Choosing Camera Resolution

Use these tips for shooting at the proper resolution

A woman lining up a shot with her camera
Katja Kircher / Getty Images

Resolution is the number of pixels a camera's image sensor can record, usually measured in megapixels—millions of pixels. Most high-resolution digital cameras can shoot at least five different levels of resolution, and some can shoot 10 or more levels. You can control the resolution and image quality of your photos through the digital camera's menu system. Typical choices also include width-to-length ratios, such as 4:3, 1:1, 3:2, or 16:9 ratios. Each offers a different resolution count.

The definitions of high and low resolutions have changed over the years with advances in technology. As of 2019, the lowest-resolution DSLR cameras offer about 16 megapixels; even among point-and-shoot models, you'd be hard-pressed to find one at less than 10 megapixels. The current max among consumer DSLRs tops out at more than 60 megapixels—enough to produce high-quality poster-sized images.

Many digital photographers shoot at their cameras' highest possible resolutions. Sometimes, though, shooting at a lower one is advantageous. Here are some tips and considerations for choosing the best resolution.

When Low Resolution Is Best

Although high resolutions are generally preferable, certain situations lend themselves to lower-resolution photography.

Space Is at a Premium

High-resolution photos require more storage space on memory cards and on your hard drive than low-resolution photos do; they're simply bigger. If you rarely print photos, shooting at a medium-quality setting can conserve storage space.

Space considerations aren't as important as in the early days of memory cards, when storage space was limited and expensive. These days, SD cards are available with space measured in terabytes. A terabyte is a thousand times larger than a megabyte, the typical measurement unit of years past.

If you store your photos in the cloud using services such as Google Photos, check to see what the per-photo limits are. For example, Google Photos allows free storage of an unlimited number of photos with up to 16 megapixels each.

When You're Shooting in Burst Mode

When shooting in burst mode, you can shoot faster and longer when shooting at a lower resolution.

When You're Shooting for the Internet

If you're planning to use your photos online or send them via email, they don't need as high of a resolution to show good detail. Besides, lower-resolution photos download faster and require less time to send by email. In fact, services such as Facebook typically compress the images you upload to save space and load time.

When High Resolution Is Best

In most situations, shooting at your camera's highest resolution is your best option. After all, you can crop and shrink, but you can't go back and add pixels. As long as you have the space, high-resolution photography preserves your options.

When You're Making Prints

If you plan to make prints of a given subject, shoot at your camera's highest resolution. Even if you plan to make small prints, shooting at a high resolution is smart. Printing a high-resolution photo in a small print size allows you to crop the photo, giving you a result similar to that obtained with a high-quality zoom lens. In fact, shooting at the highest possible resolution is recommended in most situations because of the ability to crop the photo while maintaining a usable pixel count.

If you're unsure of how you'll use a photo of a particular subject, shoot it at various resolutions and decide what to keep later.

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