Raw or Jpeg?
If you shoot hundreds of images a day or just take photographs for the web then Jpeg maybe all you need to use. If you are more selective and want the maximum control over your work then Raw is the best option. You will have the best quality image files to work with to produce quality photographs. If you can’t afford more cards to allow you to shoot in Raw all the time then be more selectively, delete more and shoot less images.
Adobe aRGB or sRGB colourspace?
You should always use aRGB in the camera, with sRGB a close second best, as this will provide you with the maximum colour information.
If you shoot in Raw this should be turned off as you will get much better results sharpening your images in software. If you shoot in Jpeg then leave a small amount of sharpening On.
Pre-visualise what you want your final image to look like before taking the photograph. Remove anything that doesn’t add to the photograph before you take it. Think about what point of view and field of view you want, what depth of field you want, the shutter speed, what iso rating you want to use. Do you need to use a filter to balance the exposure across the image?
Use the manual functions of the camera so you take the picture you want rather than accept the picture the camera gives you.
Prime or Zoom Lens?
Prime lens will always give you higher quality images than a zoom lens. The design of a zoom lens is full of compromises which affect quality. Don’t be lazy, use your feet to zoom if you can.
Cropping the Image
By getting the framing and composition right in the camera before you take your photograph you will get the maximum quality achievable with your camera. Do not crop the image in software unless you absolutely have to as the quality and resolution of the final image will be reduced.
Get the Horizon Level
If you have to rotate an image in software to correct a tilted horizon you are losing quality because the software has to interpolate every single pixel to correct the fault. Get it right before you take the photograph. You can buy a cheap spirit bubble that sits on your camera to get the horizon level.
Most tilted horizons are high on the right hand side of the image because when you are shooting hand held and you depress the shutter you push the right hand side of the camera downwards which causes the problem.
Use a Tripod
People claim they can shoot down to ridiculously slow shutter speeds hand holding their cameras and still get quality images. My response would be, if they want to fool themselves into thinking that then it is their loss. Every single image taken by anyone would benefit from the camera being supported by a tripod, monopod or beanbag.
Using a tripod gives you the ability to select the shutter speed, the aperture and iso rating that you want to use rather than have to use because of the limitations imposed by you on yourself if you elect to not use a tripod.
Using a Cable Release and Mirror Lockup
Any camera movement will reduce the detail in your images. By using the mirror lock facility on your camera, if you have it, you can remove the vibration caused by the mirror flipping up at the start of an exposure. Using a cable release will remove any camera movement caused by touching it during the exposure. If you don’t have a cable release then you can use the 2 or 10 second timer built into most cameras.
Holding your Camera
If you have decided that you don’t need a tripod then please learn how to correctly hold your camera to get the best from it.
If you are shooting hand held you can use the motor drive ability of your camera to improve the sharpness of your photography. Rather than take a single image try taking two images at a time without lifting your finger from the shutter button. The second image is almost always sharper than the first.
A lot of modern DSLR cameras allow you calibrate the autofocus accuracy of individual lens. There are dozens of ways to do this but I like using an image on my laptop screen which generates a lot of moire fringes when the focus is spot on. Any in-accuracy can easily be seen and corrected.
I use this image which can be downloaded here. Note ALWAYS use the image at 100% magnification, do not resize it to fit the laptop screen
Buy a better camera or a better lens?
The quality of your final image is primarily determined by the quality of the lens you use. If the lens is of poor quality then no matter what camera you use the final image quality will also be poor. So, if you are in a position to afford a new body or a new lens I would always consider the lens as the higher priority.
Use the Histogram
The only accurate way to check the exposure is to use the histogram display of the image taken. This histogram will tell you if you have underexposed (too much of the histogram will be on the left hand side and nothing on the right hand side) or overexposed the image (too much of the histogram will be on the right hand side and nothing on the left hand side)
The LCD preview display on a camera gives you an indication of the image you will get. However you will notice in the camera menu that you can change the brightness of the LCD. Once you have got an image that is correctly exposed, according to the histogram, you can adjust the LCD brightness to give you a better preview of the final image. This does not mean that you can then rely on the LCD, the histogram is still better.
Under exposing an image is seen by a lot of photographers as a way to avoid blowing the white highlights in a subject or getting a faster shutter speed. This is true BUT the downside of doing this is the significant increase in the amount of noise there will be in the image when you correct the exposure in software. This noise will be very visible in the dark and constant tone regions of an image.
“Expose to the Right”
By maximising the exposure you will increase the amount of detail and reduce the amount of noise in the final image. You should always try to “Expose to the Right”; i.e. increase the exposure until the histogram spread reaches the right hand side of the graph BUT does not go beyond the right hand side. It is very important to note that if you increase the exposure too much you will lose the detail in the white areas of the image which is called blowing the highlights. In this situation any information in the blown region is permanently lost.
UV and Skylight Filters
People buy these filters to protect the front element of the lens. However, this introduces two more glass surfaces that the light has to pass through which can degrade the image by lowering the contrast and introducing flare. If you want the best quality image fit a good lens hood and don’t use UV filters.