IQ ~ A back to basics guide to photographic image quality

Intro: I’m in no way a self proclaimed expert in these matters and I do recognise that there are many ways to make pictures and systems to use that differ from the ones I’ve highlighted in this feature. However, I do produce prints with a high image quality and the processes that I use work for me. I do hope you can find them useful too.

1. Canon 5D mk2, 100mm f/2.8, ISO 125, 1/125th second at f/18 This simple ballet inspired shot of Johanna was lit with three gridded studio lights.

Photographer: We often think of image quality as a technical thing but no amount of high end cameras lenses and equipment can make up for poor composition and lighting. No matter how sharp a picture is or how many pixels it has, the biggest factor in image quality will always be the photographer. The best way to improve an image is to improve the ability of the photographer.

Image: The photographer sees the potential photograph, the lens creates the image and the camera records the file. The photographer then processes that file and makes a print. Every stage of this process and the equipment used affects the resulting image quality. It’s like a chain that is only as strong as it’s weakest link.

2. Canon 5D mk2, 100mm f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/125th second at f/16 I took this one light portrait of Chloe Jasmine Whichello during the filming of my Lighting Studio Portraits DVD.

Lighting: Contrast, direction, colour, quality, texture and tone are all properties of, or affected by, light. A well lit subject can look fabulous when photographed on a mobile phone, a poorly lit subject will look rubbish even if it is photographed on the latest medium format camera.

Lens quality: I’m not one to study MTF charts and lens statistics, I prefer to study real prints of normal subjects. I leave the optical analysis to the boffins. It comes as no surprise though that the more expensive a lens is, the better the image quality is likely to be. I’ve found this to be almost always true over the last twenty five years or so. One 50mm lens costing four times the price of another 50mm lens is not going to be four times as good. It will be better but not necessarily that much better, so there is certainly reason to choose your kit carefully. Generally speaking, buy the best lenses you can afford.

3. Canon 5D mk2, 100mm f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/125th second at f/11 This shot of Sal was also taken for the DVD. You can clearly see the effect of using a wide intimate light in conjunction with a long lens. It creates the rim shadow on Sal’s arms.

Zoom or Prime? I have recently once again made the switch from zoom lenses to prime lenses. I first did this when I bought my Hasselblad H2 and Phase One digital back in 2005. I used a set of four prime lenses to capture pictures with a fabulous image quality. I had 22 million pixels in a large sensor and the results were stunning. I then went back to zooms when I switched to Canon and I’ve finally ended up with 22 million pixels and prime lenses once more. I must say that my Canon 5Dmk2 coupled with prime lenses is every bit as good as my medium format kit was six years ago – such is the advancement in lens quality and image sensors. I noticed a big change when I recently switched from zooms to primes, mainly in the fine detail, contrast and clarity recorded. I lost the convenience of zooms but gained absolute sharpness. The latest generation of zooms are fabulous but I have found that they come into their own at f/4. I’ve spent many years shooting at f/4 and now that I’m on primes I find I’m getting similar or better resolution at f/2.8. I much prefer the f/2.8 look and now that I have startling clarity from my primes I’m happy to shoot at that aperture all the time.

4. Canon 5D mk2, 50mm f/1.2, ISO 100, 1/125th second at f/11 This shot of Katy is also featured on the Lighting Studio Portraits DVD and was lit with three studio flash lights.

Lens focus micro adjustment: No matter what lens you have it needs to be correctly paired with the camera body. I have set the focus micro adjustment for each of my three lenses using the custom menu in the camera. I put a steel tape measure on my table and align a pencil with the 1m mark on the tape. I mount the camera on a tripod and shoot a frame of the pencil at my regular aperture of f/2.8 from my usual working distance of 2 to 3 metres. I can then zoom in on the image to see if the camera has correctly focussed on the pencil. If not, I can check if it is back or front focussed by looking at the tape measure markings in the image. I then adjust the focus setting as required and confirm my results with a real test shoot. All my lenses have needed some adjustment and not in the same direction either.

5. Canon 5D mk2, 50mm f/1.2, ISO 1600, 1/60th second at f/4 I shot this frame in my hotel apartment on a workshop in Baden-Baden in Germany. I lit it with a Lupo 1200 spotlight from the adjacent room.

