Some Things I Learned About Photography in 2021

Tips & Techniques

I never want to stop picking up new techniques in photography. If you’re constantly learning, you’re constantly improving. Now that 2021 is coming to a close, I’d like to share some things I learned this year and how they’ve helped my photography grow.

Many of the techniques I’m writing about today are things I’ve already talked about at least a bit on Photography Life. When I learn a new and useful tip, I usually post it here as soon as possible! But even if some of them are things I’ve written about before, I hope they still inspire you to think about your own photography this year. Did you learn any techniques in 2021 that will help your photography in the future?

Table of Contents

1. More Details About the NPF Rule

As a longtime fan of astrophotography, I’ve been hearing about the NPF Rule for a few years now. It’s a formula that tells you what shutter speed to use in order to avoid motion blur in the stars at night.

Before this year, I never used the NPF rule because I found that it gave some unusually short recommendations – for example, to use a shutter speed of 8 seconds with a 14mm lens (full frame) even though I know from experience that 15 or 20 seconds will still give good images. The reason for the disparity is that the NPF rule is designed to calculate zero motion blur in the stars, while in reality, you can get away with some small movement.

It turns out that I didn’t know the full story. Near the start of the year, I went to the original NPF website (in French) and learned more details. The official NPF formula actually includes a multiplier value, K, and suggests doubling or tripling the value from the formula! In other words, if you need totally pinpoint stars – like for star stacking – go with the original NPF rule. Otherwise, you can use somewhere from 2x to 3x the suggested shutter speed (based on how much motion blur you personally prefer; my preference is 3x). The resulting values are much more reasonable for single images. The creator of the NPF rule himself, Frédéric Michaud, suggests doing this. So, rather than 8 seconds with a 14mm lens, you’ll get more reasonable numbers like 16-24 seconds instead. The NPF rule is a lot more reasonable than I thought.

Milky Way taken with modified NPF rule for sharp stars
NIKON D800E + 20mm f/1.8 @ 20mm, ISO 3200, 15 seconds, f/2.0

2. An Unexpected Benefit of Image Averaging

Daily readers of Photography Life are probably tired of how much I beat the drum of image averaging, but allow me to do so one more time before the year is over!

I’ve known for a while that image averaging reduces noise, but it was only at the start of 2021 that I realized some of the potential implications of that. To be specific, I realized that using image averaging at base ISO would improve shadow noise so much that it could dramatically increase a camera’s dynamic range.

Fundamentally, this is the same as what another popular technique – HDR photography – does: improving dynamic range. HDR photography is very popular but has plenty of issues of its own, especially when anything in your photo is moving. HDR software tends to blend movement in strange ways and can lead to bizarre artifacts in your image… whereas image averaging simply makes moving subjects look a bit blurrier, as if you used a longer exposure.

Some basic calculations (and field testing to confirm their accuracy) showed me that four images taken with image averaging provide the same dynamic range as a typical three-shot HDR. Given that image averaging is better when anything in the photo is moving – and usually, something is moving – not to mention easier processing with natural colors, I’ve now switched away from traditional HDRs completely. The “averaged high dynamic range” process is simply better in the vast majority of cases. (The article I wrote at the time covers more of the technical background and limitations of the method if you’re skeptical, as I was before testing it.)

In any case, this was one of the most interesting things to me that I learned in 2021, and I think it will have one of the biggest impacts on my photography in the coming years.

Five Image Average from Drone
Five-image average. DJI Mavic 2 Pro @ ISO 100, 1/1600, f/4.0

3. Another Use of Smart Objects in Photoshop

I don’t use Photoshop nearly as much as Lightroom for my photography. Actually, 90% of the time that I’m in Photoshop is when I’m making graphics for Photography Life and not actually editing my images! So, I was pretty late on the uptake to a useful feature, but I’m glad I learned it this year: the ability to re-edit or tone down Photoshop’s filters by using smart objects.

Normally, applying any filter in Photoshop (i.e., from the filter bar in the top menu) is a destructive process to the layer you’re editing. For example, if you reduce a layer’s noise using the Filter > Noise > Reduce Noise tool, that layer is permanently stuck with the noise reduction. You can delete the layer or hit Undo enough times, but you can’t otherwise go back and change it.

