Achieving ultimate image quality*

*Both with what you own, and what you don’t.

This seeds of this article started to plant themselves in my mind during a recent assignment. It dawned on me that my shooing style had been slowly changing over the last few months; from trying to run and gun handheld with speed and (mostly) precision, I was now bolting everything down to a 5-series Gitzo Systematic, hydrostatic ball head and geared head, shooting at base ISO at optimum apertures and compositing my shots. Oh, and bringing in lighting. I can only suppose this represents the next step in my evolution as a photographer, as my work becomes increasingly skewed towards commercial and less documentary/ ad-hoc/ personal. (I, and my bank balance, can only hope that medium format isn’t next!)

That said, there’s a right and a wrong way to go about the technical aspects of shooting. I want to cover tips on how to obtain the maximum image quality from your equipment under three different scenarios: firstly, handheld with the gear you own; without upgrading or buying any more gear, and finally, a hypothetical what-if scenario if the sky was the limit. Shot discipline basically boils down to two things – support/ stability, and optics. The former resolve as camera shake issues; the latter as softness and a general lack of resolution. I’ll address both here.

Handheld and making do
This scenario assumes you don’t have a tripod, and you’re shooting available light.

1. Watch your shutter speed. Make sure you don’t fall below 1/2x 35mm focal length for critical applications, or 1/35mm focal length if you have no choice. If you have IS or VR, you can safely shoot at twice as long a shutter speed as without; just make sure you give the VR or IS system a second or so to lock in first.

2. Use Auto-ISO, if you can control it. Auto-ISO may be derided as being for amateurs, but the reality is that it helps you to maximize image quality by giving you precisely the sensitivity you need and nothing more; if you increase ISO beyond what you need to get a decent hand-holdable shutter speed, you’re going to also incur unnecessary noise. This of course assumes that your camera allows you to set the minimum shutter speed and maximum ISO; not all of them do. The better ones automatically default to 1/focal length.

3. Check focus. This seems obvious, but relying on your camera to decide what should be in focus is a huge mistake. Pick the AF point, make sure you’re using continuous AF in case you or your subject moves – for very fast lenses, less than a centimeter can make a huge difference to the final result. I typically tap the shutter a few times to confirm focus and even defocus a bit manually and reshoot if I’ve got time. Inevitably, there will be variations in sharpness between frames; sometimes due to camera shake, sometimes due to the focusing system. Especially at the edges; not all lenses are flat-field, and some may have field curvature issues to take into account.

4. Use optimal apertures. Spend some time figuring out at what apertures your lenses perform best, and how this changes if you’re focusing at the borders or edges. Very few lenses deliver optimal performance wide open. Some lenses can also move their point of best focus on stopping down (‘focus shift’); this matters because all AF systems focus with the lens wide open. It’s important to know that even if your depth of field at f8 covers focus shift, it might not extend in the direction you were expecting.

5. Control your breathing. Exhale slowly as you release the shutter; the camera is coupled to your body either via your face (viewfinder) or worse, held at arms’ length; if you’re breathing hard when you take the picture, this motion transfers to the camera, which results in shake and softness.

6. Shoot RAW. A no brainer: keep all the image data your camera can produce. Storage is cheap. Near misses are more frustrating than not having the opportunity to shoot something at all.

7. Nail exposure. Getting exposure right, or as close to it as possible in-camera minimizes noise from shadow recovery or posterization and odd colors from highlight recovery afterwards. It gives you the maximum amount of dynamic range to work with. Note that getting it ‘right’ doesn’t mean making it as close to the final desired exposure as possible, it almost always means exposing to the right so that the highlights just clip – this keeps as much of your shadow data out of the lower, noisy, bits of information as possible. You can always reduce the exposure later with no penalty to image quality, but it isn’t the same in reverse.

8. Shoot bursts. Bursts minimize the effects of jerky fingers on the button, as well as giving you a couple of extra shots as insurance. This is especially important under low-light (read: dodgy shutter speed) conditions, as well as fast-moving events where anything could happen.

