Content vs Image Quality …. Thoughts

This is going to be a more technical entry :-) 

Soooo…. I went and did it.  I went out and got a Nikon D5100 body to add to my suite of cameras.  I mentioned this in a previous post, but thought I should create a different post in a slightly different direction.  I’ve touched on this before, but I think I’m going to elaborate a bit more and perhaps some understanding will be imparted:-)

I had been playing with the idea of adding a second camera to compliment my D3200.  My initial thought was to jump to a D7100.  BUT, it was one of those things that would take a bit of saving and by the time I got the money in place, an event or two was going to take place.  As part of the analysis, of course, reviews came into play.  I happened to run into a sale where they were clearing last year’s model of  the Nikon D5100 for an insane price.  $400!!!  This got me really thinking about the merit of getting this.  Sooo… review hunting I did before biting the bullet. Before I really get going….

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not really a pixel peeper per se, but one of the things I do demand of myself, is to obtain the highest QUALITY photo I can get.  BUT, in saying that, I’m not a RAW format person either :-)  I may have to venture there eventually, for now, I’m quite content to stay inside the world of JPEG.  To me, in reading the comparisons, and this is a trade off – I don’t have the time to do that much post processing to begin with, so if I can get away with JPEG, I’m good with that.  More important, to me, it’s all about CONTENT.  In other words – getting the shot.  If I need better gear, so be it – I’ll spend the cash, but the bottom line for me still breaks down to getting the shot.  Let’s surge on…..

I don’t argue the fact that DSLR’s will get you the highest quality possible photo, but at the same time, the bigger question arises around the gear and what’s it’s capable of.  There are also other variables – like mobility, one of my pet subjects :-)  To me, it’s very important to understand this combination of your camera and what you interpret as a good quality photo.  More important – getting the shot. 

Here are some things from the ISO standpoint.  The average off the shelf pointy shooty will resolve at anywhere between 10 and 20 megapixels, but the sensor is what determines how good the ultimate quality is going to be.  Most of these guys will give you a pretty high quality photo at ISO400 if you need to use it at that setting.  So… what does that accomplish?  It does two things – first – it allows you to get some of those low light shots without a tripod.  Second – that built in flash, because the sensor is grabbing more light, will allow you more range – out to about 15-20 ft instead of that usual 8 ft or so.  Important to know for those group events.  Of course, you should experiment with that to convince yourself :-)  For the casual user, they will probably never go past the default of ISO100 and for the most part, don’t even look at other setting that available. 

As you get better gear, the sensor size also goes up.  That means it can gather more light/information and as a result you can get the same quality photo at a higher ISO.  Example would be a Nikon D3200.  It will grab a photo at ISO1600 that is very close to a pointy shooty at ISO100!!  So what does that extra light gathering capability amount to?  The first big impact to me, isn’t until you see the photos enlarged – we’ll say about iPad size :-)  With something like the D3200 at ISO100 or even 400 – colors are richer, the resolution is astounding. Boost the D3200 to 1600 and one still sees a high quality photo.  In saying that, though – the big difference is content.  Most important – did you get a shot that you are happy with?  My personal preference is to always use the lowest ISO by default so I can maximize quality – this guarantees that the content will also be high quality.

Understanding how to use ISO before we even get to shutter speeds or apertures to me is one of the most critical things with today’s digital cameras.  ISO is typically a setting that can be set quite easily on most cameras. A couple of things on ISO and their general thresholds:

ISO100-200.  To me, this is your “sunny day” setting.  As a general rule, the sensors in most cameras are more than capable of handling most of the sunny day photos and give you a very high quality photo.

ISO200-400.  Where this comes into play, especially ISO400, is when you get into slightly lower light conditions.  The thing to watch here, is at ISO400, the sensor, especially on a bright day, may gather more information than the camera is capable of handling.  Shutter speeds and apertures come into play – the less expensive cameras may not have a shutter speed fast enough to offset the extra light.  Snow and beaches come to mind :-)  The other term used for overexposing is called “blow out”.

ISO400-800.  Here, you are starting to go into the world of low light.  The offset to the higher ISO setting will be image quality.  Depending on your camera (and again experimenting really does pay), you will start to see a bit of image degradation.  Typically, they start to look a little grainy.  The more advanced the camera, the less grain.  My Fuji X10, for instance doesn’t even blink here.  Neither does any of the big gear.  Even my travel cameras do a respectable job here. 

ISO800+.  Here, you are in the world of low light, some cameras will go to as high as iSO25000 or better!  Again, experimenting is the key to understanding what these settings mean in correlation to your camera.  I shot a test shot with my Nikon D5100 the other night with the ISO setting at Hi2, which is in the is ISO2500 range and was astounded at the image I got – it was much better than I thought.  It opened up a whole new world for me :-) 

One of the nice things about digital cameras compared to 35mm days is that you can change the ISO between shots.  Before, you were stuck with one ISO and had to manipulate your shutter speeds and aperture settings to off set.  In one sense, it’s easier in today’s world, but one needs to understand a bit too.  Not for everyone, but knowing makes one understand the craft a bit more.

