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How to Find the Best ISO for Astrophotography: Dynamic Range and Noise

ISO is one of the three major exposure settings in the exposure triangle of a digital camera — shutter time, f/number, and ISO. Of the three, it is ISO that is probably most misunderstood. Even more so than f/number. In fact, it is a common misconception that higher ISO settings will cause images to be noisier. In fact, the opposite is often true. Wait, what?

That’s right, higher ISO settings alone do not increase image noise and higher ISOs can even be beneficial to low-light photography. In this post, I talk about the craziness surrounding ISO settings, how ISO actually affects exposure, and how to find the optimal ISO setting on your camera for astrophotography.

Introduction

Learning how to optimize exposure settings is one of the most helpful skills when attempting astrophotography. “What exposure settings should I use?” is probably the most common question I get. For beginners who are new at trying astrophotography with their regular digital camera and lens, I usually recommend starting with my Milky Way Exposure Calculator. That calculator will provide an excellent starting point when making your first attempts at shooting the night sky.

Once you’re comfortable making your first exposures, the next thing I recommend learning about exposure is how to optimize your ISO setting. That’s what this article is all about. To begin, here are a couple of glossary items that will hopefully help:

ISO

In digital photography, ISO is a standard (specifically ISO 12232:2006) for exposure brightness developed by the International Standards Organization (ISO). Different camera sensor models have different sensitivities so we need some way to correlate them so like exposures yield like brightnesses. Some people pronounce each letter (aɪ-es-o) but I think it’s easier to just say it like a word (aɪso).

Signal

Signal is the part of the photograph that we want. Light is signal. Signal is the image. Without the signal (without light), we can have no image. The more light that we can gather, the more signal we have. In general, the more signal, the higher the quality of the photo.

Noise

Noise is the part of the photograph that we do not want. Noise is interference appearing as speckled grain that obscures the signal and thus the details of the photograph. Noise is usually generated by heat or imperfections in the behavior of the electronics of our digital cameras. Some noise is random with every shot (shot noise) and some noise is produced consistently by the camera’s sensor (upstream read noise) or produced by the electronics after the sensor’s signal has been amplified (downstream read noise). In general, the more noise, the lower the quality of the photo.

Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR)

The ratio of signal to noise in an image. The higher the signal-to-noise ratio, the higher the quality of the image. More light = more signal = good. More noise = bad. Collecting more light is the best way to increase signal-to-noise ratio.

Higher signal-to-noise ratio is the best way to improve image quality. Sony a7S, 55mm f/1.8 @ f/2.8, 48x5s, PP7, ISO 12800

Dynamic Range

The full range of light of a scene, from the darkest darks to the brightest brights. A high dynamic range scene has extremely bright highlights (such as the sun) and extremely dark darks (such as a fully shadowed black rock). A low dynamic range scene has relatively uniform light across the scene where the brightest parts of the image are not much brighter than the darkest parts of the image. Cameras only capture a limited dynamic range of light. If the dynamic range of a scene is high enough, anything outside the range of the camera’s sensor will either be blown out to pure white (in the case of very bright areas) or crushed to pure black (in the case of very dark areas). In general, a camera sensor capable of capturing a higher dynamic range of light is more desirable.

A disclaimer: I’m an engineer, but I’m formally and primarily trained in mechanical engineering. I have some relevant experience, but electrical and computer engineering isn’t my main mode of expertise. My intention with this article is to simplify these concepts in a way that hopefully makes sense to a larger, non-technical audience. If you’re familiar with this topic and you see any glaring mistakes in this article, please feel free to let me know.

Also, all of the points made in this article apply to RAW image files. It’s very important to shoot astrophotos in RAW format to preserve the best data collected by the sensor. Don’t start complaining when you try any of the tests in this article on your JPEGs. Also, much of the benefit of optimizing ISO selection applies primarily to low-light shooting (like astrophotography) where we have a relatively small amount of signal competing with the various noise sources that encroach upon our photographs.

ISO is Amplification or Gain

It’s a (very) common misconception that increasing ISO increases the sensitivity of a camera sensor. ISO doesn’t change sensitivity. Increasing ISO simply increases the brightness of a photo by amplifying the sensor signal. In the electronics world, amplification is sometimes called “gain.” Like we can “gain” weight if we increase our eating, we can “gain” brightness if we increase our ISO.

