6 Things You Can Do to Improve Image Quality Without Spending a Dime

6 Things You Can Do to Improve Image Quality Without Spending a Dime

The first instinct most will have when looking to improve image quality is to buy better gear. It's so easy to blame low image quality on your crappy gear even if most of the time the photographer is the one who needs to improve their habits.

One of my favorite photography instructors, Scott Bourne, before he retired, used to always say “99 percent of gear is better than 98 percent of photographers.” Bourne was right, it is very rare that we push gear to the limits before we go off in search of “better” gear.

This article is how you can squeeze some extra performance out of your current gear without having to take a trip to the camera store.

Spray the Cloth, Not the Lens

For the longest time, cleaning my lenses drove me insane. Every time I would clean a lens there would be subtle streaks on the lens element. They didn’t impact images too badly but certainly weren’t good to have on my glass. I tried every lens cleaning liquid I could get my hands on and googled around like a fiend looking for solutions. I knew it was possible to clean a lens without leaving streaks because whenever I sent a lens to be serviced it came back flawlessly clean.

The solution never occurred to me and was such a simple slap in the face when I finally stumbled onto an obscure forum post. Spray your cleaning cloth with lens cleaner, not the lens itself. By spraying the lens cloth the moisture soaks into the cloth and doesn’t leave puddles or streaks on the lens that can dry and negatively impact your image quality. Since I’ve used this method I haven’t experienced streaky lenses since!

Get Better at Holding Your Camera

One of the most common mistakes I see new photographers make is that they are more worried about looking cool while holding their camera than being stable. Most conventional camera poses actually lead to pretty poor stability. The method I have come to use I learned from Joe McNally, so rather than try to explain it with words I’d suggest watching his video on the topic.

Clean Your Viewfinder

I clean my lenses obsessively, but clean my camera rarely. Lately though, I’ve gotten in the habit of cleaning my viewfinder before each shoot and the results have been fantastic. A clean and clear viewfinder won’t directly improve the image quality of your photos but it does improve your ability to create great quality photos. A slightly hazy viewfinder is not only going to make it much harder for you to manual focus when you need to but it is also a distraction while shooting that can make it harder for you to compose and shoot effectively.

Lose the Cheap, Protective UV Filter

My first lens was an 18-200mm f/3.5–5.6. At the time I thought it was a really good lens. The reviews loved it and it was in high demand. I didn’t know enough about photography at the time to understand why such a slow super zoom really isn’t a great performer. At the time I had also read that UV filters are a great, cheap way to protect the front of your delicate lens from damage so I bought one.

Throughout my time with this lens I was always a bit frustrated by how fuzzy my images were. As I learned more about photography I learned that super zoom lenses tended to be softer than most and that when you shot a lens wide open it tended to also be softer which was often the case when using a lens so slow. I never gave it much thought after that. I assumed I needed better gear.

One day I read that you should calibrate each lens in your camera by tuning the autofocus. The tutorial said to do this without any filters on your camera so I did. After fine tuning I was surprised at how sharp the lens seemed to be so I tossed the UV filter back on and went off to shoot. To my surprise the images were just as soft as before. In that moment I finally figured out that the UV filter was wrecking my image quality. I haven’t used a UV filter since.

On a side note, I’ve also realized that front elements aren’t nearly as delicate as we think. I have never hurt the front element of a lens. It just doesn’t seem to happen. I’ve damaged lenses, and worn out lenses, but never hurt the front element. I press the shutter button upwards of 100,000 times per year and never accidently hurt the front of a lens at any point. UV filters are not necessary to keep your lenses safe. On the off chance that you happen to drop a lens face down onto a rock or something, just use all the money you’ve saved on not buying UV filters for every lens over the years to just replace the damage lens.

Fine Tune Autofocus for Each Lens

I’ve found it to be rare to find a lens that ships perfectly tuned. Nothing can make a lens seem like it has slightly poor image quality more than autofocus being just far enough off so that each image has a hint of softness in it. There are tons of products on the market that can make tuning autofocus a breeze but I have a secret for you: fine tuning autofocus using a ruler or tape measure is almost as easy, and is almost certainly something you already have lying around the house so that it won’t cost you anything.

Improve Your Dodge and Burn Technique

I’m sure you have often seen those images online that look so perfectly sharp (and clean) that it hurts. The images that make you wonder what the photographer in question could possibly have done to make them so sharp. A huge part of that lies in their impeccable dodge and burn technique which they use to soften away distractions and make important details really stand out.

