Fine art photography to me is not only about the subjects but the combination of taking utmost care in composition combined with an obsession to an absolute maximum of quality in any step of the imaging process from capture to print.
How to ensure? With each photo I personally fall in kind of a love relationship, deeply connected with the scene, the camera, and later the file. It’s my little baby.
Once in love there is no way out, you literally feel how to treat them well from start to end. You will want to let them shine. It’s all about the image, not yourself.
Let’s try to get a better idea of what fine art photography could mean practically.
Balance Quality and Necessity
Don’t get me wrong, highest quality does not necessarily mean shooting the lowest ISO your camera can handle all time, or even worse only shooting in low ISO situations and skipping all others. The term “highest quality” I think should be extended to: “highest possible quality in a given situation”.
If shooting in less favorable light situations for example the technical quality of your file might be lower due to noise. But if it was an unforgettable photo who cares about a bit of noise?
Know your camera and post processing skills how far you can go before the final image quality does start not to meet your standards and expectations anymore. Be very critical!
Very often we have to somehow balance the trade-off between spontaneity, creativity, and technical quality. In my opinion the more unique and spontaneous an image is, the more compromises on the final quality will be tolerated.
Do never compromise on any tool you use, never! If going for best results quality will always beat convenience.
Work in a well calibrated environment if possible, where you can be sure proofing on screen will be as close as possible to the final output.
Choose the best RAW converter and post processing software you can find. Make sure to know the software’s capabilities and limits in an out. You can already have the future options and limitations of post processing in mind when shooting.
Know about differences in software of several brands and make use of their advantages. Read a lot about tools and their pros and cons, read about anything helping you in ensuring high quality of the output. Deeply understand all of your tools you are going to use, camera, software, and printer.
Before planning to shoot anything considered to being a fine art print take care of the very basics. Make sure your sensor is perfectly clean, as well as the lens. It’s the small things to start with. Unnecessary cleanup in the file can already compromise on output quality.
Know about the limits of your camera and lenses (e.g. diffraction, ISO behavior, noise in long exposures – even more when shooting high quality CCD sensors as I do presently). Make sure to use the settings which ensure highest quality, but without compromising on the look and feel of your photo.
Shooting RAW I’d say is pretty helpful for this kind of quality level.
If possible use a tripod and a cable release (or timer) for maximizing sharpness. Mirror up mode also makes a difference in a DSLR. Don’t search for this mode in a mirrorless camera …
Whatever possible to solve in camera shoot properly instead of saying: “I’ll fix in Photoshop later”.
Unless your subject is popping up spontaneously try to shoot in favorable conditions. Return again and again until the scene shows up to be perfect.
For large size fine art photography, try to shoot without needing to crop the file in the end.
Summary: Take care shooting the best possible technical result out of camera, without killing spontaneity and creativity.
Post processing in RAW converter
As soon as we start with retouching and post processing we might harm the file. Don’t worry too much since working on the file is necessary. But keep in mind to literally spoken handle your file “with gloves” through the whole process of adjustments. White gloves, not work gloves.
Read a lot about post processing options as well as their dangers. Practice, practice, practice.
The global adjustments as far as possible do in the RAW converter (e.g. Lightroom, Capture One, or Photoshop Camera RAW). Depending on how good your converter software handles local adjustments some of those might be worth trying already. Sharpening usually I only do in Photoshop.
Excursion: Why to do as many changes as possible in the RAW converter software? In this stage your image is still RAW and not yet converted to pixels. Working in Photoshop, means pushing pixels and therefore being more in danger of banding and other unfavorable side effects.
But be careful with the adjustments in the RAW converter. Often those tools are a bit rough. As soon as adjustments feel too brutal stop and do them in Photoshop with its capabilities of much finer and much more detailed retouching.
Export the file in the highest quality in a lossless format to Photoshop.
Tipp: I personally don’t go to the maximum in the RAW converter for example with the white point and black point when knowing I will do further post processing in Photoshop, leaving some space for more work without harming the file.
Post Processing in Photoshop
For the details, for subtle adjustments and image effects which cannot be achieved in RAW converter software, switch to Photoshop. I am a big fan of this product since it gives us nearly unlimited options far beyond any capabilities of even the best RAW converters offer. Sure any other high precision post processing software will be fine, too.
Again, make sure to be very gentle to your file. Know about the limitations of the tools you use and about options which might be more favorable for achieving the same effect with less harm to the file.
Take a deep look into the details from time to time at 100% zoom or even more sometimes. Chromatic aberration and banding are not favorable in high quality files. Avoid halos when sharpening and adding clarity.
Take your time. Some images work immediately, others you will have to start from scratch again and again and again to achieve best results. Some images are finished after half an hour (rarely), others I have to work on days and weeks until I am satisfied with the balance. Some I have not finally finished after months, simply because I not yet fell in love with the results.
If you tend to use plugins or third party tools for quickly achieving effects in Photoshop be very critical on their influence on the quality of the file.
Laziness and hurry is your biggest enemy in high quality post processing. Never give up and do not compromise. Go to the maximum in your adjustments but no step further.
The theory of high quality printing is an own story and I might be the wrong one for consulting. Sure I know about the most important. But to be honest, being a printer (the person, not the machine) is a job to be learnt for a reason and I have lots of respect for a good printer with decades of experience. I personally happily pass my files to an expert I totally trust. “My personal” printer I know to be at least as critical and quality addicted as I am.
If you print on your own, use state of the art printers for best results. Know about the options you have in papers since a great photograph can be ruined if printed on the wrong paper. It’s not about a specific brand or glossy vs non-glossy but about the characteristic of each single paper. Choose the one most flattering to each of your printed images.
Last but not least: try not to destroy all the quality built up in shooting and post processing with lack of knowledge in how to keep up the same quality level for resizing, perfect output sharpen, and the final printing process.
My Personal Workflow
Shooting with perfectly prepared and thoroughly tested high quality equipment.
For first RAW conversion presently my files are taken to Capture One Pro software. If I am not happy with the conversion I test the same file in Lightroom instead which has slightly different results in colors and also in details. Aim is getting as close as possible to the final result already by not even doing anything. Less work on the file will result in a higher technical quality.
In the RAW converter I carefully take the file to a good starting point for Photoshop. With Capture One I tend to work a little bit more on the files in this stage already because the tool offers more options and allows me to work with more precision. Zero sharpening in the RAW converter.
In Photoshop I do sharpening and local changes, trying to keep it simple. Often I go back and forth several times, testing different tools for the same effect to make sure I use the superior method for any specific situation.
A lot of time I spend for perfect masking and hiding my tracks in Photoshop, making adjustments less obvious. Taking care of the tiny details is most important in the fine art workflow. Sometimes the changes are close to not even visible. But I honestly believe you will feel them when viewing the final print.
I never take a file to the printer if I am not hundred and ten percent satisfied with its look and feel but also its technical quality I would expect.
Putting it together in simple words: Treat your file in a fine art workflow as if it was a woman. Or for the women among you: treat the file better than your hubby. Ah, well, you know what I try to say.
This workflow is just a rough guideline when shooting highest quality fine art. For sure it will not be suitable if shooting quantity like in classic wedding photography. It will usually not serve photojournalists where speed is one of the major issues.
But if you want to shoot a perfect quality fine art photo for hanging your wall, having some of these topics in mind might help.
Don’t take the read as a step by step guide to follow. At best start developing your own standards for a personal fine art workflow. In general, for fine art photography don’t walk the most convenient path but the one in the end ensuring best results in composition and print.
Striking a balance is king. Photography is art not math!