Case Study: Image Quality

One of our readers sent me some sample images from his camera, asking why his photos are not sharp and often too bright and flat-looking. He is using a pro-level body (Nikon D700) and very good lenses like the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 and the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 that he bought after reading my reviews and he is disappointed with his setup. Here is what he wrote me:

I really need your help.

I own the Nikon D700 + Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 + recently bought the Nikkor 16-35 f/4 after reading you review. I wanted the 14-24mm f/2.8, but without filter it is a big problem for me. Anyway, I have owned the camera for about 8 months and I am not satisfied with the results…

I mostly shoot in RAW with Active D Lighting set to “Auto”. My photos never seems as sharp as the samples you put on your site and they always looks too bright and flat. It’s like they are “dead” without contrast and color and I don’t know what’s wrong with my setup. Maybe it’s a problem with the camera sensor or I don’t know what… I am not a pro photographer and not even close, but I expert much better results from what I have. I mean I can always fix in post-processing software like Aperture 3 which I have, but i want great photos out of the camera without playing with it too much in post.

Please let me know if you see what the problem is and if there’s something wrong with what I am doing? I totally feel hopeless…

Thank you for your time.

Let’s go through each photo and see what is going on here (images are extracted out of RAW without any post-processing):

  1. The first image (below) was shot at 48mm, f/6.3, 1/160, ISO 200 in “P” mode (Program/Auto Mode). When photographing such scenes, I always recommend to use f/8 and higher, because you are including close objects in your frame and you want to make sure that they stay sharp. At 48mm f/6.3, the sand sand on the low part of the frame simply looks very blurry. Composition also lacks here and the sky looks very pale and there is too much of it in the frame.

    Case Study 1

  2. For the second image, the photographer once again used the “P” mode at 42mm, f/3.5, 1/80, ISO 200 and for some reason dialed +1 EV (Exposure Compensation). This image is a clear indication that the photographer lacks some technique – f/3.5 is too shallow for this shot and +1 EV resulted in the image getting overexposed. In fact, all of the photos, except for the first one, are overexposed by at least a full stop. Slightly overexposing images is actually good (expose-to-the-right technique), because you can recover a lot of data from those images. However, more than 1-1.5 full stops of overexposure can actually lead to loss of highlights and brighter tones. So you have to be careful when “exposing to the right”. Similar to the first photo, this one also lacks composition and I’m not sure what the photographer was trying to capture here.

    Case Study 2

  3. This third image is grossly overexposed, by at least 2 full stops. Here is the EXIF data: 66m, f/10, ISO 200, +1 EV, also shot in “P” mode. While the aperture seems to be good, again, I don’t know why +1 EV was dialed on the camera. I’m guessing he simply forgot to turn it off after dialing it earlier. All four photographs were taken at noon (around 12 PM), again, not the best time to take pictures.

    Case Study 3

  4. The last photograph is much better in all regards compared to the above three, but there is still too much of the pale-looking sky in the frame. Exposure settings are: 27mm, f/9.5, 1/45, ISO 200, shot in Aperture Priority mode. The sky is blown out, because the camera was trying to balance the dim ground and the bright sky. The sky is certainly recoverable, because you can see some blue colors. The camera was pointed almost towards the sun (it was on the right side of the frame), so the right side of the sky is irrecoverable. Again, technique is clearly a problem here – the aperture value of f/9.5 looks odd, I’m guessing a result of playing with camera settings earlier.

    Case Study 4

In terms of sharpness, all of the images look pretty good. Let’s take a look at a 100% crop from the above image:

Sharpness

Considering that there is no sharpening applied to the RAW image, there is plenty of sharpness and details in the above photos. So there is definitely nothing wrong with the camera or the lens that the photographer used here.

So, what is wrong with the above images? Here is a quick summary:

  1. Camera technique – the photographer needs to learn how to properly expose images. I highly recommend starting from the exposure triangle and understanding what aperture, shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation do in various camera modes. The images came out overexposed, because exposure was not set correctly on the camera and +1 EV was dialed in some of the photos. Due to difficult lighting conditions (sky being much brighter than the ground), I would also have used a Graduated Neutral Density filter for the sky. Next, I would read about camera to subject distance and depth of field and get a good grasp on how to properly control camera aperture.
  2. Composition – I just don’t see anything interesting in the above photographs. Composition clearly lacks here and there is nothing that catches the eye. Simple things like rule of thirds could have helped here (see my examples below).
  3. Post-processing – much of the “punchy colors” and sharpness you see in my images come from the way I post-process images. Whether you like it or not, post-processing is a big part of photography and every photographer must learn how to work with images in Photoshop/Lightroom, especially if they were shot in RAW.