ISO in no way affects how much signal (light) the camera can collect. If we actually want more sensitivity with a camera, we need to either increase shutter time or aperture size (lower the f/number).

Higher ISOs Don’t Increase Noise

OK, to the main point: Higher ISOs won’t increase the visible noise in a photo.

Read that again, realize that it contradicts what you probably think you know about ISO and then let me elaborate:

All other things being equal, a higher ISO will do the following:

  • A higher ISO will increase the brightness of an image
  • A higher ISO will decrease the total dynamic range of the image
  • And, in many cases (like astrophotography), a higher ISO will actually decrease the visible noise

OK, I know what you’re thinking: “How come when I use a higher ISO, I get more noise?!” Here’s why:

For most imaging situations, photographers will usually use P (Program), A/Av (Aperture Priority/Aperture Variable), or S/Tv (Shutter Priority/Time Variable) modes on their camera. In these exposure modes, using a higher ISO setting will result in an image with more relative noise. What most people don’t realize is that the increase in noise is not because of the increase in ISO.

The increase in relative noise when using a higher ISO in an automatic exposure mode (like P, A/Av or S/Tv) is actually due to the reciprocal decrease in shutter time or the decrease in aperture size as a result of using an automatic exposure mode. Most people are misattributing the increase in noise to the ISO when it’s actually caused by lower signal-to-noise ratio due to the shutter or aperture.

When setting a higher ISO on one of these autoexposure modes, the camera tries to achieve a neutral exposure and compensates for the increase in ISO by decreasing the amount of light entering camera. This reduction in light is done automatically by the camera by either decreasing the time the shutter is open (when in A/Av mode) or by using a higher f/number and thus decreasing size of the lens aperture diaphragm and letting in less light at a time (when in S/Tv mode), or by a combination of both (when in P mode).

So a reduction of light by the shutter or the aperture is the reason that the image appears noisier. It’s not noisier because of the higher ISO. This reduction of light is a reduction of signal and a reduction of signal yields an overall lower signal-to-noise ratio and thus a noisier photo.

How Do Shutter, Aperture and ISO Affect Noise?

A simple comparison test can show that relative noise levels are primarily affected by shutter and aperture and not affected nearly as much by ISO. In these tests, all settings are kept identical except the one that we wish to test which is adjusted by two stops. Then, in post processing, the images are equalized in brightness and compared.

Here’s what one of my complete test image looks like. It’s a RAW shot of Orion from a city suburb, made on a Sony a7S with the Zeiss 55mm/1.8 lens:

Constellation Orion, Sony a7S, 55mm

How Shutter Time Affects Noise

  • 8s, f/2.8, ISO 3200
  • 4s, f/2.8, ISO 3200 (+1 stop in post)
  • 2s, f/2.8, ISO 3200 (+2 stops in post)
How Shutter Time Affects Noise – Sony a7S, 55mm, f/2.8, ISO 3200

Conclusion: Shorter shutter time = less signal-to-noise ratio = noisier photo

How Aperture (f/number) Affects Noise

  • 8s, f/2.8, ISO 3200
  • 8s, f/4.0, ISO 3200 (+1 stop in post)
  • 8s, f/5.6, ISO 3200 (+2 stops in post)
How Aperture (f/number) Affects Noise – Sony a7S, 55mm, 8s, ISO 3200

Conclusion: Higher f/number = less signal-to-noise ratio = noisier photo

How ISO Affects Noise

  • 8s, f/2.8, ISO 3200
  • 8s, f/2.8, ISO 6400 (-1 stop in post)
  • 8s, f/2.8, ISO 12800 (-2 stops in post)
How ISO Affects Noise – Sony a7S, 55mm, f/2.8, 8s

Conclusion: Higher ISO ≠ more relative noise

So of the three tests on my Sony a7S, shutter speed and aperture very obviously directly affect the apparent levels of noise in the photograph while ISO has nearly no effect. This is completely contrary to what many people would expect when they think about higher ISO.

In low-light photography, there is one aspect of ISO that can greatly affect the amount of perceived noise for any given ISO setting: downstream electronic noise. Let’s see how different types of cameras can be affected by downstream electronic noise.

