One of the great allures of photography is that it mixes both art and science. The creative and artistic side is, of course, the most important aspect. Figuring out what makes a beautiful and interesting photograph is something that takes time and experience to master. But at the same time, your photography will go nowhere if you do not understand the science and technique that go into creating a high-quality photograph. It’s the uniting of the two that will turn you into a great photographer.
So here is the technical process behind producing a high-quality photograph.
As Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”, but only if you first understand how to take sharp photographs. Sharp photographs are 100% due to the work that you do in the camera, not in post-production. If you have to sharpen a photograph in post-production to make it look good, then you are doing it wrong.
Shutter speed is the primary setting to consider in order to create a sharp photograph. If the camera is handheld, your shutter speed always needs to be 1 divided by the focal length to offset your handheld camera shake.
So if you are using a full-frame camera with a 50mm lens, your shutter speed needs to be at least 1/50th of a second. If you are using a cropped APS-C sensor with a 1.6 conversion, that means a 50mm lens will actually have the equivalent of an 80mm focal length, so you will need a shutter speed of at least 1/80th for the shot to be sharp.
If you are photographing people in motion and want them to be sharp, I suggest a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second or higher for faster moving subjects.
You will also have to consider what aperture you want to use depending on the image you are taking. Using a smaller aperture (higher numbered like f/16) more often will allow more of your scene to be sharp. The only tradeoff to do this is that you will need to use a higher ISO if the light is not ideal and you are shooting handheld. A higher ISO will add some noise to the image, but in many cases, this will give you a much higher quality image because it will allow you to use a faster shutter speed and a smaller aperture simultaneously. You should be more afraid of using the wrong shutter speed or aperture versus using a higher ISO.
However, using a shallow depth of field (selecting a large aperture like f/4) can often make a photograph look incredibly beautiful. For images like this, you need to pay even more attention to getting the focus right. Missing the focus with a shallow depth of field will ruin your photograph. You need to put the focus right on the main subject, and you have to be careful about back focus issues where the camera focuses on the background by accident.
Having a strong handle on all of this is the first step in creating a high-quality final print. If you do all of this well, then you will not have to think about sharpness at any other stage in the process.
2. Light and Exposure
Yes, as long as you are shooting RAW you can fix your exposure in editing, and a high percentage of photographs will need to be tweaked a bit in post-production. However, the better you are at getting the exposure correct in camera, the more high-quality your final photographs will be. The tones and the colors will turn out better, and you will have a more accurate starting place to make a photograph look as good as possible.
Understanding light is incredibly important for getting the exposure correct in the camera. Everyone screws this up some of the time but understanding the situations where the camera’s light meter can get it wrong will help you to minimize these mistakes.
The light meter in your camera always wants to make things a neutral gray. For instance, if there are a lot of dark objects in your frame, the camera’s light meter will often try to brighten the photograph to make those dark tones look like a neutral gray, so the resulting image will not look like the real scene. For scenes with many bright tones such as a snowy day, the camera will often darken the image too much. A similar problem can happen due to your light sources. If you are photographing into the sun, your subject will be in the shadows while everything else will be bright, so you may have to brighten the image as a result.
This is where you need to use exposure compensation (or shoot in manual) to get the exposure as close as possible to correct. The closer you get, the less you will have to do in post-production.
Strong composition is one of the most important keys towards creating a great final print. I am not going to go into an entire talk about the rules of composition her. But suffice to say it’s very important to understand that the idea of composition results from the aim of leading a viewer’s eyes through an image. Good composition will move a person’s eyes throughout a print in a logical and pleasing way.
Well-placed subjects, light, lines, patterns and even colors can be used to move the eyes. Also, it is important to know that a viewer’s eyes naturally want to move out of an image, so placing things in the corners can stop this and help the photograph feel more balanced. This is why cloudy skies are usually better than clear skies because the clouds stop the eyes from moving off the image. It is also why landscape painters will paint tree branches into the top corners of their landscapes.
4. Primary Post-Production
The post-production step is where many mistakes can happen. It is very easy to go overboard, particularly with sharpness, contrast, highlights, shadows, and color. The result often looks like the photographer was trying to create a painting instead of a photograph. If you want to paint, grab a paintbrush.
When you start working on an image, the exposure, color temperature, contrast, highlights, and shadows are the first things to adjust. If the photograph was captured well in camera, then you will often not have to tweak these much, but usually, most images will need a little tweaking.
The idea here is to not overdo it. Realism is important for a photograph to look good. You do not need to see every little detail in both the highlights and the shadows. If you want this, then you need to go out and shoot at the right time of day to create that look – early in the morning, late in the day, or on an overcast day. That’s how you get photographs with even tones. Creating even tones in images where that wasn’t the case in the original scene will make the photograph look fake. On a similar note, it can be very important to maintain some imperfection in your photos. Imperfections can keep an image feeling like a real, extraordinary moment, as opposed to an idealized painting.
Vignetting is often an important final step in general post-production because it helps to keep the eyes from moving off of the image, and it draws more attention to the middle of the frame. However, it is so easy to overdo it. A successful vignette will often be subtle and unnoticeable, but it will make a huge difference to the final print.
Whenever you do any tweaks to a digital negative, it can affect the colors in the image. Adding contrast, changing the shadows or highlights, or changing the exposure will all have an effect on the colors and will make them look less real. If you have to do a significant amount of work to an image, always pay attention to how that is changing the color. Sometimes you will have to reduce the strength of the colors (the Vibrance or Saturation) or tweak the color temperature to keep the realism in the image.
It is important to make sure to have a color calibrated monitor that you calibrate fairly regularly. It is impossible to edit an image correctly if the colors on your monitor are off. The photograph everyone else will see when you share it will be different from what you see on your screen, and that’s a big problem.
For printing, you always want to use the largest color space available, so ProPhoto RGB or Adobe RGB should be used when making a print (check with your lab if you are sending it away, and make sure to use the color space they recommend), but sRGB is the best color space for showing off an image on a monitor. Always use sRGB for internet sharing.
Resizing before printing is a very important step and must be done correctly. You never want to resize an image twice as that will effect the image quality significantly, so always work with the original image and resize right before printing. I use On1 Resize for all of my enlargements and highly recommend it. I use Photoshop for reducing the size of a photograph and use the bicubic interpolation setting (I find that bicubic sharper, which is recommended for reductions, can actually over-sharpen the final image, but that is just my personal choice).
If you choose to add a final level of sharpening to your print, the time to do it is at the very last step, even after resizing. This will ensure the best quality for your final print. However, I highly recommend that you consider not sharpening at all in post-production, or at least that you do it very subtly. If you follow all of the steps to get to this point, your image will be nice and sharp already, and the final print will look great.
So many images that float around these days are over sharpened to extreme levels and the result looks incredibly fake and crunchy. I rarely ever sharpen my prints anymore except for a few troublesome shots. If you have reservations about this, test it out and create side-by-side prints, one sharpened and one unsharpened. After years of sharpening my images, that is what I did to finally come to the conclusion that sharpening was not adding anything to the prints anymore. I tested out a variety of prints at different sizes side-by-side with a sharpened version.
I hope all of these steps make sense and help you in your journey to put up beautiful framed prints of your work. A lot of this is all about training your eye, so make sure to look at the work of other photographers frequently, particularly as real prints. Frequenting galleries and museums can be a fantastic way to improve your eye and ultimately the quality of your work.