7 Commonly Accepted Photography Beliefs Debunked

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Midtown, NYC

Over the last handful of years, working with photographers of all types, I have come to learn that there are many commonly accepted thoughts about photography that just aren’t true.

Here is my attempt to dispel some of the most common misunderstandings that many photographers have, and to explain why they are a bit misguided.

1. You need to use as low an ISO as possible

Noodletown, Chinatown

Fuji X100 at ISO 3200

Back in the early and mid-2000s, mainstream digital cameras were in their infancy, and one of the worst aspects about them was their ability to work well at high ISOs. The digital noise, above ISO 400, in so many of those cameras was terrible. This was the heyday of noise reduction software such as Noise Ninja, and because of all of this, it was rightfully taught that using the lowest ISO possible was always better.

In the last seven years, I would argue that the greatest improvement that digital cameras have made has been in their ISO capability. You can now shoot with ISOs of 1600, 3200, 6400, and even beyond, with great quality. Even significant noise in many digital cameras has an exquisite quality to it.

Unfortunately, the low-ISO stigma has continued. On a tripod, for landscape photography, or studio photography, a low ISO is usually better. The rest of the time, raise it up. This will allow you to use more ideal shutter and aperture settings, and you will notice that the technical qualities of your images will actually turn out better.

You think all of those gorgeous wedding photographs were done at ISO 200? So many of them were taken at 3200. I will walk around at night shooting handheld with ISOs of 3200 and 6400 on my small Fuji X100S, and the quality of the photographs is incredible.

2. You need a tripod

Cobblestone, SoHo, NYC.

For night and dusk landscape photography, a tripod is very important. But you usually don’t need that tripod during the day, and you can even shoot at dusk or night without one, depending on the specific situation. This tip goes hand in hand with point number one, because the improved high ISO capability in cameras has allowed us the ability to shoot handheld, when we otherwise would have wanted to use a tripod.

How you plan to display the work should be a big factor in your tripod use. Are these travel photographs that you will put in a book or not print larger than 12×18? Consider putting away the tripod and saving your back from the added weight. You will have more energy, and will take even more good photographs. Is it a 40×60 print of a foreground, middleground, background landscape taken at dusk? A tripod will still be necessary for that.

3. A shallow depth of field makes a photo better

Canal Street, NYC.

One of the most exciting times for any photographer is when they jump from that f/3.5-5.6 lens to their first f/2.8 (or below) lens. The ability to create portraits and images with beautiful bokeh for the first time is a great feeling.

However, not every image needs to have bokeh. There is a time and a place for f/2.8 and a time for f/16. Keeping your camera on f/2.8 all of the time is typically not a great practice. There are images where a large depth of field is vital. It’s one thing to have a strong subject, sharp and separated from the background. Those images can be beautiful, but there are times when the background and surrounding elements can be just as important as the main subject, and they will need to be sharp.

Don’t get tunnel vision from shooting at f/2.8 all of the time. After you locate your main subject, see if the surroundings can add to the photo. If they don’t, then you’re free to bokeh them away.

4. Aperture Priority is always the best mode

Club, NYC.

A subtle flash with a 1/2 second shutter to achieve motion blur and stronger ambient light.

When I teach, I’d estimate that 75 percent of photographers pop their camera on Aperture Priority and that is it. This percentage does not include the ones that shoot in Auto.

Aperture Priority has its time and place, but there are many situations where Shutter or Manual can be ideal. I prefer Shutter Priority for any times that subjects are in motion, such as sports, kids running around, images where you want motion blur or motion in water, or street photography. I will even use shutter priority sometimes in event photography with up to a half second shutter, and mixed with flash, so I can add both a sharp aspect and an element of motion.

Manual mode is ideal for studio photography, on a tripod, or in any situation where the lighting is completely consistent. This allows you to dial in the exact exposure, and not leave anything up to chance or the camera’s light meter.

In addition, by shooting in Aperture Priority all of the time, I have noticed that photographers do not develop the ability to pay attention to the shutter speed as much as they should. Because of this, while their exposure will always look good, many images will be taken with too slow of a shutter speed leading to slightly blurry photographs. This will not be noticeable on the back of the camera however, and the image will appear sharp until loaded onto the computer.