ISO-Invariance and Downstream Electronic Noise

There are variations from sensor to sensor and camera model to camera model in how ISO affects low-light images. Understanding how your camera sensor behaves can help you find the optimal ISO setting for astrophotography. There are two fairly common configurations that we see in most modern digital cameras so we can split most cameras into one of two camps, ISO-variant and ISO-invariant.

ISO-Variant Cameras

Cameras use varied levels of analog amplification to adjust ISO. In a simplification of this case, the amplifier boosts the electronic voltage readout from the sensor by 2x for each ISO: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and so on. Higher ISO means more amplification of the sensor output data.

After the sensor data is amplified by the ISO, it’s sent through some (downstream) electronics (such as an analog to digital convertor) to ultimately change our data from voltages into a digital file of numbers that’s readable by a computer. One of the distinct characteristics with ISO-variant cameras is higher contribution of noise from these downstream electronics.

If there is relatively little signal to begin with (e.g. in low-light situations), the lower ISO settings might not apply enough amplification for the voltages of the sensor data to overcome the contribution of electronic noise made by the downstream electronics. That means that in low-light situations like astrophotography, ISO-variant cameras will actually show more noise at low ISO settings and less noise at higher ISO settings. The Canon EOS 6D, still one of my favorite choices for a DSLR for astrophotography, is highly ISO-variant and actually shows its best low-light noise performance at ISO 6400 and higher!

The Canon EOS 6D is highly ISO-variant and achieves its best low-light noise performance at ISO 6400 and higher.

Most Canon DSLRs are highly ISO-variant. There are a few exceptions to the Canon lineup that are not as ISO-variant including the new Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and the Canon EOS 80D.

ISO-Invariant Cameras

ISO-Invariant cameras have lower downstream read noise such that in low-light shooting conditions, the signal to noise ratio stays more constant as ISO settings change. In a simplification of this case, the sensor data is already amplified above the minimal contribution of downstream read noise sources before being converted to a digital signal. The result is a camera with low ISOs that tend to have less shadow noise and less of a variation between ISO settings. Most of these types of cameras are considered relatively ISOless or ISO-invariant. One camera that shows a great example of ISO-invariance is the Fujifilm X-T1. An example of the X-T1’s ISO-invariance test is available at the end of the article.

Modern digital cameras made by Sony and Fujifilm tend to be relatively ISO-invariant.

Notes and Exceptions

Okay, it’s not all black and white: many ISO-variant cameras eventually act like an ISO-invariant camera above a certain high ISO setting. Above some threshold ISO, these cameras fully overcome their noisy downstream electronics and show minimal difference in signal-to-noise ratio with higher ISOs. Most Canon cameras act this way above about ISO 1600. Knowing what that threshold ISO setting is can help us achieve the best low-light performance.

Similarly, many ISO-invariant cameras may have one or two distinct jumps in gain that will affect the overall read noise contribution to the image. In this case, there may still be a threshold ISO above which it is beneficial to shoot in low-light conditions. The Sony a7S acts this way with changes from approximately ISO 100 to 200 and 1600 to 3200. The Sony a7S’s best low-light performance is actually around ISO 3200 and above. Otherwise, the differences between ISO settings in low-light conditions on the a7S is relatively minimal.

Ultimately, both configurations achieve the same goal of brightening the photo to correspond with the particular ISO setting but the end result can be quite different, especially when shooting in low-light scenarios. ISO-invariance is a distinct enough trait in the behavior of a camera that DPReview has added an ISO-invariance test to most of their latest camera reviews. I personally think it’s very helpful to know how a camera acts in order to find out where it will perform best in low-light photography.

ISO vs. Dynamic Range

One of the distinct negative aspects of using too high of an ISO is reduced dynamic range. The more that we amplify the data that makes up a digital image, the more that we risk brightening it so much that it blows out the brightest parts of the image to pure white and loses detail in those parts of the image.

In the dynamic range test below, I made exposures of the star Antares at the highest ISO settings of my Sony a7S using the same exposure settings and varying only the ISO. As the ISO increases, the star appears to get larger because it’s being gradually more and more overexposed with each higher ISO. In practice, with the Sony a7S, the reduction in dynamic range doesn’t become too much of an issue until about ISO 51200 and higher but the difference in each stop is still apparent.

As a side-note, notice how similar most of the ISO settings between 1600 and 204800 look to each other in terms of noise, especially relative to the Canon EOS 6D sample above. The Sony a7S is a fairly, although not completely, ISO-invariant camera.

