What Camera Resolution Do I Need?

Photographer working in studio

JGI/Tom Grill / Getty Images

When shooting photos with your digital camera, you can set the camera to shoot at a camera resolution designed to meet your needs. With so many choices, it can be a little difficult to answer the question: What camera resolution do you need?

For photos you plan to only use on the Internet or send by e-mail, you can shoot at a lower resolution. If you know you want to print the photo, you'll need to shoot at a higher resolution. However, if you aren't sure exactly how you plan to use the photo, the best advice to follow is just to shoot the images at the highest resolution you have available with your camera. Even if you initially don't want to print the photo, you may decide to make a print six months or a year down the road, so shooting the majority of your photos at the highest resolution is nearly always the best choice.

Another benefit to shooting at the highest possible resolution is you can later crop the photo to a smaller size without losing detail and image quality. 

Choosing the Right Camera Resolution

Determining how much camera resolution you'll ultimately need for a print depends on the size of the print you want to make. The table listed below should help you decide on the proper resolution.

Before looking at how resolution amounts relate to photo print sizes, however, it's worth keeping in mind that resolution isn't the only factor in photo quality and print quality. These factors also play a significant role in determining how your digital photos will look on the computer screen and on paper.

  • Proper lighting
  • Lens quality
  • Steadiness of camera
  • Auto-focus on the proper subject
  • Proper shutter speed for moving or stationary subject
  • Clean equipment

The other factor that plays a significant role in image quality -- which in turn will determine how large you can make a print -- is the camera's image sensor. As a general rule, a camera with a larger image sensor in physical size can create higher quality photos versus a camera with a smaller image sensor, no matter how many megapixels of resolution each camera offers.

Determining the sizes of prints you will want to make also can help you when shopping for a digital camera. If you know you'll want to make large prints all of the time, you'll need to buy a model that offers a large maximum resolution. On the other hand, if you know you'll only want to make occasional, small prints, you can select a digital camera that offers an average amount of resolution, potentially saving some money.

A Camera Resolution Reference Chart

This table will give you an idea of the amount of resolution you need to make both average-quality and top-quality prints. Shooting at the resolution listed here doesn't guarantee you can make a top-quality print at the size listed, but the numbers will at least give you a starting point for determining print sizes.

Resolution needed for various print sizes
Resolution Avg. quality Best quality
0.5 megapixels 2x3 in. NA
3 megapixels 5x7 in. 4x6 in.
5 megapixels 6x8 in. 5x7 in.
8 megapixels 8x10 in. 6x8 in.
12 megapixels 9x12 in. 8x10 in.
15 megapixels 12x15 in. 10x12 in.
18 megapixels 13x18 in. 12x15 in.
20 megapixels 16x20 in. 13x18 in.
25+ megapixels 20x25 in. 16x20 in.

You also can follow a general formula to help you determine the best resolution at which to shoot for an exact size of print you want to make. The formula assumes you will be making a print at 300 x 300 dots per inch (dpi), which is a common print resolution for high-quality photos. Multiply the width and height (in inches) of the size of photo you want to make by 300. Then divide by 1 million to determine the number of megapixels to record.

So if you want to make a 10- by 13-inch print, the formula to determine the minimum number of megapixels would look like this:

(10 inches * 300) * (13 inches * 300) / 1 million = 11.7 megapixels