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7 Commonly Accepted Photography Beliefs Debunked

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.

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James Maher
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.