ISO Dynamic Range Test on the Star Antares – Sony a7S, 50mm, f/2.8, 8s

In my experience, except for the brightest stars, blowing out any part of an astrophoto to the point where we’re losing a lot of data is very, very rare. The bigger risk of using too high of an ISO in landscape astrophotography occurs when there is a larger, brighter (usually artificial) light source in view of the shot such as a street lamp, light pollution from a nearby town or your buddy’s headlamp.

Since we lose a little bit of highlight data with each higher ISO, choosing the optimal ISO for astrophotography is a little bit of balancing act between using a higher ISO for better noise performance (especially in the case of an ISO-variant sensor) or a lower ISO for better dynamic range.

Finding the Optimal ISO for Astrophotography: The ISO-Invariance Test

Stand back, we’re going to try science! In order to find the best ISO to use for astrophotography, I recommend doing an ISO-invariance test. Most of the samples shown in this article up to this point were made with an ISO-invariance test. It’s a super easy test to run: all we need to do is to take about 7-10 RAW photographs, one at each whole-stop ISO and then we match the exposure brightnesses in post processing. This test is easier to perform in a low-light scenario so I recommend doing this test outdoors at night or in a dimly lit room. Maybe make it an astrophotography trip.

If you’re performing this test while shooting the dark night sky, use my Milky Exposure Calculator to determine the shutter time and aperture setting. If doing the test in a dimly lit room, first use your camera’s (P) Program exposure mode at ISO 3200 to determine your shutter time and f/number.

Example: Canon EOS 700D

For my example, I’ll be testing out the Canon EOS 700D/T5i. Here’s a summary of the test:

  • Shoot in dark conditions: a dimly lit room or outdoors at night
  • Shoot in RAW file format!
  • Use (M) manual exposure mode
  • Set “daylight” white balance (just so it doesn’t drift)
  • Disable all forms of noise reduction (Long Exposure NR, High ISO NR)
  • Shoot one exposure at each whole stop ISO (100, 200, 400, 800, etc.)
  • Keep all other settings the same, change only ISO
  • Match exposures in post processing and compare

For my test on the T5i, here’s what the complete images looked like with the crop of the test area highlighted. I cropped the results of the test to a small area that included some midtones and some shadows.

Straight out of the camera, the crops of the RAWs looked like this:

ISO Comparison – Canon EOS T5i / 700D, 18mm, f/3.5, 25s

In terms of noise, this comparison is deceiving because the brightnesses don’t match between exposures. In order to level the playing field, we need to match the brightnesses. To do so, I used Exposure adjustment slider in Adobe Lightroom to match all of the exposure brightnesses to the ISO 3200 exposure. The ISO 100 image was pushed all the way to the max +5EV setting on the Exposure slider, the ISO 200 +4EV, the ISO400, +3EV and so on…

Here’s the complete summary of how we match all the exposure brightnesses in Adobe Lightroom.

  • ISO 100 gets pushed +5EV
  • ISO 200 gets pushed +4EV
  • ISO 400 gets pushed +3EV
  • ISO 800 gets pushed +2EV
  • ISO 1600 gets pushed +1EV slider
  • ISO 3200 has no adjustments made
  • ISO 6400 gets pulled -1EV

Another way to do this in Adobe Lightroom is to select all of the exposures, then highlight the ISO 3200 exposure and select Photo > Develop Settings > Match Total Exposures or press Command+Option+Shift+M (Ctrl+Alt+Shift+M).

Once equalized, here’s what the exposures look like:

ISO-Invariance Test – Canon EOS 700D / T5i

Upon comparison of the exposures, it’s immediately apparent that the Canon EOS 700D/T5i is not completely ISO-invariant. It appears as if that the camera reaches its best low-light performance at ISO 1600 and higher. ISO 1600, 3200 and 6400 look almost identical meaning that the 700D might be ISO-invariant from ISO 1600 upwards. Below ISO 1600 is a different story: As the ISO lowers, image quality degrades until the point of being nearly unusable at ISO 100. In order to preserve some dynamic range, but still get the best low-light performance on the 700D, it’s clear from the results of the test that ISO 1600 is the optimal setting.

