“There’s nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept.” – Ansel Adams
If there’s one constant to making great fine art prints, it’s that it starts with a great image. Of this there is no debate. As the old adage says “garbage in, garbage out.” A properly composed and exposed, sharp image will make printing a much more enjoyable and satisfying experience, and give you better results.
This of course starts in the field with good camera technique and attention to detail. While you may think that your images look good on a monitor, a print will definitely magnify any defects and undesirable artifacts that you may not have otherwise noticed. This is especially true when making larger prints bigger that 19” wide. Also remember that the resolution of your printer is far greater than that of your monitor, so there is nothing you’ll be able to hide.Bottom line, the better the Raw file, the better your prints will look, at any size.
So how do you go about making sure your captures are as good as they can possibly be? Well here are a few key techniques and practices you can adopt which I’ve learned over the years as a photographer and print maker.
- Minimize camera shake and vibration – nothing contributes to loss of detail more than camera shake and vibration. If you’re shooting in an environment or situation that allows you to use a tripod, then use it. I know that many resist tripods because they want to have the flexibility and freedom that hand holding gives you, and I understand that. But if you’re shooting landscapes and nature, it’s truly a must due to the high frequency detail often found in landscape images which you will want to reproduce in a print.Use the “handhold” rule, which states that your shutter speed should be at least 1/focal length for an acceptably sharp image. At 24mm, you need to shoot at 1/30 sec minimum. If you can’t achieve that with a relatively low ISO, consider using a tripod.
- Mirror lockup – adding to the use of a tripod is mirror lockup, which is an advanced feature of most DSLR’s. When you press the shutter, the mirror in a DSLR flips up to expose the shutter, and this can also induce a small amount of camera vibration. If you turn mirror lockup on, the mirror locks in the upright position before the shutter opens, giving you a vibration free capture.
- Optimal Aperture – the sharpest aperture setting on any given lens is usually a few stops down from wide open, so if you want to make maximize image sharpness, be aware of what that aperture is. Be aware of diffraction and how it affects your images when the aperture is fully stopped down.For example, on my Canon 24–105 f/4 L lens, I know that I get the sharpest images between f/8 and f/11. So whenever possible, I try to use those aperture settings. Know and understand how depth of field works, and don’t be afraid to experiment with different aperture settings to see how they affect your images and your prints. I’ve often thought I needed f/16 or smaller only to discover f/11 was fine and in the process capture sharper images .
- Depth of Field – Related to optimal aperture is making sure you have enough depth of field for the image you’re trying to make. For most landscapes, focusing a third of the way into the scene at a relatively small aperture (f/8 – f/11) will give you plenty of DOF. When extreme DOF is needed (the main subject is very close to the lens, and you want the background to be sharp) use hyper focal distance to calculate the proper aperture setting. Any softness in the image because of a lack of DOF will be magnified in a print, especially larger ones.
- Low ISO – I know that camera technology is allowing us to use higher and higher ISO settings with less noise than ever before, but I think it’s still a good practice to use the lowest ISO setting possible for any given images. It will reduce noise, especially in the shadows, and allow you to apply more sharpening to an image if needed. Plus many of us have older cameras which may not yet have super high ISO settings. ISO 100, 200, and even 400 are probably safe bets, but higher than that it will depend on your camera and the image.
- Proper exposure – proper exposure is defined as the right exposure for the type of image you’re trying to make. This doesn’t mean that every image has a histogram that stretches from far left to tight. But it does mean that you’re exposing properly to reduce noise (exposing to the right), avoid clipping in the highlights and/or shadows if you need to retain detail in these areas.
All of these tips will help you create images that are technically excellent, and make prints that look great at small and large sizes. Practice them regularly and your prints will benefit tremendously. But more importantly, once they become second nature, it will allow you to focus on what really makes a great print, subject and composition. The less you think about the technical, the more you can get inspired and excited about great light, and how to capture it in a personal way.
As always would love to get your feedback, or questions about any of the above. Thanks for reading!