That is, you can’t go back and change it unless the layer was a smart object! If you had converted the layer to a smart object ahead of time, you can go back and change the amount of noise reduction at any time. That’s also true of any other filter, including my favorite, the Camera Raw filter (which mimics all the edits that Lightroom can do).

I’ve known for years that smart objects could be resized over and over without destructive effects, but I somehow never knew about this other, more useful feature until this year. It’s nice to know and has helped my Photoshop editing process be less destructive.

Smart Filters in Photoshop
Double click any of the filter names (highlighted in red) to re-open their editing options

4. How to Get Better Colors in the Stars

Another astrophotography tip I learned, this time through simple trial and error, is how to improve the small color details in stars without adding too much color noise to the image.

Even though color noise reduction is applied in a lot of editing software by default, it’s not a free ride. I’ve written about that before. Color noise reduction can damage low-level color details and make an image look “muddier” on the whole. It can be particularly damaging to the subtle rings of color around stars in Milky Way photography, which is a perfect storm because you’ll usually be shooting the Milky Way at high ISOs and needing a lot of noise reduction!

The basic solution I found as a Lightroom user is to boost the Color Detail and Color Smoothness sliders beyond the default. A combo of +70 on detail and +100 on smoothness has substantially improved the amount of colors I retain in the stars nowadays. (Before 2021, the only value I usually worried about was “Amount,” but the others make a big difference for retaining star colors.)

It’s much easier to see this effect on your own photos than over the internet, but here’s a basic before/after between Lightroom’s default color noise reduction settings and my personal preferences. If you view the image full size on a desktop, you’ll notice that the purple detail in the Eagle Nebula is especially better in the image on the right:

Lightroom Color Noise Reduction Default vs My Preferences

I would’t say this particular tip has completely changed my photography, but subtle improvements are still improvements nonetheless. Everything adds up.

5. Lots and Lots of Large Format Film Things

2021 is the year that I shifted most of my landscape photography from digital to large format film. The learning curve has been broad and steep. I know so much more about the process – everything from keeping my equipment dust-free to optimizing my eBay searches for unusual gear – that could come in handy for digital work, too.

Merely assembling a good film kit has found me setting up an Amazon Japan account, signing up for EU-based mail forwarding services, and driving to Idaho to avoid shipping heavy, fragile equipment. All are things I had never needed to do before 2021. (Although I really should have visited Idaho before, as it’s surprisingly beautiful and not so far from Colorado.)

And of course, that doesn’t even compare to the challenges of shooting, developing, scanning, or analog printing the images. A few photos I was very excited about are completely ruined because I developed the film incorrectly or just bumped the tripod while taking the photo and didn’t notice at the time.

Along the way, I realized that many of my practical photography skills had lapsed. Film can be very forgiving in some ways, but it’s very demanding in others. My tripod discipline needed work, as did my pre-visualization skills and general attention to detail. In other areas, my knowledge was fine for digital photography but wasn’t broad enough to encompass the different requirements of film (like my metering technique). Fixing those lapses was a big part of 2021 for me.

It takes a lot of attention to detail to get everything correct in a large format photo, and failures can be frustratingly expensive. But when everything turns out well, the quality of the images is simply wonderful. I’m nowhere near being an expert in it yet, and I expect to learn a lot more in 2022. But I feel like I’m starting to grasp the first nuances of a new language and realizing that it’s helping me communicate better in my original (digital) native tongue, too.

Good Light An Hour Before Sunset
Chamonix 4×5, Nikkor 90mm f/8 @ f/22, 1/60 second. Kodak Portra 160. No filters, some rear tilt.

Conclusion

These are just a few of the biggest things I learned in 2021, alongside other post-processing realizations and minor tips related to the particular gear I use. (Not to mention the many details of film photography like scanning or using lens movements, which I’ll wait until future articles to bore you with!)

All in all, I’m just glad that I kept trying to improve this year and pushed my photography skills a bit further. There’s always room for improvement, and that’s certainly the case for me. So, keep learning! Here’s to a 2022 filled with techniques that we should have figured out ages ago, but we’re glad to finally know today.

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