Example: Fujifilm X-T1

Just for comparison, I ran a separate ISO-invariance test on my Fujifilm X-T1, this time at 30 seconds and an aperture of f/2.8. The results are distinctly different from the Canon.

ISO-Invariance Test – Fujifilm X-T1

The difference is that there is no difference… between the ISO 200 setting (the lowest it goes on the X-T1) and the ISO 6400 setting, noise levels are identical. This means that the Fujifilm X-T1 is completely ISO-invariant. The noise levels across the ISO range don’t change in the slightest. This means that it doesn’t really matter which ISO you use on the Fujifilm X-T1 and the optimal setting might even be ISO 200 in order to preserve dynamic range.

That said, there’s also a little bit of impracticality if attempting to shoot astrophoto at ISO 200 as the image preview on the back of the camera would be very dark and evaluation of other important factors like focus and composition would be difficult at ISO 200. Luckily, we’re usually not risking too much dynamic range by bumping ISO up to a moderately high level, assuming there are no bright artificial light sources in the photo. So using ISO a slightly higher ISO might be the more practical choice, keeping in mind our tolerance for reduced dynamic range.

Conclusion

Contrary to popular belief, higher ISOs don’t create more noise and using a higher ISO can actually be beneficial when shooting in low-light scenarios, especially on cameras with ISO-variant sensors. Run an ISO-invariance test on your camera to determine the best ISO setting to use when shooting astrophotography. ISO behavior varies from camera model to camera model and testing out each ISO setting can help determine the best ISO to use for the best noise performance in your astrophotography.

It’s important to understand that ISO-variance or invariance doesn’t necessarily make a camera better or worse at low-light, it’s just different. Knowing how a camera behaves is an important step to achieving the best image quality.

More and more cameras manufacturers tend to be making their cameras more and more ISO-invariant, as they develop sensor technology with reduced downstream read noise and improved dynamic range at low ISO settings.

Do you know which ISO on your camera gives the best low-light performance? Do a test to find out!


About the author: Ian Norman is the co-founder and creator of The Photon Collective and Lonely Speck. Ian is a full-time traveler, photographer and entrepreneur. In February 2013, he called it quits on his 9-to-5 to pursue a lifestyle of photography. Follow Ian’s photography adventures on Instagram. This article was also published here.

8 Ways the New Canon 77D is Different from the 80D

Canon made an unusual move in 2017 by announcing the Canon 77D as the first camera in a new line that fits between the 80D and the 800D (AKA the Rebel T7i). If you’re scratching your head about what makes the 77D different, check out the 4.5-minute video above by ZY Productions about 8 differences between the 77D and 80D.

“What on earth is the 77D? I compare it to the 80D and talk about how they’re different,” ZY writes. “I guess that makes the 800D a super spec-down of the 80D. 77D guts in an even crappier body.”

Canon says that the 77D “represents a new category of advanced amateur EOS cameras, a step above the Rebel series.” Here are the 8 main differences pointed out by ZY:

1. Viewfinder: The 77D uses a pentamirror viewfinder while the 80D uses a pentaprism one.

2. Shooting speed: 77D shoots up to 6fps, while the 80D can do 7fps.

3. Battery: 77D uses a lower capacity battery (1040mAh) than the 80D (1800mAh).

4. Shutter speed: 77D has a max shutter speed of 1/4000s while 80D can do 1/8000s.

5. Flash sync: 77D has a max flash sync speed of 1/200s versus the 80D’s 1/250s.

6. Layout: 77D uses a 4 way navigation pad instead of 8, among other minor differences

7. Bluetooth: 77D has both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi while the 80D only has Wi-Fi.

8. Stabilization: 77D uses digital 5-way image stabilization, something the 80D lacks.

Other differences not mentioned by ZY but pointed out in the comments of the video include:

9. Headphone: The 77D lacks the headphone jack that the 80D has.

10. Size and weight: The 77D is both smaller and lighter than the 80D.

11. Weatherproofing: The 77D isn’t weathersealed while the 80D is.

So if you’ve been wondering what you’ll be missing out on by paying $899 for a 77D compared to $1,099 for an 80D, there you have it.

“Picture the 77D as an 80D with cheaped out hardware,” ZY says. “In terms of pricing, the 77D is practically an economy version of the 80D.”

