Is 4MP Enough In 2018? Part 1 – Sony DSC-L1 Review

With 36MP digital cameras widely available, and even smartphones offering 19MP plus, the manufacturers try to tell us the more MP, the better your photography will be.

But after coming to love a small collection of classic digital cameras in the last year or so, mostly around 10MP, I’m starting to wonder how many MP we really need to make pleasing images.

I have a 6MP CCD Samsung DSLR which makes lovely images, nowhere near what I would consider to be too grainy or low quality.

Also, the recent rediscovery of my 5MP Sony Elm camera phone, which, despite its tiny sensor, is still capable of some very satisfying photographs, lowered the minimum MP bar further still.

The next step in my experiments then, is to try 4MP.

For this venture, I came across, in an unconnected way, a Sony and an Olmypus, which, though unplanned at the time I found them, both have a 4MP sensor.

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First up then, the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-L1 was released around 2004, with a tiny 1/2.7″ CCD sensor.

In fact everything about this camera is tiny, and reminds me of the Sony Ericsson camera phones I first cut my photography teeth with in the mid 2000s.

Despite its diminutive stature, handling is actually rather good due to the depth of the camera, the vertically curved front part of the body, the raised grip dots on the rear, and a cleverly placed strap lug which doubles as a thumb rest.

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The lens is a Carl Zeiss Vario Tessar 32-96mm f/2.8 max. Pleasingly, with this focal length being very close to my favourite of 35mm, I can just switch it on and use it as a 32/2.8 prime, not needing to adjust the zoom.

At first glance the Sony seems to have few controls, but within the straightforward menu there are most of the options I need, including exposure compensation, ISO, contrast, saturation and a b/w mode.

AF seems impressively fast and accurate for a 13 year old camera, and both the central square and a green dot in the screen flash, then remain on when focused, which is very clear to see. It focuses close enough too, always a potential deal breaker for me.

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Another plus is that unlike many cameras, the Cyber-Shot appears to remember all your settings after your turn it off, aside from the b/w mode.

But because it also remembers where you were in the menu, I can leave it on the “P Effect” setting and just power up, choose Menu > b/w in a second and I’m good to go.

The battery is lithium, standard with most compacts. The memory is Memory Stick Duo Pro. Handily although the camera came with a couple of native cards, the former owner invested in a neat adapter that lets you slot a micro SD card in a Memory Stick sized body. This plus a 2GB micro SD gives me more memory than I’ll ever need (1005 images, the screen tells me!), especially with only 4MB images.

Something to consider when investing in older digital cameras is the memory format, but with solutions like the micro SD adapter it means I could use the same micro SD card in the Sony with the Memory Stick Duo adapter, and in my main three other digital compacts with a micro SD to SD adapter (which most micro SD cards come with anyway).

One memory card (plus one cheap reader) then offers great consistency across a number of different cameras without needing different cards, readers and/or cables for each.

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Back to the Sony, there is little else to say. Which is not because it’s dull or featureless, but because it just seems to have all you need and nothing you don’t, in a super discrete and compact package. Seriously, I have pretty small hands, but I can still hide the camera almost entirely in a loose fist.

On the minus, you could grumble over the pretty tiny screen, though it’s surprisingly sharp and detailed enough both to compose, and to confirm you’ve got the required part of the image in focus. Plus, like everything with L1, it’s perfectly proportioned. Did I mention it’s tiny?

Oh and it cost me less than £7 plus postage.

But what about the major point of this two part experiment? Can a 13 year old 4MP camera make decent photographs in 2018?

I’ll let you judge for yourself. All images in this post were made with the Sony DSC-L1 plus a tiny bit of post processing via my usual Snapseed b/w preset.

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I love what it can do, and it’s by far the smallest camera I have, whilst also handling very well. It’s got me seriously thinking about whether I need 10MP £100+ cameras when this little 4MP gem which cost me around £10 ticks so many boxes.

In the next week or two I’ll continue to experiment with the Sony as well as giving the Olympus pictured above a few outings too, with a follow up post reviewing that camera.

Have you used a 4MP digital? How did you find it? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and remember to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what my photography life looks like right now.

34 thoughts on “Is 4MP Enough In 2018? Part 1 – Sony DSC-L1 Review”

  1. For most screen viewing 4MP should be enough and the images you have made are very nice indeed.
    To completely fill a screen you’d probably want a little more in the pixel department but at the size you are posting these appear perfectly good. It’s all about how the images are being presented and I would expect these to be fine as they are or as small prints. Being as you don’t crop you images and so are using the full resolution available for the most part you should be fine. I think for say a 6×4 you are probably under 200 dpi for printing so if you went any larger you would see a drop off in quality; I would expect.
    Apart from all that technical stuff though that little Sony seems like a great little performer and easily copes with what you want from it.

