10 Rules For Top Digital Quality
Format, Exposure, Highlight Control, And More

Who says you can't make group shots on digital? The combination of perfect exposure and the largest file size I could get was then printed to a format fitting 20x30" portrait for the Wayne Copp family. Note that the light is also very soft and even. (Fujifilm S2 Professional camera, highest resolution JPEG setting, ISO 200.)
Photos © 2003, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

Now that digital is no longer new, a few rules of the road have been established that most folks would agree yield better quality results. Of course, you might find that bending the rules might be fun, and that there's still lots to learn. But these 10 digital "commandments," if you will, can be followed to get the best digital images you've ever made.

Rule 1: Pay Attention To File Format
Let's just say it's a given that shooting raw (if your camera has that option) will give you the highest quality image. Raw is also recommended when you're concerned about a tough exposure situation or when you're worried about blowing out bright highlights. But in 90 percent of the situations you face, if you follow the other rules, you're making a lot more post shooting work for yourself for a marginal gain, especially in smaller print sizes. I've been shooting the highest resolution JPEG with the lowest compression my camera allows for years as my standard practice, with fabulous results. Unless you know you're going to be making print sizes large enough to test the limits of your camera, you should be fine, too. For my camera, that limit seems to be about 20x24" for most subjects.

Rule 2: Watch Your Exposure Technique
Let's face it, we've been sloppy with color negative film. Its wonderful latitude has meant printable exposures from about 1.5 stops under and as much as 3 stops over exposure. Try that with a JPEG and you're fried. I suggest you get a system. Outdoor portraiture is my specialty. I've tried shooting gray cards and black/gray/white cards and then checking the histogram. While that's great for flowers, I think it makes you look like you don't know what you're doing with people, so I've gone back to my original system. I hold an incident light meter under the chin of my subject, add half a stop of exposure (or adjust meter ISO), and shoot it. It's always dead on. Remember, this is my camera and my meter--yours is most likely different.

Rule 3: Control Those Highlights
Many photographers I know still hesitate to shoot weddings digitally. The big reason is because of those huge white masses known as wedding gowns. Get them out into the sun or another high contrast situation and it can be a recipe for disaster. Your job is to control the situation. You know that by either using fill flash to get that shadow detail in there and compressing the contrast range or moving to another location can get those highlights controlled. You can do it. I've done weddings at 2pm on the beach in the blazing sun and had no highlight problems.

Rule 4: Avoid Digital Zoom
A quick way to destroy image quality is by using a digital zoom. It may be cool to get way up close from a distance but I'd bet in most cases you could just walk up closer. Do it. A digital zoom is basically a cropping tool that will just keep taking a smaller piece of the image file the more you zoom. If you want to turn that 3-megapixel camera into a 1-megapixel job, you just did. Get the best crop you can in the camera using the optical zoom, then crop as little as possible when you print.

Can you shoot backlit subjects with digital? Sure! This image of high school senior Jourdan Henderson is typical of the type of image I do daily in the summer. The direct sunlight striking her hair and shirt on the right will cause overexposure in the very brightest areas, but I (and my clients) like this look and do not find it objectionable. I stood up on a fence to make sure the background was darker than her hair and shirt, an important criteria for success in this type of light. (Fujifilm S2 Professional camera, highest resolution JPEG setting.)

Rule 5: Adjust White Balance
I still shoot most of my work on auto white balance. But there are certain situations where I've learned I can get better results by selecting the white balance manually. With my camera, and I suspect most others, if I shoot in deep shade the auto white balance has a difficult time getting the skin tones warm enough. Even my lab can't overcome all the blue in the light. By using the "cloudy" setting, the skin tones are much easier to print and much more pleasing. If I'm doing a lot of shooting under identical lighting situations, I'll custom white balance.

Rule 6: Use A Good Lab That Prints On Photo Paper & Change Your Print Sizes
Some of you may have a completely calibrated closed loop system and some may not even have an ink jet printer. Having said that, here's a tip unless you are totally calibrated and profiled. Use a good lab. If you're a pro, obviously use a pro lab. My lab (www.Lustrecolor.com) takes my unaltered files and makes good prints from them. Hey, isn't that like film used to be? Exactly. Why spend your time playing with ink jet printers when you can have a print made on photo paper, and probably for less money! If you shoot it right, you'll get a good print, just like always.

