In the past, I’ve written about camera settings in terms of optimization – pushing your gear to the limits in order to maximize image quality. Today, I’ll revisit those advanced techniques and explain how to combine them to capture the highest quality images you possibly can.
First, a simple premise: There is an optimal way to set your camera for a given photo. Not only that, but there is also an optimal way to set your post-processing software and export settings based on your output medium.
Sometimes, of course, you’ll need to sacrifice a bit of image quality in order to use the right camera settings. If you need to take a photo at f/1.4 for the shallow depth of field, go for it. Don’t stop down to f/5.6 just because it’s the lens’s sweet spot.
But often, there’s some significant leeway in the settings you choose, and it can be tricky to know exactly which ones will give you maximum image quality.
That’s what this article is for. I like to think that it’s one of the more important endeavors I’ve attempted recently on Photography Life; it’s my way of distilling many previous concepts we’ve written about into an overarching explanation of maximizing image quality. And it’s pretty long, and it’s occasionally complicated, but it works. This is the process I aim to follow for every photo, though I certainly don’t always succeed.
The only big thing I omitted was flash photography. Flash is complex enough to merit its own article, and this one is already bursting at the seams.
Other than that, the information below should apply regardless of the subject or genre you are photographing. Let’s start with camera equipment:
Table of Contents
1. Camera Gear and Image Quality
I can’t avoid pointing out that your choice of camera system has an impact on image quality. Some cameras simply have more resolution or better high ISO performance than others. Certain lenses are sharper, too.
But my goal today is not to recommend that you buy new camera gear if you want better image quality. It’s to explain how to maximize your image quality from any equipment.
If your current gear cannot produce the images you need, even with perfect technique, I’d be pretty surprised. I’d also recommend a different camera system. But if you’re reading this, I’m assuming that you already have workable equipment for the job at hand.
So, the only point I’ll make here is simple: Use a tripod!
Certainly, there are cases where tripods don’t work – most street photography, aerial photography, underwater photography, and a few others – but right now, we’re talking about maximizing image quality. Unless a tripod simply won’t work for your shot, use one. It’ll do more good than anything else discussed below.
With that said, let’s move on to exposure.
2. Best-Case Scenario Exposure Settings
I’m going to start with the optimal settings for best-case scenario photos.
By “best-case scenario,” I mean that you don’t have any restrictions on what shutter speed you can use. You’re shooting from a tripod, and nothing in the scene is moving (or anything moving is meant to be a blur, like a waterfall).
I’ll cover the exceptions afterward, but they’re all just variations on the process below.
2.1. Aperture and Focusing
Before setting anything, note your lens’s “target” aperture – where it has the sharpest performance on a flat, test-chart-like scene.
For most modern lenses, this occurs somewhere from f/4 to f/8. But you should test your own lenses to be sure, or at least compare reviews online that analyze things like sharpness.
Here’s the key: This aperture (call it f/5.6) might be the target in terms of sharpness, but that doesn’t make it optimal for your photo. Quite often, you’ll need less or more depth of field than f/5.6 offers.
The first case is if you want a shallow depth of field – then, your job is super easy, and you can skip to the next section of this article. Just set whatever aperture gives you the depth of field you need. Don’t worry that you’re not at the lens’s “target” aperture. First and foremost, you need your photo to look right.
But shallow depth of field isn’t always going to be your goal. If you want the whole photo to be sharp from front to back, you’ll need to put in a bit more effort. Specifically, you’re going to balance depth of field and diffraction. That’s a big task, though not as hard as you might think.
I’ve covered the optimal method a few times in the past; it’s optimal because it leads to equally and maximally sharp foreground and background regions in your photo. That won’t always be your goal – sometimes, you’ll be prioritizing foreground or background sharpness over the other – but it’s a pretty excellent default.
Essentially, you focus using the double the distance method, followed by consulting charts to determine which aperture is mathematically ideal for maximum image quality. It goes like this:
- Frame the shot.
- Identify the closest object in your photo that you want to be sharp.
- Focus on something that is double the distance away from that object. So – if the closest object in your photo is a patch of grass a meter away, focus on something that’s two meters away.
- Use a chart derived from our sharpest aperture article to figure out which aperture best balances depth of field and diffraction.
- Set that aperture.
Creating the chart is where most people have hangups, but it’s not especially difficult. It takes perhaps 10 minutes of effort to whittle down the charts I already made into something useful for your gear. The whole process is explained in our earlier article.
