First things first - what exactly is a megapixel?
"Digital images are made up of thousands of minuscule, tile-looking megapixels," said Jackson, chief photographer at The Advocate-Messenger. "The more pixels your camera has, the better visual quality and greater sharpness and detail an image has when viewed on a computer monitor. Megapixels also influence the quality and look of an image when printed. More megapixels mean an image is less likely to become pixilated (jagged looking) when you enlarge or crop it."
And what does megapixel size mean for the home photographer? "It depends on the print size you're looking for," said Brown, online editor at the newspaper. "That's the main determiner. If you want 8x10 prints as your maximum size, and that's really what most people need, then you need at least 3 megapixels, but that's enough. For 4x6 or 5x7 prints, two megapixels are plenty. That can save you a lot of money, because I see people buying much more camera than they really need.
"I bought a new one for myself just before Christmas," he said. "I saw a lot of people buying these five megapixel cameras and I remember thinking they probably didn't have to spend that much money. They don't need that kind of size unless they're making gigantic prints."
Digital photography can be different in many ways from traditional film cameras, said Brown. Especially significant for the photographer is a working knowledge of both the strengths and weaknesses of the digital format.
"Digital photographers need to remember to get as tight as possible, especially on flash shots," said Brown. "The flashes on digital cameras are not all that powerful, and it's really easy to get too far away, resulting in a shot that's too dark."
Brown also mentioned a time lag between when the shooter actually presses the shutter button and when the shot is actually taken.
"You need to allow for that," he said. "It can really show up on action shots where there is some kind of movement. Digital cameras will work on action shots outdoors, but they're not so good for indoor sports unless you buy a professional model costing thousands of dollars."
Jackson said a knowledge of the zooming capabilities of your camera is extremely helpful.
"While megapixel count is important, keep in mind that other factors such as camera sensor and lens quality play important roles in image quality," he said. "An optical zoom is a true zoom in that its focal length actually extends and retracts. An image is magnified by the lens itself. A digital zoom enlarges the central portion of an image but does not actually change the length of the lens. It pre-crops an image and greatly reduces its resolution to give an appearance of zooming in."
Along with flash limitations, Jackson said digital cameras are beginning to catch up to traditional film cameras in how they handle color.
"Digital is getting better as far as the tones go, meaning that the highlights aren't blown out," he said. "I still use a medium format (film) camera for some of my personal work, but digital has gotten better. And it offers a lot of advantages."
For instance, the ability to practice photography is now much cheaper, because there's no film processing.
"With digital, you can practice, practice, practice," said Brown. "One of the great things about digital photography is you can shoot all you want, under all kinds of conditions, then erase the storage disk and start over. There's no film development or print costs involved, so as long as you have batteries, you can shoot away. This gives you all kinds of opportunities to practice, and learn from your mistakes."
"The thing that's great about digital is that you can shoot as much as you want, because if you don't like it you can delete it," he said. "Normally what I do is experiment depending on the situation. For example, lighting and shutter speed. I might underexpose and overexpose something to see how it looks, because with digital you can always delete."