It's time for the first installment of "Ask Raw," where we answer questions we've received from people. Today's question from Rick is about what settings to use for gallery photos, especially printed on canvas.
I use the Nikon D300 I bought from Roberts and am still learning all the functions. Now I wonder about the best settings to get the gallery sized photo prints (wrapped canvas) that I see st photo exhibitions. Should I shoot in RAW format for extra sharpness. Can you offer me good printing results on such large size? I would like to send my images to consignments galleries and print from you as ordered. Appreciate your help.
We do recommend raw, but it's not necessarily for extra sharpness. Shooting raw takes a lot of the burden off of deciding how to set most things on your camera. The only settings that genuinely affect raw files are exposure and focus. Your white balance, contrast, sharpness, color gradation, saturation, noise reduction, and so on are just settings to tell the camera what assumptions to make when it creates JPEG files.
The one catch here is that most cameras use the JPEG settings for the image previews you see on the LCD. For that reason, I set my white balance to auto, my color saturation to muted, and if you have the option of auto-gradation, D-lighting, DRO, or any other range extender, I usually turn that on to better represent the full exposure range I'll have in the raw file.
Now, since we know the in-camera settings won't matter much since you shoot raw, let's talk about the next point, which is resolution.
There are, of course, people who will tell you that the D300's 12 megapixels are only good for prints up to a certain size. And, there's a sort of truth to that, and then kind of not, also. The truth here is that the larger you blow an image up, the fewer pixels you'll have per square inch. When you're looking at the print, this means at some point the pixels become visible. If you're right in front of it. What this argue forgets is that if you have an 8x10 print, you stand a few inches or a foot from it. If you have, say, a 4'x6' print, you'll stand several feet from it. Maybe half a room, just so you can see it all. And, the farther you get from it, the smaller those pixels once again appear to be. It balances out. True, it still looks softer, blurrier, and more pixelated from an inch away, but get too close to even the best bigscreen HDTV and it'll do the same thing. Viewing distance matters a lot when determining size.
So, now that we understand that it's OK for pictures to look worse up close the bigger they get, let's talk about what's going to make your pictures look better as they print larger: your craft.
As I suggested above, things like sharpness are related to size and viewing distance. Simply put, the smaller an image appears to be (whether because it's actually physically small, or because you're far enough away from it that distance makes it small), the sharper it will seem to be. I'm sure we've all had those moments where our focus looked fine on the screen, and then back home on the monitor were upset when everything was a bit too soft. That's why.
So, the bigger you make an image, the more obvious every technical flaw is going to be when people come in closer for a look. The sharpness of your lens, the accuracy of your focus, and the accuracy of your exposure become very important. Much more so than any arguments resolution. If you nail your focus, a picture will still look sharp no matter how far you zoom in, or how many pixels you can count. Miss your focus, and it'll look softer and softer the bigger it gets.
The only real 'setting' I'd recommend watching is 'sharpness'. 'Sharpness' in your camera, and in Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, or any other software, works by comparing brightness levels on a pixel-to-pixel (or nearly so) level, changing brightness levels where dark areas and light areas meet. You can push this pretty far if you're printing small, but the more you push it the more you're going to exaggerate jagged pixels, and the more 'haloing' you get, which is an effect from adding a thing row of light pixels and the dark side, and a thin row of dark pixels on the light side. Even on medium sized prints, software sharpening can look unsightly quite fast. On a large print, it's even worse. Which is why nailing the physical part of sharpness (focus accuracy, and especially on a lens with a resolving power that approaches or exceeds your sensor's), is so important, because there's little to no room for software to help you if you mess it up.
This gallery shows the effect of sharpness via a lens and focus, and sharpness via software. The first picture shows a shot of mine, and the second shows a magnification of it with minimal software sharpening. The third picture is the shot again, this time with really intense software sharpening. Doesn't look too different? Take a look at the magnified crop. That's what printing larger will reveal.
Whew, that was long. I apologize. As for the easy part, Roberts does print on canvas, both regular prints and wraps, and even if your picture isn't perfect, our experienced lab knows how to make it look its best when being blown up for these. You can check the table below to see our rates.