Understanding shutter speeds is also important as you advance through the craft.  The shutter speed and aperture both work in conjunction with each other to determine just how much light to let in.  Look at this way – the shutter speed determines how much light to let in.  The Aperture determines just how much of your photo is in focus.  The relationship is a bit of a reversed one.  The faster the shutter speed, the larger the aperture.  Shutter speeds can range from 1/2000th of a second to several seconds.  Apertures can range from f22 down to f1.8.  A very critical key for hand held shots is the most people can hand hold to roughly 1/60 of a second.  That’s also where the flash setting defaults.  For the f-stop setting f1.8 would allow the most light in, but at the same time, has the least amount of photo that will be in focus.  This is called depth of field.  Ever wonder how they get those shots with the blurry background?  This is how they do it :-)  Just a point here – most of more simple cameras have a maximum aperture of f3.5 – it may or may not give you enough of that blurry background effect.  Where this becomes very important is in portraits, especially outdoors.  For most of the cameras today, that full auto setting will try to optimize both shutter speed and aperture to give you a photo that has as much of the photo in focus as possible.  They will also flag you when you need a flash. 

For the average person who is taking casual shots, this may or may not matter.  What this really breaks down to though, is what the end result is – your picture :-)  If you want to get better, having a solid understanding of the various settings goes a long way. 

Let’s talk about content.  Content is the main reason we take photos – we want to preserve those memories or those moments in life, for starters.  This includes everything from those social events to the “hobby” shots.  My wife and I take a lot of photos to say the least :-)  We try to take photos of everything that we think we might want to take photos of. As one gets better and better in the craft, one of the big things to remember here, is that as you do get better, one of the things you will learn about is composition.  Ever wonder how some of the pros or serious amateurs get those great shots?  Or stunning shots?  Ever wonder why some your look sort of the same, but just don’t have that “look”?  or effect?  It might break down to something as simple as composition.  And let’s not forget color :-)  Yes, in many cases sharpness does play a part and this is where having the extra sensor size will start to come into play if you start to enlarge or crop your photos.

Have you heard of the Rule of Thirds?  This is probably one of the simplest things to remember for getting a good shot.  For all intents and purposes, your screen is divided into thirds.  In fact, your camera may actually have a setting that will display this.


One of the things we tend to do is centre a photo almost unconsciously :-)  So – a couple of simple things here – remember to fill the frame for starters.  THEN, keep the main subject area away from the centre :-)  If you take a landscape for instance – put the land in the bottom third to show big sky, or put land in bottom two thirds to show big land.  Simple huh?  Want to show some depth? Add something in the foreground on either side to give the effect of depth.  A frame of sorts, if you will. The intent here is guide the eye to your subject.    For landscapes, we tend to split the screen between sky and land and the result tends to be “just another shot” .  For portraits, use head and shoulders instead of the just the head shot.  There’s a lot more to that, but let’s stay simple 🙂

Color – I’ve mentioned this before.  Good color saturation is also important.  Most cameras have a Vivid setting or something equivalent.  I have mine set there as a default.  Need even more?  There are filters like the Neutral Density Filter or a Polarizing filter but there may not be one for your camera.  You can “tweak” your photos actually quite easily by manipulating the EV settings.  You will have to experiment, but depending on what you want to do, you might want to play here :-)  I shoot flowers, for instance at –EV1.2 to –V2.0.  Increases the color saturation and at the same time, will knock out the background a bit. 

By understanding some of these simple rules, you’ll find that your photos start to take on a different dimension.  They won’t quite be so “blah” 🙂

There are other times when you see a great shot but the equipment doesn’t allow you to take the shot.  This is where you may need to crop it later.  For the most part, this shouldn’t be an issue – just ensure you get your exposure correct and get a sharp shot, so any cropping won’t impact the photo.  In most instances, cameras today have about 4 to 1 zoom, so one shouldn’t encounter too many difficulties, though having a bigger zoom can be pretty handy.  One has to take photos to learn how to get better, in the end.  It’s you that has to look for that shot or notice that shot. 

About those smartphones – you know, when you look at smartphones, between the phones and social media, it’s allowed a lot people to start taking photos easily.  It’s personal preference about image quality, but the bottom line, is that it’s creating content for the person taking the shot.  They might not have taken that shot if they didn’t have the phone handy.  I’ve actually taken photos on my Blackberry, or my tablet when my cameras were not handy.  Reference photos – content is what counts. 

I’m getting a little tired so onward for now…..


About gkamitomo
IT Busines Analyst

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