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.

Subject movement: IS or VR does not reduce subject movement and is no replacement for a large aperture when using long lenses to shoot moving subjects like people.

6. Canon 5D mk2, 50mm f/1.2, ISO 400, 1/60th second at f/4 This shot of Raphaela was lit using modified ambient light in the room. A bit of natural lens flare adds to the look.

Tip: If in doubt slide all the switches away from you towards the front of the lens on a Canon IS or Nikon VR lens.

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 found that I could get acceptably sharp images at 1/30th second with my Hasselblad H2 and its non IS 210mm lens when I used a monopod and my subject was still.

7. Canon 5D mk2, ISO 200, 1/200th second at f/4 This is the last picture I ever took with my Canon 35mm f/1.4 L lens. It was lit with a Speedlight in a silver umbrella on a Lovegrove Gemini bracket. I coveted the Fuji X100 camera and as that has an equivalent focal length of 35mm I couldn’t justify having both so I casually asked during this workshop at the Manchester Hilton if anyone wants to buy my 35mm off me? It went right there and then. The remaining shots in this blog post were taken on the Fuji X100 that I subsequently bought.

Sensor size and sensitivity: This is a big one. As sensor size increases so does image quality, or so it should do, 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 my Fuji X100 excels. They do however have a high pixel count and a high surface area for the lens to focus onto.

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 a bit 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 delivering pictures on disc give the client a set of straight processed files too. These will soon be far more valuable when realistic images are finally back in demand.

8. Fujifilm X100, ISO 800, 1/250th second at f/2 I took this shot in my hotel bedroom on a workshop in Berlin. I lit Wlada with one Lupo 800 spotlight. I was still learning how to get the best from the X100 at this point. I shot in manual mode.

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 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 from the original RAW file. Another obvious problem is that prints never look right or match the screen.

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.

9. Fujifilm X100, ISO 200, 1/125th second at f/2 I took this shot in my hotel bedroom on a workshop in Tuscany. It too was lit with a Lupo 800 spotlight. There’s a pattern emerging here. By this time my system of shooting with the Fuji X100 was established. I use Aperture priority in conjunction with exposure compensation as it is so easy to control. (this frame was taken with -1 stop dialled in) I set the lens to f/2 because it is amazing wide open at that aperture. I use auto ISO with a minimum shutter speed set to 1/80th second and maximum ISO set to 3200. I have chosen 1/80th second because I find 1/60th just a bit slow when shooting people. The Fuji camera is image stabilised so camera shake is not a problem either at this shutter speed.

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 3 more than adequate for my needs.

10. Fujifilm X100, ISO 640, 1/80th second at f/2 Av - 2 stops. This frame was shot on a workshop in Somerset. I lit Raphaela with a Lupo 800 spotlight.

I do however have one little step in my workflow that has no impact on image quality but is worth mentioning. I use 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. Waiting for Lightroom previews to build or load is an annoyance in the otherwise smooth operation.

Once my shots are selected and renamed I trigger the Lightroom import process. This is one of the most important steps in achieving a super quality of image. I have taken the time to shoot a series of portraits at each ISO on both my cameras. I loaded the files into Lightroom and tweaked the noise reduction, adjusted the contrast, and set the desired camera profile and camera calibration to my taste for each image in turn and saved the default preset for each setting. I set the Lightroom preferences so that it automatically applies these settings for given camera serial number and ISO value at the import stage thereafter. I also set the blacks level to zero. Lightroom has the blacks set to 5 by default and this usually clips some useful shadow detail that I want to preserve. Now that this process is done I can enjoy understanding exactly how my images are going to look. It’s just like learning the look of a particular film/ developer combination.

11. Fujifilm X100, ISO 640, 1/80th second at f/2 Av - 0.3 stops. This frame of Raphaela was lit with one Lupo 1200 and two Arri Junior lights.

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.

