Today’s cameras, whether they’re designed for professional photography or found inside smartphones, are capable of outputting images at a resolution that’s way beyond most people’s requirements.

12MP sensors are now something of a minimum for smartphones, but a number of models now stretch to 40MP and beyond. Likewise, today’s budget mirrorless cameras and DSLRs typically offer 24MP at the more entry-level end of the market, but more advanced models with more populated sensors can be had for not much more.

But when you consider that such images are typically only shared and displayed in a way where only a fraction of this detail can be appreciated by the viewer, you might start to wonder why anyone chooses to capture at these settings in the first place.

After all, we don’t all print billboard-sized images from our smartphone snaps, and high-resolution images, when shared online, are particularly attractive to thieves. Whether it’s a product shot that can be used to sell counterfeit goods, or a more artistic image that can either be used commercially without authorization or entered into a competition, high-resolution images have plenty of appeal to those intent on stealing them in the first place.

100MP – but in a smartphone

Camera sensors that have a pixel count in excess of 100MP are nothing new in high-end photography; medium format models have offered this for some time. Nevertheless, recent news that Samsung has partnered with Xiamoi to introduce a 108MP sensor should highlight just how deeply smartphone manufacturers are seeking to encroach into the similar high-resolution territory – even if they stand to attract a very different kind of user with the finished product.

The number of megapixels on a camera’s sensor has long been viewed as an indictor of how much detail the camera stands to capture. In reality, the level of detail you end up realizing in images is also determined by a host of other factors, from the sensor’s physical design and light-gathering efficiency through to the quality of the lens in front of it. That said, camera and smartphone manufacturers have long been aware of how useful a marketing tool this can be – and it’s something consumers continue to take into account.

More recently, cameras with even modest sensors have started to offer a feature that combines a number of images into one, outputting these at 150MP and beyond. Together with advances in computational photography, today’s cameras are far more powerful than those available only a few generations ago. But does it make any difference to the photographer who only ever intends on sharing their images online?

After all, even 4K displays are only capable of showing around 8MP worth of information, and that’s only the case when the image fills the whole screen. When you consider that most images will end up being viewed on lower-resolution smartphones or tablets, the need for super-high resolution images becomes even less clear.

More benefits than one

And yet, things aren’t quite this straightforward. First, high-resolution sensors may be capable of capturing high-resolution images, but they can continue to provide advantages when images are destined to be output at a far lower resolution.

Cameras with high-resolution sensors have, for example, long provided additional flexibility with regards to cropping. The ability to home in on a small element within a scene and trim away peripheral details, while still retaining enough detail for printing or display on a high-resolution monitor, is something many photographers appreciate when processing their images.

Smartphones that have 40MP or 48MP sensors will also typically combine a number of pixels into one when it comes to image processing, outputting these images at a lower resolution than the sensor’s native pixel count but with better processing of destructive image noise. This is particularly useful when capturing in low light, where image noise is more of an issue and its removal more of a priority than outright resolution.

Benefits of high-resolution sensors extend to video recording too. It’s becoming increasingly common, for example, for cameras capable of outputting 4K video footage to initially record at a higher resolution, such as 6K, before the video is output at a lower resolution. This process, known as oversampling, can smooth out the effects of aliasing and deliver crisper details than would otherwise be the case.

Sharing those benefits

Most people who capture images with modern cameras will be reluctant to share their original images as they’re clearly more valuable to thieves. Instead, they end up downsampling their full-resolution images before sharing them online – and, in doing so, ridding them of the finer details they originally captured. But is it possible to share images at their finest quality while still keeping them safe?

The traditional solution has been to apply a digital watermark, a small graphic or some text embedded within the image itself, which makes it clear that the image is subject to copyright and cannot be used without authorization. While this has proved to be an effective deterrent over the years, recent developments in both manual and AI-powered watermark removal have forced photographers to reconsider this approach and turn to more advanced alternatives.

One of these is dynamic watermarking, which sees the watermark placed over the image once it’s displayed, rather than embedded in the image itself, where its removal may be more straightforward. This also allows for the watermark to be amended at a later date, should the photographer deem it necessary.

SmartFrame’s Hyper Zoom feature is another solution. High-resolution images, which are streamed rather than embedded as an easily stolen JPEG, can be zoomed into until the viewer reaches their maximum resolution (ie 100%). But with right-click, drag-and-drop and screenshot protection effective at all times, such images are not as attractive to thieves and invisible to bots looking to scrape a website’s contents. You can see Hyper Zoom in action by clicking on the image above.

While the race to offer more and more megapixels has slowed in the face of other developments, people continue to be drawn to both high-resolution sensors and the ability to create high-resolution images from more conventional ones. With super-high-resolution composite images now becoming something of a standard feature inside modern cameras, and more photographers embracing high-resolution displays, the need for a solution that can support the safe display of these kinds of images is obvious.