Repost: Achieving visual consistency

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Cue one from the archives, with updated images: tomorrow’s post will make more sense when viewed in context after this…

One of the questions I’m asked also (unsurprisingly) happens to be one of the biggest challenges for a lot of people: how to achieve visual consistency across multiple systems/ cameras/ media, and across multiple subjects. Though the latter is really getting into the question of what constitutes style and how can one consistently apply it, there are still things you can do to ensure that you are in control of the final presentation: not your camera. I certainly cannot tell a client ‘sorry, it looks different because I used two different cameras.’

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Light and composition: the photographic fundamentals
There is simply no way to escape the fact that all photographs are visual: this means that what your audience sees are solely visual cues, nothing else; if the perspective is approximately the same, the level of contrast is consistent, and the direction of light is consistent, then it’s actually extremely difficult to tell what equipment was used if all of the images are mixed together and reproduced at a size that doesn’t exceed the limits of the lowest camera. In order to have control over this, you need to have control over the actual image making process: images must be first made in your own mind before they can be translated (made permanent, perhaps?) to a photograph. (I break down this process in a systematic way and in much more detail in the Making Outstanding Images video series.) If you consistently train your eyes to see the same way – noticing strong color contrasts, for instance; or juxtapositions of texture; or potentially low key scenes only – then you’ll find the end compositions are remarkably similar. Metering plays a huge role in this, because more than anything, the overall brightness of a scene determines the mood impressed upon your audience.

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Have an end in mind
It’s important to know how you want your final output to look: if not, the image you capture won’t necessarily contain enough information for you to get to the right end point. Then you’re going to start experimenting in postprocessing (“it’s grainy and dark so I’ll make it black and white” is perhaps one of the most common examples) which results in each image being different in mood and feel. Have a vision; I always shoot to produce the files I need to do the necessary processing to get to the end result I want. It’s also one of the reasons I will never release unfinished raw files: that’s like a chef serving partially cooked food.

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Learn the idiosyncrasies of your cameras
Once you can clearly visualize the final image in your own mind, the next step is wrangle the camera into doing what you want it to. This means taking control, and being fully conscious of how the camera is behaving in any given situation: you want it to behave the way you expect, not deliver a surprise at the decisive moment. It is therefore imperative to practice, test and experiment with your gear to see how it behaves under a variety of situations; this allows you to adjust whatever settings and custom functions are necessary in a non-critical environment. Though most modern cameras are quite well behaved, the complexity of autofocus and matrix metering systems can often produce strange results in the real world if the camera happens to encounter a situation which the designers never tested it for. It’s also worth noting that the higher the resolution, the more critical autofocus accuracy and predictability becomes – otherwise your image may well be a large but garbage file if things are even slightly out of focus. Unfortunately, the only way to truly be certain of the outcome is to go entirely manual – that’s fine for exposure, but modern DSLRs are somewhat challenging to focus due to their poor focusing screens. The good news is that EVF cameras tend to actually be easier to focus due to peaking, showing actual depth of field, magnification, stabilizers etc. On top of that, they can also easily show areas of overexposure – which DSLRs cannot.

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Select your lenses and formats carefully
There is a reason why conventional wisdom dictates spending more on glass: there really wasn’t much optical correction possible in the days of film. Even so, there are some optical aberrations we can fix, and others we can’t: distortion, vignetting, some lateral chromatic aberration, and to some extent, color, are all fine; in fact, a lot of manufacturers already apply software correction in-camera. There are some things that cannot be fixed, however: resolving power, microcontrast and tonal gradation, for starters. If you want images that have that consistency of ‘bite’, it’s best to start with lenses that can deliver those results in the first place. This is one of the reasons I have so many Zeiss lenses, and try to adapt things to my X1D – I have consistency of look from the glass, and consistency of tonality from the sensor. At least a fairly consistent starting point with a good latitude of tonal information allows me to easily get results to a consistent output style. Granted, PS can be a great equalizer in the right hands, but why make life difficult? I’d rather spend time shooting than processing…

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Consistency of workflow and software packages
…And that neatly brings me to the next point: even though certain specific software packages might deliver optimum results for a given camera, limitations within those software packages mean that they either a) do not work for other brands, limiting your lens and sensor choices; b) are missing mission critical tools; c) lack local adjustments. To this day, the only software package that has both the necessary flexibility and ability to deliver consistent results across the range of cameras I use remains Photoshop and Adobe Camera Raw. It does not always deliver the best possible raw conversions, however I find that it does deliver the best consistency of final output. Though you can suggest that I do the conversion in one software and then do final finishing in PS, there are tools within ACR which are lacking elsewhere – the extreme flexibility of gradients, for instance – which are very difficult to replicate afterwards in PS. And on top of that, there’s the time factor: the more time spent messing around with software, the less shooting you’re going to do. Professional demands on throughput aside, given that most of the image is created in camera – postprocessing can only enhance the presentation, not add missing light or subject elements – it would make sense to allocate more time there. I’ve spent plenty of time already refining this workflow; to save you the time, it’s available in introductory and intermediate flavors.

