pollen macro dandelion back light
Photo by Pixabay on

This blog today is part 3 of a 3 part series: HOW TO MAXIMIZE IMAGE QUALITY IN YOUR PHOTOS. This was originally presented by SPENCER COX FROM “PHOTOGRAPHIC LIFE”. I want to thank Spencer for the use of this article, and the great insight into how to make our photos sharper, and better detailed than ever.

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.

NIKON D7000 + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 3200, 1/100, f/2.8

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 (mostly) 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

NIKON D7000 + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 100, 1/320, f/3.5

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).

NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 14-30mm f/4 S @ 14mm, ISO 200, 1/5, f/5.6

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.

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8. Conclusion

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.

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photo of common kingfisher flying above river
Photo by Monique Laats on

This is an amazing article I wanted to share. It goes through, in incredible detail of how to make your photos look sharper than ever. This is part 2!


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3. Optimal Exposure When You Have a Shutter Speed Limit

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.

NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S @ 70mm, ISO 400, 1/125, f/2.8
In order for this photo to be totally sharp, I needed a shutter speed of 1/125 second (or faster)

Here’s the 100% crop (click to see full size)

The parts of the goat I wanted to be sharp (its eye and coat) are totally sharp. But the motion in the goat’s feet and hint of blur on its horns demonstrate how close to the edge of acceptable 1/125 second was in this case.

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.

NIKON D800E + 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 14mm, ISO 1250, 30 seconds, f/4.0

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, if you only ever used ISO 100 or 800 on the A7R III, you wouldn’t be losing image quality. If your photo is underexposed because you would have used one of the other ISOs, just brighten the image in post.

NIKON D800E + 50mm f/1.4 @ 50mm, ISO 100, 1/25, f/11.0
Out-of-camera original
Recovered version; on an ISO invariant camera, or near-ISO invariant, you can do significant shadow recovery with hardly more penalty than raising ISO in the camera itself.

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. Personally, I avoid ISOs beyond 6400 for astrophotography for this reason, even if it requires a bit of brightening in post-production.

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.

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 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.

Note the blockiness near the edge of the buildings in the compressed version (click to see full size). Also – it’s important to remember that lossless compressed RAW has equally good image quality as uncompressed RAW. It’s my recommendation if your camera offers it.

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.

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 Tracking – 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 use the technique of Image averaging to reduce noise and improve dynamic range. This is especially Milky Way photos, but also applies to a few other situations, like drone photography or as a replacement to HDR.

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.

NIKON D800E + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 100, 1/10, f/16.0
Extreme resolution: 231 megapixels (from a multi-row panorama)
AS LOW AS $2.95 – $7.95 EACH