Intro: I’m in no way a self proclaimed expert in these matters and I do recognise that there are many other systems to use when making photographs other than the ones I’ve highlighted in this feature. However, I do produce prints with a high image quality and the process that I use works for me. Every step of the journey from the concept of the image to the production of the print has a role to play.
Photographer: We often think of image quality as a technical thing but no amount of high end cameras lenses and equipment can make up for poor composition and lighting. No matter how sharp a picture is or how many pixels it has, the biggest factor in image quality will always be the photographer. By far the best way to improve an image is to improve the ability of the photographer. The mark of a great photographer is not just exhibited in a few of their pictures, it is in every photograph they make using a high end DSLR or a smartphone alike.
Image: The photographer sees the potential photograph, the lens converts the three dimensional scene into a two dimensional image and the camera just records it. Then comes post production and print making. The equipment and techniques used at every stage of this process affects the resulting image quality. It’s like a chain that is only as strong as it’s weakest link. The camera is the least important part of the capture process except for specialist subjects like sport. It is impossible to tell what type or make of camera was used for any of these pictures. However the quality and characteristics of the lens is written in every image it creates.
Lighting: Contrast, direction, colour, quality, texture and tone are all properties of, or affected by, light. A well lit subject can look fabulous when photographed on a mobile phone, a poorly lit subject will look rubbish even if it is photographed on the latest medium format camera. My advice is study light and learn how to master it.
Lens quality: I’m not one to study MTF charts and lens statistics, I prefer to study real prints of normal subjects. I leave the optical analysis to the boffins. It comes as no surprise though that the more expensive a lens is, the better the image quality is likely to be. I’ve found this to be almost always true over the last twenty five years or so although I did have a super fast 50mm lens costing ten times the price of another basic 50mm lens and I preferred the image quality and consistent sharpness of the cheaper lens. So there is certainly reason to choose your kit carefully. Generally speaking, buy the best lenses you can afford. Typically an $800 lens on a $300 camera will produce better photographs than a $300 lens on a $800 camera.
Zoom or Prime? I have regularly made the switch from zoom lenses to prime lenses and visa versa. After using many prime lenses in my film days, I first shot primes with a digital camera when I bought my Hasselblad H2 and Phase One digital back in 2005. I used a set of four lenses to capture pictures with a fabulous image quality. I had 22 million pixels in a large sensor and the results were stunning. I then went back to zooms when I switched to a Canon 5D2, again with 22 million pixels and I soon switched back to prime lenses once more. I must say that my Canon 5Dmk2 coupled with prime lenses is every bit as good as my medium format kit was 8 years ago – such is the advancement in lens quality and image sensors. I now use both zooms and primes on my Fuji X-E2 and X-Pro1 cameras. The differences between the lenses is now mainly one of usability. Modern zoom lenses are perfectly capable of capturing the fine detail, contrast and clarity of primes.
Lens focus micro adjustment: If you use a DSLR no matter what lens you have it needs to be correctly paired with the camera body. Mirrorless users can ignore this section as their focus systems are absolute and never need calibration. On my Canon 5D mk2 I have had to set the focus micro adjustment for each of my three lenses using the custom menu in the camera. I put a steel tape measure on my table and align a pencil with the 1m mark on the tape. I mount the camera on a tripod and shoot a frame of the pencil at my regular working aperture of f/2.8 from my usual working distance of 2 metres. I can then zoom in on the captured image to see if the camera has correctly focussed on the pencil. If not, I can check if it is back or front focussed by looking at the tape measure markings in the image. I then adjust the focus setting as required and confirm my results with a real test shoot. All my lenses have needed some adjustment and not in the same direction either. You can buy test equipment that does the calibration for you but it really isn’t necessary if you have a bit of time to invest. Once the job is done that’s it, you can forget about it.
I’m sure this post will raise many questions. Please feel free to add your tips but please keep the conversation on track. Part 2 is coming soon and will cover Image and camera stabilisation, sensor size and sensitivity, image processing, computer screens, photographers eyes and RAW conversion in general.
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