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Postprocess in close proximity
Related to consistency of workflow is how you do your processing. Consider the output of one shoot – say 200-300 files. If you process them at one sitting, then fatigue might well compromise results by the time you hit the second hundred. If you process them months apart, it’s going to be difficult to remember what you did with earlier batches, especially as there may be a lot of adjustments to make if you want to achieve a certain look. I find that processing them in batches as frequently as you can – stop when you get tired – is the best way to balance quality, speed and consistency. On top of that, if you leave your processing for too long, you may well be unable to remember the final image you visualized at the time of capture.

Avoid filters and software effects
By using somebody else’s presets, you’re effectively handing over creative control to the software developer. Even if by some means of magic I created a ‘Ming filter’ that made any image look like one of mine in color, contrast and light, I would not encourage other people to use it: simply because the way I see ties in to the way I shoot which again leads to a certain end result. Different compositions may not suit that style. Simply, everybody sees a different way, leading to the end intention of every image being different – and the circumstances at the time of capture are always different. So how can you apply the same filter and expect a consistent (and good) result?

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Shot discipline
I’ve said a lot about this already in a couple of previous articles here and here. Shot discipline breaks down into a few things: stability, focus, exposure, and resolution. Stability is about ensuring that you do not move in a way the camera can resolve; either by keeping shutter speeds high or having a very solid tripod. Minimum shutter speeds for handholding are proportional to pixel pitch. Focus is self explanatory, I think. Correct exposure for digital is all the way to the right of the histogram, to the point where a small area just clips; you need to do this in order to have the most information to work with in postprocessing. Finally, resolution isn’t about your sensor: it’s about using your lens at optimum apertures for both the lens’ design, as well as the pixel pitch of your sensor – i.e. before diffraction starts reducing resolution. The smaller your pixels, the sooner this happens. For instance, optimum working apertures of a 4.8-micron D800E with an f2.8 pro zoom are just f4-f8, or perhaps f11. In essence, the higher the image quality potential of your camera, the harder you’re going to have to work for it. Smaller and smaller ‘misses’ in focus, stability or exposure will be more obvious at the pixel level; I suggest picking a resolution that is perhaps one size up from your normal output size, otherwise you’re going to be frustrated every time you open a file. There is no point in dealing with larger files that contain no additional information.

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A rigorous editing process
This step is the one that’s most often missed: your final control over an image is a simple one: show or not show. We as photographers are only judged on what we show, not what we shoot. If it doesn’t ‘fit’ with the intention, theme, or the rest of the set, then don’t include it. Simple, right?

Collectively, all of the items on this list make up what is thought of by the pros as ‘workflow’ – from capture to output, whether that output is digital media, print or even film/ negatives. The more defined your workflow is, the more easily repeatable you can make it; and that almost reflexive handling of situations in the viewfinder and in PS is what’s required to achieve consistency. I’m going to end with one note and a little demonstration: if you click on any of the images to take you to their flickr landing pages, you can see that none of the images in this post were shot with the same camera – they weren’t even all digital 🙂 MT


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  1. But…but why look for consistency! Unless these images form a visual set, or we are trying to establish a certain brand for ourselves. That Ming Thein’s look of Jayant Mahto’s look (not really in the same league but just for explanation 🙂 ).

    I always loved your pictures and thinking about it, they do have a consistent look. But then I imagine how a 15mm dramatic cityscape may look like from Ming! That will be worth waiting. 🙂

    • typo above. “Ming Thein’s look or…

    • Because if you don’t have consistency or control, you don’t have a good way of expressing your intentions. Commercially, you can’t establish a visual style for your clients, or yourself.

      I don’t do 15mm cityscapes, it doesn’t work for me.

  2. Gustavo Camarena says:

    Flickr info says all images are from a Nikon D850 and 24-120 f4.

    • They are, in this case – I updated the visuals when reposting. However it doesn’t change the fact that light, subject etc change and consistency is still a valid question…

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