Monday, August 5, 2013

How To Get Maximum Image Quality From Any Digital Camera: Part 1

The LCD screen gives all shooting information at a glance.
 About "How To Get Maximum Image Quality From Any Digital Camera"

"How To Get Maximum Image Quality From Any Digital Camera" is a three part series. In Part 1 we will look at setting up the camera body, using the built in menu settings, to get as much information into each image file as the camera is capable of capturing. Part 2 looks at how our choice of lens and lens settings affect image quality. Shooting technique and camera handling make up Part 3 of this series.

What Is Maximum Image Quality?

My definition of maximum image quality is the file that will allow the largest possible photographic quality print from any given camera and lens combination. This will vary from camera to camera and from lens to lens. It might mean a 8"x12" or 13"x19" print from a 6 megapixel sensor or a 16"x24" or 24"x36" print from a 12-18 megapixel camera. Maximum image quality requires capturing the maximum amount and maximum quality of visual information possible for each camera and lens when the shutter is tripped. Getting the most information into each camera image file involves a combination of camera capture settings, lens settings and shooting techniques to take best advantage of both.

The Most Important Camera Settings For Best Quality

*File Recording Format
File recording quality/format screen

All DSLR's and many compact "point & shoot" cameras offer the choice to save image files as either .jpg or RAW format files. For maximum image quality, choose the RAW file format. This file type saves all of the information recorded by the image sensor in the camera. It offers greater bit depth than .jpg files(often 12, 14 or 16 bit depth instead of 8 for .jpg). RAW files also offer more and less destructive options for optimizing the image, similar to "developing" a film image, than are available for .jpg files. After "developing" in a RAW file editor such as Adobe Camera RAW or whatever came packaged with your camera, save the files in the native software format or as .tif files to retain maximum bit depth and information content. Be sure to also save the original RAW file to retain the option of going back at a later time to "develop" it in a different way.

*Color Recording Format
Color recording format/color space screen
Most cameras offer a variety of formats for recording the color information in a photo file. When available, AdobeRGB has the largest usable amount of color information and should be used. The next best option is usually standard RGB format, with a few other options having smaller and more restricted color spaces sometimes offered.

*Show The Exposure Histogram
Histogram screen set to display Red, Green & Blue histograms
All digital cameras offer the choice to show an exposure histogram on the LCD display on the back of the camera body. If possible, choose the histogram that shows individual graphs for red, blue and green. On these graphs, most exposure is on the right and least exposure is on the left. Try to keep each frame within the boundaries of the graph to avoid black areas with no detail and blank white areas. Frames without a full range should be biased as much as possible towards the right, as more exposure equals more information.

*About Image Stabilization

Image stabilization is turned OFF when on a tripod
Some camera systems have image stabilization built into the camera body in the form of a moveable sensor. Other camera systems incorporate image stabilization into individual lenses. Either way, if you mount your camera on a solid tripod the stabilization feature should be turned off. Stabilization should always be turned on whenever hand-holding the camera: all of the current types of image stabilization work quite well and there is no reason to ignore it when there is any possibility of camera movement during an exposure.

*ISO Speed

The lowest possible ISO speed should always be set for any exposure unless there are special reasons(such as wanting a noisy/grainy look) to use a higher speed. When the camera is tripod mounted this means an ISO that gives a shutter speed just fast enough to stop any subject movement during exposure. For hand-held work, the shutter speed must be fast enough to eliminate both camera and subject movement during exposure. Slower ISO speeds equate to more detail and sharpness and less noise/grain. This is especially true for smaller sensors in compact "point & shoot" cameras. Even in the very latest cameras, files shot at ISO 800 cannot equal the resolution and detail of files shot at ISO 200.

Following the above recommendations for  camera set-up will ensure that your camera is giving you the best photo files it is capable of producing. Of course there will be times when a faster per-second frame rate is needed and .jpg files are necessary or when ISO 1600 is the only possible way to get the shot. I am certainly not saying don't do that and miss the shot, just understand that those files may not be of the same quality and will not print to as large a size. This is especially true if major color correction or other types of editing need to done on the file. Greater bit depth allows more image manipulation without ill effect on the file.