Your new phone’s camera is ridiculous overkill. Here’s why.

Maybe you got caught up in the hoopla over the reveal of the iPhone 13 Pro not long ago. It’s an amazing phone with an amazing camera. But I’m here to tell you, in most cases, it’s ridiculous overkill. And I’ll explain why I think so.

I brought receipts

Here’s a lovely picture of a cat taken with the iPhone 12 Pro’s portrait mode. This is a challenging composition, because a very dark subject is lit from behind. The iPhone does a great job preserving background detail, giving good focus, and if you load the image into another window, you’ll see there’s a high degree of detail.

This photo was taken moments before the other one by a 2009 point-and-shoot camera. Zooming in will reveal there isn’t as much detail, because the camera only shoots 8 megapixels. And yes, the flash was required so the blanket is kind of blown out. But overall this is a very pleasing image that shows the foreground and background. You could argue that it’s even more pleasing in some ways because the flash highlights details that you don’t get in the other picture.

Let me say it again. The bottom picture is from a 12-year-old camera that most people would have long since gotten rid of. And it’s pretty darn good, even on a challenging subject. Still thinking that you’ll buy your next phone for its improved camera?

The myth of megapixels part 2

Back in the 2000s, camera makers all went digital. And, they raced to provide more and more megapixels. Why? Because people thought that a camera with more megapixels would be a better camera. That’s true, and it isn’t. Folks back then found out that there was a lot more that went into a quality photo than just megapixels.

Of course in the 2010s digital cameras just disappeared. Everyone had a serviceable camera on their phones and that’s what they used. And unfortunately, people forgot what they learned about megapixels. At least the phone makers tried their hardest to make us forget. They rolled out phones with more and more megapixels in their cameras. And, we dutifully bought them. Hey, I’m as guilty as anyone else.

How many megapixels do you really need?

Here’s the honest truth. In most cases, a 2 megapixel picture is all you need. That’s equivalent to high definition video. If you’re the kind of person who zooms in a lot you’ll want maybe 6 or 8 megapixels. But I guarantee you, anything more than that is just for show.

Why would I say that?

Here’s the first tip. A lot of phones with super-high-megapixel cameras don’t even turn them on by default. For example, many Samsung phones come from the factory with their cameras set to 12 megapixel images, even if they are capable of 20 megapixels. 20 megapixels, especially in one of the “raw” formats, makes really really big files. And that will eat up the storage on your phone way too quickly.

Second, just because the megapixel count goes up doesn’t mean the quality does. Phones use itty-bitty sensors, so the light bleeds over from one to another. Sure it will be a 20 megapixel image, but you could have a matrix of 25 pixels that essentially all capture the same thing since they bleed from one to another. So really what you have is a 4 megapixel image with a lot of extra wasted pixels.

OK so what about AI?

I, like most of you, have been incredibly impressed by what today’s phones can do with AI in images. They can create fake details. They can blur everything but the focus. They can process the image to make night seem like day.

All this stuff is great for show but do you really use it? Once you’re done showing off to your friends, does it actually make a difference? I think night mode is probably the only thing that does, because it just happens automatically to make your pictures look better. But the other built-in filters? I just don’t buy that most folks use them.

So, don’t feel bad, though

It’s ok to want a new phone because it takes better pictures. It’s especially ok if you are starting to travel again and, after 18 months, you’re starting to post pictures of where you’ve gone. I get it. Truth is, you deserve it. But you should also feel just fine staying with a phone that’s a few years old. Chances are its camera will suit you just fine.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.