    1. sorry bad maths…
      DELETE: I think for say a 6×4 you are probably under 200 dpi for printing so if you went any larger you would see a drop off in quality; I would expect.

    2. Thanks SilverFox. I have an image on my desktop at work (I have twin widescreen monitors that are maybe 20″ on the diagonal, and I always have one of my recent photos on there so I see it multiple times over a day and it grows on me more. I had the staples image up yesterday and it’s fine resolution wise. The “original” on Flickr is 2304 x 1728 which is bigger than most monitors. The actual size of this is about 61 x 46cm, or 24 x 18 inches. Obviously at that size, whilst not actually magnified beyond its original capture dimension, the grain and blur is more pronounced, but it’s not unattractive. I’ve had 8 x 6″ prints made of a couple of the Sony photos and they’re really good. Size wise they’re approximately the same as the medium 800×600 images on Flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/danjamesphotography/42502798044/sizes/c/

      Up close of course they’re not as sharp as the same size prints made from my Ricoh GRD III or Pentax Q, but that’s to be expected. Still very usable, and once framed no-one would look at it and say “wow, that’s a bit lo-res, do you only have a 4MP camera??”

      In short, the 4MP delivers significantly more than I hoped for in the final image, and hugely more in terms of handling and enjoyment of use.

  2. Really enjoying your blog about older digital cameras. The photos look great and I’m now considering if I purchase a DSLR, if I actually need something up to date or whether I should consider an older model for a fraction of the price. Your blog topic has certainly given me food for thought. Looking forward to seeing the next group of photos taken with the Olympus.

    1. Thanks Natalie for your comments. Glad you”re enjoying these posts, there are more to come!
      If I was buying a DSLR I would consider what you really want it for, what features are most important to you. If you don’t mind something a bit older there are plenty of options from Pentax, Canon, Nikon and more. If you already have vintage lenses it’s worth looking at what they’re compatible with. I has a Samsung GX-1S which is a clone of a Pentax *ist DS2, which I’ve used with my old Pentax K lenses and M42 Takumars. It’s pretty compact, takes AA batteries, and has all the basic functions of a DSLR. Cost about £50 body only, I already had the lenses. Very happy with its output…

      1. Thanks Dan, your advice is much appreciated 👍 do you know much about mirrorless cameras? As depending on what I require from the camera, I may find that mirrorless will be sufficient but wasn’t sure how far these cameras go back? I have lenses for my Pentax K1000 camera. I also have Zuiko pen lenses for my Olympus Pen FT half frame which are fantastic quality and I’ve been told they can be used on fujifilm cameras.

        1. Hi Natalie, well my only experience with mirrorless is a Sony NEX 3N which I used largely to test lenses with via maybe a dozen different adapters. Very capable machine but I didn’t bond with it, it always felt like a device not a camera, the handling was awkward (I only used vintage lens which need big adapters to ensure the lens is the correct distance from the sensor) and I struggled to get colours I like without heavy post processing.

          Back then I wanted a camera with a viewfinder too, which the NEX 3N didn’t have, but the K10D has a really good one for a DSLR.

          Mirrorless haven’t been around as long either, so with an early mirrorless you’re only getting a year or two of the technology and know how, whereas even early DSLRs were often very similar to the film SLR equivalent that preceded them, so much of the technology (shutter, metering, lenses etc, most everything aside from the sensor part) was already tried and tested.

          I don’t know enough about Olympus mirrorless, but that might be a good avenue to start with, maybe they can be adapted to use the old Pen lenses? Or the Fuji X cameras. Or Lumix. Or Sony! Maybe do some research, and go in a camera shop to get a feel of some (especially if they have used models).

          With the technology so even, choosing a digital camera comes very much down to a personal connection and feeling with a particular brand/camera. I didn’t have that with my Sony NEX, I do with my old Pentax K10D, where you can feels it lineage back through the K1000 to the original Spotmatics.

          Sorry I can’t be more help!

          Maybe speak to Mel (https://mellonicoley.wordpress.com/ – she comments here often too) who has a Panasonic/Lumix mirrorless and I think had an Olympus one in the past.

          1. Yes I used to have an Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II :). A really good camera; looks gorgeous, handles really well, lots of great features, but Olympus’s menu system is one of the worst, I had to let it go! I much prefer my Panasonic Lumix GX7, although it has slightly fewer features. It was released in 2013 and goes for £200+ on eBay now.

            The EM10 II is an SLR-style camera, whereas the GX7 is rangefinder-style.