For example, the chart (in feet) for the Nikon 20mm f/1.8 AF-S is below. Note that this lens has a “target” aperture of f/8, and it can’t stop down more than f/16:
If you don’t want to consult charts in the field, I don’t blame you. One alternative – which I hope doesn’t sound too crazy – is just to memorize the chart for your typical gear. It’s easier with a prime lens than a zoom, but doable regardless.
And, again, this article is about maximizing image quality in every possible way. If that’s not your goal, just don’t follow these steps. An experienced photographer can guess a good focusing distance and aperture in most cases, no need to follow the technique above. Do whatever works best for you.
Set base ISO, and you’re done.
Many aspects of image quality are about gathering as much light as possible. With the lowest possible ISO value, you can use a longer shutter speed to gather more light while avoiding overexposure.
You’ve probably heard that some cameras have special “LO” ISO values that are lower than base ISO. Don’t use those; they’ll harm your dynamic range. Stick to your camera’s base ISO value instead.
2.3. Shutter Speed and ETTR
Next – set a shutter speed that exposes to the right (ETTR). I’ll explain the two different methods to do so in a moment.
ETTR is all about gathering as much light as possible, without gathering too much and overexposing important parts of your photo.
Somewhere along the way, photographers invented a myth that ETTR means capturing bright, overexposed photos. Frankly, in many cases (high-contrast scenes especially), the proper ETTR image is significantly darker than what the camera’s matrix meter recommends by default.
ETTR has nothing to do with capturing a photo that looks bright. It’s all about retaining 100% of your important highlight detail. Here’s how you do it:
Method One: Histogram
The easiest way to check if you’ve exposed to the right is to consult your camera’s histogram and see if any color channels are overexposed.
It’s not a flawless method, in part because the histogram on your camera is based on the JPEG preview. This means that you’ll get a very different histogram in “Vivid” versus “Portrait” picture control.
If you rely heavily on this technique, you’ll want to use the most neutral picture control, since it most approximates a RAW file.
Ah, forgot my usual disclaimer – shoot in RAW, not JPEG. Especially if you’re the type of photographer who reads articles like this, with the goal of maximizing image quality.
Method Two: Spot Metering
A more advanced way to figure out the optimal exposure is by spot metering on the brightest part of your photo. Then, dial in positive exposure compensation to place that part of your photo as a bright highlight – to be specific, as bright as possible so that you can still recover it 100% in post-processing.
It might take a moment in the field to figure out what the brightest part of your photo is, and the consequences for picking the wrong spot are almost certain to be overexposure. But at the end of the day, this isn’t too terribly difficult to do in the field, especially for something slower-moving like landscape photography.
However, the exact “100% recoverable point” is something you need to test ahead of time for your specific camera. With my Z7, it’s +2.7 EC (though I’ll often set +2.3 EC instead, to build in a bit of a safety net). Picture Control doesn’t matter here, since it is independent of your camera’s metering.
As an aside, this method – spot metering to expose the brightest tone of your scene optimally – reminds me a lot of Ansel Adams’s zone system, just a bit more digital. Kind of exciting if you ask me.
If you use the histogram method, the optimal way to set your white balance and tint to optimize histogram accuracy is to set “unitary white balance” or UniWB.
In short – use the flattest possible picture control settings. Then, turn “tint” as green as possible, and set the white balance on your camera so that the red and green color channel multipliers are as close to each other (and to 1) as possible.
You can figure out the white balance at which this occurs by examining your photos in EXIF viewing software. (For MacOS, I use ApolloOne because it’s free, although there are plenty of similar programs.) It’s labeled as “Blue Balance” and “Red Balance” in most EXIF viewers. With the Nikon Z7, for example, the UniWB is 4945 K, although you can’t set that exact value and need to use 4940 or 4950 instead.
To take this to the extreme, you can use a color filter on your camera to balance out the fact that the green channel generally clips before the others in sunlight. I recommend a 30% magenta filter (specified as cc30m or cc30p by most filter companies) or a 40% magenta filter (cc40m or cc40p).
As a side note, if you use a magenta filter in combination with UniWB, the in-camera preview image will actually look relatively normal.
And yes, this is a really esoteric method for eking out maximum image quality, but it works. You’ll get (at best) about 2/3 additional stops of exposure with a cc30m or cc40m filter before you start blowing out one of your color channels. That’s not bad – akin to using a camera with base ISO 64 rather than 100.
3. Optimal Exposure When You Have a Shutter Speed Limit
All the information above assumes that you can set any shutter speed you want without issue. However, that’s obviously not always the case.
If you’re trying to freeze a moving subject or shoot handheld, there’s probably a limit to the longest shutter speed you can set. In turn, that requires compromises in the ISO and/or aperture that you set.