12. Fujifilm X100, ISO 500, 1/80th second at f/2 Av - 0.7 stops. This was my last shoot of 2011 and it was cold. Chloe was lit with ambient light. A bit of smoke was added for effect and Chloe styled the look and the pose. These Fujifilm X100 shots look amazing in print and this one is a bit rugged. Dont look for absolute sharpness, look for a mood, the feeling in the image. It closely reminds me of the look I used to get with Neopan 400 film. Never technically perfect but always utterly gorgeous. It just goes to show what a compact camera can produce these days. Click on the image to see the full size version with exif intact. Please respect my copyright.

After the 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.

I’m sure this post will raise many questions. I’m happy to let the conversation run as long as it stays on subject and relates to either these images, my techniques or image quality in general. Have your say. Join the debate. What do you want to add?

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About Damien

Damien Lovegrove learned his trade as a cameraman and lighting director during 14 years at the BBC, working on programmes such as the Clothes Show, Top of the Pops and Casualty. Fifteen years on, Damien has become one of the foremost trainers of photography and entrepreneurial business strategies in our industry. A published writer and regular columnist, Damien has travelled the globe sharing his knowledge and expertise. “Photography fascinates me” declares Damien. "Much of my photography is inspired by a burning enthusiasm within me” explains Damien. “Picking up a camera gives me such a rush that I’m instantly driven to create pictures.”

35 thoughts on “IQ ~ A back to basics guide to photographic image quality

  1. Nope, cant argue or really add much to any of that, its all simple facts and despite me sat here thinking how I could possibly rise to the challenge of debating I just cannot.

    All I will say is, when you start you think you can get away with a lot, it looks alright but never looks great and the reality eventually drums in that you need the right kit for the job, which ever job it may be!

    For me a lot of photography fast zooms are the norm and just integral to the way I work most of the time, though have a few basic primes for when like you mention I want sharpness.

    Also as for monitors, if you are working in Adobe RGB, as I understand it most labs just work on either PRO or SRGB so the latter of the time its a wasted profile sadly.
    That said I have 2 monitors here, a standard run of the mill that most pc users will have and a Dell Ultra sharp (about £300 when I bought it) and side by side stick the same picture on both when calibrated and there is a world of noticeable difference you can only ever really see when you see them with your own eyes.

    It’s certainly enlightening.

  2. Hi Damien/ Magic set of images especially the final one.I am interested in you attention to details that you believe are relevant such as the noise/contrast etc presets.You have indicated that you took shots at every ISO value and then tweeked them .As a layman i would have thought that low ISO,s 100,125,160,200 etc on a 5D Mk II wouldn,t require much noise attention.Am i on the wrong lines here or is it shot specific.Either way your attention to these matters must be helping the “big picture” as you do generate some excellent work.Interesting post.

  3. I however have an issue when exporting TIFF files from Lightroom, they become very soft and unsharp(almost unusable), as opposed to the sharp RAW files when viewed on ‘Digital Photo Professional’ (Canon’s RAW file preview software).
    I apply 40% sharpening in Lightroom (sometimes leave default) and export 8bit Tiffs, Adobe RGB, 300ppi. Even after sharpening in Photoshop the quality doesnt match the RAW file initial sharpness.
    What I am doing wrong?

  4. Hi Daniel surprisingly you’re the second person today I’ve heard say exactly the same thing. I’m guessing you’ve not set the output sharpness at export for the medium you are intending to use at output.

  5. Great article Damien. Quick question is there a reason you use Adobe RGB to output 16 bit tiff files rather than ProRGB ? Surely this would clip colour in conversion too early. Would it not be better to do the colour space conversation when you make the final conversation to an 8 bit tiff?
    Or do you intentionally clip the file earlier to ensure the final version is what you’d expect to see at print?

  6. Hi Damien,
    I had heard about the x100 for quite a while but had not seen it in professional use till I found your blog, and I ordered one shortly after. I have taken it along on a few high school senior sessions side by side with my 5dmkii and am very impressed with the quality. While it’s not as creamy as my 35L or 50L, it definitely has its uses, not to mention incredibly easy to carry around! From an IQ standpoint, I think the compact camera systems are almost there (if not already), and after using the x100 a while I’m not sure if I will be investing any more money in a camera with a mirror. Thanks for all the inspiration!

