Producing better photographs

Producing better photos and prints without spending much money

This week has been a busy one, with all the work on fixing this site, and fitting in several architectural photo shoots.

What’s been really helpful though, are two talks I’ve given to photographers groups in Nottingham and Coventry. I do a few of these presentations each year, and it’s a chance to pass on some information and get feedback about some of the issues facing keen amateur photographers in following their interests. One talk was about ‘Colour management’ and the other about ‘Digital black and white photography’.

It’s very easy as a professional photographer, having the luxury of test equipment and media supplied by manufacturers, to forget that most people have to pay for this stuff, and would ideally like to see some benefit from the expenditure.

Thinking about what was discussed, I’ve put together a few brief suggestions for getting better results, ideally free, or at least without breaking the bank…

These are very much personal observations and I know my approach won’t suit everyone ;-) YMMV

Look at more photos

Wells cathedral - chapterhouse teps

Many years ago, one of the architectural images that inspired me was “Sea of Steps” – taken by Frederick H. Evans in 1903 at Wells Cathedral. This is taken from the same spot, but with a modern (17mm) shift lens.

Every so often I’l take a magazine and flick through it very quickly, maybe only a fraction of a second per page. I’m looking for images that catch my attention and make me pause to look at them a bit longer. Note that I don’t have to like the photo, just find it interesting.

That’s when I think about the image, its subject, composition and technical execution (lighting, focus etc). The key is that by doing this quickly I’m relying more on my sub-conscious analysis of the image, rather than trying to over-think things.

Over the years I’ve found that much of my compositional ability and feel for a shot that ‘may’ work is very rapid. This may be tempered, as in my commercial work, where I’ll think more about composition and the technical side of the photograph, and have to set the camera up, but that initial go/no-go choice is not something I over analyse.

Note that I said ‘may’ above… In my landscape work I’ve never been one for the slow considered analysis of a scene before taking a photo. Typically I’ll take 4-5 shots with maybe a pause to reconsider my viewpont (does the foreground work with the background – should I move a bit).

All those ‘rules’ of composition you read about are something I might be able to apply retrospectively, but rarely think about at the time of shooting.

My approach to a location is very much a guided exploration. I see nothing wrong with checking shots on the back of my camera, it’s a great feature, I wish I’d had when using film. That doesn’t mean I pore over every shot, but it does give me a feel for if what I thought might look good, is on the right track.

Digital photos are cheap – take lots more of them, but then do actually look seriously at what you’ve taken ;-)
…see also my ‘3 (9) quick tips for improving your black and white photography

Editing images

Look on your process (aka workflow) in going from RAW camera image to a final print as a chain. Have you any weak links?  It’s not necessary to do everything in the RAW converter – sometimes it’s better to leave some adjustments until later.

BTW I’m assuming you’re shooting RAW files in your camera, not JPEGs? Personally I’m after image quality, as well as subject and composition – that means I’ll always shoot RAW. It takes more effort, but has an awful lot of advantages.

See an article I wrote some time ago: ‘Why use RAW‘ for more of my thoughts about this.

Colormunki smile used for laptop screen calibration

Colormunki Smile used for laptop screen calibration

When evaluating your images, it really does help if your monitor is profiled and calibrated. This is one of those areas where you really can’t do a good job of it ‘by eye’.

Calibrators  have got cheaper and more effective over the last few years and at around $90 the new ColorMunki Smile  or the slightly more expensive Spyder4Express will meet many people’s needs for setting up their screens. I’d note though that neither offer accurate setting of screen brightness (luminance), so some care is needed in not having your monitor too bright (can lead to prints coming out too dark although there are a number of ways round this issue)

If you are producing prints, then it is important to remember that the print is the final result, and that the best looking image on screen may not automatically lead to the best print. The image on screen is not the print, just an intermediate step.

using a light to evaluate colour

Consistent lighting helps with evaluating prints

In comparing prints to screen, remember that they are entirely different means of showing images – effectively, you can never match a print to a screen. Aim for effective print viewing conditions when evaluating prints and don’t just put them side by side to compare.

I’ve written a lot more more about this when I reviewed a specialist print viewing stand – most people don’t need this level of equipment (and expense), but the principles are important, even if you use a simple Ott lite based light

When it comes to printing, many people make the mistake of evaluating their printer (or company making prints) by using one of their own images. The problem with this is that how do you know that the image is OK in the first place? Use a known test image, such as the Datacolor one for colour (on our test images page), or our own specially created black and white test image.

If the test image comes out wrong, then there is something to fix with your printer setup. If the test image comes out fine, but your own photos don’t, then there are issues to address with other areas (camera settings, RAW conversion, photo editing)

Sharpening for print

There is one area of image editing, that taking the time to master, can potentially have a massive effect on how good your prints look. I believe that failure to master aspects of print sharpening is one of the most common ways of lowering print quality, after lack of attention to colour management (use of ICC profiles for printing).

For myself, sharpening is the final step applied to any file before it is printed. The amount and type of sharpening depends on the print size, the printer, the paper used and most importantly, the image content.

Sharpening is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach. The benefits of not just hitting the sharpen button become more apparent as your print sizes get bigger.

large black and white print in viewing stand

Print quality isn’t just about paper and ink

A simple example would be a large landscape print. Normally I’d apply virtually no sharpening to the sky, since all it’s going to do in large flat areas, is amplify any noise in the image.

I use a Photoshop plugin called Nik Sharpener Pro 3 to handle sharpening – it’s pricy, but well worth while for my work. I’ve included lots of general background information about print sharpening in my review of  Sharpener Pro 3 (and also its predecessor Nik Sharpener Pro 2).

I’d note though that you can do a lot of sharpening directly in Photoshop (or Elements) and that learning how to apply it as a masked layer is a really useful skill to acquire. I’ve outlined some of this in the worked example of Making a big B&W print that I’ve written for our tutorials section.

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Just a few observations that I hope are of some help?

I’m always looking to write new articles, reviews and tutorials for the site, so please do feel free to ask if there is something you’d like to know about?  I do a limited number of talks for photography groups each year (ideally based within an hour or so’s drive from Leicester) since I’ve always found that there is no better way of knowing if you actually understand a subject than trying to explain it to someone else ;-)

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