Which Quality Setting Should I Use? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Which Quality Setting Should I Use?

by David Peterson 5 comments

You may have noticed that your camera offers a few different photo quality settings. These are available on almost any model in the market today, whether it is a point-and-shoot or a digital SLR. Oftentimes, they are labeled as “low,” “normal,” or “fine.” Some camera companies use their own proprietary quality standards such as SQ, HQ, and SHQ (standard, high and super high quality respectively).


So what's the difference? The quality setting you use determines the amount of compression your camera applies to the image. SHQ or Fine quality means low compression whereas SQ or Low quality means high compression.

Why is compression needed?

JPG image format

Most cameras save their images in what's called the JPEG (or JPG) format. This format was invented to help make image sizes more manageable. It does this using compression. It removes parts from the image in a clever way so that when the image is displayed again, you won't notice those elements missing.

So a 6 megapixel photo that would need 18 megabytes to store only needs around 4 megabytes when saved in a JPG format. So you can get over 4 times as many photos on your memory card. (There are other storage formats. Check out my tip on image file formats for a more comprehensive discussion.)

Quality = Compression

Your camera can increase or decrease the level of compression it uses on a photo. And this is what the image quality setting changes - the amount of compression used. A high quality setting uses the least compression. A low quality setting uses the most compression, but it also makes your image look much worse.

High Quality Setting

High Quality

High Quality = Low Compression = Great Image = High Space Requirement

The High Quality setting will give you a great looking image, but also takes more space on your memory card.

Low Quality

Low Quality = High Compression = Poor Image = Low Space Requirement

Low Quality Setting

The Low Quality setting will save you lots of storage card space so you can get more shots, but at the sacrifice of picture quality. Your images won't look as good - particularly if you print them out.

Notice the image on the right. While I have exaggerated the effect to illustrate the point, you can see the effect on your image when you use a low quality setting.

Image Resolution

Some cameras allow you to change the resolution of your image as well as the image quality. Resolution is tied to megapixels. So your 6 megapixel camera will use all 6mp when on the highest resolution setting, but will use 4mp on the medium quality resolution, and only 2mp on the lowest setting. While this results in a huge file savings (halve the megapixels, and you half the card space used), it also means you get half the image quality, and in most cases lose the ability to have your photo look great when printed on a large canvas.

Shoot at the Highest Quality All the Time

I recommend always keeping your camera on the highest quality setting it supports. If your camera supports different resolutions, always choose the highest. Why? You never know when you’re going to take the picture of a lifetime. You might not be considering making large prints of your work right now, but what if you took a picture so amazing that you had no choice but to proudly display it in the largest size possible? What if your photo were so great that it could win an award? A low quality version of the photo would not get past the editor's desk if you tried to submit it to a magazine or photographic association.

If you always run out of card space because of the high quality setting you use, it's much better to upgrade your card than downgrade the quality setting.

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  1. Simon L says:

    I have run some mathematical analysis on image resolution against quality setting and as the OP has stated always record your pictures in super fine (or equivalent) and highest resolution. But what happens if you need to have a picture of, say for example 1MB, but it was taken on a 16MP camera at the highest quality setting (4MB JPEG size) ... should I sacrifice the res to get it down to 1MB or the quality?

    After quite a lot of detailed analysis (which is too boring to write about here) I can say categorically that you should always lower the quality and keep the res. Pictures will invariably look better - and quite a bit too - then if you de-res it. (of course if the picture is meant for a website then you will probably want it at a particular resolution)

    I compared an all black picture (easiest to compress) to a 'normal' photograph to a white noise (hardest to compress) and with a single (or simple image) then it really doesn't matter too much but as soon as you go to anything complicated like an everyday photo or a white noise picture then de-res'ing it loses more information than lowering the quality to achieve the same file size - significantly so.

    Although I haven't mathematically tested if this is the case with video I have done some visual comparisons on a film in HD and then de-res'ed to SD but keeping the file size the same size (roughly) and the HD version looks a lot better.

    The reason for this you might ask, is that most pictures contain redundant information (simplest case being an area of the same colour) and this compresses very well. De-res'ing by 50% in both directions will save 75% but compression algorithms tend to save far more.

  2. David Peterson says:

    It's always best to shoot with the highest quality available - High Megapixels and Highest Quality. That is so that when you take that perfect photo that you'd like to print out at a large size, it won't look bad.

    For emailing photos, I would reduce them in size using a paint program, or upload to one of the image sites I mention here and email your friends the link to the site, rather than the actual photos.


  3. Frederico Derschum says:

    Hi David,
    A few pages back, you stated that megapixels aren't so important. Now you say that we should use the highest quality available in the camera. I'm confused. I own a Nikon D40, which gives me sizes S, M, L, and quality B, N, H, besides the raw option. Using L & H, the photos grow to something like 4.5 Mb, a size a bit too large to fit into emails. Combining Small with High will give good results? What combination do you suggest?

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.