What File Size Do You Really Need?

Marketing often sells so much sizzle that it convinces us that we must eat half a cow to be satisfied with a burger. In digital imagery, it’s all about the Megapixel (MP). The bigger the better, or so they want you to believe. But, how much of this is real, and how much is hype? Photographers are often so obsessive about capturing every last grain of sand in an image of a beach scene, they can be their own worst enemies here.

For photography customers, the answer is simpler. You have but to answer one basic question. Where will the images be used?

Mobile Device and Snap-Shot Print Images

Here is a run down on the needs for display on smartphones and snap-shot print sizes.

Output TargetDisplay
MP 600dpi
12MP Capture4,288 x 2,848
7×5 Print2,100 x 1,500
3.2 MP
4,200 x 3,000
12.6 MP
i14 Apple Display2,532 x 1,170
3 MP
Samsung S22 Ultra Display3,088 x 1,440
4.5 MP

Most pictures need a little room over these full frame numbers to facilitate cropping. So, the 12MP image size for these phones is actually a great match, with over-kill, with display and common snap-shot size print uses.

While two phones claim to offer a 48MP (Apple) and 108MP (Samsung) camera image size – I’m ignoring those claims, as they are only available under certain image capture modes, and are from optics and sensors that make the MP numbers misleading.

Video Displays and Mid Size Printing

Here is a run down on common display and mid size print requirements.

Output TargetDisplay
MP 600dpi
10×8 Print3,000 x 2,400
7.2 MP
6,000 x 4,800
28.8 MP
19×13 Print5,700 x 3,900
22.3 MP
11,400 x 7,800
88.9 MP (enlargement)
Full HD (1080P)1,920 x 1,080
2 MP
UHD (1440P)2,560 x 1,440
3.7 MP
4K Display3,860 x 2,160
8.4 MP
8K Display7,680 x 4,320
33 MP

Based on this, for all digital display use to full page into the foreseeable future, any camera between 12MP and 30MP is going to get the job done. However, to provide room for cropping, a 45MP to 60MP image size is going to provide additional data needed.

Monster Prints, Ultra Fine Detail and Heavy Cropping Uses

If you are ultimately going to crop images heavily, print large format output, or the subject demands hyper-fine detail capture, you will need big files – from high MP cameras.

The range of pixel capture resolution in professional photography ranges between 20MP up to 400MP. There are a lot of commercial quality images captured in the 40MP to 60MP range. Meanwhile, the image quality from a 400MP Hasselblad medium format camera, generating a 2.8GB 23,200 x 17,400 pixel image is awe inspiring, as is its price.

Here is a rundown of how big a print you can expect from a sampling of MP files, with no enlargement.

MPImage Size300dpi600dpi
306,720 x 4,48022 x 1511 x 7.5
458,192 x 5,46427 x 1814 x 9
8012,288 x 6,48041 x 21.520.5 x 11
10011,648 x 8,74239 x 2919.5 x 14.5
400 23,200 x 17,40077 x 5838.7 x 29

Note that even with 400MP, creating images to fill billboards and other giant displays will require enlargement. Of course, for large scale output and ultra-fine resolution of nearly microscopic detail, the higher the image size, the better. For more on enlargements, check out my article on the topic.

The question boils down to the intended end use of the images captured. Capturing 400MP files that can’t be posted on the web or transmitted without an ftp presence will not serve the majority. In the digital universe, fast download speeds and mobility often trumps giant hyper fine detailed images that are then downsized to be palatable in a process that will wipes out all that phenomenal detail.

So, when discussing your requirements with a photographer, simply communicate where the images will be used, and let them make recommendations. Test images can also provide insight as to how well a subject will work under different camera systems.

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