9. Watch your stabilization system. Stabilizers all involve a moving element of some kind to counter motion – they don’t work well with high frequency motion, simply because there’s a limit to how fast things can reasonably move. If your shutter speed goes above a certain threshold – generally 1/1000s or so – then the moving parts in the camera can create a minor vibration that won’t cause visible shake in the image, but it will trigger the stabilization system to try and compensate for it – and it usually overcompensates, resulting in a double image as it snaps from one place to another. Turn it off if your shutter speed is high enough. At the opposite end of the spectrum, giving the stabilizer a second or two to ‘bed in’ before you shoot can make a huge difference to its effectiveness. Mashing the shutter all the way down simply does not give the stabilizer enough time to lock in.

10. Stand firm. If you can’t bring fixed support, then be your own support. Find something firm to brace the camera on, or at very least, have both feet firmly on the ground. Tiptoeing or holding an awkward angle is almost certainly going to result in camera shake.

11. Don’t jerk around. Be smooth when you release the shutter – roll your finger over it and gently press, don’t stab at it. Use the half press position to lock in or activate focus, then just add a little more pressure to release. You’ll be surprised how much difference this makes to the sharpness of your images.

Under ideal circumstances, but you’re not allowed to buy anything
This is effectively how I approach my current assignments. Note: many of you will be surprised by just how good the image quality from the current generation of compacts can be, if given enough light, careful exposure and used on a tripod. My earlier article on the use of compact cameras for professional work shows some examples of that – and at that point, we didn’t even have such interesting options as the Sony RX100.

1. Support is critical. Although I both of my tripods and heads are rated far beyond the maximum equipment load I have – a light Gitzo 1542 Traveller and a much heavier Gitzo 5562 Systematic, I seem to be using the 5562 all the time. It’s simply as sturdy as a rock: the thinnest leg section is about an inch in diameter, which is much better than metal for damping vibrations. I don’t even use a column; the head – a Manfrotto Hydrostat – is bolted directly to the large platform. This tripod is so sturdy I can sit on it (without the head, of course) and the thing doesn’t move or flex. Simply no comparison to shooting handheld – there’s just no way to obtain this level of stability or precision in framing. I can’t imagine doing commercial work handheld anymore.

2. Use base ISO. Covered above.

3. Use optimum apertures. Covered above. Note that when you’re shooting a high resolution camera on a tripod, diffraction becomes very obvious. Unless you have no choice, don’t stop down farther than you need to – you can actually make the image softer that way.

4. Bracket and composite. For scenes with large dynamic range, or elements so far apart that no depth of field at reasonable apertures will cover them, I find myself using multiple images – one for each distinct exposure or focus zone – and compositing them afterwards in Photoshop. Care has to be taken to make things look natural, too; HDR this is not. And you simply can’t do it without a good tripod.

5. Bring your own light. I’ve always said that without light, there is no photography. With good light, the most banal subject can appear arresting. So why rely on unknown or potentially insufficient or spectrally-odd light? I bring a set of speedlights, umbrellas and softboxes to every job. Not only do I know exactly what I’m getting color- and exposure- wise, bringing your own controllable light also allows you to increase your shutter speeds to further minimize the possibility of camera shake or subject motion. Use the maximum sync speed unless you need to blend in ambient light too.

6. Watch your shutter speeds. There are a few critical threshold levels for shutter speeds – some support systems or cameras have a range in which there are inevitably vibrations, no matter how stable the tripod; you can’t go below about 1/60s for a slowly moving person, or 1/500s for sport; other, faster, subjects may require even more shutter speed. Even if in theory you could get away with 1/500s to freeze motion, you will probably see a significant improvement at say 1/1000s.

7. Use manual white balance. Although modern AWB is pretty good, and current sensors have a large dynamic range, what doesn’t change is the fact that once a channel blows, you can’t recover the information. Most of the time, RAW converters are interpolating data from the photosites of non-blown channels and adjacent areas to guess what the color for the overexposed area should be. Shifting white balance too much can actually cause channels to blow, or require blown channels to be brought back under Level 255. If you get the white balance right out of camera, not only does this save you the hassle of having to do major color corrections later, but it also prevents false color and minimizes noise in individual channels.

