HIGHEST QUALITYI always suggest that photographers set their cameras to make the highest quality image files they can, and leave it there by default. That way they're maximizing the capabilities of their cameras with every shot, and any compromises are deliberate choices made in specific circumstances for particular reasons. Until those needs arise, choose:
- The lowest native ISO (like 50, 100, or maybe even 160) in order to make the lowest noise image files you can.
- Save in RAW image file format. RAW is lossless, and provides maximum image-forming data, which you can manipulate in post.
- Use the maximum resolution setting, using all of the sensor's available pixels for large files that can be printed as large as possible. This is usually the default when you choose the camera's primary RAW file format.
VERY GOODSome photographers find the RAW workflow a little too cumbersome, or maybe they think those large RAW files take up too much space. There are still plenty of ways to make very good image files without resorting to the highest quality possible. In those instances, choose:
- A low ISO, elevated to 400, 800 or even 1600 if you're working in low light situations that require it. (It's better to get the shot with a bit of noise than to miss it altogether.)
- Save JPEG image files with minimal compression (sometimes referred to as "JPEG fine" or indicated by a smooth curve icon in the Image Quality menu) to make very good files that aren't as cumbersome as RAW.
- Choose the maximum resolution setting (again, using all available pixels) often denoted in JPEG formats as "Large." You can consider moving one step down in resolution—to, say, a "Medium-sized" JPEG—but only step down if you're concerned about storage space or when you know you'll only ever need small prints. (With many cameras, you can also consider a slightly smaller resolution with RAW capture, maintaining the benefits of RAW files without all the pixels for a big print you might never make. This is sometimes called MRAW or SRAW, and sometimes simply a cropped RAW format.)
GOOD ENOUGHSometimes factors aside from pure image quality are more important, and in those cases you've got to make some real changes. This could be because you want to speed up the downloading and delivery process, or simply because you want to maximize the quantity of pictures you can store on your last available memory card. For "good enough" image files, choose:
- Whatever ISO is needed to produce a usable exposure, even if it's very high (like 4000, 8000 or even more). It won't affect file size, but it will help when you just need to "get the shot."
- Save JPEG image files with increased compression (sometimes denoted by a jagged curve icon that implies the "jaggies" that JPEG compression creates in otherwise smooth edges) in order to increase the number of files your memory card will store.
- Decrease pixel resolution settings down to "Medium" or "Small" resolutions—but only if you're fairly certain that you won't be making a world-changing photograph, and that it's something that you'll never want to print in high-resolution at a large size. (If you happen to make a great picture like this, you'll wish you'd chosen a larger file size with less compression, no doubt.)
SMALLEST FILE SIZESometimes you know your photos are destined only for the web. Or, maybe you're a photojournalist on deadline and you're in a big hurry. Or, maybe you're traveling and you've only got one small memory card that you've really got to make last. As long as you're sure that you'll never ever want to make a small print—much less a big poster—then you can get away with setting your camera to record a what amounts to fairly low-quality, low-resolution image files. In this rare instance, choose:
- Try to use the lowest ISO you can get away with. Since you'll be compromising other image quality settings, it will help if you start with a fairly low-noise, clean image file.
- Save JPEG file formats with fairly intense compression. Consider compression last, though, because you may be able to get away with other settings without the need for overdoing it and further compromising image quality.
- The smallest available resolution setting—assuming those dimensions are still at least 1000 pixels on the longest side. I tend to think of 800 or 1000 pixels as plenty big for any web use, although it won't fill the screen on most monitors. If that's the case, you may want to step up to the next available resolution size.