Ok, so lets take a journey from camera to output (screen or print) and identify some of the things that you need to know if you want good digital images.

Oh, before we get started, the stuff here needs to be read and understood - not skipped ! You’ll also find me saying ‘believe me’ quite often so, believe me, it means it’s a good thing to do !

THE CAMERA - before you press the shutter.

Getting the picture ‘right’ in the camera is the best way of getting off to a head start and can save you lots of grief later trying to fix things that shouldn’t need fixing.

Before you even press the camera shutter button you will have influenced the final result in several ways:
Composition, Focus, Exposure judgement, Camera settings etc.


BAD attitude - “I’ll set the camera on ‘Auto’ and fix it in Photoshop” .... WRONG !!!! - some things just can’t be fixed in Photoshop or any other digital software particularly if you are shooting jpg files rather than RAW - and even RAW files will be better if you ‘shoot right’ to begin with. )

At the moment of pressing the shutter button comes a high possibility of instant grief - camera shake. Many people don’t recognise the difference between bad focussing and camera shake during the exposure, and the longer the exposure the greater the possibility. Make sure you are standing steady, holding the camera still and, if you can’t do that and conditions allow - USE A TRIPOD or some other aid - bean bag, lean against a wall - whatever.

Hint - find out how good you are at holding your camera still. Aim you camera at a brick wall and focus accurately - autofocus should be good. Now take a series of exposures with ever increasing shutter speeds - start at, say 1/500th second and gradually come down to 1 second. Look at the images and you will be able to see where camera shake starts to become an issue. It will be a more serious problem with longer focal lengths than with wide angles.

Baseline photography really does matter at the image taking stage and, just because we are now using a digital sensor instead of film does not mean we can ignore the basic skills of using a camera - choice of aperture and/or shutter speed, composition, accurate focussing etc.

IMAGE RESOLUTION BASICS - those pesky pixels !

With a digital camera we will, usually, also need to make some judgements about image resolution.

The camera will have a ‘native’ resolution, often defined in megapixels. If it is not marked on the camera body you will find this in the USER MANUAL (Note - extremely rude acronym - RTFM - means read the **** manual !) and you should find the resolution also defined in pixel dimension terms. For instance, 6 megapixels and 3000 pixels wide by 2000 pixels high. 3000 times 2000 = 6,000,000 or 6 million = 6 megapixels ! Get It???? These numbers will vary depending on your specific camera but the principle is the same for EVERY digital camera. Find out what the numbers are for your camera and get them stuck in your brain - we will keep coming back to this image resolution issue time and again.

Oh yes, manuals or handbooks. Manufacturers have realised that if they give you an electronic version of the instruction manual they can save the cost of printing, not to mention all that paper which means they can trumpet their ‘green’ attitude. Unfortunately, they have dismally failed to realise how difficult it is to read an electronic document when lying in the bath or in bed. If your camera didn’t come with a printed manual you will probably find it lurking on a CD or DVD or you will usually be able to download one from the manufacturers website.

Anyways, back to opportunities for disasters - specifically regarding resolutions and camera options for same.

Generally it is best to set the camera to shoot at its native resolution. This means you will get the maximum number of OPTICALLY captured pixels and be in the best position to make decisions later when it comes to deciding on print size.
Why OPTICALLY? Because that means the pixels are the direct result of the light passing through the lens rather than being interpolated in some way by camera based digital processing. Our 6 megapixel camera referred to above has 6 million optically captured pixels giving an image 3000 pixels wide by 2000 pixels high but will probably also give you the option of setting reduced size images - maybe 1500 x 1000 or even lower. These settings will let you store more images on the memory card but at the expense of the detail you will need for high quality prints, hence my suggestion that you shoot at the native resolution of the camera - yes, I know that may mean buying some extra memory cards!

Why is this resolution stuff so important? Because digital images are ‘measured’ by the number of pixels they contain and the more pixels you have (OPTICALLY captured ones, that is) the better the image quality will be and the larger the prints you will be able to produce later.

The print industry standard for digital images is 300 pixels per inch of print dimension - so 3000 pixels = 10 inches and
2000 pixels = 6.7 inches so our 6 megapixel image will yield a print 10“ x 6.7”. OK, that ‘standard’ is somewhat flexible and with todays desktop printers we might get away with as low as 200 pixels per inch but you get the idea - pixels mean print quality so DONT BE MEAN !

But, I hear you cry. The picture on my screen looks brilliant and its 15 inches diagonal and only 1024 x 768. Ah yes, but screen images are totally different to printed images so, for now, at least, just believe me - PRINTS NEED PIXELS !

JPG or RAW FILES - or life doesn’t need to be in the raw!

These are the two file types most commonly saved by the camera. If you don’t know what they mean stick with jpg for the time being. If you think you do know what they mean you either need to read this stuff to discover things you might not know or you don’t need to read this stuff at all so forgive me while I explain it to those that need to know.

Basically, a RAW file is the image information captured by the camera sensor with no in-camera data processing taking place before it is saved to the memory. A JPG (jpeg) file is an already processed image file created by in-camera processing and compressed using a method called JPEG (Joint Photographers Expert Group) to save space on the memory card - THIS DOES NOT MEAN IT IS BAD QUALITY ! However, it does mean that you might not subsequently be able to carry out some clever image enhancements that you would if you had a RAW file. Believe me, if you are just starting out it is not necessary to use or understand RAW files - stick with JPG and you’ll have an easier ride.

You’ll find more about the way your camera saves image files in the USER MANUAL so we won’t spend any more time on it here, at least for the time being.

OTHER CAMERA STUFF - whilst you’re at it......

It’s a good idea to set the time and date correctly on the camera. That way all your files will be tagged with the time and date you took the picture.