8. Use live view to focus. Both the resolution and focusing system problems of the D800 have made it clear that for critical applications, live view focusing is the way to go. You can’t get any more accurate than focusing on the actual imaging plane. This also allows you to check depth of field and preview exposure; finally, no modern DSLR seems to have been designed with critical manual focus through the viewfinder in mind – the focusing screens simply lack ‘snap’ and are optimized to deliver a bright image with slow zooms. I have to admit, I initially didn’t see the point of live view, but on a tripod, for precision work, it makes perfect sense. Especially with a good LCD. Now, if only we could get Retina Displays on our DSLRs…

9. Shoot RAW. Covered above.

10. Nail exposure. Covered above.

11. Use a timer or mirror lockup. No point in having the most sturdy support system in the world, and then inducing vibration by moving the camera yourself when you trip the shutter. Either use the self timer, a remote release or mirror lockup (or preferably, all three) – this truly minimizes the amount of camera shake at the point of release, and allows any residual vibrations caused by the mirror cycling to die down before the shutter opens.

12. Limit the amount of optical intermediaries. Teleconverters, adaptors and extension tubes all introduce another set of mounts into the equation, not to mention possibly degrading image quality if there are optical elements involved. The perfect planarity of each mount surface is required to maximize image quality at the sensor plane – there’s no point in having a perfectly flat-field lens if the mount is at an angle!

13. Turn IS off. You just don’t need it if you’re shooting on a solid tripod and making your own light.

14. Limit the tilting and shifting. Even though tilt-shift lenses are designed with a much larger image circle than the format they’re meant to cover, like every other lens, the edges of this image circle are often far from perfect. Limiting your lens movements helps to avoid these areas.

Sky’s the limit…
Here’s what I would have if money were no object.

1. Full movements. If I could place my depth of field and focal plane precisely where I want it, I wouldn’t need to use large lights or very small apertures; Scheimpflug is your friend.

2. A large format back with enormous pixels. Large format for better DOF control; a single shot back (if anybody makes them that large for non-military use) with big pixels for fantastic dynamic range and color accuracy. Forget JPEG, RAW is all I need. And it should have a nice, high-resolution preview screen for critical focusing, too.

3. High CRI LED panels, and lots of them. Bringing my own light – with low weight, low power consumption, no chance of bulbs going pop, and good spectral transmission. Plus, the ability to preview the outcome of a particular lighting setup lets you work a lot faster.

4. Some serious support. I’m very happy with the Gitzo 5562 I’ve got now, but it seems that the combination is let down by the head. Specifically, not so much the rigidity of the head as the lack of precision in positioning; I think I need an Arca-Swiss Cube or D4.

5. Apochromatic lenses with leaf shutters. No loss in resolution due to CA; great color reproduction, and minimal camera shake thanks to a teeny shutter with very low mass.

5. A packhorse and/or a good chiropractor. Either it carries itself, or my spine is going to go…MT

____________

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Comments

  1. Ron Trooper says:

    Hi Ming,

    I am a little bit confused about light gatering capabilities….

    Which setup will have better light gahtering capabilites:

    FF cam + 1.8 lens
    Aps-c cam + 1.2 lens

    So which is the significant factor the bigger sensor or the larger aperture? Or can the larger aperture compensate the smaller sensor simpyl more light or cn the bigger sensor better use the smaller aperture 1.8 (more effective of less light!)??

    THX!

    • The aperture alone. The sensor is independent of this. The reason FX tends to do better than DX in low light is because for a given resolution, the pixels will be larger and thus individually be able to collect more light.

  2. Ming – I do mainly wildlife photography and am using auto white balance on a D800, picture control set to neutral with all settings ie sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue reduced to zero. I still find that the in camera JPEG rendering of the histogram is falsely presented as up to 1/2 EV higher than what the raw data actually shows in ACR. If I use the histogram to guide me outdoors, I land up underexposing my shots. I am wondering if I get the correct white balance that this might help with the JPEG renderings of the histogram. Is this correct or is there something else I can do other than go to uniwb which seems to add another layer of complexity.

