What You Get Out of It is What You Put Into It
The word "resolution" refers to the amount of detail discernable in an image and also a formal commitment to do something we promise ourselves around each New Year. How about that for a coincidence?
Most photographers have a bit of an obsession with resolution. We compare the specs for various camera models when shopping for a new one and second guess purchasing whatever camera we shoot now. We save our images in the highest resolution format possible, and we edit what those files contain on the biggest, baddest monitor with the highest resolution we can afford. Film photographers used to have an interest in resolution. Digital photographers live and die by it.
But photographers have one more reason to have that word rolling around in their thoughts at this time of year. Along with everyone else, it's time for New Year's resolutions. That annual tradition of promising ourselves we will do something we never actually do. Maybe you'd like to lose some weight or read a book every month. Might I suggest reducing your waste and recycling more? That sure seems like a good idea in today's world. The ever-trusty Internet tells me that about half of us make New Year's resolutions in some form. The only difference for photographers is that some items on your list may directly relate to photography.
Maybe you've promised yourself that this is the year you finally catalog all your images. Once you get behind, it's hard to get caught up. If you've never set up a system to file and catalog your photos, I highly urge you to begin at once. Every you leave unsorted makes the job of digging out exponentially more difficult. Before you know what happened, you won't even know what you've got or where it is.
Another popular resolution for photographers this time of year is saving up to buy a new mega-camera or uber-lens. One of those pieces of kit that photographers know someone who knows someone who has one, and they drool over the prospect of owning, too. Since most of us would surely blow the same amount on some other passion if we weren't photographers, I won't try to talk you out of this one. Gotta keep up with the Joneses. And it probably will provide at least a partial return on your investment. If you've done your homework, it might be just what you need to improve your photography.
But let's get back to the curious linguistic happenstance I began with this week. There doesn't have to be any direct connection between the photographic meaning of the word "resolution" and the use of the term in the New Year's sense. Every language has quirks worse than this, even if English is one of the most idiosyncratic of tongues, with more exceptions than rules. But since "resolution" does have the double meaning of image detail and promise, maybe we can explore what it would mean to employ both. Perhaps we should make resolutions for the new year focused on capturing sharper images with more detail. What would that look like?
I've already conceded that a new camera or lens could help. But I've noticed it's all too easy for photographers to use this as a crutch. The best New Year's resolutions are those that make us better people, not those that give us better stuff. Or, in the case of the current topic, let's look at promises to ourselves that should make us better photographers. Let's set aside what you are using and what gear you dream of. Let's make some resolutions about how we use that gear.
The best place to start in your newly professed desire to get sharper images is to consider your technique.
It's hard to get a sharp image without a good way to hold your camera still during the shot. You may not be able to stop a breeze from gently rocking your subject back and forth at just the wrong moment, but it's your responsibility to prevent your camera from moving. You can do the math and test your nerve when it comes to hand-holding, but if you want the best odds on keeping things rock steady, you need a good tripod. And you have to use it consistently. How about that for a New Year's resolution?
Image resolution also suffers when contrast does, and there's nothing that cuts into image contrast than glare on your lens. Addressing this problem requires making multiple promises to yourself. One of the primary reasons to use a lens hood is to shield the front element as much as possible to prevent glare. You want the light on its way to your camera sensor to hit your lens glass. You don't want the light coming in at an angle that will end its passage outside that frame. Such light rays will diffract and reflect everywhere before eventually dying out against a wall or other obstruction inside your lens. Some will randomly find their way to your sensor in the wrong place, resulting in lowered contrast. Even deep black shadows may end up lost in gray. Consistently remembering to use a lens hood isn't easy, and perhaps a resolution (the "promise" kind) would help.
Clean lens glass is happy lens glass. You can help get the best resolution possible by keeping your lenses (and any filters) clean. But when in a rush, it's easy to change lenses without checking that it's clean. After enough practice, you'll find you hardly need to look when changing lenses. But it's a good habit to double-check for any dust or fingerprints, or you risk noticing such problems only after the fact when they're harder to repair. Look at hit this way: anywhere you have to clone out a dust spot lacks image detail. And detail means resolution (the photographic kind). If cloning dust sounds like a pain, and maximum image detail sounds like a good thing, maybe a New Year's resolution to keep your lenses clean would help?
Look at other aspects of your technique, too. Consider the impact diffraction can have on image detail and don't automatically go for the tiniest aperture possible unless you need to. Shoot in RAW to capture the maximum bit depth possible for your camera. I know processing them on your computer can be a drag, but jpegs are only 8-Bit files, and that doesn't give you much to work later if you find tweaks necessary. Try to frame each shot in-camera. Cropping later costs you resolution (the image detail kind).
This only touches on some major points, too. Spend some time examining each step of your process and make any changes that seem helpful. Perhaps a resolution would help (the New Year's kind). It's never too late to make some if you haven't. It's never too late to add some if you feel motivated.
What you get out of your photography is what you put into it. And lest I forget to mention it, that goes equally, year-round.