5. My photograph is bad because no one likes it on Instagram

The edge, SoHo, NYC.

I love Instagram, but it has had the unfortunate effect of homogenizing photography. As we share photographs and receive likes, we learn to see our work in terms of what other people respond to best. This is a trap. If we create photographs for the purpose of appealing to the masses, then every photographer will end up shooting in the same way. This is why trends like overly designed images or over-saturated colors, which grab attention very well on screens, become the norm.

Being a good photographer is about being a little different. You want to always pay attention to how people relate to you work, and what they like and dislike, but you also want to take that with a grain of salt. Always try to remember how much you liked the photograph before you showed it to anyone else, and keep that feeling. Unique and interesting photographs are ultimately what you want to create, and you don’t want to let Instagram discourage you from taking them.

6. Photographs always tell the truth

I love candid photography because it shows a real moment. However, no matter how true they look, photographs can easily distort reality. The better they distort reality, the more people will believe it to be true.

A photographer’s biases can shine through in their photographs. A person can be captured with an expression that is completely the opposite of the norm for them, and you would have no idea. In addition, photographers are constantly playing a game of what to include and what to exclude. You do not know what is happening around the camera, and it is often significantly different from what you might imagine.

Photographs can lie, they can hide the truth, or they can be ambiguous. This is very important to remember. It will both help you understand the nature of what you are photographing, but it will also allow you to play with this idea, to create more interesting work.

7. A photograph has to be technically perfect to be good

Youth, SoHo, NYC.

One of the noticeable aspects of many old photographs is the lack of technical quality, when compared to today’s standards. This was usually due to the early camera technology that was used. We just have a lot more available to us these days.

What stands out in many of these prints however, is that despite their technical deficiencies, the images still look beautiful. They are still interesting. They are still fantastic. Think Cartier-Bresson, Doissneau, Stieglitz.

Light, sharpness, composition, and image quality are very important to master, but just know that they do not always have to be perfect to create a great photograph. Some images have glaring deficiencies and yet they’re wonderful. Figure out how to take an interesting image and don’t discard every photo that isn’t sharp enough. Sometimes an underexposed or overexposed photograph will look great. Often an unorthodox composition will be just what was needed. Pixel peeping is important to train your eye, but you can sometimes do too much of it.


Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles this week that are Open for Discussion. We want to get the conversation going, hear your voice and opinions, and talk about some possibly controversial topics in photography.

Let’s get it started here – do you agree or disagree with the points in the article above? Do you have any others to add? Give us your thoughts below, and watch for more discussion topics each day this week.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Maher

is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide.
James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

  • David

    I concur with Simon. I often shoot with auto ISO in manual mode when shooting indoor sports. The lighting changes depending on the direction but you need the freeze the action and have enough DOF to include multiple people. That said, my 5Diii’s metering is not spot on when the uniforms are all white (karate). I wish that there was exposure compensation in this mode… maybe Magic Lantern in the future?

  • David

    Hi David. After upgrading camera bodies over the years I have become less attached to low ISO. Yes, I still use ISO100 for landscapes wherever there is enough light but sometimes it is better to use high ISO rather than a blurry shot. Yes, high ISO does reduce colour/tonal range but the alternative is to risk missing the shot completely. 2 examples at ISO6400 (fast moving puppy) and ISO12800 (giraffe at Vivid). No chance to bring up the shadows but a usable image none the less. Don’t forget that ISO3200 (on a tripod) is basically the norm to get milky way shots.

  • pete guaron

    Great article, thanks, James. As I read it, I did expect it to cause controversy, and to a small extent it seems to have. Less, perhaps than I expected.

    You couldn’t cover the whole field, but here are a few that bug me.

    1 – The “rule of thirds”. The pity is, it’s always been CALLED a “rule”. It’s not – it’s a useful guide, and provides a starting point if there’s nothing else to base your composition on. But like so many others, “rules are meant to be broken” – and there are plenty of times when breaking this one MAKES the shot.