So, what would I do with the above photos? Here is a result of 2 minutes of changes in Lightroom (no Photoshop):
Lightroom 1 Lightroom 2

Lightroom 3 Lightroom 4

The sky doesn’t look nice, but I do not know how else I can make it look good. Any suggestions?

And here is what I did in Lightroom:

  1. Properly aligned, then cropped images.
  2. I changed camera profile to “Camera Standard” (under Camera Calibration).
  3. Added between 10-30% to “Blue Primary” (under Camera Calibration) to add more blue colors to the sky and water.
  4. Dropped some Graduated Filters with -1 exposure with slight blue color to paint the sky.
  5. Added some sharpness (Amount: 50, Radius 1.0, Detail: 50, Masking: 0).
  6. For some of the images added some Fill Light and a little bit of Saturation.
  7. Bumped up Clarity to +40-+60.

Thus, there is nothing wrong with the camera or the lenses our reader is using. In fact, he uses my favorite gear for travel and landscape photography – most of the images from my “Best of 2010″ collection you have seen on our blog were shot with the Nikon D700 and Nikon 24-70mm lens. If good technique, along with proper alignment and composition were employed, the images would have looked much better right out of the camera.

Hope this helps. Please let me know if you have any questions!

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Paul
    February 3, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    another nice article! very helpful nasim! thank you!
    (by the way i am raring to read your d3100, d7000 reviews) :)

  2. 2
    ) Pradipta
    February 4, 2011 at 12:13 am

    Dear Nashim, You have an amzing quality to make complex things into ‘simple’ …..another great example in the above Case Study: Image Quality..Thanks to enlighten us. Regards, Pradipta.. New Delhi

  3. 3
    ) Gyula
    February 4, 2011 at 3:24 am

    Hey Nasim,

    I would also turn off the D-Lighting to increase the contrast of the photos. I prefer not using it to be honest with you. I think all of his/her photos were accidently overexposed. I would suggest to him/her to join a local photo club, they can help a lot to understand the basic principles of photography.

    Thanks !

    • March 28, 2011 at 9:20 pm

      Actually, Active D-Lighting does nothing to RAW images. The only thing it does is fool you by altering the LCD preview. So definitely turn it off, always, if you shoot RAW.
      -Michael

  4. 4
    ) Golan Haziza
    February 4, 2011 at 5:34 am

    Dear Nasim. thank you very much for you time to answer me… well about the +1 Compensation i even didn’t notice it.. maybe when i’m on auto active d-lighting it increase and decrease it automatically?
    and about exposing photos right? how do i do this? most of my photos include at least 50% of bright sky… so how can i correctly expose to get the best results? isn’t the camera expose the photo auto? how can i improve it to make better photos?

    thanks again for everything :-)

  5. 5
    ) Diane Burchfield Johnson
    February 4, 2011 at 6:36 am

    It surely take time to learn and most of my photos that I shot goes into the lightroom, that way I can adjust the colors and balance all those things. With my work site I have D3 Nikon camera and D200 Nikon on my own, they both are quite alot different but both camera are very good. My main concern is that I never like to do my shooting during the high noon which can cause the color to come off balance, just have to work with it and created in the lightroom. Never do any shooting in front of the sun that can cause the front images to be dark unless you have to use the flash, that’s what I did with my job if it the request and I have to find the location to photograph every places I shot. Sorry if I dont make sense since I’m hard of hearing and have been a photographer for more than 30 years and do work with the army base itself on the spot of 30 years. I do love my job very much!!! How can I just post one of my photos to give you the idea? How can I do that? :) Hope you can help me out Nasim!!!
    Thank you nasim for the great article!! It really helps for other to understand what you are trying to teach.

  6. 6
    ) Peter
    February 4, 2011 at 7:42 am

    The clue to this writer’s fundamental problem is contained in his comment : “…but i want great photos out of the camera without playing with it too much in post.” Also, this comment: “I have owned the camera for about 8 months and I am not satisfied with the results…”

    Nasim wrote an excellent technical response to this writer’s quandry and showed great patience in doing so. My response will be more direct and hopefully MAY (and I say that very tenrtatively) help:

    1- Stop shooting RAW if you don’t want to do any postprocessing; instead shoot JPGs.

    2-If you want to shoot only JPGs sell your camera and lenses and buy a high-quality point-and-shoot camera or a film slide camera.

    3-If you decide to ignore suggestions 1 and 2 above, be prepared to spend a lot of your personal time in learning the basics about photography. Having an outstanding and expensive camera does not guarantee great shots (post hoc, ergo propter hoc)…YOU guarantee great shots, but that all depends on how much TIME you’re willing to devote to the subject.

    4-Forget about hoping that by joining a camera club you will painlessly learn how to use your camera. How many times have I heard this phrase from new club members when asked why they came: “I got a new digital camera for Christmas and I wanted to learn how to use it. That’s why I came.”
    Note: They rarely return for the second meeting.

    Bottom line: Unless you’re willing and have the TIME to do a lot of learning and experimenting on your own, you’ll never be satisfied.

    Lastly, stop shooting in “P” mode and experiment with “M” mode – you’ll learn much more that way. It will force you to understand why some photos are good and others are…not so good.

  7. 7
    ) Mark
    February 4, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Do you generally use Active D lighting with RAW? I found in some cases it made the images very ‘flat’ and dull and harder to get a decent image from in PP. I have always thought you can pretty much replicate Active D lighting in Photoshop or Lightroom anyway. Would be interested to know your thoughts.

    • 25
      ) gian paolo perusini
      March 1, 2011 at 3:23 am

      interesting… I have a D700, and always thought that all settings (WB, vignetting, D lighting) are applied to JPG files only. anybody has more informations?

      • 26
        ) Mark
        March 1, 2011 at 3:50 am

        That’s what I thought – until I tried a couple of test shots with and without Active D lighting on Hi – mine were definately different. I think Active D lighting is applied during the capture, so it does affect RAW, all others are applied afterwards (for jpegs)

        • March 3, 2011 at 6:17 pm

          Mark, Active D-Lighting effects will be visible on the back of the camera when you shoot in RAW, because the embedded JPEG file is affected. Once you pull the RAW file into Lightroom/Photoshop, you will not see any difference between images with and without Active D-Lighting.

      • March 3, 2011 at 6:15 pm

        You are correct – it only applies to JPEG files.

    • March 3, 2011 at 6:15 pm

      Mark, Active D-Lighting is only applied to JPEG files. If you shoot RAW, you can only see the effect if you use Camera NX2 software – Adobe discards Active D-Lighting in RAW files completely.

  8. 8
    ) edi
    February 4, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    Great tips, thanks.

  9. 9
    ) LOU
    February 4, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    Ironically, considering this photographer’s “fear” of shooting without filters, none of the examples exhibit any field filtration. My point: I think a lot of people are missing out on a great lens in the 14-24, or dumping theirs on ebay, due to the “lack” of screw-in filter attachment. Hooey! Lightroom & digital capture & HDR obviates most any need for filters, including polarizers to a degree. I still use a polarizer, but rarely below 20-24 mm. Just my two cents.

    • March 3, 2011 at 6:38 pm

      LOU, I partially agree – most people don’t know when to use filters. However, if you are a landscape photographer, filters are a must for sunrise/sunset shots. HDR cannot replicate what polarizing/ND filters can do.

      • 33
        ) LOU
        March 3, 2011 at 7:57 pm

        Well, I guess I partially disagree, Nasim : ). I own an ND, but haven’t used it since LR added the excellent post version ND. Simple post composites are easier than fussing with an ND, in my experience, too. Filters mostly belong to the film capture realm/era. I always used them with film, but I barely think about them with digital capture.

        Yes, a polarizer provides a unique solution for specific situations, but it’s difficult to employ “transparently/naturally” on super wide-angle. I never liked the polarizer on my 17-35 below 22-24mm for this reason, but used one anyway.

        One reason I ended up with the 14-24/24-70 pair was to achieve a 20mm equivalent on DX as needed. I’m sure the 16-35 offers most enthusiasts a more sensible wide option, but I maintain a compact pro kit, and I consider 2.8 a minimum maximum aperture. Call me old fashioned.

        Thanks for all you do, Nasim. Love your site.

        Lou

  10. 10
    ) Adam
    February 4, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    @Golan: Change your P to M, then read up on composition rules for photography. Know that it takes time and practice, a lot of it really.
    @Nasim: Thanks for the post, fun to read.
    Cheers!

    • 14
      ) Golan Haziza
      February 4, 2011 at 10:56 pm

      That’s what I’m going to do from now

  11. 11
    ) Myrna
    February 4, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    Thanks to the post who submitted this as I sometimes question the equipment instead of technique. Its nice to see actual pictures he took and how you corrected them. I dont use P but mostly Aperture mode and I do heed your advice and read up on each technique you mentioned to this poster. I do realize now that post processing is a must but could I request 2 things: Can you suggest to a beginner which post processing software is good. I would like to know PHOTOSHOP but dont know where to begin.. Should I buy it and just read as I go along? I would like to try this Camera Calibration (sounds foreign to me). Secondly, I was taking a group faculty picture in a gymnasium and would like pointers on settings (I dont own an SB flash and was using my standard top flash on the camera…I already know that is one accessory I will be needing very soon). But when I zoomed in, there were several people who looked like their eyes were distorted and a mouth that looked like an ink blot. I had it in Manual Mode with a ISO 1250 Aperature 7.1 S 1/250.. I was using a 18-200 Nikkor Lens bec. I that was the only lens I had. Oh another thing, When I reviewed it in my camera it looks good, but when viewing on my computer it looked blurry. I tried using ACDSee to post process and darkened the shadowing..when it looked OK on my computer it came out very “Contrasty” and dark…
    Sorry Im not sure if I shouldve posted this separately but this post sort of fell into my same category..
    Thank you so much for all this wealth of information!!

    • March 3, 2011 at 6:41 pm

      Myrna, I highly recommend to start with Lightroom – it is relatively easy (compared to Photoshop). As for your group shot, send it via the case study form and I will take a look.

  12. 12
    ) Jeanne
    February 4, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    “Happy Belated Birthday” Mr Nasim. Didnt log on as we Chinese are celebrating our Chinese New Year. Nevertheless, here I wish you God’s blessing of health, blessed vision, wisdom, joy, happy family and many more……

    Jeanne/D7000/Singapore

    • March 3, 2011 at 6:13 pm

      Jeanne, thank you so much for your wishes! Happy New Year to you!

  13. 13
    ) Obed
    February 4, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    A great article as always, Nasim! I had a similar issue when I started out and often thought there was something wrong with my gear (D5000 kit). And even after you told me I have a great kit, I ended up buying the D700 and 50mm prime. I soon noticed that there was not much improvement except in low light. Its now 5 months later, my techique has improved and I’m taking much nicer pictures. In fact, I now confidently prefer shooting with my D5000 18-55mm and 35mm f1.8 DX when photographing my kids at parties in good light

    • 15
      ) Golan Haziza
      February 4, 2011 at 11:00 pm

      So if I shoot in M mode, does the light meter should be in the middle in every light situation?

      • 18
        ) Amit
        February 10, 2011 at 5:33 am

        No, not always. I highly recommend you to go through the section ‘Light’ of the book Understanding exposure 3rd edition. Chapters related to metering are ‘Exposure Meters’, ’18% Reflectance’, ‘The Sky Brothers’ and ‘Mr. Green Jean’. Most of the times you adjust the exposure such that the light meter is at 0. But there are some exceptions, for example, in the chapter Mr. Green Jeans, Brian explains that you should keep your exposure to -2/3 stops when your composition involves a lot of green objects.

      • 19
        ) Mark
        February 10, 2011 at 6:14 am

        If your subject is backlit you will sometimes need to overexpose, ie people in doorways or birds in the sky. Another situation is snowy scenes, these will cause most metering systems to underexpose resulting in grey snow.

        Only real way to tell is to:

        Take test shots
        Take lots of photographs and get to know how your gear behaves.

        • 20
          ) Golan Haziza
          February 10, 2011 at 9:39 am

          thank you all for your reply… i did made some tests and i have to admite there is a dramatic improvement in my photos….

  14. February 5, 2011 at 1:18 am

    @nasim: well done, very patient and informative…

    I teach at natureworkshop in austria myself and it is always a problem with the students, mostly the blame their equipment for their bad pictures.

    Normaly it cost me a lot of time to teach them the basics and try gently to force them first to the A mode and later to the M mode.

    It is a common problem, most hobbist are over equipt and blame the hardware instead of their on technique. But it is always a bright moment for me to see the light of understanding in the faces of the students.

    just practice and looking at your photos and trying to understand what went wrong take yor skills further

    herbert koeppel, austria, http://www.naturfotoworkshop. at

    • February 25, 2011 at 5:34 pm

      Herbert, thank you for your feedback and good luck with your workshops! :)

  15. 17
    ) Jaime
    February 5, 2011 at 6:30 am

    “Next, I would read about camera to subject distance and depth of field and get a good grasp on how to properly control camera aperture.”

    Thanks for this very helpful article. I have read and reread all of your photography tips and they have helped me by leaps and bounds. I have been shooting in Aperture mode with my D700 since Christmas but still feel like I “guess” at what the aperture should be… especially in outdoor shots. You mention in your article that that the 9.5 looked “odd” in one picture but would have used over 9 in another . Would love if you could offer your own personal guidelines! :)

    Thanks so much!

    Jaime

    • February 25, 2011 at 5:38 pm

      Jaime, I said odd, because when I shoot in aperture-priority mode, I typically go for something like f/5.6 or f/8.0. f/9.5 just gave me a clue that the photographer was shooting in Auto or some other program mode…

      If you want to capture a good amount of details with a large depth of field, I would just use f/8.0. If the amount of light is insufficient and you don’t have a tripod, you can lower it down to f/5.6, but there is a risk that some close objects might be out of focus. If you shoot distant landscapes from an outlook or the top of the mountain, even larger apertures would work fine (as long as you don’t have close objects in your frame). Try not to go above f/11, since you will see the effect of diffraction, which will make your images look softer.

  16. 21
    ) gian paolo
    February 24, 2011 at 9:36 am

    i like your website! and you are always very well disposed with everybody… don’t know how you can find the time.
    it seems that you like all of the lens you own… how can it be? I had to resell a good 30% of what I bought!
    anyway, I am looking for a VERY good lens for my D700. I am thinking about the 70/200 VRII, what do you think? I had a 80-200D, but it was not very good (autofocus and 200mm F2.8).
    Or a 24-70 is better?
    I shoot the usuals subjects (wife, dog (mostly!), architectures, landscapes). I am an engineer and a semi professional photographer (rather expert). It would be very nice to have your advise. thanks gp

    • February 25, 2011 at 5:39 pm

      Gian, I do a lot of research before buying a lens and I have been lucky I guess :)

      As for your 70-200mm question, go for it – it is a stellar lens that will not disappoint.

  17. January 25, 2012 at 7:46 am

    Great article, again!
    I’m close to finishing all of your articles and I must admit I elarned alot these alst days while reading every piece of info here.
    I also have a problem. I recently went from d3000 to d90. I’m pretty satisfied with the camera, but I don’t know why all of my photos look really artificial. I can’t seem to be able to get images that look simple, sharp and balanced as I can see everywhere. I know my camera is not extrordinary but still.
    Most of my photos are taken with Nikkor 50mm f1.8D, a pretty good lens, and cheap in my opinion.
    If you can have a look and give me some advice I would greatly appreciate it.
    Photos can be seen here : http://photographywithjoy.wordpress.com/

    Thank you very much,
    Ciubotaru Catalin

  18. 38
    ) Deepak Jeswal
    February 18, 2012 at 8:43 am

    Hi Nasim, love your space here. Most of my photography skills have come from reading, re-reading your blog and then applying it.

    One query. Some of my recent pics are coming out with darkness in corners. It can’t be exposure problem alone, can it? I saw it in some of my high exposed photos too. Could it be the sensor is not clean? I had been to a dusty environment recently.

    Any place i can send my pics for you to understand better?
    Thanks.

  19. 39
    ) Gurpreet
    January 16, 2013 at 3:18 am

    Hi,
    I went through your tutorials and they are damm Good. They way you modify above images are pretty awesome. I am having canon 550D with 70-300mm IS lens. In the day time, When I click the image at 300mm with ISO 100 and F5.6 , The image ends up in having Noise if I Check in 2:1 or 2:3 zoom in Lightroom.
    Do you have any idea what I am doing wrong here?

  20. 40
    ) jashoots
    February 24, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    Your request for help has come . . Turn Off that active D lighting *%$# and keep shooting.

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