And this is where things get a little messy.
3.1. Shutter Speed
First, keep in mind that every photo has an optimal range of shutter speeds. When you find that range, you really don’t want to go outside of it. Too much motion blur can ruin a photo in an instant.
So, what exact shutter speed should you set? Ideally, you’d use the longest possible shutter speed that still completely freezes the photo’s motion. As an example, if you eliminate motion blur with a 1/125 second shutter speed or faster, 1/125 second is the perfect shutter speed to use. It’s the longest exposure with zero motion blur, meaning it captures as much light as you can under the circumstances.
Here’s the 100% crop (click to see full size):
However, you’ll rarely know the exact shutter speed cutoff for a given scene. It requires some trial and error in the field, although practice and experience are good substitutes. Once you do find the range of acceptable shutter speeds, it’s best to stay within that range no matter what – or, at most, go about 1/3 or 2/3 stops longer than ideal.
That’s because shutter speed blur is one of the most annoying image quality issues you can have. If it’s too obvious – and it gets too obvious in a hurry – it can totally ruin an otherwise good photo.
In tricky situations like fast-moving sports photography, it’s possible that some photos will have different shutter speed cutoffs than others. In those cases, it’s best to play it safe. Just go with the shutter speed that makes every photo sharp, and don’t worry if you could have snuck in a slightly longer exposure on a few of them.
3.2. Aperture and ISO
Next, it’s time to figure out what aperture and ISO values you need to use in order to accommodate your shutter speed limitations.
If you’re already shooting at your lens’s widest aperture, just raise your ISO until the photo is bright enough. But if you’re at a narrower aperture, you’ll often need to widen it in order to capture more light.
And that’s when you get into the tug-of-war with ISO. Specifically, is it better to have too high an ISO, or too shallow a depth of field?
There’s no perfect answer, although I do have a preferred process for my own work. Up to ISO 400, I just raise the ISO. Beyond that, I’ll trade off: a third stop wider aperture, then a third stop higher ISO, then a third stop wider aperture, and so on until the photo is bright enough. Find a similar method that works well for your gear, and you’re set.
3.3. ISO Invariance
One exception to the technique above involves the weirdness of ISO as a photographic concept in the first place.
To distill the issue down to a single question: Why raise ISO when you can simply brighten an image in post-processing?
Usually, the answer is that you get better image quality by raising ISO in-camera rather than brightening in post. But that’s becoming less and less true over time, as camera sensors become “ISO-less” or more accurately ISO invariant at some point in their range (or across the entire range).
With my previous camera, the Nikon D800e, this occurred at ISO 1600, although it wasn’t far from ISO invariant at the lower ISOs. In other words, up to ISO 1600, it was worth brightening the photo using the in-camera ISO. Anything more – 3200, 6400, etc. – provided no image quality benefits. Plus, the higher ISOs increased my risk of overexposure in highlight details, especially pinpoint highlights like stars.
Not all cameras are as simple. For example, the Sony A7R III is ISO invariant across two ranges: ISO 100 to 720, then ISO 800 and up. So, there is technically no image quality benefit to using any ISO on the A7R III except 100 or 800. If your photo is underexposed because you would have used one of the other ISOs, just brighten the image in post.
Of course, ISO invariance is controversial for a few reasons. The big one is that it makes it harder to preview images – and it also adds more time in post-production. Plus, most post-processing software is not made for giant boosts to image brightness, so you might get some color shifts or other artifacts when doing extreme shadow recovery.
I’d say it’s only worth worrying about ISO invariance for one specific case: astrophotography. There, shooting at too high of an ISO can blow out color details in the stars, while shooting a lower ISO and brightening in post-production can retain those details.
Otherwise, make your life simpler and don’t worry about ISO invariance. After all, brightening a photo in post-processing doesn’t give you better image quality than increasing ISO in-camera; it just protects highlight details more, without harming image quality.
If you’re not shooting a scene like stars where the highlights need special care, it doesn’t bring any other big benefits.
4. Other Camera Settings
The exposure settings above are very important, but there are a few other camera settings which are worth noting if you want optimal image quality.
4.1. Shutter Mechanism
I recently wrote about the three common shutter mechanisms today: mechanical, electronic, and electronic first curtain shutter (EFCS).
You should read the comparison to see all the differences in detail, but the takeaway is simple: Use mechanical when there is artificial light in your photo, and electronic otherwise – or EFCS if your camera doesn’t have an electronic shutter.