            Both cameras have a Micro Four Thirds sensor, which is basically half the size of a full frame sensor, and they both use the Micro Four Thirds mounts. I have an M42 lens that I use on the GX7 sometimes using an adaptor, and I also have an adaptor for my Nikkor lenses as well but I rarely use it. Don’t forget to keep in mind the crop factor with this smaller sensor… my 58mm Helios lens is more like a 120mm with my GX7.

            The GX7 has focus peaking, so makes it really easy to manually focus with legacy lenses. I can’t remember if the EM10 II had focus peaking; I would definitely recommend getting a mirrorless camera with this feature, although it’s not the end of the world if you don’t. It has a silent shutter feature, autofocus is pretty fast, the LCD screen is excellent and it’s a touchscreen!

            Natalie, if you have any specific questions about mirrorless or either of those two cameras, please let me know 🙂 There is also the Panasonic GH-series of cameras that I haven’t tried, but have heard excellent things, and they’re SLR-style if you prefer that.

  3. Great images.

    This kind of experimental photography is obviously not for the fainthearted pixel peepers, but I personally think <5MP adds some pleasant character to most photos.

    The Sony also looks pretty. It strikes me that the first generations of digital compacts had a beautiful design (see also Olympus Mju Mini or Leica D-lux) – similar to illustrious film compacts. Current digital cameras are just practical and most of the time very ugly objects – maybe with a few exceptions, such as the Ricoh GR(D) series.

    I personally do not mind the tiny screen (the same applies to my D-Lux). In street photography, it is sometimes uncomfortable when bystanders can follow what you are doing on the huge screen of a smartphone. With such a tiny screen you have less problems with that.

  4. Thanks Robert, we’re definitely travelling down the same path here.

    I think what I found when looking at older DSLRs like Canon and Sony was they were essentially very similar to their film predecessors (which were Minolta in Sony’s case, like the Minolta Dynax/Maxxum 7 and 9) but with a digital sensor in. Same with the compacts, just look at Ricoh, the original GR Digital is so similar to the last GR film cameras.

    This Sony is unusual in my experience in that it is so tiny, but retains a decent depth so it’s good to grip in the hands. These days even with basic phones and cameras people want (or are told they need) a big screen, so the rear of the camera has to be big enough to accommodate that. The L1 has a small screen (1.5″) but this means the camera overall is only 44mm high. I had another Cyber-Shot a while back that was probably smaller in overall volume but its shape was akin to a stack of maybe five credit cards. So had a large screen but the camera was so thin in depth it wasn’t comfortable to grip – just like with virtually all cameraphones these days. The Sony L1 is exactly the shape of the inside of my half closed fist, so great to carry, and as I said in the main post, the chunkier depth, curved front and thumbgrip/lug on the rear make it handle very well in use too. Just interesting how by optimising one thing (screen size), other benefits are lost (handling).

    1. Just got my “new” D-Lux delivered. Compared to each other, the camera is about two thirds of the size of my Huawei phone (it’s deeper of course and as you said, that gives a much better grip). Perfect size for unobtrusive street photography. Just keeping my fingers crossed everything is functioning properly – especially the batteries.

  5. Like your images 😉

    Well, my first two digitals were a Canon Powershot G3 with 4 MP and a great zoom lens, which made beautiful pictures until I crashed it in a a channel in Chioggia where the lens got damaged and the second was a Canon IXUS V3 with 3.2 MP – a so beautiful small camera which served me well until the display stayed dark one day.

    1. Thanks Reinhold. The Powershots are really well rated. I had considered one in the past, but generally have an aversion to Canons (very capable but very bland).

      I had an APS IXUS which was incredibly small and very well made. Never got around to putting a film through it (had too many other cameras ahead of it in the queue back then!).

      It would be interesting to hear how you feel the photos you made back then with these two look now.

      1. Well, the Powershots are really very good tools. Nothing special, but they simply do their job unobtrusively.

        The IXUS v3 was a beauty. Not the modern rounded things, but a small block of metal.

        Their images … when viewing on a monitor they do not fall behind to modern stuff. Yes, both were not usable above 400 ISO, but when you know it, you try to avoid it.

        My first album on Flickr “2002 Weissensee” was shot with the Powershot G3 and I still find these images beautiful.

        1. Reinhold, that’s been my experience with virtually all Canons I’ve had (maybe 15 Canon film cameras), very capable tools but no charisma.

          I think, from the little I’ve read, the major plus of CMOS sensors is increased low light capacity. Modern CMOS sensors can literally see in the dark. If that’s your kind of shooting then the old CCDs are going to be unsuitable. But since I don’t really go above ISO400 with any camera anyway, it’s not an issue for me. Do you have a link to your Flickr album?

