No matter what skill level you occupy as a photographer, from beginner to professional, image quality is a priority. Many of us struggle to consistently create high-quality images. Maybe we set up the camera improperly. Or we misunderstood the light source. Possibly, we captured a decent image; it just didn’t pop.
In this post, we’ll discuss how different camera settings impact the quality of your images and how to get the most out of your gear. In addition, we’ll get into some hacks for specific challenges and establishing a post-processing workflow. By the end of this article, you’ll gain a better understanding of photography techniques and be well on your way to achieving amazing results.
First, let’s talk about file selection.
1. RAW File or JPEG File?
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Shoot in RAW file format. But let’s qualify that. RAW files are pure sensor data. You can’t even view the image until it’s converted in post production. The RAW file contains all the data and all the details captured by the camera sensor, giving you the greatest flexibility in editing and creating great images. So, shoot in RAW.
Also, if your camera gives you a choice of shooting 12-bit or 14-bit, select 14-bit. The difference will be slightly better, but we are talking about capturing maximum image quality.
The JPEG, or JPG, has its place. If you want to go straight from the camera to a blog post or social media and skip or minimize the editing process, shoot in JPEG. Most digital cameras give you a choice of image size and quality, so you can set the camera to deliver a file that is most compatible with its destination.
We have a detailed article for you to know more about jpeg vs raw files.
In addition, many cameras offer a RAW plus JPEG option. This requires two SD cards, but you get a JPEG file for immediate use and a RAW file that you can work with later.
2. How Equipment Impacts Image Quality
Photography gear is expensive, and having a top-of-the-line camera is not feasible for a lot of us. The good news is that you can still achieve excellent results with a medium-grade or entry-level camera. Understand its capabilities and limitations. Read the user manual, familiarize yourself with the different settings and features, and practice using them in different situations. Maximize the potential of your equipment and capture high-quality images.
If you have the resources to do it, invest in a digital camera with a high-quality sensor. The size and quality of the sensor make a huge difference in the level of detail, contrast, and color tones the camera can capture. A larger sensor generally produces better photo quality, especially in low-light conditions.
Lens Choice and Image Quality
Lenses with high-quality glass elements greatly improve the sharpness and clarity of your images. The lens magnifies and modifies light. Lenses have unique capabilities and limitations in projecting an image onto the camera’s sensor. High optical quality results in a sharper image, better contrast, and more natural colors, along with lower distortion and fewer anomalies like chromatic aberration.
When you are able, invest in a quality prime lens. A 50 mm f-1.4 lens won’t break the bank, and you will see the difference.
Meanwhile, if you’re using a kit lens that came with the camera, make the most of it. Learn about light and how the lens captures it. Find the sweet spot, usually around f-8, where you achieve the most clarity and sharpness while keeping distortion and chromatic aberration to a minimum.
Use a Tripod
Another important factor to consider is camera stability. A shaky camera leads to blurry images, which is why using a tripod is highly recommended. A tripod helps to eliminate any unintentional movements during long exposures or when shooting with a telephoto lens. It allows you to achieve sharper images with greater detail.
We sometimes overlook the tripod when we talk about camera gear. It’s not sexy. But it’s important. Look for a quality tripod that is stable, can handle the weight of your camera/lens combination, and offers flexibility of movement. It’s a good investment.
3. Understand the Exposure Triangle
As the foundation of photography, an understanding of the exposure triangle is essential for maximizing image quality. Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO work together in infinite combinations to determine how a camera captures light. Learning to balance these three elements is crucial to good exposure and quality.
We published an article on the Exposure Triangle that can give you an in-depth review. But let’s go over the basics.
Shutter speed refers to the length of time the camera’s shutter remains open. A faster shutter speed freezes motion, making it ideal for wildlife or sports photography. On the other hand, a slower shutter speed allows more light into the camera and can create beautiful long-exposure effects, such as silky waterfalls or star trails.
The Aperture controls the size of the camera’s lens opening. It affects both the amount of light that enters the camera and the depth of field in your images. A smaller aperture (higher f-number) allows less light but results in a greater depth of field, ideal for landscape photography. Conversely, a larger aperture (lower f-number) allows more light and creates a shallow depth of field, perfect for portraits or isolating subjects from the background.
ISO refers to the sensitivity of camera sensors to light. A lower ISO (e.g., 100) produces less noise and better quality of image, but it requires more light. On the other hand, a higher ISO (e.g., 800 or above) allows for better low-light performance but introduces more digital noise into your images. And noise can ruin a great composition.
Setting the Exposure is a Balancing Act
Finding the right combination of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for each scene requires practice and experimentation. Understanding the relationship between these settings will allow you to have more control over the exposure and help you capture images with optimal sharpness, detail, and the full range of shadows and highlights.