The biggest factor in becoming the king or queen at dodge and burn is by doing it over and over, but first I’d suggest taking a gander at Julie Kuzmenko’s fantastic series on mastering dodge and burn.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Finally, I will close this out by reminding you that practice is tremendously key to making those perfect images that you seek. Use your camera as much as possible and get to know it intimately. Learn each lens' quirks and which situations work best for them, but most of all just keep shooting.

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30 Comments

Bob Best's picture

Great lessons to be learned here for sure.

I also find it interesting how so many of us, especially in the early years, have no problem dropping $1000+ on new gear, yet we stress about spending $500 for a photoshoot (i.e. paying models, hair+makeup, or paying to travel somewhere for some landscape photos). What's going to get you better photos: a new lens, or a beautiful and talented model, MUA, and location?

Ryan Cooper's picture

Well personally, I only buy maybe 1 new lens per year where as I average 50 creative shoots per year so at $500 per shoot I'd be spending $25,000 which would be the end of my financial solvency ;)

I quit UV filters and even religious levels of cleaning of my front element after reading this article:
http://kurtmunger.com/dirty_lens_articleid35.html

Rear element and EVF/LCD is needed more. Oh, and sensor. Clean your sensors, folks!

Leigh Smith's picture

I had a 70-300mm IS Canon lens that I put a UV filter on as soon as i got the lens. I thought the lens was crap for about a year and never used it. Till I took the UV off one day. Completely blown away by the sharpness and contrast! And it was a decent UV too (or so i thought). I haven't used a UV since, unless in really extreme conditions)

michael andrew's picture

Shoot in good light.

Charles Gaudreault's picture

i realy need to try the af tuing with my d800, i am pretty sure its off a bi, gonna try this trick for sure !!!

Getting rid of my UV filter I believe has helped a TON (wasn't helping that I doubt I was cleaning it all that much). Next I think I need to AF-tune, definitely feels like there's some issues, can't say I feel like many of my shots feel tack-sharp.

Another thing I adjusted which I believe has helped just as much as the UV was adjusting the brightness on my LCD. It was too bright, so even with chimping I was coming back with underexposed images. I dropped my Nikon 2 ticks and it helps to see the exposure correctly. The incorrect brightness especially hurt in studio shooting where I think the margins aren't as wide for proper exposure

If you've got a zoom lens, might there be different auto-focus tuning issues at different points along the focal lengths? Just a thought that popped up.

Jeff Colburn's picture

All good tips. You never want to put any cleaning fluid on anything where the fluid can run to the edge. That goes for lenses, TVs and computer monitors. Always apply the cleaning fluid to a cloth or lens tissue.

My photography instructor, Al Belson, always said, "Why would you spend $1,000 to $3,000 for a lens, then put a $20 filter on the end of it." I haven't used filters in over 20 years.

Have Fun,
Jeff

Todd Becker's picture

Biggest one. Stop shooting below f2.8. Your "omg bokah" is worthless if your image is soft or dof is too shallow. If you want bokah use a longer lens and shoot at f4. Quality skin texture, contrast, and sharpness will have a lot more impact then the circles in your background. F8 is money

Ryan Cooper's picture

I'd disagree quite strongly with that statement. I'd sacrifice a tiny bit of clarity any day for a shot with beautiful Bokeh. Also on modern, high quality, glass wide open can be dicey but a half stop down from wide open say F1.8 or F2 is more than sharp enough to create a great quality image.

(That said I'm perfectly content to shoot many of my lenses wide open all the time and am thrilled with the results) :)

Todd Becker's picture

You're then sacrificing image quality for an artistic effect. Your article is about image quality right?

Chris Adval's picture

I really don't want to knock this but I was honestly expecting "6 Things You Can Do to Improve Image Quality Without Spending a Dime"... in relation to the shot featured or something similar. Shooting without spending a dime is not living in reality lol. Every shoot its either spending time, energy shooting either non-living things and if you know how to get people/models for trade then yes, you won't technically spend a literal dime or dollar amount, and only if that model comes with their own wardrobe/makeup/hair styled, etc. But the shot featured here, not sure, I'm sure some things were purchased, or simply having the right wardrobe, and best model and other creatives to align at the right time/place. I wish there was a way to do it less than a dime, but at most is being a fantastic networker/people person to collaborate with people who does have the resources to provide skills and materials (to you the photographer for the shoot), then at most you'd be spending is time and energy ,yes.