          1. Those panoramas are great, they’d make very interesting prints on a wall… Shots like the goat and the town (Volksbank) have plenty of resolution and the colours look really natural too.

            I think we can sometimes forget that even when digital compacts started to become widely available, and a reasonable MP (say around 2001/2), the lens technology was already there from decades of experience, as was metering and so on. The manufacturers were building on what they already knew, they weren’t redesigning cameras from scratch.

          2. Who am I to contradict 😉

            The resolution has never been an issue, as long as you do not print “large” and the colours of Canon have always been fine – no need to correct, if you prefer natural colours.

          3. I’ve mentioned the G range to Jim Grey a few times, as he has a “cheaper” Canon and is trying to find ways to get natural colours he likes straight out of camera. Hope he’s reading this. 🙂

          4. Well, the S95 was not really a cheap camera in those days. It was the top of the line of the small Powershot (not G) cameras and I was always looking for one as they are so small, giving nearly all the G’s features in a smaller package. Mainly the lens was superior in the G models … at least as far as I remember.

          5. I’m not a Canon connoisseur, so I’m sure you’re right, I just often seem to come across articles that praise the G range.

          6. Oh no, don’t get me wrong … all I want to say is that the S-Series was quite capable … and I fully agree that the G’s are fine cameras 😉

          7. I’ve been tempted by the older Gs, and maybe would try one if the price was right, but my past Canon experience (and as we’ve discussed) leads to me think they wouldn’t exactly set my world alight. : )

  6. I don’t know Dan, I reckon a 4mp camera of that sort of age would soon start to show the technical limits of its time. Thing is it’s of a time where yes, sensors were getting more pixels of course but what could be done with the pixels, and how fast, was improving even quicker… A lot of cameras were built extremely well but digital came so close to the edges of what technology allowed. Film cameras just never had a similar rate of development so model changes were sloth-like by comparison.

    I used a Canon A620 as a walk around compact camera for ages. At 7.2mp it was OK for resolution but going away from ideal picture taking lighting soon introduced noise, the dynamic range was pretty narrow resulting in a lot of burned out highlights, taking a lot of pictures at a time introduced noise through heat build up, you had to wait for a couple of seconds for the camera to free up before you could take a second shot because it was still writing the first one… It was on the market for seven months. Yes, the new model had 10mp but was also much more responsive to use etc.

    All of these things are distant memories now, it just so happens that the pixel count grew loads but I think everything else inside the cameras surrounding ‘brains’ grew even faster but didn’t have a handy number that easily shows it.

    1. Hi Bear, yes good point that the supportive technology evolved too, not just the sensors. It depends on your needs of course, I don’t need anything high end, and like a more lo-fi look. (I love the Pentax Q 07 lens for example – https://35hunter.blog/2018/06/20/lo-fi-in-your-eye-up-close-with-the-pentax-q-with-07-lens/

      I’ve read about some cameras (the Panasonic Lumix LX3 comes to mind) where they didn’t upgrade the sensor MP when the new model came in. I don’t know the technical terms but they felt they could upgrade the other components in a way that optimised the 10MP sensor they already had, rather than join the MP race that other brands engaged in at the time. So the MP number of course, like you say, doesn’t show the whole story. Just taking something like AutoFocus, you can have an otherwise great camera, with a slow and unreliable AF that make it a chore to use.

      My Sony seems to be very well balanced, in that all the component parts seem to work well to produce a camera and final image more than the sum of its parts. (The AF is really quick to lock). I think some cameras are like a fairly ordinary mainstream car with, say, a really powerful engine, or super stylish body, or high performance tyres. That fancy component stands out, but the rest of the parts aren’t of the same standard so you end up with something that overall doesn’t really work.

    1. Thanks Mel, yes I’ve been really impressed the tiny Sony. Does a lot for its size and age, and it looks like it’s going to be a keeper in my handful of favourites.

  7. With older cameras it’s less the megapixels and more the lens and the onboard processing (software). My Kodak Z730 at 5MP does really lovely work in very good light. But its colors mute on a cloudy day, in blazing sun it washes things out in a hurry, and it gets very grainy very fast in evening light.

    1. Yes the sensor and software were the new boys in town with digital. I’m surprised you mention lenses though, because as I said to Reinhold above, virtually all of the major manufacturers already had decades of experience in making cameras, and aspects like lenses and metering system were already tried and tested. I’d be surprised to find an older digital camera where the lens was the weakest link, aside from because they just used a cheap lens (along with cheap everything else) to make a cheap camera overall just for the average holiday snapper’s needs. I’m also exploring the 4MP Olympus in the shot at the top of this post, which has a 35-105mm (equiv) f/1.8 lens and 1/1.8″ CCD sensor. This spec outguns the majority of consumer cameras now!

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