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I think we are in danger of losing something. Something rather important to photography, something that has been around since the early days of photography. That something is technical perfection. At the risk of sounding old, when I was studying photography, the most important thing that was drummed into us, was aiming for technical perfection. It wasn’t always achievable and certainly I did not often achieve it but you needed to strive for it. There is no point in having the perfect composition if the technical quality lets it down.
Amazing is Not Always ‘Perfect'
A quick surf through the internet today will reveal a multitude of amazing looking images, 500px, Flickr and others have a seemingly unending supply of visually stunning, colorful looking shots. Shots that can take your breath away. The problem is, many of these images have been pushed so far in the post production that if you were to try and create a decent sized print, the technical flaws would stick out like a sore thumb. The reason for this is simple. Photographers, like most people, love to be praised. We enjoy the virtual slap on the back when we post our stunning but over processed shots, it makes us feel all warm and gooey inside. The issue is that it's a vicious circle, a certain style of image becomes the norm, so we have to create new ways to make our shots more impressive and in turn push the quality of the images further away from perfection.
Achieving Technical Perfection
So how can we try to achieve technical perfection? There are two elements we need to concentrate on, taking the image and the post production. Both require us to have a level of understanding of the processes. to ensure we get the very best image quality. Lets have a look at the elements you need to know to achieve technical perfection.
A classic case of pushing an image too far. Photo by otodo
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Getting it Right in Camera
The first and most important element to understand is exposure. Whilst the metered exposure might not be exactly what you are trying to achieve, you need to make sure that for any exposure adjustments that you make, your light levels remain inside the camera’s histogram. If your histogram is off the scale either on the left or right of the graph, you have a less than optimal image. Understanding the relationship between aperture and shutter speed is vital part not only of getting the exposure right but also in the creativity of your composition.
This shot demonstrates a great understanding of exposure. Photo by Steve Weatherford
Next up is focus. Your image should be in perfect focus on the subject, pin sharp with no camera shake. The areas in front of and behind the subject are defined by what sort of depth of field you require but the important part is that the subject is in perfect focus.
Knowing how and where to focus are highly important skills. Photo by Pranav Yaddanapudi
Focus should not be confused with sharpening. In-camera sharpening should be switched off. Every camera uses it’s own algorithms to sharpen images but generally these are to make the image look good on screen. Switch off that sharpening and do it in post production.
Another very important consideration is film speed or ISO. Boosting ISO to get a shot is going to introduce noise. This might be acceptable in sports or wildlife photography, but in a landscape or cityscape shot it has the potential to ruin the shot.
White Balance is also an important factor. Get it wrong in a jpg and it can be very difficult to correct. If you want to ensure perfect white balance, shoot raw and set it in post production. Contrast and saturation settings should be switched off or to their lowest level. You should decide how an image looks, not the camera.
The Next Step: Post Production
Levels or Curves
Once you have got your technically perfect image in the camera, its time to work on it in post and again, the histogram is your friend. The first thing you should do is work on the exposure, using either levels or curves. In your processing software switch on the clipping indicators, these will show blocks of pure color in the shadows and highlights if you push the image beyond the confines of the histogram. Push it too far in the shadow areas and you will get noise while too far in the light areas will produce clipped highlights. Both look bad on an image that has been enlarged.
Understand how to get the maximum detail from an image in post production. Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões
Next up is color correction. As we mentioned in the section above, shooting raw allows you to set your own color balance in post production giving you much greater control over the look of your final image.
Adding Other Effects
Once you have corrected exposure and color, then you can add more specific effects such as graduated filters or local contrast and color controls. Again keep everything inside that all important histogram.
The final part of the jigsaw is output. When ready to output the image always work on a copy of the original to preserve it’s integrity. You should output an image for a specific purpose, i.e. for print, for web or maybe for a book. Always resize the image to the exact dimensions and resolution required and then, only then apply sharpening. Do not over sharpen, keep an eye out for and avoid getting jaggies in your shot. Remember that the amount of sharpening required for print is very different to that required for web use. Always sharpen your images at 100% view in your software.
Great images come from good technique both in camera and on the computer. Photo by Robert
As we said at the top, it is not always possible to strive for technical perfection but if we don’t try, we will often end up with images that look great on screen but will never get printed because they are over processed. Personally speaking, assuming identical compositions, I would prefer to see a technically perfect image printed rather than a less the perfect but visually impressive image on screen.