer pictures. If you took photos with a 5-meg camera, say, and then ran off 11 x 14 prints, they would look pretty darn good. By contrast, similarly sized prints from a two-meg camera would have far fewer blocks to work with, so you’d notice lots of annoying gaps between the dots.

But the question you’ve got to ask yourself is, How many 11 x 14 prints am I going to be making? Mr. Roboto’s willing to bet a corn dog and a Rheingold that you’ll never go that large, and that even 8 x 10 would be a stretch. No, you’ll probably stick to standard sizes like 4 x 6 and 5 x 7, small enough to be easily tossed in shoeboxes and forgotten for years. Or you’ll want to get in the habit of storing all your photographic keepsakes on your hard drive and e-mailing them back to mom.

Even if you long for 8 x 10 glossies, don’t think a 5-meg camera will answer all your prayers. The quality of your printer is an important variable, and a plain ol’ ink jet isn’t going to get the job done. Mr. Roboto recommends using only printers with resolutions of 1,200 dots per inch, preferably a bit more.

If you don’t want to add a $700 photo printer to your tab, stick with a lower-meg camera and your current printing setup. A good rule of thumb is that a 2-megapixel unit will create 4 x 6 prints that are just dandy, and a 3-megger will get you up to 5 x 7 in fine style. Depending on the quality of your printer and your deftness with Photoshop, you may even be able to squeeze out some passable 8 x 10s from a 3-megapixel camera. (A few camera aficionados claim to have gotten so-so 8 x 10s from a 2-megapixel, but Mr. Roboto failed miserably when trying to match their results in the lab.)

The way prices are heading now, a 3-meg camera might be the way to go. At the latest Macworld convention, Mr. Roboto had the pleasure of testing out a Nikon Coolpix 3100, which actually gives you a whopping 3.2 megapixels. Though the model just debuted in April, some e-tailers are already selling it for under $300; check out for the latest deals. Considering that the 2-meg Coolpix 2100 costs just $100 less, it’s definitely worth splashing out some extra cash for the better version.

The big caveat here, especially if you’ve got an acute eye, is that you shouldn’t expect anything approaching 35mm quality. The general rule of thumb is that 35mm photos are equivalent to digital images in the 14-20 megapixel range. The vast majority of shutterbugs won’t notice much of a difference, but if you’re a stickler for such things, it could frustrate. You can buy yourself a pro-quality digital camera, like the 11-megapixel Canon EOS-1Ds, but that’ll set you back a whopping $8,000 or so. Mr. Roboto will bet another corn dog you’d rather spend that cake elsewhere.

A few weeks back, Mr. Roboto got some very kind reader thank-yous for giving a shout-out to Hell Comes to Frogtown, the 1987 “Rowdy” Roddy Piper vehicle about infertile mutants. Well, post-apocalyptic movie buffs, does Mr. Roboto have the site for you! Check out for a complete roster of every flick that’s ever been described with the phrase “futuristic wasteland.” Who knew there was a Return to Frogtown?