(via ZY Productions via Fstoppers)

How to Add Front Bokeh to a Portrait Using Christmas Lights

We’re all familiar with the fuzzy circles that bokeh creates usually behind our main subject, but this lesson is about creating bokeh in front of the subject. And that is what Mark Wallace is about to show us in the 6-minute video above. This episode of Adorama TV is about getting a kind of outdoor feel and adding depth to your indoor portraits.

You can use daylight or continuous light and an uncluttered background might be best. You will need 3 things:

1.) LED or Christmas lights

2.) Tripod

3.) Wide aperture lens

Frame your model in a loose composition, so that you have enough space on the sides to create the bokeh effects.

Use a wide aperture lens like f/1.4 or f/2 and shoot wide open, as you want the LED lights to go out of focus. The camera should be on manual settings for shutter speed as you don’t want the sensor to be fooled by the light coming in from the LEDs. Manual focus should be used, so that the camera does not focus on the LED lights as you wave them in front of the lens.

You can use white or colored lights depending upon the effect you are creating. A tripod is certainly useful but if you don’t have one you may still be able to get by, but it will be more difficult. When you are shooting at wide apertures like f/1.4 the depth of field is very shallow and even slight movement can make your subject out of focus. It will help to draw a line on the floor so that your model stays fixed in one spot. When you are on a tripod your model has already been focused, so you have to look only at the placement and position of the lights. If you are hand-holding you will have to look at 2 things simultaneously: model focus and light position.

Move the lights in front of the lens to get the best effect and remember not to overpower the face with too many or large soft blurs. The closer your light is to the lens the larger will be the bokeh.

Here are a few of the example photos captured by Wallace in the tutorial video above:

Another way to add front bokeh to a portrait is to spray some water drops onto a sheet of glass that you then shoot through.

How to Blend 3 Bracketed Exposures for Greater Dynamic Range

Want to learn how to blend 3 bracketed exposures of the same scene to create a single photo with greater dynamic range? Here’s a great 17-minute video tutorial by travel photographer and educator Jimmy McIntyre on how to do so in Photoshop CC.

“In this example we use 3 exposures because the difference between the brightest exposure (also the base exposure) and the darkest exposure is too much,” McIntyre says. “So we bridge the gap by using a middle exposure.”

His technique is a clean, 100% non-destructive workflow. While he shows how easily the job can be done using his own Photoshop plugin, Raya Pro, McIntyre also demonstrates how you can do the same things using ordinary Photoshop.

Things you’ll learn in the tutorial include precision masking and working with smart objects imported directly from Adobe Camera Raw.

(via Shutter Evolve via Reddit)

How Color Filters Affect B&W Photos

If you’re new to film photography, chances are that you’ll get into shooting black and white sooner or later because you have been inspired by the masterpieces of old masters. But before you become the next Henri Cartier-Bresson or Sebastião Salgado, there are a few introductory things you should know.

Seeing the world in black and white is the main struggle for everyone at the beginning, but like with everything else, it can be learned and practiced with a simple understanding of how colors are translated into B&W. The human eye can distinguish approximately 500 shades of gray (well, some are limited to 50, but that’s another story). On the other hand, the scope of colors feels almost unlimited by comparison.

Why are some colors identical when turned into B&W?

Imagine a bus with only 50 seats (and no standing space) that has to carry 200 hundred people at the same time. If they all want to get in, some people will have to share the same seat. It’s the same with colors turned into B&W, there are too many to fit into the 500 shades of gray, so they must be compressed to all fit in the bus. To put this into an image, I’ve turned the 6 basic colors into gray so you can see how they translated in B&W.​

We can see that some share the same seat. Look at the yellow and orange: they are nearly identical, so that affects sunset pictures. Another interesting comparison is the red and green: they are almost identical, which makes pictures of poppy field look like a muddy gray landscape… how disappointing!

Picture by Friederike Hiepko

Does that mean that I can’t take a good B&W picture of a poppy field?

Hopefully not! There are ways to change the way B&W film responds to colors. For this, you will have to rely on colored filters. Let me briefly introduce each of them:

Yellow filter: The classic among black and white photographers. Blue skies are darkened, which helps to increase the separation with the clouds. Other colors like green, red, orange and yellow will appear brighter.

Orange filter: It comes right after the yellow in terms of strength. Blues will become even darker for a more dramatic effect. Most warm colors will also show brighter than greens.

