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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people walking near road beside buildings during night time
Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric on

In the Photo Equipment war, there is always someone that will outdo the other brands out there right now. One company in particular, with their new flagship camera has just introduced a camera with an ISO of 1,600,000 !!! That’s right! That is a high number, and along with their new chip design, the photos coming out of this new camera are amazing. That is the new Pentax K3-III .

This camera brings up just a few questions for sure:

1- What do I do with an ISO setting that high? Is there practical photography for a setting this high?

Well, let’s look into this a bit:

Ten years ago, these fears were justified. Raising your ISO to 1600 or 3200 was a no-go for the majority of cameras.

But no longer. Things are changing. These days, it often makes sense to boost your ISO to get better images. In fact, the improvements in camera technology have been such that you can now comfortably photograph at ISO 1600, 3200, and even 6400 with most DSLRs, Micro Four Thirds cameras, and mirrorless cameras, and of course now with the introduction from Pentax with an ISO of 1,600,000, the question would now be: What can’t I shoot with a high ISO?

Newly developed for the PENTAX K-3 Mark III, the Fine Sharpness II mode faithfully reproduces delicate outlines just like the Extra Sharpness mode, but it also minimizes the generation and emphasis of unwanted noise, while reproducing fine textures and subtle gradations in the subject with greater accuracy. In fact, at PENTAX we see this mode as depicting subject texture at a level close to perfection. Created by integrating the Fine Sharpness and Extra Sharpness modes, this new mode is incorporated into the PENTAX K-3 Mark III — and will be in future PENTAX SLR models — as the default setting.

With the introduction of a camera that can shoot ISO of 1,600,000, it brings up and interesting advantage. If you can make your photo look good, say even at 240,000ISO, what kind of sharpness would I get when I shoot at a lower ISO?

Thanks to all these advanced features, you will realize the great improvement in image resolution and reproduction of subject texture in the low-sensitivity range when you capture image with the PENTAX K-3 Mark III.

You begin using your imagination the moment you see a subject, then release the shutter and anticipate the resulting image. I believe that’s the best way to enjoy the entire process of photography. You can make image quality look better, at least on the surface, by boosting numerical specifications. To step more deeply into a world of image description that can’t just be summed up in numbers, PENTAX stresses the importance of sensibility evaluations, which factor in the feelings and opinions of our designers in our pursuit of more beautiful, more truthful images. When you look at the picture above and realize the small square in the inset photo, is what was enlarged, you can now create the sharpest photos ever yet, by having a camera with a high ISO, as long as they worked on the image sensor to create this amazing fete.

When you look at how much the image has improved in going from the previous model (the Mark II), to the Mark III, you can see that the new K3 Mark III is a camera not to be ignored.

Here are 3 options of using a high ISO:

1. When you’re photographing indoors or at night

If you take your camera indoors, or you shoot at night, you’ll quickly run into a problem:

Your images will be dark and lacking detail.

In such situations, you have three solutions:

First, you can widen your aperture. Often, this can help (and it’s the reason why many night photographers and event photographers work with an ultra-low f-stop). But it’s rarely enough.

Second, you can drop your shutter speed. But unless your subject is completely still and you’re shooting with a tripod, you’ll end up with lots of blur. Not ideal, right?

Which brings me to the third solution:

You can raise your ISO.

when to use a high ISO in photography concert

Will it introduce some noise? Yes. But the noise produced by modern cameras at high ISOs just isn’t that bad; as I mentioned above, you can comfortably boost your ISO to ISO 3200 and ISO 6400 without much loss of quality.

And by raising the ISO, you’ll end up with much brighter images, even indoors and even at night.

2. When you’re photographing fast-moving subjects

The faster your subject, the faster the shutter speed required to render it with zero blur.

For instance, if you’re photographing a runner, you might need a shutter speed of 1/500s. If you’re photographing a moving car, 1/1000s might be more appropriate. And if you’re photographing a diving falcon, 1/3200s is a safe bet.

Unfortunately, even in relatively good light, boosting your shutter speed to 1/3200s will result in a too-dark exposure – unless you raise the ISO, that is.

After all, better to end up with a slightly noisy image than a completely blurry one, right?

So don’t be afraid to increase your ISO when faced with a fast-moving subject.

when to use a high ISO in photography people walking at night

3. When you’re using a long lens

The longer your lens, the easier it is to end up with blur – because subject movement and camera movement are magnified. So with a long lens, you need a fast shutter speed, just the same as if you were shooting a moving subject.

That’s why boosting your ISO is so essential when working with telephoto lenses; it allows you to boost the shutter speed, too, and capture a sharp image.

Sure, when the light is bright, you can keep the ISO at 100 or 200 and end up with sharp, well-exposed images.

But as the light begins to drop, you’ll need to raise your ISO with confidence. That way, you can capture bright and clear photos at 300mm, 400mm, and beyond.

when to use a high ISO shadowy man with briefcase
Canon 5D Mark II | 135mm | f/6.3 | ISO 1600
The high ISO allowed for a 1/320s shutter speed; this accounted for both the motion in the scene and for the longer focal length used.

But doesn’t a lower ISO give better image quality?

Well, yes – and no.

Yes, if you are setting up a studio shot and controlling the lighting. Yes, if you are using a tripod, if you are a landscape photographer, or if there is very strong natural light. Yes, if you don’t have to compromise your shutter speed or aperture settings to expose the shot correctly. A photo taken at ISO 100 will always be significantly sharper and cleaner than a photo taken at ISO 1600, assuming the aperture and shutter speed are the same, and you have complete control over the subject and the lighting.

In every other case, however, the answer is no; a lower ISO will not give better image quality.

Raising your ISO will help you capture a higher quality photograph in many situations. Why? Because it lets you use a faster shutter speed and a smaller aperture to get a sharper result. When creating a technically great photograph – one with minimal blur and proper exposure – getting the aperture and shutter speed settings correct is much more important than using a low ISO.

If you want to know how great event photographers consistently create such bright and beautiful images, it’s not only because they use fast lenses and flashes. It’s because they are not afraid to raise the ISO.

Plus, the look of grain at high ISOs in digital cameras has become more pleasing. The newer camera models have not only reduced the strength of grain (noise) at high ISOs, but they have also created noise that looks more artistic.

ISO has now become a luxury instead of an obstacle. We can photograph in dark areas while handholding the camera when we need to.

crop of the man with a briefcase
Cropped version of the above (ISO 1600) shot. Note the minimal, pleasing grain.
when to use a high ISO in photography street at night

The best thing to try now, if you don’t have the new Pentax K3 Mark III, is to see how good your camera will do at a high ISO setting. Try it at it’s max, and then see if you like it. Does it make you want to buy a new camera? This is what has happened to camera makers lately, is that the image quality has gotten significantly better than before, especially doing the higher ISO settings.

Ready to go shooting in the dark? It’s a whole new era of photography now, so, let’s do it!

This article was written by: Lanny Cottrell (123PhotoGo), and help from: James Maher (Digital Photography School), and also: Shigeru Wakashiro, in charge of planning and development for PENTAX digital SLR cameras