The War is Over
Notwithstanding the acknowledgment that more pixels can, indeed, be better than fewer, the fact remains that the pixel-wars ended years ago. The Times may not be up-to-date, but every camera company that offers a 10MP camera today also offers an 8MP and/or a 6MP camera.
Panasonic, which offers a couple 10MP models, does not warn customers away from buying their L1 DSLR because it has only a 7MP imager. Canon, which offers a 16MP camera, does not advise against purchase of their Digital Rebels, available in 10MP, 8MP, and 6MP versions. Three out of four Pentax DSLRs have been sixes (only their most recent is a 10). Sony announced a 12MP consumercam at the PMA show—are they saying you shouldn't buy their 9s and their 7s?
Megapixels make a convenient starting-point when grouping cameras for consideration for purchase. They're a way of categorizing and, yes, to an extent, megapixels will determine how satisfactory a picture will be for given purposes. But nowadays, there are other things to consider, too. There always have been, and most people know it.
There is nothing new about image-capturing devices that come in different sizes. The original Daguerreotypes, the first photos, were measured according to what proportion of "a plate" they measured. By the mid-twentieth century, you could buy still-image cameras that took 16mm film ("subminiature"), 35mm film ("miniature") 70mm film (or rollfilm, "medium format"), and sheet film in any size from 4x5-inches to 20x24-inches ("large format").
None of these various sizes existed because manufacturers wanted to "exploit our misunderstanding." They existed because there was a time and place for each. If you were a spy, you didn't want to try sneaking your 20x24-inch view camera into the enemy's office to photograph the secret blueprints.
The assumption in the old days was that the larger image sizes produced higher picture quality for the same reason that larger numbers of pixels do today. The reason was that silver halides in the film were themselves the "pixels," each one recording a point of photographic information. And there are more of these silver-halide "pixels" in a 20x24-inch sheet than in a 16mm frame.
Of course, the "all other things equal" clause applied then, even as it does today. It was generally said, for example, that lenses for 35mm cameras were sharper than those for medium-format cameras, simply because they had to be. They had fewer "pixels" to resolve their images.
So rather than being apologetic for "exploiting the misunderstanding" of the masses, the camera companies and camera stores might be confused as to why The Newspaper of Record is having a fit over their following convention.
Selling the System
Besides, even though more megapixels will (all other things equal) produce a better picture, the promotional claims we've been receiving don't really stress that. There are so many other things to sell.
Panasonic with the L1, for example, says that the exceptional performance of the Leica lens that comes with it is a good reason to buy it. So is its classic control layout. "Digital Brain, Analog Soul" is the headline of their ads, as we pointed-out here two issues ago. The third line of that headline could have said, "and lots of megapixels" if it wanted to. Instead, it said with considerable self-satisfaction, "Remarkably well adjusted."
Panasonic pushes its Venus engine as a source of picture-perfectness, as Canon pushes its Digic III, and Olympus pushes its TruePic Turbo. All the manufacturers, it seems, have some proprietary processing routine that distinguishes their pictures from their competitors', and this year's batch of PMA press releases spends a lot more time on that than on how many pixels.
What else are we selling this year? How about face-detection? This could be a serious advance in picture-taking, and most of the manufacturers are boasting of theirs—and how theirs are better than the other guy's. But they're pretty mum on pixels.
Or, how about image-stabilization? It looks like every major manufacturer is offering some form of optical or mechanical shake-compensation system this year. Like pixel-count, these systems don't solve every problem—but they solve enough that they're among this year's headline features.
High-performance zoom lenses? Olympus is introducing an 18x zoom, Sony a 15x zoom, while 12x and 10x zooms can be found throughout the Panasonic and Canon lines, among others. These are the features that get the top billing. How many pixels? That's in there somewhere, but if you want to find it quickly, consult the specifications chart.