Q&A: Are your images “Sharp enough” or “Sharp!”

Does it matter if all your images are tack sharp?  Well, that depends on what you want to do with your images.  Or who and how you plan on showing them to others?  For posting on the web and on social media… sharp enough is usually good enough.   Facebook, Instagram, and other social media formats shrink and compress the image files and the images don’t always look great even from a really sharp image… but a good quality image does help it stay looking good when the are done with it.   Also it is important to note, when editing a really sharp image that is properly exposed, over editing them is not always as apparent so the overall image looks much better also when done.

Below are two images taken within the same exact second with a 5D Mark 4, using a Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens using a 2x converter for a total of 600mm.  A 5D Mark 4 takes 6.6 to 7 frames per second, so that is not surprising.  And for a fast moving subject like birds in flight, depending on the angle, they can really challenge the auto focus systems of any camera and photographer, because it takes both to get a sharp image.  Technique being way more important more often than the camera for moving subjects, even with newer cameras are getting better all the time and lenses with image stabilization that recognize panning motions help as well, but good technique will increase your “keeper” image rate drastically.   You don’t need a $10,000 dollar camera to take great photographs of most subjects on a sunny day, but try a moving subject or even a subject sitting still in a snow storm.

Both of the images were 1/2000, ISO 1000, and f/7.1 at 600mm so the technique had to be spot on since the bird was coming at an angle off to my slight right so it was almost coming toward me.  The closer it passes, the faster it will appear to be moving, and the harder it is to keep the focal point on the eye of the subject and the depth of field was getting smaller.   The eagle was coming by for a relatively low close flyby, but thank goodness not too close, and I was handholding the camera, which I usually do when out shooting birds in flight, or birds period unless I’m in a blind type situation.   It was about 25 degrees out and sunny, so the air was clear and free of moisture that can add haze to bird in flight images and why the sky was so blue.   It was a two pair of gloves day with everything covered including my eyes with sunglasses.

The first thing I look at is the “catch light”, which can be in the birds eye or on other reflective parts of the bird.  You would be surprised how often, there is a catchlight on the claws or beak on bright sunny days.  Sometimes, the catch lights are on drops of water near the birds face, but in most cases if you have a small catchlight that doesn’t look like an over exposed blurry square, that is a great sign you have a really sharp well exposed image.

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Sharp eagle closeup!

Sharp enough for most…when not 3x regular size as it is below.

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Dull eagle close up… sort of

After that, Start looking at the feathers and the depth of field to make sure the image is clean.  The longer your lens and the larger your aperture the smaller your Depth of Field (DOF) relative to distance to your subject.  And for the bird you also have to pay attention to the Plane of Focus as well.   If you are using more than the single point of focus, your camera will focus on the closest point to the camera of your subject, like the tip of the wing.  If you have a shallow DOF, which you likely do shooting birds, then you may get a great photo of the wing closest to you and the body of the bird is out of focus.  For most photographers, it takes a lot of practice to keep a single point of focus on the head, eye or a centered focal point of the subject to keep your small moving subject.

When evaluating my images the uniqueness of the behavior gives some breathing room to allow for the images being less sharp.  But that is mostly for images posted to the web, large prints are not as forgiving.

Next, look for the lines around the edge of the head or subject center of focus, is it a really thin line enlarged, or a little wide… thin is good.  Below is the sharp image that the was focused very well .

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Sharp actual image

Below is the image that is sharp enough for the web or Facebook, but cropped a little closer to make it easier to see, it is not as clean as the image above but doesn’t look that bad.

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“Sharp enough” for web or small images

I take photos of what I want, when I want and post what I want all for me.  I use Facebook to look back at previous years to see where I went to take photos, and look back and see where I had fun.    I like taking photos of moving subjects, because of the many challenges associated with moving wildlife and sports.

My photographic journey is for me.   Most days I go out shooting for just for the practice and to be ready when the light, subject, and I are all in sync and can capture something cool.   And if you follow me on Facebook and Instagram, you will know, I share shots from every weekend, when I go to a contest or just go for a walk.   I’ve met some great people and made some friends along the way, but in the end,  it comes down to is the image sharp enough for me?

Below are a few more quick edits, mostly eagle shots, from the same morning Jan, 8th in Green Pond, S.C. as we were thawing out from a really odd long cold spell for the area.  I had hoped that the freeze would make all the birds hungry and the fish slow, and I got lucky.  I took over three thousand photos that morning.  I could clean them up, likely a lot, but they are sharp enough from me.   Even after taking photos for over 30 years,  my best photos to me are the ones I will take next time!