Red filter: This one is the strongest. Red will turn into white and foliage appear very dark. If you want your poppy flowers to pop out that’s the one but pay attention to the background. We can see at the horizon the light green turned also into white. It works best with darker shades of green like in the foreground.

Green filter: The opposite of the previous one. Red will turn darker and green brighter. It’s not very popular because of its limited span of action, but it can give very interesting effect when used on the correct scene.

Blue filter: Another uncommon filter but if you want to brighten blues it’s the one! Warm colors will be darkened and red turned into black, which can help to separate elements in a mixed colored scene. It also increases fog and haze which can help to emphasize a moody landscape.

One important thing about using filters is that they all reduce the amount of light by 1 or more stop. So you must compensate this loss of light when exposing. It varies depending on the filter so refer to the manufacturer’s product information.

Considering contrast when shooting B&W

Now that we know how to manipulate each color, the other element to consider when shooting B&W film is contrast.

Depending on which style you are going for, contrast will play a major role. There are no colors to define the mood of your image so the type of light is probably the most important element to create the ambiance you want to achieve. Direct sunlight can be a nightmare for color photographers, but not in B&W. If you want to shoot street photography, for example, it’s exactly what you are looking for as it will create contrast and harsh edges in your image. It will help to detach the subject from its environment and re-enforce your composition.

If you prefer a softer ambiance, look for an atmosphere with low contrast. Cloudy or foggy days are perfect for this type of images. The light is evenly distributed which result in a mellower ambiance. It’s also the ideal situation for shooting female portraits, as it makes skin looks softer and more pleasing.

Another crucial element that affects contrast is the type of film you shoot with. B&W films don’t react the same way and it’s important that you choose the proper one based on what you are looking for. This is really a matter of personal tastes and there is no right or wrong film here, just the one you like.

If I want to go for a contrasty image, Ilford HP5 or Kodak Tri-X are my go to films. If I’m aiming for a softer image, Fomapan 200 or 400 is the one I prefer.

“There are so many films, which one is the best?”

Choosing film can be overwhelming when beginning so if you are not sure about which one you should use, check out the “Film Dating” quiz I created. It helps to find the right film for you in just a few clicks.

The last point that will influence the result of your image is the development technique or chemicals you will use. There are many ways to go when developing and the combinations of film/developer can completely change the look of a negative.

I’ll take the example of stand development, as that’s the one I’m more familiar with. Depending on the film and developer you are using, it can completely change the contrast of your photo. I have tried this approach with Fomapan 400 (low contrast) and Kodak Tri-X (high contrast).

When developed using the stand technique using Ilfotec DD-X developer, Fomapan 400 turned into a super contrasty film. On the opposite, Kodak Tri-X, which is known for being contrasty, turned into a flatter image with this process. These are just examples and combinations are infinite when developing. The best is to experience yourself with the chemicals and films you have at home. If you want more information about developing time for each film and chemical, check out this Massive Dev Chart.

We’ve now seen that many factors can influence a B&W image, but the most important point is your ability to see the world in monochrome. That’s what requires the most practice but with experience, you’ll become better — it’s just a matter of training your imagination.

If you are just starting out, forget about everything else and just concentrate on imagining a scene in B&W. Once you’ve gained more experience, it’ll be easier to apply what you’ve read above.


About the author: Vincent Moschetti is an Ireland-based photographer who is in the middle of a year-long experiment where he’s shooting only film photography. You can find more of his work or follow along on this adventure by visiting his website or following him on Facebook and Instagram. This post was also published here.

10 Ways to Become a Better Landscape Photographer in the Next Year

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As each new year approaches, people usually start thinking about what they can do better or improve in the new year. As a professional landscape photographer, I thought it would be fun to give some tips to people starting out with landscape photography.

Tip #1: Don’t be scared!

Don’t touch the full automatic mode anymore. If you really want to learn photography in general, it’s important to stop using the full automatic mode on the camera. While it may feel very “comfortable” for a lot of new photographers, the mode doesn’t really help you getting better and it can prevent you from improving certain shots.

Don’t be scared to move away from this mode. Use Aperture priority mode and work from there. It’s not that hard. I’ve seen people “stuck” on Auto mode for years because they’re too scared to try a different mode. Then I teach them to use the Aperture mode for 10 mins and they say: “Oh wow, I didn’t know it was that easy.” There’s really not that much to it!

