Understanding Image Quality: Part 1

I want to take a little time to explain some different aspects of image quality in a way that’s not too technical for non-photographers to follow.

The images you see in a Relish proofing gallery are very low-quality previews of the final processed images. I’m not gonna pretend that watermarked digital proofs aren’t a bummer. I hate showing my work like this. But the high pressure of in-person-sales is not my style–I want people to have the opportunity to spend some uninterrupted time looking over the images before they buy. I sincerely do not want to sell anyone an image they don’t love.

But this means I have to do something to protect my investment in these images for the proofing process, because unfortunately image theft is rampant online. These proofs won’t print larger than about 1″ tall without looking like a child’s drawing, and the watermark makes it very clear these previews are proprietary and are not to be shared or saved.

I have to ask my clients to trust me about image quality, because these low-quality proofs don’t show the depth of detail in the final images. That’s part of the reason I’m writing this post! The image quality I explain here is the image quality you can expect from every Relish gallery. I operate on the standards established for commercial photography by Adobe Stock and Getty Images. If for some reason I ever couldn’t deliver that on a session, I would offer a complimentary reshoot rather than deliver those images.

So, what is the recipe for great image quality? How do you know it when you see it? I’ll be writing a series of posts over time to delve into this in a way everyday folks can understand. The short answer? Great images are made by leveraging precise knowledge on great equipment to uplift free-spirited creativity.

There are many factors that make up the prevailing assessment of image quality. In portraits, focus should be sharp on both eyes. Exposure should be correct. The image should be free of excessive artifacts like noise, dust, chromatic aberrations, and color separation. There are times to break the rules, and I’m happy to do it for good reason. But quality standards exist to help us create the most rich, real, and beautiful images the state of our art will allow.

Poor Quality: Exposure Issues
Highlight Clipping: BIG RED NO!

To put it more plainly, here’s a poor quality image. I’ll tell you why it’s bad. The highlights are clipped. See how the side of the building is WHITE where it seems like it should probably be yellow? Those parts of the image are so overexposed that the camera’s sensor recorded no detailed data. The same thing happened in the shadows here. There are no details in the blacks.

It’s kind of like when you walk into the sun from a dark room and you can’t see anything until your eyes adjust. You’re not capable of seeing both the extreme dark and the extreme light at the same time–you have to adjust for one or the other. In the same way, this scene went outside the range of what my camera could capture.

To the left is what the same image looks like to me when I’m processing. BIG. RED. NO. The red is Lightroom’s highlight clipping indicator, and the blue is the shadow clipping indicator.

My friends, I do not turn these indicators off when I’m working. Ever. Because a quality image should look identical whether they are on or off.

Below is an example of a successful image. There’s no difference between the with/without indicator images. Even though this image was also shot in dramatic light, there is no clipping anywhere–detail was captured throughout the entire frame. I was able to do this by adding light to the shadows (a flash positioned off camera), therefore reducing the range of light to dark that my camera needed to capture.

It’s so hard to talk about this stuff without getting a little technical! Here’s the long story short:

Detail of 100% Zoom

If an image package includes full resolution digitals, this is what you can expect to see at 100% zoom.

The images behind those proofs are crisp, clean, detailed, and beautiful.