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Egret toe drag, was one of the shots I was trying to get that morning because the water was so smooth!
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The ice broke up my of the eagle reflection on this dive, but I was not too broken up about it.
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Again, the ice broke up the reflection and the egret was just glad he was not the fish.
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Snatch and grab.  I had slowed down the shutter to 1/800 of a sec to help show some wing tip motion and it worked out great on the splash of the fish.


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Eagle going for the fish in the ice.   I missed the next shot, I was so close, and they duck their head and lower their wings when they hit the water unlike osprey that go right in, so I missed a few shots at this angle, but I know for next time now.

Built in Camera settings on the Canon 7D Mark II with Sunflowers

When using a Canon Camera, it has a few built in JPEG or JPG image processing options, that can be set to tell the camera how to process the RAW image file at the time of capture.  It uses these settings in combination with the White Balance selected,  and saves the file as a JPEG, in camera and drops all the extra information and compresses the file after getting rid of the excess baggage that all the other presets save into the RAW file.  This JPEG creation process also is a lossy compression image option.  The process of creating the JPEG file drops detail and adds compression artifacts that need to be repaired to have an image that is captured as a JPEG look as good as a RAW image file.

When shooting some sporting events,  I’ll shoot JPEG to make editing the images after the event easier.  If the weather and light is constant, then applying the knowledge of how each preset can impact the JPEG process, letting the camera’s software process the image, saves time when processing the images after the event.    If I shoot JPEG,   I like the finishing touches that  Topaz’s Dejpeg 4 and Topaz’s DeNoise 6 provide as additional tools in combination with Lightroom CC.  They help refine the images, or clean them up, to get the final image quality that I would want for a print or to display on a really large detailed monitor.  If you are not a photographer, you may not even notice the improvements.  

If you elect to shoot JPEG, knowing how each setting impacts the final image really helps you to determine which setting to use.  Changing them later in Lightroom, is possible, but it can degrade the quality of the final output.  When the original  JPEG file was created, in camera, it dropped all the other information captured in the RAW file that would have been used to support the other White Balance Settings optimally, for example.  And that could have been used for other settings.

If you shoot RAW, you can take some RAW files and look at how each of the settings would have impacted the final images in Lightroom yourself.  But if you don’t have access to Lightroom CC, below is the same image capture today in RAW, but exported multiple times, only changing the settings that the camera would use to help create the JPEG file, based on how the camera was configured at the time of capturing the image.  Some of the differences are very subtle and some are easily noticeable.

Since RAW files do contain all the image details and data captured at the time the file was created, pushing the limits of editing images created in difficult light or even with the exposure slightly off can be addressed without the loss of image quality.  Try to brighten a really dark JPEG file, and the noise can make it look pretty rough, but with RAW,  lightening a file by a F-Stop or two, is usually not an issue.

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Camera Standard As Shot WB
20160626- 2016 - Donnelley WMA-CameraPortrait
Camera Portrait – As Shot WB
20160626- 2016 - Donnelley WMA-CameraNeutral
Camera Neutral – As Shot WB
20160626- 2016 - Donnelley WMA-CameraMonochrome
Camera Monochrome – As Shot WB
20160626- 2016 - Donnelley WMA-CameraLandscape
Camera Landscape – As Shot WB
20160626- 2016 - Donnelley WMA-CameraFaithful
Camera Faithful – As Shot WB
20160626- 2016 - Donnelley WMA-AdobeStandard
Adobe Standard – As Shot SB

The rest of the images below all are shown with the Camera Standard, but I chose each of the Preconfigured White Balance settings.  White Balance is set based off the Temperature of the light and a Tint setting and deserves a whole article someday, maybe.  If I get around to it.

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Camera Standard – Auto WB Temp 4050 Tint +30
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Camera Standard – Flash WB
20160626- 2016 - Donnelley WMA-CameraStandard_Flourescent
Camera Standard – Flourescent WB
20160626- 2016 - Donnelley WMA-CameraStandard_Tungsten
Camera Standard – Tungsten WB
20160626- 2016 - Donnelley WMA-CameraStandard_Shade
Camera Standard – Shade WB
20160626- 2016 - Donnelley WMA-CameraStandard_Cloudy
Camera Standard – Cloudy WB
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Camera Standard – daylight WB

Maybe you never shoot an image in RAW, or take the time to learn all of the default camera settings and how they impact your shots.   But knowing a few of the more important ones, and how they impact your final images may help to save a life time of memories in a more vibrant light.