4. Finding the Ideal Depth of Field
Factors other than aperture impact depth of field, including sensor size, lens focal length, and the distance from the camera to the subject. We have an excellent article on depth of field, which you may want to review.
Under ideal conditions, meaning great lighting and no restrictions on shutter speed, set the aperture to around f-4 to f-8. For most lenses, that will deliver the sharpest image with a fairly shallow depth of field.
However, if you want a sharp photo front to back, you must balance depth of field with the factors mentioned above. You may rely on guesswork, taking multiple shots at various f-stops. Then, select the most appealing image. But a more precise approach would be to determine the f-stop setting that will deliver the depth of field you want.
Cambridge in Color has an online depth of field calculator that helps you do just that. You select your camera type, aperture, the focal length of the lens, and distance from the camera to the subject. The calculator gives you the Nearest Acceptable Sharpness, the Furthest Acceptable Sharpness, and the total Depth of Field.
In addition, you can find a number of smartphone apps that do the same thing. Search for depth of field/f-stop in the App Store of your phone.
Using these tools involves some extra steps. It may also require a tape measure or a good eye for estimating distances, but it removes the guesswork and your photographic quality benefits.
5. Small Details to Maximize the Quality of an Image
Understand the mechanics of your camera and how it impacts the quality of your images. DSLRs offer a feature called mirror lockup, particularly useful when shooting with long shutter speeds or in low-light conditions. When mirror lockup is activated, it lifts the camera’s mirror before the shutter release button is pressed. This reduces minor vibrations caused by the mirror slap.
You may also consider using a remote shutter release or setting the camera’s internal timer to a 2 or 5-second delay, further eliminating any camera shake caused by pressing the shutter button.
Long exposure noise reduction is another consideration for achieving optimal photo quality. During long exposures, the camera’s sensor heats up, resulting in additional digital noise in your images. Enabling the long exposure noise reduction feature on your camera minimizes this noise by taking a second exposure with the shutter closed to capture and subtract the noise from the image. This takes additional time to process the image, but it results in cleaner, smoother images, particularly in situations where you use longer shutter speeds.
Advanced Techniques for Maximum Photographic Quality
Techniques such as high dynamic range (HDR), focus shift photography, and focus stacking help photographers turn good photographs into awesome images.
High dynamic range (HDR) photography combines multiple exposures of the same scene to capture a wider range of light and detail. Multiple photos at various exposure settings are merged in post processing, creating a final image with bright highlights and deep shadows. Done properly, the result is visually balanced and appealing. HDR can be particularly useful in situations with extreme contrast, such as landscapes or architectural photography.
Focus shift photography is a technique to capture images with an expanded depth of field. It begins with taking a series of images with different focal points and then merging them together in post-processing. This results in images with sharpness throughout the entire scene, from the foreground to the background. Focus shift is the go-to method for macro photography or when shooting landscapes with prominent foreground elements.
If your camera doesn’t offer the focus shift feature, you can achieve the same results with focus stacking. Capture a series of images with different focus points; however, instead of the camera automatically setting those points, you set them manually. It’s a more cumbersome process, and you must be careful to maintain the camera in the exact same location, but the final result can be an image with impressive depth of field and sharpness.
6. Enhancing Photo Quality in Post Processing
Once you’ve done all you can to capture the best photo quality, here are tips to maintain what you have and maximize it. Turn good photos into great photos with sharpening, noise reduction, color space, and white balance adjustments. I’m working in Adobe Lightroom, but this applies to most photo editing platforms.
Begin with shadow and highlight adjustments and fine-tune the texture and clarity settings. This process brings out details and makes the subjects pop. Apply the sharpening tool with a light touch. Don’t overdo it since it can introduce artifacts and give the image an unnatural look. Using the appropriate sharpening tools and carefully adjusting the amount and radius gets the desired result.
Noise reduction is integral to photo editing, especially if shot in low-light conditions or at high ISO. Digital noise degrades image quality with a grainy or pixelated appearance. Utilize noise reduction to minimize noise while preserving details. Strike a balance between low noise and retaining image sharpness for optimal results.
Adjusting the color profile is another method to enhance image quality. This step allows you to fine-tune the color space, hue, and saturation of your image to achieve the desired look. Experiment with different color profiles or create your own custom look to add depth and vibrancy to your photos while maintaining accurate color.
Most images benefit from a post-processing workflow that complements your artistic vision while maintaining a natural look. Strive for subtle adjustments that enhance the quality of your image without overpowering the original composition.
Ultimately, achieving high quality image is about camera setup and honing your skills to get the most out of your gear. Take the time to learn and understand your camera and lens. Practice different techniques and continually educate yourself on photography principles. With dedication and perseverance, some of this becomes second nature, and you create stunning images routinely.
I hope this article helps you advance your photographic skills to the next level. If you have any questions or comments, please submit them in the space below.