So The Times is a little behind the times in this regard. It's reporting old news as if it were a scoop.
And then it blames the camera companies and the camera stores for perpetuating the myth.
Pixels Do Too Count
On its second page, after stating what some might consider insulting to the camera industry, the article goes back on itself, and admits a few conditions where more pixels are better than fewer.
"First of all, having some extra megapixels can be extremely useful in one important situation: cropping. You can crop out unwanted background and still have enough pixels left for a decent print."
Well yes, as a matter of fact, that's quite true. And cropping is the most frequently performed form of image editing. Why? Because straightening the picture is the most frequently required adjustment. It's not easy to hold the camera perfectly level. And if you want to straighten a print and still keep its original frame format, you have to crop into it. So every snapshooter should consider cropping, throwing away some of those pixels for virtually every picture.
"Megapixels may matter to professionals, too," says the newspaper, "especially those who produce photos for wall-size retail displays." Yes, absolutely true. How about wall-size displays for the home?
Why don't more consumers buy enlargements? One possible deterrent is the secondary quality enlargements delivered in the old days, before digital printing techniques. The landscape is very different today. When I ordered a dozen 20x24-inch prints from my lab (dotphoto.com) a couple weeks ago, they showed-up in the same turnaround time as 4x6s. And the print quality was spectacular. (Of course, I use a 13.5-megapixel camera).
Pixels are the physical building-blocks of a picture's structure. Like actual bricks, how many you have determines how large a wall you can construct. If you don't have enough bricks for the size of the wall you plan, you have to get more bricks. The same is true of digital photographs. If you want to reach a certain size of output, you need to have enough pixels. If you don't have enough pixels, you have to get more.
Where do you get more pixels? It's called interpolation. Lots of cameras have offered in-camera interpolation routines to double picture size for larger output.
Even if the customer never orders a poster-print, there are other factors brewing that suggest that size, in pixels, counts. Consider the home theater.
Sony and Panasonic really believe that customers should display their snapshots on HDTVs. Big ones. Sony is so certain of it that their new models, introduced at the PMA show, have outputs to drive HDTV systems. Lots of other manufacturers provide optional 16:9 cropping. The wall-size picture may indeed be a household item, albeit projected rather than printed.
The Gigapixel Camera
It will always be true that, all other things equal, the picture broken into the smallest mosaic pieces—that is, the largest number of pixels—will capture the finest bits of detail. In addition, the smaller the pieces of the subject that are recorded (a.k.a. the larger the number of pixels), the less opportunity is left for either color-artifacting or linear aliasing to occur. This is because the smaller "mosaic tiles" can individually resolve the shapes that a coarser screen (fewer pixels) reproduces as the jaggies.
Manufacturers have taken two general approaches to resolving this aliasing. One is to ignore it, and let the user figure-out how to deal with it. The other—far more common—is to equip the imager with some form of "blur" filter which softens the image so you can't see the jaggies.
Which is the better solution? That's a question of priorities, for each photographer to think-through. The better question is, when will we have imagers with enough pixels to eliminate aliasing, and eliminate the blur filter too? When will we see the gigapixel camera?
It'll probably be awhile. But it's a pretty good reason to keep piling-on those megapixels.