    Have you written or could you consider teaching about how to set manual white balance outside of the studio ie what to do in situations where one might be shooting wildlife in the distance where the light may require a different white balance from the camera vantage point?

    Once again, thank you,
    Kim

    • JPEGs are based off 8-bit files; raw files are 14 bit. The extra headroom you see in ACR is an artefact of this. I generally overexpose slightly so there’s a small area blinking; with experience you know how much you can recover in PS.

      As for WB – I make a mental note of the scene and use the eyedropper in ACR.

  3. Another great article. Sky is the limit sounds like my old view camera with a piece of black and white film.:-)

  4. Superb article Ming! Very rich and informative.

    1) In terms of nailing exposure and exposing to the right of the histogram, if you were running and gunning and shooting aperture priority/spot metering, what do you think about setting exposure compensation to +1/3EV to ensure that highlights are “just clipped” as a default setting?

    2) For support, what kind of head did you use when you were into “birding?” I thought gimbal heads were the ultimate heads for nature shooting but have since learned that some serious “birders” have abandoned their Wimberly gimbals in favor of videographic fluid heads (like Sachtler). Any quick thoughts about that?

  5. Chuck Clark says:

    FINALLY someone who writes almost correctly about breathing! Breath out s l o w l y and your heart slows down, especially if you’re fit. Breath from the diaphragm and keep your ribcage steady. You may even be able to time your shots to between heartbeats as some gun shooters claim they do. I’m desperately unsteady in any event but the above does help. And, as a data point, active IS with a Nikon 70-200 in a bouncy Cessna 172 is surprisingly effective. Test, test, test…then test some more.

    CWC

  6. This is a great post; it has given me food for thought to extent I may go with a less expensive camera (maybe a D5100) and spend the money on a more robust tripod. I’m a retired amateur so money is an issue.

  7. Willi Kampmann says:

    As usual a thorough and informative post. However, your view on IS still puzzles me. I can only speak for the IBIS of Olympus’ OMD, but I think you are at the very least misleading in some instances:

    1) Long shutter speeds, IS and bursts do NOT mix well. As least on the OMD. I have tried it a couple of times and the results were always reproducible: Shooting bursts leads to blurry images when you use longer shutter speeds (and IS). Switch burst mode off and the images instantly become much sharper. I did not test IS off and burst on, but IS is much more useful anyway. I think the reason for this might be shutter shock: The closing of the shutter usually induces vibrations, which can be problematic even if you just shoot a single image. But when you are shooting a couple images in short sequence, the shutter closes much more often and hence the problem increases. I don’t know if the IS can’t counteract it or if it intensifies it, but in low light you should turn burst mode off. If you don’t have IS anyway you might try shooting bursts, but I’d be cautious. This definitely affects the OMD, but I’m pretty sure it’s a problem for all mirrorless cameras with IS (either optical or in-camera) because they are all affected by shutter shock (unless they use electronic shutters). DSLRs might behave differently.

    2) Turning IS off … why? There might have been problems with older IS systems, but I don’t think these problems still exist with new IS systems. I have never seen a photo that was blurred because the shutter speed was too high – I don’t say it will never happen, but I don’t think it’s a serious enough problem to justify always checking your IS. Just leave it always on and in 99% of the cases you’ll be fine. Same for slow shutter speeds: The OMD turns its IS system off automatically when shutter speeds are longer than 2 seconds. I imagine it might even do something similar with high shutter speeds. I’ve also heard that some IS systems can *detect* tripod use, though I don’t know how. IS systems are pretty complex, each one uses proprietary algorithms, and they constantly get better. I’m confident my camera knows best when to use IS and when not. Again, there might be differences between IBIS and OIS.

    The main problem I see here is that there are a lot of different types of cameras and IS systems, and some problems might only affect some of them. Regarding the two points I’ve mentioned above, if I had to guess I’d say the first is probably more of an EVIL problem and the second might be more of a problem for OIS systems than for IBIS. Since this IS topic is so complex, I don’t think general tips regardless of camera type are really useful (see 1).