Ryan Cooper's picture

You make a good point, I was more aiming for the concept of increasing image quality without spending money. It may very well be that you need to spend money to do a shoot but this post was aimed at making sure you can make the highest quality images possible during that shoot. :)

ALL of your electronic devices benefit from spraying cleaner on the cloth or paper towel... NEVER the device(!) Including laptops, TVs, phones, tablets... anything really.... and not only because of the "streaking" or puddling.

Meet a plumber some day and he will tell you that water (liquid) always finds a way in/out most times before evaporating.

Anonymous's picture

Fine tuning focus is crucial. I've tried using Reikan FoCal twice with no success, but after sending my lenses to a local service for fine tuning, it was like buying brand new professional equipment — I was impressed.

I'm surprised no one have mentioned it already, but using Capture One for processing RAW images really improved the quality of the images I shot lately. Everyone should try.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I'd agree with that very much Capture One is an amazing, though, it does come with a fairly noticeable cost. :)

Jared Lacey's picture

is it just me or is he using a 105mm 2.8 micro but then showing micro adjust on the 85mm 1.4?

Also.. using a tripod. It's amazing what it can do to the sharpness... specially if you have shaky hands like mine.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Yup, absolutely, I considered adding that but figured if you don't have a tripod it is going to cost more than a dime hahah. :)

Kyle Ford's picture

Micro adjusting each lens is so key.

Rob Mynard's picture

A few good tips, with a couple of cheeky amendments :-)
The cleaning fluid one should just read "Read the instructions on your cleaning fluid bottles"
and the filter one could read "dont skip, spend the money on a decent filter and unless you're shooting film use a Protector not a UV"

Margi Bevan's picture

This is a cry for help.. Oby-Whan Kenobi. I need everything.( I am bewildered ) I purchased a Nikon 7100 to shoot real estate 360's for virtual tours. So far I can do everything but make the shots clear. I am shooting in Raw with a wide angle lens. If any one knows of someone I can call to help me with my settings Please ?

I like your articles Ryan, but your comment about UV filters is complete bollocks. It may apply to plastic lenses with bottle-bottom glass, but a $4000 lens can be saved by a filter. But you do have to have the best filters or you degrade the lens. There are a million things that will degrade the image before the presence of a good filter is noticed. Keep writing the good stuff - lose the crap.

Ryan Cooper's picture

No matter how you slice it putting another layer of glass between the image and the sensor is going to have a degrading effect. There is no glass on the planet that has perfect, 100% light transmission.

My glass is insured and most home insurance policies provide coverage for hobbyists. If in some freak accident once in my entire career I drop an expensive lens face down onto a rock I really don't mind paying a $500 deductible if it means not spending thousands of dollars on UV filters for every lens I ever buy. I really don't see it ever happening though, its just such a rare occurrence, especially if you use lens hoods. you are much more likely to screw up the focus or zoom mechanism from impact trauma than ever hurting your front element. It just never happens. I don't personally, know any photographer who has ever broken their front lens element or damaged a UV filter.

On TOP of all that, UV filters don't even offer that much protection against a high pressure fall. Front lens elements are WAY stronger than a UV filter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0CLPTd6Bds

Just not worth paying a "tax" on every lens I buy that hurts image quality and doesn't even provide much protection in the almost unheard of chance of a damaging fall.

Instead of a UV filter, use a lens hood for protection. Greatly reduces the chance of anything touching the front glass. I also use a neck strap religiously, in case the camera ever slips from my hands.

R W's picture

Ok, so when I started out, I was putting quality UV filters (B+W Brass frame, ultra thin, etc $90) on my lenses. I have never come close in the last 6 years, to breaking a front element.

However, a lot of lenses will say they're not completely weather sealed without a UV or something on the front. I shoot in the PacNW currently, where its wet a lot and I have shot in the light to pouring rain. What is the general consensus in this regard? I'm curious, because if this information is BS, then I'll stop using 'em.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Personally, I've never heard of this. I've had my camera in a lot of very wet situations and never had a problem. Did the lens manual/instructions say this? Or did random forum posts say this?

R W's picture

I've trusted Bryan's reviews for years. 7th paragraph down http://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/UV-and-Clear-Lens-Protection-... says it straight up and I've seen it in his and other reviews over the years.

Anonymous's picture

I was expecting something helpful. :/

I don't buy UV filters for my lenses typically but when I bought my Nikon 70-200 2.8 VRII second-hand it came with the Nikon brand NC clear filter. I don't see how my photos with this lens could possibly be any sharper than they are so I left it on. If there is degradation with this particular filter/lens combo I don't think it's perceptible to the human eye.