Canon’s camera prototype equipped with the
company’s new 250-megapixel CMOS image sensor. (Canon Global)

Canon just set a world record with the unveiling of a new 250-megapixel image sensor so powerful that it’s capable of reading the lettering on an aircraft from more than 11 miles away. Understandably, tech bloggers and camera enthusiasts were visibly impressed by this technological achievement. By way of comparison, the new iPhone 6S announced by Apple on Sept. 9 is “only” going to have a 12-megapixel camera.

On the surface, Canon’s decision to go big with megapixels certainly makes sense. If camera makers such as Canon want to stay relevant, they have to keep pushing the boundary on imaging innovations, or risk ceding even more of the market to smartphone cameras, which are rapidly catching up to the capabilities and functions of professional cameras.

However, while creating a 250-megapixel camera makes a statement, it may also be a case of overkill. Is a 250-megapixel camera the innovation consumers need?

Just thinking of the data storage requirements on those 250-megapixel images should make your head spin. If you’re planning on storing a lot of 250-megapixel images (or better yet, 250-megapixel videos) on your digital device, you’d better have plenty of storage capability, and that’s going to push the price up. Approximately 1.25GB would be needed to store every second of video footage taken by a camera using a 250-megapixel sensor. If you have a 16GB smartphone, good luck.

Also, consider the way most people use cameras. Most people send small photos via email or post them on social networks rather than printing them out. They don’t need all those megapixels for images to look sharp online.

But let’s say that you plan to print your photos and send them to older family members who may not be digitally savvy. The rule of thumb is that you should multiply the dimensions (in inches) of any photo you are planning to print by 300 to figure out how many megapixels you need for a sharp print. Thus, if you were planning to print out an 8×10 photo, you’d need 8x300x10x300 pixels. Do the math, that’s 7.2 megapixels.

Which might be one reason why Apple and other companies settled on 8 megapixels as just good enough for most consumers. Most people don’t print photos larger than 8 by 10 – people who do so are usually professional photographers, and probably wouldn’t be using their smartphones anyway. So, with an 8-megapixel camera, you’d have more than enough firepower to make high-quality photo prints. With a 250-megapixel camera, you’d be able to print out a crisp-looking 4-foot by 5-foot photo — something most people have absolutely no need for.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t potential use cases for a 250-megapixel image sensor. In its news release, Canon suggested that “specialized surveillance” would be one use case – imagine being able to take crisp photos of people or objects from more than 10 miles away. Another similar use case would be “crime prevention” — getting super high-resolution images could help law enforcement officials at a crime scene. Okay, but that’s also a little bit spooky – it’s one thing to know that the surveillance camera a few feet away is taking photos of you, it’s quite another that a camera located as far as 10 miles away is snapping photos of you.

Another use case involves photography at sporting events such as the Olympics. Canon is a Japanese company, and with Tokyo hosting the Summer Olympics in 2020, there’s growing momentum for Japan to set all kinds of Olympic imaging records in both photography and video. Being able to isolate on an Olympic athlete at a distance obviously has its appeal. The new 250-megapixel camera offers a resolution of 19,580 by 12,600, meaning that it would be able to shoot video 125 times higher than full HD. You’d be able to crop or zoom a photo multiple times without sacrificing any resolution or clarity.

And, certainly, the launch of a 250-megapixel camera would continue to push the boundary on what’s possible for mainstream consumers. At one time, a 1-megapixel camera was a big deal, Then it was the 2-megapixel camera. Then, it was the 4-megapixel camera. Now, you can pick up a mainstream consumer smartphone – the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 – with a 16-megapixel camera. As a proof of the nearly unstoppable march of the megapixel, Canon just announced plans for a new 120-megapixel DSLR camera. So, it’s clear that stopping now at 8, 12 or 16 megapixels simply isn’t possible.

But to view the march of the megapixel as some kind of inexorable upward climb in which all innovators are engaged in an all-out megapixel war is to get sucked in by the “technology mudslide hypothesis.” As Clayton Christensen has pointed out, viewing the relentless pace of tech change as a massive mudslide rushing down a mountain is only going to cause problems – you will literally get stuck in the mud trying to outrun the mudslide if your customers, markets and suppliers are not yet ready for a new innovation.

From that perspective, maybe today’s smartphone cameras are “good enough” for today’s consumer needs – any more megapixels would just be overkill. “Good enough” doesn’t imply substandard – just simpler, designed better and easier to use. “Good enough” also opens up more potential use cases for new types of users. Once you go beyond “good enough,” you may not attract enough mainstream consumers to make it work, and would need to rely more on high-end consumers with specific needs or enterprise users who are less cost-sensitive.


Nokia released the 41-megapixel 808 PureView to much critical acclaim in 2012. How did that turn out? (Denis Doyle/Bloomberg)

Consider the example of Nokia, which went bold with a 41-megapixel camera, the 808 PureView, in 2012. But how well did that work out for Nokia? If megapixels mattered so much, that should have been a huge move for Nokia and might have saved the company’s smartphone business, right? But, now, you can pick up an unlocked 808 PureView for $129.99 on Amazon. And for that matter, how many people do you know using Sony’s smartphone with a 23-megapixel camera?

Ultimately, when it comes to taking photos, simply counting up the megapixels isn’t all that matters. If you’re just picking a camera solely based on the number of megapixels, you’re doing yourself a big disservice. That’s because megapixels need to be considered in the context of other camera specifications such as the size of the image sensor and the size of the pixels. That’s why a high-end 5-megapixel camera might be able to shoot better photos than a cheap 12-megapixel camera.

Ultimately, the ability to make a 250-megapixel camera means that former mass-market camera and imaging companies may end up focusing more and more on the enterprise market (what Canon refers to as the “industrial equipment” segment), while tech companies such as Apple and Samsung use their “good enough” smartphone cameras to win over consumers.