This is why megapixels matter (or do they?)

Samsung vs Canon
(Image credit: Samsung, Canon)

Most professional and experienced photographers will probably know that megapixels aren't everything. While they're certainly important and can help capture more detail, they can also be a bit of a double edged sword at times – especially if you want to shoot large bursts of images very quickly.

In a recent video from Kevin Raposo, he compares the Canon EOS 1D X Mark II to the latest flagship camera phone from Samsung, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. With its 108MP camera module, Raposo wanted to see how the S21 Ultra would compare against the Canon EOS 1D X Mark II, a former flagship sports camera with a 20.2MP full frame sensor.

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While the sensor in the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has five times the resolution of the Canon, the actual sensor is around 12 times smaller. In general, larger sensor cameras offer better image quality, so how do the two sensors compare?

The higher resolution sensor in the Samsung does offer some advantages, including being able to downsample files. Essentially, you can reduce the 108MP files from the Samsung down to 20MP - thus reducing the amount of noise and perceivable flaws in the file. You can also potentially print larger images with higher resolution files, although several other factors can also have an effect.

However, the downside to having more megapixels is that file sizes can be much larger. This can have an impact on your storage – and can also affect how fast your camera (or phone) can actually capture image files. 

Despite this, higher resolution files do seem to overcome some of the problems related to having a much smaller sensor. As the comparison in the video demonstrates, in some shooting situations it's actually difficult to tell apart images taken on the Canon and the Samsung. 

In the image comparison above, you might find it difficult to tell which file is from which camera. The Samsung S21 Ultra manages to keep up really well with the Canon. Even when cropped in 1:1, both files display a good deal of detail and clarity. The higher resolution in the Samsung is seemingly making up for any other technical issues. 

Canon vs Samsung comparison

(Image credit: Kevin Raposo)

However, when the files are cropped in, we can begin to see the Samsung's files suffer in comparison to the Canon. Even with just a 20MP sensor, the combination of the Canon camera and its excellent glass is able to pick up much more detail than the Samsung phone.

Consequently, it seems that having a higher resolution sensor is only one part of the equation for better image quality. While lots of megapixel power does seem to close the gap between camera phones and high end cameras, it's difficult to argue with the value of high quality optics and larger sensors. 

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Usman Dawood

Usman is a commercial and architectural photographer based in West Yorkshire, who has been working professionally for over seven years. He has also spent over four years as a writer for the biggest photography sites in the world, including Staff Writer for Digital Camera World, senior staff writer for FStoppers, and tech writer for Petapixel. 

With a particular interest in technology developments, high-resolution imaging and the high-end cameras, Usman has been on the cutting edge of camera news as well as writing features about medium format systems and global shutters, and has reviewed some of the latest Leica cameras as well as a tripod that’s even taller than Andre the Giant!