Computer programmers invented a saying that was so true that it became a part of everyday speech: garbage in, garbage out. Your final product can never be any better than the data you originally started with. When it comes to digital photos, it's pretty much the same story. Your final photo can really never be any better than the image your camera originally captured.
What does that mean to us? In a nutshell, it's important to use the highest quality settings available on your camera because, as good as your photo editing software might be, you can never add extra quality to your photos that wasn't there to begin with.
Know your camera settings
Setting the quality of your photographs on your camera can be a little more complicated than it seems at first. After all, there's more than just one setting to contend with. You need to set the parameters for three variables: image size, quality, and file format.
Almost everyone is familiar with image size, which is also known as the megapixel setting. As you know, the number of megapixels is how many millions of pixels make up the images you take. A 6-megapixel picture, for instance, has approximately 6 million pixels in it. That's about 3000 pixels horizontally by about 2000 pixels vertically. No matter how many megapixels your camera is designed to shoot, you can usually dial in any number of megapixels from the maximum all the way down to a Web-friendly 640 by 480.
In addition to megapixels, you can also control the quality setting of your photos. Quality refers to how much image compression is used to make your digital photo files smaller. More compression might sound good, as it results in smaller files, but high compression reduces image quality. Choosing the right quality level usually means finding the right compromise between file size and image quality.
Finally, you can choose the file format, which also known as the file type. The most common file format in use today is JPEG. JPEG is a great all-around file format for digital images. No matter what program you use, no matter what kind of computer you have, you should be able to view your JPEG photo. In addition, JPEG compression is flexible and economical: You can create very compact photo files that are easy to e-mail, upload to the Web, and store on any kind of device. Or you can create less-compressed, stunning images that can even please a professional. However, most digital cameras also let you choose other file formats, such as TIFF and RAW. What file format is the right one for you? I'll talk more about this next week, but for now it's worth pointing out that JPEG will always sacrifice at least a little bit of image quality, so if you want "perfect" photos, then TIFF or RAW might be a better bet. In general, though, JPEG works just fine -- especially if you are careful to use low compression (high quality) settings.
Putting it all together
So now that you know the three major ingredients, it's time to configure your camera to take the best pictures. If you've never tried this before, it's worth grabbing your camera's manual and looking up how to change the settings.
Start with file format: Virtually all digital cameras default to JPEG, so that's probably what you're using now. Unless you have a lot of hard drive space to fill and don't mind learning a whole new way to work with your digital photos, I suggest leaving the format set to JPEG.
The next step is to set the image size. What's right for you? Here's my rule of thumb: Unless I'm taking pictures for a very specific purpose and know that I will never need a lot of pixels, I use the largest size that my camera allows. If you're taking pictures of an old rocking chair that you want to sell on eBay, then go ahead and throttle down the size to around 1 megapixel. After all, if you shoot that picture in the camera's maximum 8-megapixel setting, most of those pixels will just be thrown away. But if you're taking artistic photos or chronicling your vacation or family reunion, every single one of those pixels might come in handy when you want to print enlargements or create a printed photo album.
Finally, set the file compression level. A lot of people often forget this step. This setting is incredibly important -- especially if you are shooting JPEGs. As I already mentioned, the higher the compression level, the lower the image quality will be. Since memory cards are so inexpensive these days, and hard drives so big you could probably live inside one of them, there's no excuse to lower the quality level of your photos -- ever. Dial in the highest-quality setting that your camera offers and leave it there.