Don't Be Fooled by High-Megapixel Cameras

Three weeks ago, Hasselblad unveiled a new mirrorless medium-format camera called the X1D. Given the price (nearly $9,000—for the body alone)‚ it's not a purchase the average consumer will likely make, but truth be told, it was not the high cost that caught my eye, but rather the X1D's 50-megapixel sensor.

Over the years, camera manufacturers, and more recently smartphone makers, have been known to make a fuss over megapixel counts, which are used to measure resolution, slyly implying that they result in awesome pictures.

Those of us familiar with how the technology actually works like to call it the megapixel myth: Because high resolution doesn't necessarily equal high-quality images. In fact, megapixels are but one part of the performance equation.

What are the other factors? For starters, consider the camera's most conspicuous feature: With an exceptional lens, you can capture sharp details and contrasting shades of color, while avoiding the distortion issues that degrade photo quality. A well-constructed lens will prevent vignetting, for example, which leaves you with dark, cloudy images in the corners of your photos.

The camera's image sensor is another crucial factor. The larger its size, the bigger each individual receptor can be. And that often results in better performance in low-light conditions.

For further proof of the megapixel myth, here are four cameras that excelled in our labs despite offering 24 megapixels or less.

Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II, $650:This advanced point-and-shoot—one of the highest scoring cameras in our Ratings (SLR and mirrorless models included)—takes excellent quality photos and excellent quality video. And yet, it has just 13 megapixels.

Nikon D7200, $1,400: There's lots to love about this powerful SLR, which scored only a few points below the Canon point-and-shoot in our Ratings with less than twice the megapixels (24 to be exact). Between its simple auto settings and its highly specialized modes, it gives you lots of control without overcomplicating things. It delivers very good photos and excellent video. And it comes with two memory cards, two memory slots, and built-in Wi-Fi, complete with Near Field Communication for easy pairing with your smartphone.

Nikon D750, $2,300: Powerful and, yes, pricey, this 24-megapixel SLR features what’s known as a full-frame sensor. That means it's the same size as a frame of 35mm film, thus granting you image quality comparable to the esteemed 35mm film cameras of the past. In our tests, it produced excellent quality flash photos and ably handled a wide variety of lighting situations. It has built-in Wi-Fi, an excellent (and spacious) liquid crystal display, and fires off 6.5 frames per second in burst mode.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4, $2,200: This 16-megapixel model can capture Ultra HD video at 30 frames per second and fire off 12 photo frames per second in burst mode. It has an excellent quality swiveling touch-screen LCD, excellent controls, and an excellent electronic viewfinder. It’s also one of the few models to capture excellent quality video in our tests. (Notice a trend?) It comes with built-in Wi-Fi and Near Field Communication.