On my very first photo shoot, I went through out the day taking some great photos only to realize that all those beautiful shots were in fact dreadful. There was tons of noise and blur in every shot and it took forever to edit them to look half way decent. As I analyzed the possible causes I realized that my less than desired photo quality was not because of a bad camera, lens or lighting situation, but was in fact caused by poor camera settings. It has been long past my first photo shoot, and over the years I have worked hard to improve the quality of my photographs. I would like to pass on five tips that I have learned along the way.
The following test photos were taken on a D-300 with a 1.8f 50mm Nikkor lens. The reason I chose this particular lens is because it is a lens that most people own, and it shows the effects of camera settings better than more expensive and better built lenses. As far as lighting equipment, I used a single strobe with a soft box. I shot in RAW format (always shoot in the highest quality format possible), and I apologize that there is nothing special about the shots, just wanted to show image quality, not my photo taking skills. All shots were screen shot at 100% zoom then reduced in size to.
1. Only Use Low ISO Settings
High ISO settings destroy great photographs. The ISO setting is the most important aspect to getting high quality images aside from exposure. The ISO is also an easy to forget aspect to photography. ISO is the sensitivity of the sensor or the film. The higher the setting is the more sensitive the camera is to light. In low light situations, you will need to adjust your camera to a higher ISO in order compensate for the low amount light. The rule of thumb is to get the lowest ISO setting possible in your current lighting situation. Below you can see the difference between the ISO 3200 and ISO 200.
High ISO 3200
Low ISO 200
Notice that the first image with a High ISO has noise, splotches along the edges, artifacts, and blurriness. The Low ISO has eliminated those problems.
2. Get the Correct Exposure
Exposure is the end result of all the variables that go into a photograph, such as the amount of light, the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, the reflectivity/radiance of the subjects in the photo. A proper exposer usually has some black, some white, and everything in between. A lower exposure will push the histogram toward the blacks and an over exposed photo will push the histogram toward the whites. These test images show the effects of improper exposure, after correcting the exposure in photoshop. To correct the photos exposure, I set samples in the same location on each photo, used LAB color mode, and adjusted the Lighting Channel to the same number for that channel using curves.
Under exposed, corrected in post production
Over Exposed, corrected in post production
The effects of under exposure are greater than over exposure, grant it the over exposure is not so off that the photo is not entirely blown out. Under exposed photo shows high amounts of noise, and discoloration in the image. The over exposure caused blurriness, slight discoloration, slight noise, and blown out areas on on the face. The proper exposure eliminates these problems, giving you the best colors and clearest image possible.
3. Don’t Open the Aperture Completely
It is a little known secret that most lenses do not perform at their best when using their widest aperture setting. Depending on the lens it may be better to be a little under exposed or up to ISO to compensate for using the 2nd widest f stop. You can check different lenses at Photo Zone, they extensively test lenses to gauge lens quality.
Widest Aperture Setting, 1.8 f
Optimal Aperture Setting, 3.5 f
Using the widest aperture setting caused a loss in detail and created artifacts along the shadows of the face. The 3.5 f aperture setting captured a sharper, more detailed image. Although you do not need to use 3.5f on a 1.8f lens, adjusting to a 2.2 f on the lens instead of using 1.8f will give you a much higher quality image.
4. Control Your Lighting Situations
Although this has less to do with mechanics and more to do with surroundings and setup, it is a major cause of low quality imagery. Low Light Situations can destroy your image quality, even if you have every thing set exactly right. One solution is to get a good set of expensive lenses with f stops at 2.8f or wider, but assuming you can’t cough up the doe there are other alternatives.
My go to solution is using external lights such as speed lights and strobes. There is no easier and better controlled way to get the lighting you want than to set it up yourself. If the ceilings are low enough, you can bounce the light off the ceiling to spread it, or use a trigger and receiver system to position your external flash where you want it. If you are going to go this route I suggest getting a couple of modifiers for the light such as reflectors, umbrellas, soft boxes, and beauty dishes.
Reflector as Modifier with External Flash
The other solution is to look at your natural surroundings and position your subject where there are sources of light, such as a window. You can also turn on lamps to add light to indoor situations. It is best to shoot your subject in the shadows for outdoor settings. Shadows allows your subject to open their eyes without squinting and it provides a balanced light on the subject. I have a few more advanced tactics that I will post on a later blog.
Natural Lighting, subject placed next to a window
Controlling your lighting situation will eliminate the need to raise your ISO settings, widen your aperture all the way, and shoot under exposed images. Ultimately, photo quality is contingent upon your lighting and your camera settings. The more light you have to work with, the better.
5. Set the Right Shutter Speed
Most people know that the shutter speed effects the exposure. The faster the shutter speed the less light is used, the slower it is the more light is used. For shooting still portraits without a tripod, I suggest shooting no slower than 1/100 of a second. If you are using studio lighting you can shoot 1/60-1/250 depending on the lighting system. If your shutter is too fast you will get a black line on the side of the image like this.
1/250 shutter, black line caused by fast shutter
Whether you are shooting in studio or in natural lighting, using too low of a shutter speed can cause your images to be blurry. If you really need to use lower shutter speeds the use of a monopod or a tripod will help reduce the blurring.
These 5 tips are the basic mechanics for getting the best quality image possible regardless of what DSLR camera or lenses you are using. ISO, Aperture, and Exposure are among the most important to understand and get right. One other golden nugget to get the best possible colors is to use a tissue or tracing paper to set a custom white balance with. The less post production you have to do, the better the image quality will be. That goes for both exposure and color. By understanding how your settings effect your finished product the better quality images you will be able to produce.
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