    • Thanks Willi.
      1. Perhaps you have steadier hands than I do, but I find that bursts are definitely better. I seem to induce camera roll when pressing the button regardless of IS on or not; the IS helps counter that regardless of camera. Not being able to change hands means I can’t really test this.
      2. It still exists with the Nikon and Canon IS systems. Maybe not with Olympus, but the majority of IS systems users out there aren’t shooting OM-Ds – which I agree, has one of the most advanced and useful systems I’ve tried.

      As with everything, there will never be an one-size fits all…

      • Willi Kampmann says:

        The main argument I was trying to make is that I believe tips about the use of IS should not be generalized because those systems are so different from each other on a technical level. All other points in your article are excellent and generally valid – no matter what camera type you have, following these rules will likely yield better results. But even if the majority of IS systems behaves a certain way, there are still some IS systems that work differently and might even be negatively affected.

        Maybe I’m nitpicking here, but I feel like this is a definitive guide to mastering your camera and some points might actually decrease image quality on certain camera models. For example, you mention Nikon and Canon as being similiar. Both use OIS, so is this behaviour inherent to OIS or is it their implementation? What about other OIS implementations? What’s the practical difference to IBIS systems? Unfortunately, I don’t have any data myself on which types of IS have which characteristics or which types don’t work well with bursts or shutter speeds. So if I were to recommend this list to someone I would tell them that YMMV on #8 and #9.

        In case this wasn’t clear: Apart from this, the list is really great! Some points seem obvious, yet one tends to forget sometimes in the heat of the moment. I’ve never even thought about my breathing when taking pictures! So thanks for that.

        • I’m flattered you think it’s definitive – there is no such thing as that because technology and technique changes all the time.

          What I’ve written holds true for almost all cameras I’ve used. The only exception seems to be the OM-D. I definitely get better results under a number of circumstances when you turn the IBIS off with other in-body cameras – the earlier Pens, for starters. If Nikon/ Canon were to start using 5-axis gyros to augment their OIS Yates, who knows?

          • plevyadophy says:

            If I may chime in here, rather late in this discussion, I think there really is a difference between how you handle non-IS systems and OIS and IBIS systems (from what I have read, evidence I have seen, and my own experience).

            ~ Shoot in bursts

            That is sound advice.

            If I am shooting a static subject, control my breathing, and brace myself, and shoot in bursts, I can get down to about 1/15 second with a 100mm lens and of course a shorter focal length length is more forgiving.

            Now,I understand there is an issue with mirrorless, and it seems from all that I have read, a problem more noticeable (or at least more discussed) with Oly MILCs (mirrorless interchangeable cameras). I think the problem stems from the fact that the shutter has to move twice as often as that on a DSLR to make an exposure (it remains open for live view – closes to initialise exposure/flush sensor – opens to start exposure – closes to end exposure – then opens again to return live view). That’s one hell of a lot of shutter movement,which has to move (accelerate and decelerate) at breakneck speed. It’s this multiple movement of the shutter that leads to what users have termed “shutter shock”; and given how tiny mFT bodies are I would hazard a guess that the shock isn’t damped very well and is therefore easily transmitted to the sensor/image.

            With the later models of mFT (micro Four Thirds), in what seems like an attempt to compete, on the spec sheet, with DSLRs, shutter speeds have been increased (off the top of my head, I think the OM-D and Panny GH3 are now at something like 6 fps). Personally, I think these speeds are way too fast for MILCs unless some very effective measures are employed to minimise “shutter shock”. Oly as far as I am aware, have employed an option within the camera, a delay (separate from the usual countdown timer), that is akin to a DLSRs mirror-lockup feature whilst Panny have opted for an electronic shutter for certain shutter speeds in their GH3. I have read of users complaining that Oly’s method isn’t an effective solution and others who have said that they find it useful.

            I have a view,perhaps flawed I dunno, that fast shutter speeds, whilst nice to have, simply stresses your camera too much so on any camera I have, if at all possible, I set the custom function to reduce the max shutter speed. I would argue that the shutters of MILCs are under even more stress and therefore I wouldn’t recommend shooting the OM-D or GH3 at their fastest frame-rate unless absolutely necessary. If, as I suggest, one reduces the shutter speed of these cameras there is an added benefit i think, and that is that one miminises shutter shock and therefore one is able to employ successfully the burst mode technique to overcome camera shake at low shutter speeds.

