If you are a newcomer to photography, or even just playing with a new DSLR, you are probably astounded by the image quality. But what if I was to tell you it’s not as good as it could be, and a few setting tweaks will improve image quality significantly? “How can that be?” I hear you cry.
Well, it comes down to the way cameras are set up by default. Camera manufacturers want the images that come from their cameras to look amazing straight from the memory card. However, this means that they do a lot of quite aggressive production to photos as they are created. This, in turn, degrades the image quality somewhat, meaning that there is little room for improvements to be made in post production. The more a file is worked on, the more its quality degrades.
To counter this, you can set up your camera to give you the optimum technical quality from your sensor, giving you much greater headroom for manipulation in post production. If you are only shooting for fun and displaying on an iPad, this might be irrelevant. But, if in the future you want to print your images or sell them, getting the best quality in-camera is important. So let’s take a look at those settings that you need to get right to improve image quality.
We kick off with the file format. Whilst it might seem like a good idea to reduce your image quality and files sizes to save space on your memory card, this is a false economy. Cards are very cheap these days, and by setting the maximum sizes and quality, you are future-proofing your images.
There are three things to consider when setting image quality:
1. File type
There are three general file types: 1) JPG 2) TIFF, and 3) RAW files. We will deal with RAW in a moment and you can for the most part not worry about TIFFs, which brings us to JPG. JPG is what is known as a “lossy” format. When the image is saved, the camera or computer makes a complicated calculation to compress the file. The more compression, the more degradation there is of the image. Typically the JPG image quality settings you will see are Basic, Normal and Fine. Unless memory is at an absolute premium, you should select Fine.
2. Image resolution
When shooting JPG, the other consideration you will have is image resolution. Many cameras will offer different formats and resolutions. As with file type, it is best to set the maximum resolution of your camera. In other words, if you have 18 megapixels, set it to 18 megapixels. You can always crop to a different format or size in post production.
A low resolution can give unsharp looking images that cannot be printed large
3. Image quality
The next settings to consider with JPG files are the in-camera adjustments such as sharpening, white balance, contrast, and saturation. By default, many cameras will set these quite high, in order to give you that (apparently) amazing image quality. However, these settings do degrade the image. Sharpening in-camera gives you little control if you want to enlarge your images for print at a later date. It is much better to switch this to a very low setting or to turn them off if possible. Post production techniques offer far better control of your sharpening, allowing you to get the right amount of detail for the image size. The sometimes aggressive sharpening in-camera can introduce artifactitng—that soft fuzzy (pixelated) halo you sometimes see in lower-resolution images.
The same is true of contrast and saturation. Turn these down to their minimum settings rather than using the camera defaults. Oversaturated pictures are particularly difficult to work with, and it is very easy to boost saturation in Photoshop or Lightroom.
An over-sharpened image. Set your in-camera sharpening to low or off.
Lastly, with JPGs we need to think about white balance. Our cameras are set up to measure this automatically, and are usually very accurate. However, in difficult lighting conditions, they can get it wrong, resulting in color casts in your images. These casts can be very difficult to remove in post production, very often leading to unnatural-looking shots. Your camera has a number of presets for color balance, usually found in the menu system. Typically, these range from Cloudy, Flash, Tungsten Light and Fluorescent Light. If you find that none of these presets are producing the results you want, you can even create your own custom white balance, very simply using a white card. You camera’s manual will explain exactly how to do this.
White balance is notoriously difficult to correct in JPGs
As you can see, with JPG files there is a lot to remember in order to get the optimum image quality. We have yet to talk about the other file format mentioned at the top: RAW. The reason that we have left this to last is simple: it does not apply any of the previously mentioned adjustments to your image. A RAW file is, as the name suggests, just the raw data from the sensor without any adjustments. All the adjustments are done by you in post production.
At first, this might seem quite daunting; however, image management software such as Adobe’s Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture were designed around the management of RAW files. They both contain tools to either adjust your RAW file manually or do a fully automatic correction, then allowing you to output it as a JPG or other file type. If you are worried about shooting RAW, many cameras these days will allow you to shoot both a RAW and a JPG. You can use this mode to get comfortable with shooting RAW, safe in the knowledge that you have the JPG file both to fall back on and to use as a reference when working on your RAW files in post production.
JPG, left; RAW, right. Enlarge them and RAW will be streets ahead
It takes just a few minutes to apply these setting your camera, but they will improve your image quality significantly. Whilst your images straight out of the camera may not look quite as good as before, with a little bit of editing in Photoshop or Lightroom, they will easily surpass the quality of the camera-processed images.