    James

  7. Damien – this is a great article – so useful. Thinking hard about primes again. But I love my zooms. More to think about, as usual. And the images are great too. It was nice to say hello at SWPP. Do you know anything about water dance photography (capturing the movement of water in shots whilst you dance – see David Hofman photography – tips/tricks/ideas??

  8. Hi Anthony,

    Colourspaces are important. I use Adobe RGB because I can see how my editing is effecting my files. Photo Pro is a waste of time because you cant see what is happening to the picture. SRGB is fine for output because the dyes in photographic paper are way more limited than SRGB anyway. Thanks for taking the time to reply. Have a great 2012. Damien.

  9. Hi Keith,

    I’ve noticed that Lightroom adds a modecome of sharpening to the files at import and I have chosen to set different levels to the standard ones set by Adobe programmers and I’ve saved them as defaults for that given ISO. They can be adjusted from image to image as I require but I like having a starting point that suites my style.

    Thanks for your compliments, Damien.

  10. Hi Daniel,

    I’ve no idea what you are doing wrong. I see no difference between RAW, jpeg or Tiff sharpness when I choose not to interpolate at the output stage. What I seee is pretty much what I get. The previews that LR3 generate are so much better than LR2 in my opinion. I still hate having to wait for them to build or load.

    Cheers, Damien.

  11. Hi Rob,

    ProRGB is scary because you can boost saturation by tweaking contrast or applying effects and you have no way of seeing the changes that are being made. I’d say you should only work in a colourspace you can see. Nothing the SLR can capture even comes close to ProRGB. ProRGB is great for doing the graphics for DynoRod vans or cillit bang drain cleaner but nothing in portraiture really pushes beyond sRGB. I’m happy with the CMYK conversions made from Adobe RGB for my Chloe Jasmine Whichello coffee table book and I’d say the proof is in the print.

    Thanks for your continued support and encouragement :) Kindest regards, Damien.

  12. Thanks James,

    I’m glad you are enjoying the X100. I’m looking at replacing my ageing 5Dmk2 and while no replacement has been announced by Canon I might just be tempted to jump ship and get the Fuji X-Pro1 as it out resolves the 5Dmk2 and has some fantastic lenses too. It’s probably the way I’ll go. The 5D focussing won’t be hard to beat so I’m keen to give the Fuji a try.

    Cheers,

    Damien.

  13. Hi Romana,

    Thanks for your kind words. Google didn’t return any useful results on ‘water dance photography’ or David Hofman. Can you please email me some links via Blaise :)

    Thanks,

    Damien.

  14. The 1D4 proves that Canon can make an AF system that works – used ours for the first time at Lola’s wedding last night and it focuses moving dancers, in the dark, using the outer focus points in conditions that the 5D2 would have been utterly hopeless on its middle focus point.

    Don’t think I’ll ever like the crop sensor for social photography though.

    So lets hope that the next 5D has a much improved AF system, otherwise a 1DX will be the future.

  15. Hi Daniel comment 3

    Lightroom is a great tool for editing shoots however isnt the best at exporting them. LR3 is much better than LR2 and who knows what LR4 will be like.

    When exporting images in LR2, they somehow dont have the same depth and often looks noisier, especially at 100% I still use LR but for more detailed work open raws straight into photoshop and camera raw. I find working in photoshop has much more flexibility and control.

    Who would think exporting images would be such a challenge?

    Damian, as you mentioned in point 11, Lightroom adds its own settings as the image imports – sharpening, blacks etc. do you or anyone knows how to turn this off. I think the shots look great coming straight out of the camera then look heavy, muddy and less vibrant.

    Thanks

    Rich

  16. Hi Richard. Lightroom and camera raw have the same internal processing engines and camera profiles. If you are seeing different results it can only because of different settings.

    You can set up a preset for your preferred develop recipe (black clipping = 0 etc) and have that automatically applied on import.

    There are loads of resources on the web for this stuff – this would be a good place to start: http://help.adobe.com/en_US/Lightroom/3.0/Using/WS43660fa5a9ec95a81172e08124c124bb67-8000.html

  17. Interesting to hear your comments about jumping ship to the Fuji X-Pro1. Have you tried the Sony NEX-7 ? another very impressive small camera for pros.
    I’ll start taking these more seriously though, when they move to use phase detection focusing rather than contrast detection (although the Sony can with an add-on).