Photo tour with Doug Gardner on Lake Marion

Took a few pics at Lake Marion with Doug Gardner and a few friends one a photography tour.  We had a great time.

Also I included a few other photos from the same weekend at Magnolia Gardens.  See if you can tell which are which.

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2016 – Photography goals

Since 2011, and getting back seriously into my hobby, I’ve been focusing on taking lots of images and attempting to master capturing the image that I envision of the subject in the camera.  After over 200,000 images and many hours taking photos of various subjects in various light conditions, my goals have started to change.  My goals are becoming more refined to achieve the envisioned end results.
To that end, for 2016 most of my photography goals are around photo editing.  Working on stretching the limits of the digital medium and correcting the deficiencies captured in the digital bits stored on the computer’s hard drive. All digital images have noise.  All Lenses have imperfections in refracting the light and other imperfections.   All cameras have different strengths and weaknesses.
The others goals for 2016 are around getting a new lens and capturing certain sports images with the new lens.  The new lens will allow me to get improved quality sports images from further away from the subject.  Last year, to get the images I wanted I had to get closer to my subject.  Standing in the ocean to get surfing photographs or standing in or sitting water up to my chest to get skiing images that I wanted.  The new lens will allow me to stay out of the water, or in shallower water, at least,  and get the images I want.
While saving up for the Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens that will likely cost more than my youngest son’s first car, I’ll be focusing on the editing side of my goals.  So to find images that need more fixing, I’m going back to images that were taken with a camera and lenses that had more imperfections that need to be addressed.
That may seem strange, but editing images on the computer is very much like it used to be spending hundreds of hours in a darkroom getting the image you saw in your mind on the paper, but now it is bringing that image  onto your computer screen and into print in some cases.    I decided to stop using Aperture 3 while back and I purchased Adobe Creative Cloud, Nik Collection for B&W editing, and some of the Topaz Labs DeNoise 6 software.
I’ve got 40,000 images from the last four years to play with and below are a few as I learn how to use DeNoise 6.   All of the money earned with my images goes towards new lenses and cameras and your support is appreciated.   Buy some images to use as screensavers or to print or purchase professionally printed images online at my at www.carymcdonald.com. If you see a subject you like let me know and I bet I have more images as well.    Happy shooting!
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RAW image from 2014 edited with Topaz DeNoise
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RAW image from 2014 edited in just lightroom
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JPG from 2015, smoothed out with Topaz DeNoise.
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Great Egret from 2015 Edited with Topaz DeNoise.

Q&A: Why are my images sharper with a lens with a larger aperture?

Lenses with a larger aperture are called faster lenses.  Look at the image below and think about it.  When a camera focuses, it uses the light coming through the lens to focus.  The more light that comes through the lens the more information the camera sensor has to use to focus the lens.  The aperture shutter opening is as large as possible until you push the shutter button.   So the camera can focus the lens faster with more light.

The more expensive the lens, the and the larger the aperture, the more glass and heavier the lens will be usually.  If you don’t have a nifty fifty for your DSLR, you should have one as it is the best lens buy that exists at around $99 if you shop around.  It is a f 1.8 lens, but at F/4 it is a super sharp lens and very clean.  At 10 feet away from your subject on a crop sensor camera, it acts like an 80 mm lens and has a DOF of about 22 inches.   From 6-10 feet is a great portrait lens.  Focus at 30 feet away, at f/16 and you have a great landscape lens and everything 15 feet from you away will be in focus because of the hyperfocal distance.  This lens may hunt for focus sometimes in really dark situations, but that is usually when any other lens would not even try to focus in a very dark room.

Add a small extension tube, and it makes a great macro lens, which is what I used for the image above.  The “Nifty Fifty” is always in my camera bag.  If someone is just getting serious about photography, this should be the first lens that is purchased to compliment stock camera lenses.  It has enough range to challenge and test the best photographers in many normal situations.   Again, I’m not going t get technical, but Cambridge in colour is a great website to find out more about photography terms and concepts.

Check to see how where your lens’s peak performance settings are at this link for canon camera lenses.

Why is a smaller number better?
Full F-stop images

Pelicans fishing in the Colonial Lake in downtown Charleston, S.C.

I went downtown to get some pics today and was trying to avoid the reindeer run and drove by Colonial Lake.  I saw some pelicans fishing and stopped to take some pics of them diving.  They are a little slower than the kingfishers from last week.