    BTW – that approach is true in relation to most of the “rules” your article is seeking to make less rigid, more flexible, and better able to “nail the shot”.

    2 – Moving water. We “have” to use a long shutter speed. Why? I’m perfectly happy for other photographers to do that if they want to, but I like my water to look like water and I like to “freeze” the motion of it, so that I can see what was there in front of my camera – drops, ripples, whatever. I don’t say theirs is “wrong” and I don’t appreciate the bigotry that goes with telling me that mine is “wrong”.

    3 – Pixel mania. Some people only take photos to flick them around cyberspace. I take mine to produce prints. My printer cannot “use” 55 MP images and I read from time to time articles suggesting information “leaks” out of smaller pixels (the inevitable result of “more” is “smaller”), or that a pro cam like the Nik D4 at only 16MP records better color – etc etc. I’m with you 200% on the reference to the past masters of photography, anyway – they mostly didn’t and couldn’t achieve the technical standards of today’s best cameras, but who amongst us is going to outdo the likes of the three you mention (Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Steiglitz) or others, like Ansel Adams? Frankly, I don’t believe there are too many lenses out there that can really do justice to a 55MP image and I don’t know of a printer than can use such detail as “feed stock” – if there IS one, it’d probably be way outside my reach, financially. In any case, I couldn’t care less if it DOES exist. If I decide to buy a “better printer” than the one I use now, it’ll be about the inks, not the pixels.

  • Pip Penrose Young

    I have just gone from capturing my kids on my iPhone to my first DSLR. I have been doing a lot of reading and had a friend teach me the basics of aperture, shutter, ISO. From there I have been able to shoot and capture some gorgeous photos of my kids in manual. I have struggled as they change from full sun into shade or do something that requires me to change my settings and sometimes miss the shot. You have now reminded me that when playing with them and capturing photos Shutter priority might allow me to capture more. Thanks for the great info.

  • Superheterodyne

    Good article, but I disagree with the above statement that P is the only true Auto mode. P, S & A are all Auto modes. Anytime the camera makes the decision on the final exposure value, that’s “Auto mode”. Even if the camera’s only determining the ISO (such as with some camera’s manual mode or TaV mode in Pentax), that’s still Auto exposure mode.

    As you said, these Auto modes are not a bad thing, just a different method for different situations.

    I find that I use S, A & M all about the same amount, but almost always set ISO manually. Cranking it up only when needed.

  • OldPom

    Please do another article – this time on editing misconceptions. My main dislike in many of today’s images is the totally false over saturation of colours during editing. . It reminds me of the dreadful days of Kodachrome film way back in the 1950s . Everything was painfully un-subtle. Another dislike, touched on by one of the replies below, from Pete Guaron, is the prevalence of ‘softening’ in camera the flow of water and the movement of clouds. Inevitable perhaps with longer exposures but to do it deliberately ? Ridiculous. Does your eye do this ? Never ! So what is attractive about it ?
    But ‘de-bunking’ myths is excellent, thank you. Rules were made to be broken.

  • DSJones

    Yup, that’s me. “Rude and vainglorious.” “Excessively proud of oneself.” However, the title is still misleading.

  • Brent James

    I like the point about instagram. We as humans tend to want to be approved by the masses. There is nothing wrong with standing out. But you can learn alot from other fellows photos. Find out what you like or dislike and apply toyour own style. Great write up.

  • Michael Clark

    My memory isn’t as good as it once was. But I can set up C1 for outside, C2 for inside, and C3 for Av mode with a wide aperture and I don’t need to remember!

  • Michael Clark

    Didn’t a firmware update add that capability? Or was that only the 1D X?

  • Pauline

    Great article and so true! With so much info out there these days it’s easy to become bogged down with the should and should nots that we become almost paralysed photographically and miss so many opportunities. The one thing I think could be in a future article would be “never shoot in the middle of the day”. Of course you can! Just whack on a filter and go for it and don’t miss out on those sights or moments that won’t come again.

  • jumbybird

    I disagree with the ISO “myth” if you have an older camera or a point and shoot, it still holds true. Not everyone has a new SLR or “advanced” camera.