    There is so much happening with bodies this year it will be interesting to see where it all goes . I think the whole market is moving up a couple of grades, with the bottom end now consumed by Smartphone cameras. We have to work ever harder as professionals to outpace the technology and software opening up at lower cost.

    Damien, I remember you being there are the start of the 5DMk2 to sing its praises – has Canon not teased you with a 5DMk3 sneak peak yet :)?

    Thanks
    Den

  18. Hi Martin,
    I agree that if you are covering action in low light conditions the 1DX is likely to be the best tool for the job. I’m happy to set up my images and work in a completely different way and thus the lighter Fujifilm X-Pro1 is going to be my tool of choice. Out resolving the 5D mk2 with it’s compact fast primes will ensure the quality I need and the electronic viewfinder will be the deal clincher. There are many occasions where my X100 pictures have outshone my 5D mk2 pictures taken in the same place and time. Interesting times ahead :)

    Damien.

  19. Hi Richard and Daniel,

    LR 4 is by far the best image exporter. IQ just gets better and better with Lightroom version upgrades. On the other note you should set your defaults with the settings you desire rather than take the canned defaults that Lightroom delivers.

    Cheers, Damien.

  20. Hi Martin thanks for your input. That’s a great resource link. Roll on LR4. I’ll wait until it is out of Beta but it looks like a very worthwhile upgrade so far. Regards Damien.

  21. Thank you DT,

    My black and white pictures are converted in Lightroom using the button labelled black and white. I’ve played with Silver FX pro and it is way too easy to destroy an image with structure etc.

    Kindest regards, Damien.

  22. Hi Den,

    I retrieved your comment from my spam filter. Sorry about that. Now that you are approved you should not have the same problem again. I’ve not tried the Sony but I’ve looked at the specs and it doesn’t appeal. The lenses seem too big for the body too.

    Canon gave me less than 1 week of notice last time to launch the 5Dmk2 and they wouldn’t confirm that it was the mk2 that I was launching. I only got to use the camera for the first time at their head office the day before the launch and I had to sign non disclosure agreements etc. So don’t look to me for insider info ;-)

    I’m trying to blag a demo Fuji at the moment. Whatever happens I will remain neutral and free to use whatever camera I choose rather than sell out to one make and be ‘owned’ by them.

    Exciting times ahead. Cheers, Damien.

  23. we all have our own ways of working and no one can claim their way id the right one, but the quality of your work definitely put your method in the “this works’ pile but no amount of good work flow can turn a badly composed & lit shot into a beautiful image, thank you for sharing your view on the process and as always thank you for sharing inspirational images

  24. Hi Damien
    I have just got my Fuji X100 (yesterday as it was my 50th!) and it gives such sublime images i am too amazed.
    The 5D Mk1 i have would never beat this little marvel – its amazing you feel the same way – i think fuji have spotted a niche market and perhaps the way forward.
    I too have been pondering the next move and that little X1 looks very attractive if a little pricey.
    Very interested on your thoughts on the next Fuji
    I cant wait to use that little Fuji on my next boudoir shoot!

  25. Thanks for your comments Mark,

    I continue to opt for the Fuji over my Canon on many occasions nearly a year into ownersip so that is a great testament :)

    Kindest regards, Damien.

  26. Hi Damien, would you share your import presets for LR4 please? I struggle to get my pictures anywhere near as crisp as yours, I need to start from the ground up in the post process :-) very many thanks

  27. Hi Sam,

    As you are talking about detail I’ll stick with detail settings. I import with standard sharpening applied. No luminance noise reduction and no clarity adjustment. I output from lightroom with ‘sharpen for screen’ if it is for the web and sharpen for print if it is for print. If there is no resizing in the export process I deselect sharpen output. The rest I leave alone. Don’t miss interpret mid tone contrast for sharpness. Contrast ads punch, sharpness maximises detail at pixel level.

    I hope this helps,

    Damien.

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