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.