Read part 1 of this 2 part feature article here.
Intro: As stated in the first part, 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…
Image stabilisation: This is a game changer for me. When I replaced my beloved 80-200 f/2.8 Nikon lens for the 70-200 f/2.8 VR (vibration reduction) my image quality from wedding shoots was instantly improved. It was not the optical resolution that made the difference. I tested the two lenses extensively and they were both acceptably sharp when used on a tripod. Modern IS or VR has about a four stop advantage and I find I can get acceptably sharp pictures from my 100mm macro L f/2.8 IS lens at just 1/15th of a second with the camera hand held. In camera stabilisation is ever increasing in popularity with the excellent Olympus 5 axis on sensor stabilisation widely regarded as one the best.
Subject movement: IS or VR does not reduce subject movement and is no replacement for a large aperture when shooting moving subjects like people. Using a fast standard prime lens at f/2 with a corresponding shutter speed of 1/125th second is likely to produce a better quality portrait than using a regular standard zoom lens with image stabilisation wide open at f/4 with a shutter speed of 1/30th second. The prime lens will be cheaper too. With telephoto lenses IS or VR becomes more of a valuable asset.
Tip: If you are in doubt what settings to choose when using an image stabilised lens slide all the switches away from you towards the front of the lens. This is the most useful set up for regular use. This is an unwritten convention used by Canon, Nikon and other manufacturers. It saves having to remember what stabilisation mode 1 and mode 2 is etc.
Camera stabilisation: For many subjects a tripod is a must, but for portraiture I prefer to work hand held or with a monopod. Being able to hold a camera steady is an absolute basic skill that needs practice and greatly affects image quality. When I’m not using IS or VR lenses over 50mm I nearly always use a monopod. I find that I can get acceptably sharp images at 1/30th second with my Fujifilm X-E2 and its non IS 60mm lens when I use a monopod and my subject is still. I usually use a shutter speed equivalent of one over four times the focal length when I’m using X series lenses. So for hand held shots with the 60mm lens I usually set 1/250th second to get crisp images time and time again. The old adage we used to use of a shutter speed equal or greater than 1/focal length just doesn’t work with the resolution of modern sensors.
Sensor size and sensitivity: This is a big one. It used to be the case that as sensor size increases so does image quality, or so it was, but there are other factors too. Sensitivity is one of them and it is a biggie for my kind of work. Medium format sensors tend not to have the sensitivity of sensors half their size or even smaller, and often deliver poor results at ISO1600 and above where modern APSC cameras like the Fuji X100s excels. The even smaller micro four thirds system has come a long way too and is increasingly used by many professionals for all kinds of shooting. The organic CMOS sensors that have been developed jointly by Fujifilm and Panasonic [ref] are likely to hit the market in 2014 and are set to be a game changer with their estimated 3 stop signal to noise advantage over traditional CMOS. It is likely that image quality of the current crop of full frame DSLRs will be eclipsed by an APSC camera with half the sensor area.
Image processing: I’ve spent as many years working with film as I have with digital processing and I used to take a lot of care in producing good negatives to print from. The printing process was quite involved and every Lovegrove print was produced by hand. All our images had the benefit of burning and dodging and this gave our wedding albums a unique look. Most of our contemporaries in the days of film were using one of the many commercial labs machine printing services. I must admit I prefer a hand print from a film negative to a typically processed digital image. There’s way too much skin softening and sharpening in the majority of digital prints I see these days. It’s all personal taste but with digital files the damage can be permanent. My advice is if you are altering people or places in pictures keep a set of straight processed files too. These will soon be far more valuable when real images are finally back in demand.
Computer screen: The single most important bit of kit for IQ in post production, apart from your eyes, is the computer screen. Ideally a screen should display all the colours in your chosen working colour space. It should have a matte anti glare surface and a hood. Great screens displaying 97% – 100% of Adobe RGB can be bought for about £1000. A screen must be calibrated with a hardware device. The consequences of editing on a bad or uncalibrated screen are catastrophic. All the images will have errors that might not be repairable without starting again from the original RAW file.
Eyes: Not everyone has perfect colour vision. It is worth having your eyes checked thoroughly (not just for a glasses prescription) if you are going to be editing pictures. In the days of film, labs did all the colour adjusting, nowadays it is left to the photographer or a dedicated editor. A good editor understands skin tones and should be able to ensure a consistent look throughout a body of work like a wedding album.
Wacom tablet: This device gives me the freedom to be light with my editing strokes. Ever since 1998 I’ve used a Wacom tablet to edit my images. It just works so well and the pressure sensitivity feature is amazing when using brushes.
RAW conversion: There are a handful of independent RAW processing packages like the renowned Capture One, plus there are the camera manufacturers’ own RAW processing packages that come bundled with their cameras. Users of these software packages are often fiercely loyal and claim to achieve a high image quality output. Lightroom and Aperture are still the front runners. I find Lightroom 5.3 more than adequate for my needs.
I do however have one little step in my workflow that has no impact on image quality but is worth mentioning. I use an old version of Photo Mechanic to quickly view, select and rename my raw files so that I only have to load a fraction of my images into Lightroom. Photo Mechanic uses the jpeg previews recorded within the RAW file to show the image. Waiting for Lightroom previews to build or load is an annoyance in the otherwise smooth operation.
After the digital images have been adjusted in Lightroom they are exported as 16 bit tiffs in the Adobe RGB colour space for import into Photoshop. Once any final Photoshop adjustments have been made the files are saved as 8 bit tiffs and archived along with the selected camera RAW files. If no Photoshop work is needed they go straight to 8 bit tiffs. This is not the only system that works, far from it, but it does ensure that I get the image quality I demand in my prints.
Film is seeing a bit of a resurgence right now and having shot it for twenty years of my life I’m happy in the knowledge that digital capture done well can deliver more pleasing results without the hassle.
I’m sure this post will raise many questions. Please feel free to add your tips but please keep the conversation on track. See part one of this feature length article here.
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