  • Yes there are lots that I don’t get as well Mary! But I’m sure a lot of people feel that way about my work too.

  • Very true!

  • If you can use a tripod Michael, it’s of course better. Didn’t mean to hint that I didn’t think it was. I haven’t used the 6D so I’m unsure of it’s ISO capabilities, but I also did not put in the issue of how the images will be displayed.

    Zooming into the image in Lightroom shows all the grain, but this can also be confusing. If the image is only meant to be shown over the internet, or printed not large than 8.5×11 or in that range, then you have a lot more freedom with ISO because that noise/grain will not be as obvious. At 40×60, it’s a completely different story.

  • Hey Cath! Completely agree. Be spontaneous, relax, have fun and screw up some photos. Learn all the rules of course but don’t be beholden to them.

  • These are great additions Pete. I agree with all of them!

  • Glad it helped Pip!

  • Thanks Pom – I get very annoyed with oversaturated colors as well! A good editing eye takes a lot of time to develop.

  • Yeah Instagram is great if you understand those limitations. The homogenizing effect is serious and real, but it’s also a great way to see how people react to your work, and to see work from so many other people.

  • I love shooting in the middle of the day! 🙂

  • The ISO myth that I spoke about in the article spoke about how it has changed with newer cameras. Of course older cameras have much lower ISOs that you have to stay within. But as the technology progresses so quickly even the newer entry level cameras can shoot extremely well at high ISOs.

  • Steve Lee

    I’m reminded of an excellent photographer I’ve known on line for about thirty years. He does great nature photos, but birds in flight are always shot with super fast shutter speeds and have no sense of motion. I asked him about that, and he blamed it on his photography club. The others expect technically perfect freeze frames or they complain. To me that’s letting peer pressure get in the way of the art or telling the story.

  • Ha! Yes, exactly. It’s understandable why that happens but that makes me very frustrated to hear that.

  • Steve Lee

    Most moving water shots I see use slow enough shutter speeds that the water looks more like plastic sheeting. For my taste, the trick is to use a shutter speed just long enough to suggest the look of moving water does in person. If I’m going for a particular look, I will bracket the shutter speed and compare the shots. The speed of the water and the direction of the flow relative to you will affect the setting needed.

    It’s a technical decision, sure, but mostly an artistic one. Freezing the water is one artistic choice.

  • I strongly disagree Richard. When you know what you are doing, both shutter priority and aperture priority can work very well. Each have their strengths and weaknesses. Shutter priority is very useful for situations where your subjects are moving, to make sure that you choose a shutter speed that will freeze the motion.

    When working with newer photographers, many will put their camera in Aperture priority and not do a good job paying attention to the shutter speed given. Because of this the shutter speed will often become too slow and the shots will be blurry due to motion or handheld camera shake, however they will still look sharp on the back of the camera so the person doesn’t know until they get home. I have seen this happen more times than I can count.

    On the other hand, in shutter priority if your aperture can’t go any lower, the images will just be dark.

    There are many ways to skin a cat with a camera, and shutter priority can definitely be useful. It is very useful to me in many situations, as is Aperture priority.

  • David Johnson

    A refreshing perspective. Bravo. I have often thought that there are no rules in art and what is good photography if not art. If everyone does the saem thing all the time, the stand-out images are the ones that don’t follow the norm.

  • Vivek Rameses

    Great article, thank you!

  • TJerry

    Regarding noise; Am, I the only one who thinks that this statement is contradictory?
    “On a tripod, for landscape photography, or studio photography, a low ISO is usually better.”

  • Ray Nicholson

    How does the Canon 40D rate with shooting with a high ISO settings?

  • Ursula Rose

    I believe it still more beautiful to have the softened waterfall and the streaking clouds, even if it is not what you see with the normal eye. There are also times when a shot where you can see every drop extra can be more appealing. The beauty lies in the eye of the iewer.

  • Richard Challis

    I view photos on my desktop computer on a calibrated 43″ $K monitor and the oversaturation makes images look dreadful. However, I think a lot of the oversaturation is photographers trying to make the image look striking on the small screens they are likely to be seen on.

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