            Willi Kampmann above says that he finds shooting bursts with IBIS enabled on his OM-D doesn’t work at all well. The OMD has a number of options, if my memory serves me correctly, that enables the user to determine how the stabilisation is employed. Correct me if I am wrong,but amongst the numerous configuration options on this camera are options to determine whether the IBIS is continually trying to stabilize the image or whether it is invoked only at the moment of capture when the shutter is tripped. I have not experimented with this (as I don’t yet own an OMD) but I would suggest that OMD users experiment with these IBIS options to see which of them is compatible with shooting in bursts without detrimental affects on image quality.

            Certainly, without image stablisation shooting in bursts when working at slow shutter speeds is very effective; and I believe it also works fine with in-lens stabilisation systems (well for Nikon it seems to).

            ~ Fast shutter speeds and I.S.

            In support of Ming’s assertion on this point, I think there is good evidence to show that at certain fast shutter speeds having I.S.engaged can make a mess of your images.

            I think I once read the results of a detailed test of this phenomenon over at Lloyd Chambers’ blog (DigLloyd).

            ~ Tripods and I.S.

            Canon themselves (Nikon too?) have O.I.S. systems that automatically switch themselves off when the camera is mounted to a tripod. Willi Kampmann asks how they do this/how is this possible, well I would hazard a guess that it is quite simple; the O.I.S. expects to counteract hand tremor and if it finds that the camera is being held extremely steady, far steadier than an average person could ever hold a camera, then the sensors will “know” that the camera is being supported and switch themselves off. Whilst this feature exists on some lenses there are a great many current, and rather expensive lenses, that don’t have this feature so Ming’s general advice to switch I.S. off if working from a tripod is good advice (obviously, if one has the new iteration of I.S. employed on one’s lenses one wold simply ignore this advice)

            The OMD I.B.I.S. system may well also switch itself off if it detects a tripod is being used or it may well be that in-body stabilisation systems are not as sensitive to the issue of tripod use as in-lens systems are. I dunno. Perhaps one would have to investigate how Sony and Pentax deal with tripod use for their in-body stabilisation sysems.

            Regards to all,
            plevyadophy

  8. Excellent article – really enjoyed it thx Ming.

    Just wondering what head you have for your Gitzo 1542 Traveller? I was looking at getting one and thought the GH1780QR looked good.

    • That’s precisely the head I’ve got at the moment. I’ve also got a Manfrotto 468MG RC2 Hydrostat and a Manfrotto 410 geared head, which I use interchangeably depending on the assignment. The Gitzo is preferable for keeping the weight down, though – even if it isn’t as sturdy as the Hydrostat or as precise as the 410.

  9. djoko susanto says:

    Hi Ming,
    This is very good article, what you think about zone focussing for street photography ?

    • I presume you’ve seen this article? I do it when I’ve got enough light and I know my DOF will be sufficient to cover the critical portions, but msot of the time I use zone focusing as a way to reduce the pre-shoot time and get me into the right ballpark distance faster.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] ***We’re talking sufficiency here, not ultimate image quality. [...]

  2. [...] Thein btw also recently had a nice article on this issue: Achieving ultimate image quality* Sadly he only mentions he has good hand holding techniques, he doesnt say which. Nikon [...]

  3. [...] *Both with what you own, and what you don’t. This seeds of this article started to plant themselves in my mind during a recent assignment. It dawned on me that my shooing style had been slowl…  [...]

  4. [...] This seeds of this article started to plant themselves in my mind during a recent assignment. It dawned on me that my shooing style had been slowly changing over the last few months; from trying to run and gun handheld with speed and (mostly) precision, I was now bolting everything down to a 5-series Gitzo Systematic and hydrostatic ball head, shooting at base ISO at optimum apertures and compositing my shots. Oh, and bringing in lighting. I can only suppose this represents the next step in my evolution as a photographer, as my work becomes increasingly skewed towards commercial and less documentary/ ad-hoc/ personal. (I, and my bank balance, can only hope that medium format isn’t next!)  [...]

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