As for the latter part of this rule...About a year ago, I was still shooting family groups with film and the smaller "breakdowns" digitally. We sell a lot of large prints to family groups and I was still concerned about image quality from digital files made that big, even though I had been thrilled with my Fujifilm S2 camera results. Then one day I made some tests. I photographed a group on film and then at another location with the Fuji. I projected a 24x30" print from the Fuji and the client asked if she could have it bigger! I said "No," and immediately had my lab make a test print. They made a 20x30" test that looked amazing! Then I made the 24x30". It looked good, but not great, and I want great. I then went and changed my price list and added 20x30" prints between 20x24" and 24x30". The 20x30" proportion requires almost no cropping so is a much smaller enlargement than a 24x30". I made several samples of this size, and it now has become my studio's "signature" size. Most studios don't offer this size and its unique, narrow look makes the work stand out.

Rule 7: Don't Over Sharpen
Digital files all require a certain amount of sharpening. Again, if you're a pro and you've got everything figured, go right ahead. I prefer to send my unsharpened files to my lab. Their sophisticated software will sharpen each print size differently so they all appear to be the same. Do I want to do that work'? No. Plus, if you sharpen yourself, the lab will sharpen again--not a good look. Check with your lab and do some testing to see what works for you.

This wedding took place in the middle of the afternoon in direct sunlight. I found this shaded area in the front of the hotel. I asked the bride if she'd like to do most of the photos in the shade where the light was nice and then take the bride and groom images by the ocean, and she agreed. By keeping them in the shade I was able to get a nice glow from the warm light bouncing off the pavement that looked great. (Fujifilm S2 Professional camera, highest resolution JPEG setting, ISO 200, no flash.)

Rule 8: Learn To Use Your Camera's Histogram
You can make a lot of mistakes shooting digitally. The good thing is you get to see them right away! I've yet to use a camera where I could "eyeball" the exposure on the camera's monitor. With my current camera, if images look great on the screen, they are underexposed on my computer. The way to know if you've nailed the exposure is to become intimately familiar with the histogram in your camera. Start by shooting gray cards and getting the spike to line up dead center. Then notice where all the colors and intensities line up during regular shooting. Soon you'll be able to know exactly what each spike and curve represents and know if it's right where you want it.

Rule 9: Don't Repeatedly Save JPEGs
Let me state this right now. I've read that with newer versions of Photoshop, you can keep saving an image as a JPEG and not lose more information each time. I've also heard the opposite. As one who's had image quality substantially reduced by working on that image and repeatedly saving it as a JPEG, I don't do it anymore. If you've shot it as a JPEG and need to work on it, convert it to a TIFF or .psd file, then when you're all done, resave as a JPEG if necessary. Why take a chance?

This photo shows one of those rare instances where I use fill flash. I don't try to get fancy here with ratios--my objective is to fill those shadows in and get a nice, printable file. By the way, the bride's dress makes a great "white" card. Take a picture of it and align it to the right side of your histogram and you know you won't overexpose it. Note the dress detail. (Fujifilm S2 Professional camera, highest resolution JPEG setting, ISO 100.)

Rule 10: Shoot Like Photoshop Doesn't Exist
This is probably the most important rule, because it encompasses all the rest. I try to pretend that the files I'm shooting can't be altered. When I shot film, I didn't do any prep work on the film, so why should I on digital? Unless absolutely necessary, I don't mess with curves and levels, color balance, or anything else. I like shooting, and that's what I get paid for. I don't want to spend my life in front of a monitor fixing goofs that never should have happened in the first place. Don't let Photoshop turn you into a poor shooter--only use it to enhance your already good images.

Bonus Rule: Always Use The Lowest Possible ISO
This one's a no-brainer. Just like film, the lower ISO settings will produce higher quality images. Instead of the grain in
high-speed film you've got noise in digital. But unlike film, you've always got all speeds available to you at the turn of a dial!

As you can see, I've tried to give a wide spectrum of advice on how to get great results with your equipment. Follow these 10 rules (plus one) and I guarantee that your images will look better.

For more tips, sign up for Ephoto, my free online newsletter, by e-mailing me at: steve@stevebedell.com.