New Growth. Cairngorm NP, Scotland.

A comment from Hendrik prompted me to consider writing a couple of posts about photography. This is more an overview of stuff I’ve learned than a tutorial. I don’t claim the way I work is the ‘right’ way, or that it’ll work for you, but I might be able provide some insights. Rather than try to cover aspects that are better covered elsewhere, I’ll link to learning resources that I’ve found useful, then you can dip into those as you see fit. I’ll probably break this down into a series of posts. I want to share a little bit about my workflow, technique, kit etc. First off, some background, thoughts about kit and a few pointers on maximising image quality and getting nice clean RAW files to work with.

Disclaimer 🙂 – I don’t claim to be an expert. If there is anything I’ve learned working in I.T. it’s ‘The more you know, the more realise how little you know’, this also applies to photography. As a photographer, I’d probably rate my technical ability as ‘competent’, even then this only applies to digital capture, I’m still taking my first steps with film.

I bought my first [and current] dSLR in March 2007, but fairly quickly got into photography more seriously. I realised it was a creative outlet for my dormant artistic side, which had been in stasis since high school. I loved drawing as a child, but was comprehensively failed by the art department on reaching high school, in particular the department head Mr McMurray. Take a bow you drunken arsehole. A perfect example of everything a teacher shouldn’t be. I was put off any artistic pursuits until I discovered photography in my late twenties.

Spindrift. Roscobie, Fife, Scotland.

I tend to stick to landscapes and the odd industrial scene. I don’t tend to shoot portraits, street, still life or action shots, that’s not to say I can’t appreciate them… I do know that I’m not as good as I’d like to be, and I suppose I never will be. You can see some of the stuff on Flickr which inspires me in this slideshow. In particular, I really like Michael Kenna, Charles Johnstone and Bruce Percy. Bruce Percy’s contemporary landscapes of Scotland, Iceland and Patagonia are particular favourites.

The Camera

Occasionally, in online discussions I’ll read statements like ‘The camera doesn’t matter’. This is BS. It does matter. A better camera won’t make you a better photographer, and people can and do make some really nice images with toy cameras and cheap ‘point and shoot’ digitals. But as a tool, your camera will influence what you can achieve. It will inevitably impose limitations on what you can and cannot photograph successfully. Your lenses are probably even more important than the camera body to which they’re attached.

I think the most important thing is to learn how to make the most of what you’ve got, rather than lusting after the latest and greatest model on the market. My Canon 350D is a five year old design, with only 8MP, poor noise performance over ISO 800 and a tiny [1.8inch!] screen with no Live View feature. However, most importantly for me it is pretty clean at ISO 100, has mirror lock-up and captures RAW. Sure, I’d love some bells/whistles that can be found on a 7D or 5D mkII, but I can still wring decent image quality out of the 350D by using good technique.

Keep Out. Tillicoultry, Clackmannanshire, Scotland.

My Digital Kit

Canon 350D

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 USM L
Tamron AF 17-50mm f/2.8 SP XR Di II LD Aspherical
Canon 50mm f/1.8

Giottos MTL8351B Carbon Fibre tripod with Giottos MH1302-652 Ball Head
Cokin P series filter system
Cokin P Series Circular Polarizing Filter
ND2,4,8 Grads
ND2,4,10 filters

Canon iP4500 Photo Printer
ColorVision Spyder2Express

Autumn Begins. Dunkeld, Perthshire, Scotland.

It starts with the Capture

Digital photography is all about maximising the data your sensor captures. Understanding how camera sensors work really helps in this regard, as does a BSc in Computer Science 🙂 [See point 4 below]. For high contrast landscapes, Graduated Neutral Density filters help reduce the dynamic range of the capture to more sensor friendly levels. This way, you can avoid blowing out the highlights whilst retaining detail in shadow areas. Cokin filter kits are probably the cheapest entry point into the world of filters, whilst the Lee system is reputedly the best [and much more expensive]. Cokin have a reputation for introducing colour casts to your photos, but I’ve only ever noticed significant problems when stacking multiple filters. TBH I much prefer pleasing colour to accurate colour in my images, though I’m sure if I had the chance to test the Cokin vs the Lee filters in direct comparison the difference would be evident. I don’t think Cokin are quite as bad as everyone makes them out to be…

For those who don’t care to carry filters [pack weight?], blending multiple exposures is the best option, no additional equipment is required, just a bit of Photoshop knowhow and a steady hand or tripod. HDR is another alternative, but generally, I find it unnecessary. It can also be quite horrific, but occasionally sublime.

The Red Jacket. Glasgow, Scotland.

10 thoughts on improving image quality

1. Buying a quality lens is a better investment than a new camera body. You probably don’t need any more than three lenses.
2. Understand that all digital captures need some sharpening to counteract the softness introduced by the sensor.
3. Learn how ISO, aperture and shutter speed interact to influence exposure. Use Aperture Priority or Manual mode. I use Manual mode 100% of the time.
4. Shoot RAW, expose to the right, and learn how to evaluate your histogram, but understand it is only a guide if you shoot RAW. [The camera histogram is constructed from jpg image data, rather than the RAW sensor data.]
5. Use a tripod, remote cable release and mirror lock-up where appropriate.
6. Learn how aperture influences Depth of Field. Consider Hyperfocal Distance if you need to maximise DOF.
7. Boosting midtone contrast can really transform an image and give the appearance of more detail.
8. Consider hardware calibrating your monitor to ensure your colour reproduction is optimal.
9. Inspect your images for noise [chroma noise in particular] and chromatic aberration [especially in the corners of wide angle shots].
10. Understand the effect of diffraction on image sharpness. Consider testing your lenses to establish where diffraction really kicks in and which apertures offer optimal image sharpness.

Ben Venue Reflection. Trossachs NP, Scotland.

Further Reading
Luminous Landscape Understanding Series see also the LL Camera to Print and Lightroom videos, I purchased and recommend both.
Cambridge in Colour Digital Photography Tutorials and Techniques
The Online Photographer – probably the best written and most informative blog on all aspects of photography
Bruce Percy’s Blog and his store where you can purchase his eBooks. I have Nocturne and Simplifying Composition and recommend both.
Tim Parkin’s Blog – Dedicated large format enthusiast, lots of good stuff here.
BW Vision – Focussing on minimal black and white landscapes and long exposures, there’s some good info here.

Dunnet I. Dunnet, Caithness, Scotland.

Note: 50% of the images in this post were taken using the Canon 18-55mm kit lens which came with my 350D [I subsequently sold it], whilst it’s unlikely I’d make the same shot today, I still think these shots are amongst my best. Despite everything I’ve written here, it’s still better to get a sub optimal shot, than miss it completely because you spent 10 minutes setting up the tripod and getting ready. I learned this the hard way. That’s why I shoot landscapes, they’re not going anywhere fast 🙂