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.
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:
- 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.