4.2. Mirror Lockup
Along the same lines as setting your shutter mechanism properly, you also need to get rid of camera shake from mirror slap (only on a DSLR, of course) and simply from pressing down on your camera, even if it’s on a tripod.
For this, I recommend using mirror lockup mode in combination with a brief self-timer, such as two seconds. Or, if you’re a Nikon shooter, “Exposure Delay Mode” makes this simpler by raising the mirror when you press the shutter release button, pausing for a second or two so vibrations dissipate, then capturing the photo. We’ve covered this extensively in our article on exposure delay mode.
4.3. 12-Bit vs 14-Bit RAW
Many cameras today have a RAW image quality setting that lets you choose between shooting 12-bit or 14-bit color.
John Sherman already showed quite elegantly that anyone who shoots 14-bit RAW rather than 12-bit is a paranoid pixel-peeper. And today, that’s exactly what we are!
If you’re using the (very slightly) lower quality 12-bit RAW setting, rather than turning it up to 14, how can you possibly claim to be capturing maximum image quality? Also, something about storage being cheap, and so on.
4.4. RAW Compression
This one does actually make a difference – RAW compression. Most cameras let you choose between uncompressed, compressed, and losslessly compressed RAW. Some omit the “lossless” option.
Of the three, lossless compression truly is lossless; there is zero image quality detriment to using that setting. It’s my strong recommendation.
If your camera only has “compressed” and “uncompressed,” go for better image quality. Uncompressed RAW photos take up more hard drive space, but they’ll show some definite image quality benefits in certain cases.
4.5. Long Exposure Noise Reduction
When you’re shooting with long shutter speeds, there’s an important camera setting to keep in mind: long exposure noise reduction.
With this mode enabled, the camera takes two photos in a row. The first is your actual, main exposure. The second is a dark frame with the shutter curtain closed, captured with an equally long exposure as the first. Your camera then uses the dark frame to subtract out noise and hot pixels from your main shot.
This does affect RAW photos, and it can make a real difference when you’re shooting especially long exposures. I hate the wait as much as anyone else – it takes twice as long to capture these photos, since you’re taking two photos – but in the race for maximum image quality, what’s an extra 30 seconds in the field?
5. Image Blending
If all of the above isn’t enough for you, the most in-depth way to improve image quality is to blend multiple photos together.
This can take a few different forms. The most obvious is creating a panorama, since you’re able to increase the resolution of a photo drastically – no real upper limit, aside from how long you’re willing to spend stitching the photo together.
HDR photography is another big one. In high-contrast situations, getting enough highlight and shadow detail simultaneously may be impossible without blending photos together. HDR increases your dynamic range, and, when done right, decreases shadow noise as well.
There’s also focus stacking – taking multiple photos focused at different distances, then combining them into an exceptionally sharp photo from front to back. This lets you use your lens’s “sweet spot” or target aperture and still get enough depth of field, making for extremely sharp photos.
Lastly, you can take several photos at higher ISO values and blend them together to average out noise. This is especially useful for something like Milky Way photography, as I wrote about recently.
A few other types of image blending exist, but these are the big ones in terms of image quality.
The real question, however, is whether or not you should actually put any of this into practice. My answer is – by default – you shouldn’t. Photo blending has some serious potential to go wrong, especially if the light changes or your subject moves from shot to shot.
I tend to blend images only to salvage photos that wouldn’t work any other way, not to boost image quality for its own sake. But that’s just me. Again, this article is about the things you can do to push image quality to the next level – and image blending clearly qualifies.
6. Post-Processing Workflow
In terms of editing your photos, one of the key components of image quality is to work with image files that are lossless. In photography, this largely means the original RAW file, DNGs, or TIFFs.
If you’re ever doing a lot of edits to a JPEG file – whether directly (like Photoshop) or indirectly (like Lightroom) – you’re setting yourself up for trouble. A JPEG on its own looks good, but starts to produce some serious blocky artifacts when pushed around in post.
Along the same lines, make sure that you’re always editing in a large color space that won’t clip any highly saturated colors – something like ProPhoto RGB or similar. (I highly recommend our sRGB vs Adobe RGB vs ProPhoto RGB article if you aren’t familiar with color spaces.) On top of that, be sure to edit 16 bit-per-channel images rather than clipping them down to 8 bit.
Essentially, this means that if you export a photo from Lightroom/other software into Photoshop/other software, you should be working with 16-bit ProPhoto TIFF files the whole way. With a lower 8-bit image, you’ll risk banding in gradient regions. With a smaller color space, like sRGB, you’ll permanently clip certain colors in your image. And with a lossy format like JPEG, you’ll risk serious compression artifacts.
