Choosing Camera Resolution

Use these tips for shooting at the proper resolution

Camera image sensor

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One of the changes photographers encounter when switching from a film camera to a digital camera is the various options in image quality and camera resolution the digital photographer has when shooting. Most digital cameras can shoot at least five different levels of resolution, and some can shoot 10 or more different levels. (Resolution is the number of pixels that the camera's image sensor can record, usually portrayed as megapixels, or millions of pixels.)

Although many digital photographers always shoot at the highest possible resolution because it's easier with a high-resolution camera, there are times when it's advantageous to shoot at a lower digital camera resolution. Here are some tips for choosing camera resolutions and for learning more about resolution.

Image Quality

You can control the resolution and image quality of your photos through the digital camera's menu system. As you're choosing an image quality setting, you often can choose a particular width-to-length ratio, too, such as 4:3, 1:1, 3:2, or 16:9 ratios. Each of these ratios offers a different resolution count.

If you know you will make prints of your digital photos from this particular subject, shooting at the highest resolution is a good idea. After all, you cannot go back and add more pixels to your photos a few days later. 

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 using 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.

You'll Need More Room

Keep in mind that shooting photos at the highest resolution will require more storage space on memory cards and on your hard drive. If you shoot photos at 12 megapixels all of the time, you'll only be able to store about 40 percent as many photos on a memory card as you can if you shoot photos at a medium-quality setting, such as five megapixels. If you rarely print photos, shooting at a medium-quality setting can be advantageous in terms of conserving storage space. The need to conserve storage space isn't as important as it was in the early days of memory cards when storage space was limited and expensive. 

Consider the Mode

When shooting in a burst mode, you may be able to shoot at a faster speed for a longer period of time when shooting at a lower resolution than at a higher resolution.

Some types of photos are better served at a low resolution. For example, any photograph you plan to use on the internet only or that you plan to send by e-mail—and that you do not plan to print at a large size—can be shot at a low resolution. Low-resolution photos require less time to send by e-mail and can be downloaded faster. For example, web-quality photos sometimes are shot at a resolution of 640x480 pixels, and many digital cameras have a "Web quality" setting.

Having said that, with all of the high-speed internet options now available, shooting at a low resolution isn't quite as important as it was a few years ago. In the "old" days, when many internet users were using dial-up web access, downloading a high-resolution photo took several minutes. That's no longer the case for a large number of broadband internet users.

Give Yourself Options

If you're unsure of how you'll use a photo of a particular subject, you can shoot it at various resolutions, giving you plenty of options.

Perhaps the best advice regarding resolution is to just always shoot at the highest resolution your camera can record unless extenuating circumstances are present. You can always decrease the resolution later using image editing software to allow the image to occupy less space on your computer or to make it easier to share the photo over social networking sites.