Before you set foot out of your door with your camera, or even put your eye up to the viewfinder, it's worth spending a little time making sure all of the settings are correctly selected for your purpose. The default settings that the camera is set to initially are most likely sufficient but if you want to get the very best results from your camera, then adjusting the settings can have a range of benefits. These may be in terms of quality or storage space and could even save you time adjusting them later on. So let's start with the choice of file types...
Depending on your camera it will usually offer a choice of file format, and this is usually a choice of JPEG or Raw. The JPEG format is the most common image file on cameras and is the most universally accepted among photo software and image viewers. A JPEG file has already undergone processing within the camera to optimise the image for colour, tone and sharpness, making it possible, in most cases, to print straight from the camera or card if needed. A Raw file, on the other hand, maintains more image information and allows greater flexibility in image adjustment, making it easier to manipulate while maintaining quality.
This is the highest quality file that your camera is capable of and will therefore allow you to create the best possible image. It is often referred to as a digital negative as the information comes straight from the sensor without any of the camera's on-board processing, sharpening or compression.
The downside of using Raw files is that they are larger, take up more space on your memory card, taking longer to write, and then take up more space on your hard drive. As a consequence of being in a non-processed format it also demands more time to be spent in post-processing, therefore increasing the amount of time spent from capture to print.
The JPEG format is the most universal picture file and can therefore be opened and viewed by just about any computer or photo viewer. The files are smaller, punchier, less noisy and sharper than the Raw file equivalents, straight from the camera, and can be ready for printing with little or no extra processing.
The captured image from your sensor is reduced from 12 or 14 bit to an 8-bit file to create a JPEG file. This therefore has a reduced tonal range, and the sharpening and processing can degrade detail in the image. As Raw software has improved, storage capacities expanded, and processors quickened, many of the arguments to stick with JPEG are diminishing.