Of course, you should never let a ProPhoto image of any kind out into the wild unless the sole recipient is another photographer. Same with 16-bit TIFFs just because they’re such large files. This is solely about optimizing your workflow to avoid throwing away data in your photos without realizing it. There’s a separate process in a moment for the export side of things.
Other than that? Feel free to process images however you want. Editing images is a really subjective, artistic part of photography, perhaps just as much as the field side of things.
Oh, and calibrate your monitor. I’m sure you’ve already done it, but if not, that’s essential to editing the colors you mean to edit.
7. Optimizing for the Output Medium
Now that you’ve set up your post-processing workflow to maximize image quality, let’s take a look at the proper steps for printing your photo or otherwise outputting it as well as possible.
The two major steps here are sharpening (including noise reduction) and converting to the right color profile. I’ll start with sharpening.
7.1. Optimal Sharpening and Noise Reduction
There are many different philosophies on the optimal sharpness settings in post-production. I won’t go into the exact slider values that work best, because there really isn’t just one set. Instead, proper sharpening is about following the three-stage method:
- Deconvolution sharpening: Light to moderate sharpening across the image, with a very small radius and a low masking/threshold value. Also, light to moderate noise reduction – both color and luminance – evenly across the image in proportion to the amount of noise in the photo.
- Local sharpening: More aggressive sharpening to important, high-detail parts of the photo, like feathers or eyes on a wildlife subject. Also, more aggressive noise reduction to large, empty areas.
- Output sharpening: Anywhere from zero to aggressive sharpening evenly across the image to counteract texture in the output medium, like a matte print.
The deconvolution stage is the most important. In Lightroom, for a 45-megapixel sensor without an AA filter, my default is 33 sharpening, 0.5 radius, 100 detail, 13 masking. Combined with 10 luminance and 10 color noise reduction.
That said, it’s best to figure out your preferred settings through trial and error. This is especially true for output sharpening, which varies wildly based on the medium – including digital or print – as well as the physical dimensions of your output.
7.2. Color Profile Conversion
Last, but not least, is converting your working image to the proper color profile (and file type).
For web, this is easy: sRGB JPEG, pretty much 100% of the time. Anything other than sRGB is likely to create really strange colors for at least some users out there (those with outdated browsers, mainly) – and anything other than JPEG is likely to take up too much space.
For print, it’s a bit trickier. The most ideal method is to find the exact color space of your ink/paper combo – either through measuring for yourself or downloading ICC profiles online – and then soft proof your image in post-processing using that color space.
(Soft proofing means “previewing” how the print will look, to the best of your monitor and software’s capabilities. Lightroom, Photoshop, and most other post-processing options today allow this.)
Then, export a 16-bit TIFF with the ink/paper combo’s ICC profile. Lightroom doesn’t let you directly do this, however, so you will need to do the intermediate step of exporting a 16-bit TIFF in ProPhoto, then opening in Photoshop or other software and converting that to your ICC profile. Again, there’s more info in our color space article.
That’s a few steps, no doubt. But if you send the print lab an sRGB file, or even an Adobe RGB file, you’re potentially throwing out some important color details (especially in darker, more saturated areas).
If you want a simpler method – though one which likely clips some colors – just send a lab of your choice a photo exported to their specifications (usually sRGB, though some allow AdobeRGB and an elite few allow ProPhoto). Then, select the lab’s “color correction” option if they have one, where they’ll basically do the steps above for you.
It’s the easiest way to get colors that match your monitor, with the least that can go wrong. It’s why I recommend it to most photographers, especially at first. However, there certainly are subtle color benefits of the hands-on method I covered above. And when you’ve already gone through this entire article… well, you’re probably after all the quality you can get.
The information above dives pretty deep into image quality, and I think it’s useful for photographers to have a goal to strive for. At the end of the day, though, these are not the most important parts of photography. A high-quality image is a whole lot better than high technical image quality.
So, before you go out and follow all these tips to the letter, make sure you’ve really mastered the basics. Light, composition, basic exposure settings, and everyday post-processing – all that is more important.
Once you’ve gotten a hang of it, then it’s a good time to dive deeper. Try out some of these techniques for yourself, and figure out which ones are easy to incorporate into your day-to-day work. It’s worth doing.
Why? Simple: To me, photographers should aim for the best possible result for every photo. No, you won’t always have time to get everything perfect. And sure, some scenes are tricky to photograph, and it’s smart to build in leeway even at the expense of image quality. But if you can aim for the best – you should.
I hope you found the explanations in this article useful for achieving that goal.