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Tip #2: Start shooting RAW format

I cannot emphasise this enough. It’s another ‘don’t be scared’ thing. Just put your camera on RAW+JPEG if you’re not really familiar with the RAW format. You will thank yourself when you learn basic photo editing that you can still use the RAW files of your old shots and have a go at them to make them look better.

RAW is extremely important for a landscape photographer because we often shoot sunsets/sunrises where there is a lot of contrast between dark and light. With RAW, you can also change your white balance without quality loss. Finally, the files have a lot more data in it for editing.

Tip #3: Learn (basic) post-processing

Processing is important in landscape photography, even if it’s just slightly tuning the image. Nowadays, if you haven’t done so, install Lightroom! Lightroom is not that hard! Basic post-processing can make your images better in the sense that you can easily balance them out with color and contrast changes. Like I mentioned in point #2, shooting RAW is a must. When you look at landscape sections of popular social media channels, I can assure you that 99% of the shots are processed in some way.

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Tip #4: Stop caring so much about settings

People often ask me “EXIF please!”, even with shots I consider very ordinary. I can understand that EXIF info would be interesting with certain kinds of photography, like astrophotography. But in general, when shooting landscapes settings are not that important if you’re working from a tripod. A lot of different settings could have been used and you should never think: “I should always use these settings when making shots like this.”

Tip #5: Start the year properly with a good sturdy tripod if you don’t have one (yet)

A good tripod is one of the most important tools of a landscape photographer. Start the year properly with a good sturdy tripod. Even with the best camera your shots will be useless if they aren’t sharp.

Tip #6: Spend less time inside and go outside more

This may be obvious but I still want to address it. I see people asking questions on social media all the time. They are usually questions that they could easily discover if they just go out and play with their camera. Don’t be scared to try things out. Of course it’s great to learn stuff online, but you learn the most when you’re just in the field using your camera.

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Tip #7: Stop caring about success of other photographers

Don’t worry about how other photographers are doing — spend that time and energy improving yourself. This is not only for the new photographers out there. Actually, it’s mainly for us proud landscape photographers. We always feel competition around us. A lot of times I see people ‘complaining’ on social media about the success of others or just “hating” on other people’s photos.

Guess what? It doesn’t make you a better photographer.

It just makes you look like a jerk. So stop caring about other photographers and focus on improving yourself. Look with a critical eye to your own photographs or ask some friends/family what they think of certain shots you’ve made.

Tip #8: Stop caring too much about gear

Especially when starting out as a landscape photographer, it’s all about composition, knowing how light behaves, knowing the weather etc. You can basically make good shots with your smartphone nowadays. I often see people with very standard landscape shots wanting to buy a better camera and they think that their shots will suddenly turn out much better. On social media they will probably look very similar. It’s all about knowing your camera and trying to get the best out of it.

(But if you do decide you need an upgrade, it’s often better to look at a new lens instead of a new body.)

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Tip #9: Realize that taking an amazing shot can sometimes mean extreme dedication

Some amazing landscape shots you may see on social media take a great amount of time and dedication to make. A lot of people think that photography is just snapping the camera and the job is done. A dedicated landscape photographer can have a certain place or scene in mind and return there for days, weeks and sometimes years to get that perfect shot. It doesn’t just fall out of the sky (although if you’re lucky, it sometimes does). Also, the same location looks different across all different seasons.

Tip #10: Always try to find something extra in your photo

For me this happens automatically but for most people it doesn’t. When you see something extremely beautiful or extreme, it still doesn’t make it a good photograph. Think of a double rainbow, for example. When you see one you don’t have much time to act. Don’t just shoot the double rainbow. Find something that can make the shot complete.

It doesn’t have to be extremely difficult. Some lines in the grass, some animals, some interesting houses. Anything that you can make an interesting composition with in combination with the rainbow. Always find something extra. Don’t be overwhelmed by anything.

Another example is a lightning storm. When a lightning storm hits my country (The Netherlands), I see all kinds of cool lightning strike photos on social media. But they’re just snapshots of the lightning strikes. When a storm like that hits you, try to find some interesting foreground object like a statue, house silhouette, etc. Basically anything interesting (but be safe).

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About the author: Albert Dros is a photographer based in Amsterdam. You can find more of his work on his website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr.