Photography for Beginners Part 12: Image Quality

Each post in this series builds on information discussed in previous posts. See the Photography for Beginners page on the menu for links to all the posts.

Part 11:  RAW vs. Jpeg

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In this post we are going to discuss things that contribute to improving image quality (IQ).

Pretty much everyone who enjoys photography wonders how they can improve the quality of their images. When people discuss IQ they are most often referring to how sharp an image is, but there is more to it than just sharpness.

Understandably, most beginners think that in order to improve IQ you need to buy a better camera. That is often true, but gear is not the answer. Many different things go into improving IQ, and some of them are within the photographer’s control regardless of the camera being used.

Camera shake is probably the single largest contributor to lack of sharpness, especially for beginners, and several of the items listed below relate to camera shake. Even if you have very steady hands and use what you think are adequate shutter speeds, camera shake can still be an anonymous culprit.

I’m going to break contributing factors into three categories: skill, conditions, and equipment.

Skill

Shooting Technique

Using proper shooting technique contributes a lot to improving the quality of your photos. It has the most impact as a beginner and doesn’t cost anything.

*  Hold the camera with both hands. It should be a comfortable grip, don’t clutch it tightly. If the lens isn’t the type that collapses into the body, your left hand should support the lens from underneath.

*  Gently squeeze the shutter button or slowly roll the middle of your finger over the top. Jabbing at the button makes your camera move.

*  Take the photo in the middle of an exhale. Your body is most relaxed at that point in your breathing.

*  Keep your elbows in against your body, not sticking out. This helps steady your camera. (I have to constantly remind myself to do this!)

*  If you have a viewfinder, use it. Holding the camera against your face braces it.

*  Check your footing and spread your feet about shoulder width.

*  Whenever possible lean against a solid support like a tree, wall, or fence. Brace your arms on a railing. Kneeling or sitting helps too. Basically, use any available prop to help steady yourself and the camera.

*  Make sure your camera is level. Many cameras have a feature you can see in the viewfinder or on the screen that tells you when the camera is level and not tilted slightly to one side. If yours has the feature, use it.

Leveling doesn’t actually affect IQ. But I wanted to toss it in here as part of shooting technique because a tilted horizon or leaning statue can ruin an otherwise a good photo. Even with the level turned on we all still accidentally end up with slightly tilted photos sometimes. It’s fixable in an image editor, but it’s always best to get it right in-camera.

Understand Camera Settings

To get the most out of the camera you have you must understand how settings affect IQ. A skilled photographer will get better photos with a budget camera than a novice will get with expensive gear because of their knowledge.

A fast enough shutter speed to eliminate even micro camera shake is a lot more critical than many seem to think. As a general rule, the longer the lens the faster the shutter needs to be. You’ll read guidelines for minimum shutter speed based on focal length. But when conditions allow, choose at least a 2x faster speed than the suggested minimum.

Most lenses, even expensive ones, aren’t at their best wide open. When conditions allow, stop down at least one f-stop for improved IQ. Use your lens sweet spot whenever possible.

Use your camera’s lowest native ISO whenever possible.

Noise reduction and sharpening. If you’re shooting in jpeg your camera might have a feature that allows you to set how much noise-reduction and sharpening is done by the in-camera image processor. It’s counterintuitive, but upping those settings can sometimes actually degrade IQ. It’s best to leave them neutral, or set a negative number.

In my experience the long exposure noise reduction feature some cameras have does produce better night shots, so I often turn that on, especially for exposures under 10 seconds. The long exposure NR feature doubles how long each exposure takes. If it’s a 20 second exposure, the camera will take an additional 20 seconds to process it, and sometimes that wait time is undesirable.

Manual Focus

File this under “it depends” as to whether using manual focus instead of autofocus will give you a higher percentage of sharp photos. Autofocus ranges from decent to excellent, depending on your camera model. But AF isn’t always perfect, even on the best cameras. Using manual focus instead has the potential to increase your overall percentage of sharp photos.

There are three main things to consider here:

The first is your gear. If your camera has a viewfinder and your lens has a focus ring, using manual focus is fairly easy. If you have a point and shoot with only a back screen and you focus using the 4-way buttons, manual focusing can be difficult. In the latter instance you’re likely better off using autofocus most of the time. If you’re on a tripod then manual might be a good choice.

The second is you, which is why this is in the Skill section. Some people have a real knack for manual focus. They have a sharp eye and quickly and easily achieve focus on their subject. For these people using manual focus can often improve the IQ of their photos.

Some people have difficulty with it and no matter how much they try they still end up with too many soft photos because they miss focus. People in this group are better off relying on autofocus. I’m kinda in between. I don’t have a particularly sharp eye and I’m slow, but if I’m patient and keep trying I can nail focus. When it’s important I use it.

It takes practice to get good at manual focusing. So don’t assume you’re in the not-good-at-it group until you’ve put in enough time and effort to fairly evaluate your ability. If you find you’re good at it, consider using manual focus often.

The third thing to consider is shooting conditions. If you’re on a tripod shooting a stationary subject, manual focus is a no brainer to try to get the sharpest possible photo. If you’re shooting a child running around erratically then manually focusing may be impossible for all but the most skilled. Even AF can have a difficult time keeping up.

So basically, the more time you have to take the photo the more helpful manual focus might be.

Conditions

Zoom With Your Feet

If your subject is nearby and there aren’t any barriers to stepping closer, move yourself instead of zooming with your lens. It’s an easy way to get a potentially sharper photo.

Light

Understand how light conditions affect the type of photography you are doing. Cloudy days are beneficial for some subjects like flowers and waterfalls. But in most cases a hazy day or solidly overcast sky washes everything out and you lose detail due to lack of contrast.

Location

This is related to light. Think about where the sun is in relation to your subject when planning a shoot at a specific spot. Shooting into the sun can cause lens flare, backlighting, and too high a dynamic range, all of which mean loss of detail.

Shooting into the sun in this case doesn’t just mean your lens is pointed directly at it. It means if it’s winter and your subject is to the south, you’re shooting into the sun for most of the day even if it’s not in your frame. It means if your subject is a mountain to the east you’re shooting into the sun until the afternoon.

The golden hours are the generally preferred times of day for shooting because of the superior quality of the light, but you have to factor in topography. If trees, hills, or buildings cut the sun off two hours before sunset you need to adjust when you shoot in that location if you don’t want to be in shadow. Deep shade can make proper white balance trickier, and it usually means shooting with a wide aperture and/or increased ISO in order to get a fast enough shutter speed.

Atmospheric Conditions

This applies when shooting over a greater distance, so mostly affects landscape and cityscape type photography. There are two main culprits that can reduce IQ.

Water vapor in the air. Even on a day that doesn’t look particularly hazy, if the air contains a lot of water vapor it can reduce details of distant subjects. In Seattle we see this a lot when photographing the city or mountains. A low humidity day produces the best results. Using a polarizing filter can help cut through the vapor to regain detail.

Temperature differences. Significant temp differences between the ground and air can cause distortions, sometimes including mirage effects. The greater the temp difference the greater the distortions can be and the less distance there can be between you and your subject without distortion.

This effect can be present when the ground is significantly warmer than the air or significantly colder. I said ground, but it applies to bodies of water also. We see it a lot here in Seattle when taking photos across Puget Sound and the lakes.

Equipment

Tripods

The piece of equipment that does the most to improve IQ is a tripod. By using a tripod you eliminate all camera shake, even the micro movements that may not be easily discernible when studying a photo, but still have an impact on sharpness.

Tripods can be a hassle because they aren’t fun to lug around and using them slows everything down. They also take up space which may not work well at crowded locations. Some locations prohibit them because of this. But the truth still remains that you will almost always get higher quality photos when using one.

If you don’t have or want to use a tripod, you can get the same benefit by propping your camera on a rock, bench, log, low cement wall, etc. This limits composition choices since you can’t move a bench around like a tripod, but you still get better IQ. Many photographers carry a small beanbag or mini tripod with them to help.

When using a tripod do not raise the center column unless you absolutely have to. A raised column is more wobbly and reduces some of the benefit of using a tripod.
If it’s windy the tripod can vibrate or shake and reduce IQ. You can counteract this by hanging a weight, like your camera bag, from a hook at the bottom of the tripod’s center column if it has one.

Tripods are not a good choice in some situations. If the surface you’re shooting from isn’t completely stable, vibrations or movement can transfer to the tripod. This includes things like boat decks or a floating dock. Surfaces like a wood boardwalk with people constantly walking by can also transfer vibration to a tripod.

When shooting on a tripod turn image stabilization off if you have it. IS looks for movement to correct and can sometimes get confused if your camera is completely still.

Remote Shutter Release

If you physically press the shutter button when shooting on a tripod you can make the camera shake. To eliminate this possibility use a remote shutter release. There are three types.

Wired remote. A wired remote plugs into the body of your camera and has a small piece to hold in your hand to trigger the shutter. The advantages are you don’t need any batteries, and they’re very compact. The disadvantage is you have to be right next to the tripod to use it because the wire isn’t very long.

Wireless remote. A wireless remote has two pieces. The receiver attaches to the hot shoe on your camera and plugs into the remote shutter slot on the body with a short wire. The shutter trigger is a separate piece you hold in your hand. The trigger sends a wireless signal to the receiver on the camera to take the photo.

The advantage is they work over a distance of many feet, so you can shoot while sitting a ways away on a rock or park bench, or in your car on a cold night. The disadvantages are they aren’t as reliable, you need batteries for both parts, and there are two pieces to keep track of instead of just one. I’ve misplaced one part in the dark before, and have also discovered dead batteries with no replacements on hand. So unless you want or need the distance benefit, my advice is to use the wired type.

Remote shutter releases from the camera’s manufacturer tend to be a bit pricey for what they are. But third-party remotes are usually inexpensive and reliable. Just make sure you buy one that is designed to work with your exact camera model, not just the brand.

Phone or tablet app. Quite a few camera models have a feature that connects the camera to a mobile device, and you can use the manufacturer’s app to trigger the shutter wirelessly. This has the advantages of distance and not needing an additional piece of equipment, but many of the apps are clunky and can be a source of frustration. It will also drain your device’s battery faster, if not being able to recharge for a while is a concern.

Camera Self-Timer

If you’re on a tripod and don’t have a remote shutter release, use the camera’s timer delay instead. Pick the 10 second delay because 2 seconds occasionally isn’t enough for vibration from pressing the shutter button to dissipate, especially if you bump the camera or tripod when taking your hand away. This method works quite well and I still use it when I don’t feel like attaching the wired remote.

Camera Sensor

There are three primary aspects of digital camera sensors that contribute to IQ.

The first is sensor size. Bigger is better. People have all sorts of reasons for buying a new camera. When contemplating buying a new camera for the specific reason of improving IQ, sensor size should be the first thing you decide. All other buying decisions will depend on that choice.

The second is megapixels. But be aware that camera manufacturers have overhyped the importance of megapixels in order to encourage people to keep buying new cameras.

How important megapixels are to IQ depends a lot on your sensor and what you do with your images. If you mostly share online and make 4×6 prints, with maybe an occasional 8×10 enlargement, 12 or 16 megapixels is fine. This is especially true if your camera has a small sensor, because cramming more megapixels into that tiny space can actually hinder their light gathering ability. So it’s not necessarily true that more megapixels is always better.

More megapixels usually do improve IQ noticeably and usefully on larger sensors or if you like to make enlargements. The larger a print is the higher the megapixel count needs to be in order to retain fine details. High megapixel sensors are also helpful if you do a lot of significant cropping. The more you crop the more you reduce resolution. If you start with a high megapixel count you have more leeway before the final photo becomes too degraded.

The third is how well the sensor handles digital noise. All digital cameras produce some amount of noise, but most cameras on the market, even budget point and shoots, don’t produce a noticeable amount in good light when you can use a low ISO.

Noise becomes a problem in low light, and that’s when you see a very dramatic difference between inexpensive cameras and high-end cameras. Generally speaking, the larger a sensor is the higher you can boost ISO before getting significant image degradation. But even between full frame camera models from the same manufacturer there can be a noticeable difference in the amount of noise introduced at any given ISO.

A rule of thumb is to always use the lowest native ISO you can get away with in order to get the best IQ from your camera.

Lenses

Most photographers agree that lenses have a greater impact on IQ than the camera. If you have a limitless budget and can buy the best of both, great. But that isn’t most people.

Even when buying a point and shoot camera, paying extra for a model with a higher quality lens is a good idea if you can afford it. The drawback with point and shoots is that there aren’t many models to choose from with higher quality lenses, so there may be other aspects that make a different model more desirable despite having a lesser lens.

If you own or are shopping for an interchangeable lens camera the situation is much easier because you don’t have to buy a specific model just to get a better lens, and you can upgrade a lens later on without having to buy an entire new camera.

Really good lenses for ILCs aren’t cheap, but if you’re obsessed with IQ and you’re able to make the investment, this is where your money should go. Just moving from a kit lens to a higher quality lens can make a noticeable difference.

But it’s important to note there’s a point of diminishing returns. You might be comparing a very good lens that costs a few hundred to a similar superb lens that costs well over a thousand. It’s probably true that the more expensive lens produces better IQ, but is it one thousand dollars better? Probably not for most people. Usually only a persnickety photographer or a professional with specific needs considers the modest improvements to be worth the huge extra expense.

Start with yourself, not gear.

Wistfully pining after fancy photography gear is normal. But before you consider investing in better equipment, improve the IQ of your photos with the camera you already have. Most of what we covered here is within your control.

If you concentrate on the basics of photography, your technique, and shooting in the right conditions, along with using a tripod more often, you will get better photos without spending a dime. (Unless you need to buy a tripod!)

Learning good habits will not only improve the photos you’re taking now, it will also allow you to take full advantage of better gear when you do decide to upgrade. Poor technique with an expensive camera won’t get you anywhere.

IQ isn’t everything.

Also keep in mind that IQ isn’t the most important aspect of photography.

While the entire topic of this post has been things that contribute to improving IQ, it needs to be said that what makes a great photo great isn’t that it’s tack sharp or that it has enough resolution to make a billboard sized print.

What makes a photo great is light, composition, storytelling, and/or conveying a mood. A great photo is visually pleasing, or it makes the viewer think or feel emotion. High pixel counts and ultra sharp lenses can help, but they don’t usually make or break a photo.

A boring photo with perfect IQ is still a boring photo. An interesting photo with a flaw or two is still interesting.

Improving the IQ of our photos is a goal most of us have. It’s a worthy goal and an incrementally reachable goal. But it’s a hollow goal if we pursue it while ignoring other aspects of photography that are more important.

Expensive gear can make technically better images. Expensive gear can’t make you a better photographer. That part is up to you.

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Part 13:  Light, Time of Day, and Weather

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