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Also see my Color tutorial on this site.

Photographic Image Quality

The good news: Virtually all cameras sold today will produce truly excellent quality images for their intended use—from every-day social media sharing to specialized professional photo applications. The bad news: Camera "features" are proliferating out of control, frequently beyond our ability to even find or use them. But no matter how much automation becomes available, it will always be based on the concepts presented in these pages.

By “image quality,” I'm referring to the perceived sharpness, detail, contrast, and color rendition of the viewed image, whether on a computer screen or in a print. Although there are some aspects of image quality that can be physically measured—for example, lens or print resolution—what we see is what really matters to me (and to your viewers).

Although post-processing and printing can dramatically affect the final result, no amount of digital magic can overcome flaws in the original out-of-the-camera file. Our goal here is to achieve the best possible quality in that file, within your own requirements for size, weight, cost, and usability.

Image quality is dependent on five basic factors:

Each of these is discussed in the following pages. We conclude by comparing the most popular types of cameras in use today—including mobile phones.

I intended this site to be a tutorial for some friends who are new to photography, but it kind of grew on its own beyond that scope. In a way, this is a guide to buying and using a camera, but I’m not advocating any specific system or brand. In another way, it's a supplement to your camera's user manual, which will tell you how to set various functions but not why you would want to do so. I do hope that it will be helpful for anyone who is interested in going beyond “point and shoot,” whether their goal is travel photography, family activities, artistic image making, or just having fun with a camera.

Bias alert: I’m an amateur still photographer interested in travel, nature, architecture, and social artifacts like trains and cars. Photographers with other interests will think about these topics very differently than I do. I can claim originality only for the organization, opinions, images, and any errors on this site. For the substance, I'm indebted to multiple sources: architectural and fine art photographer Robert Hansen; Barry Evans, wizard of all things photographic; workshop instructors Alan Ross, Michael Frye, Derek vonBriesen; and many others.

Unlike blog or review sites, you’ll notice the absence of “click here to purchase online” links. In fact, I encourage you to buy from your local bricks-and-mortar camera store, which can provide the kind of personalized service that is impossible online and can only survive with our continued patronage. If you are in the Orange County (CA) area, visit my friends Barry Evans (pro gear), Ken Forbes (cameras) and Sarah Gregor (supplies) at Samy’s Camera in Santa Ana, on Bristol at Alton. (Samy’s also has stores in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, and no, they didn't know that I would include this "commercial.")