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.

  • Name

    There is no “debunking” going on here. These are merely counterpoints to widely accepted photography rules-of-thumb.

  • Stillsofthrills

    Point #1 is my favorite. I’m wondering if it is time to move on from my beloved Nikon D3 and look for something that performs better at higher ISO.

  • David C. Phillips

    This article is seriously flawed and I consider it most unhelpful for people who don’t know better. Take the first shot you give as an example of a high ISO photo. It is hideous. It would have been much, much better in terms of color, contrast and overall quality if you’d shot it at low ISO (say 50 – 300 or so) with a tripod, your second point. Night shots are particularly bad when shot at high ISO if you are trying to get a photo that actually looks good. I don’t think you have debunked anything. I think it’s legitimate to call these points into question. But the best advice on ISO and tripod is, if you want to get high quality night shots use a tripod and low ISO if you can. But if you don’t have a tripod, jack the ISO up as high as needed to get a decent shot and try to rescue it later with Lightroom, Photoshop or other photo editing software. I think you should be a bit more careful with the advice you give and how you present it so that people who are not familiar with the subject will learn to take better photos. If they follow your advice literally they are going to add to the thousands and thousands of lousy night shots already freely available on IG and elsehwere.

  • Simon

    Nice piece, I agree with most of this. But I have to demur with regard to the comment about manual mode. Manual mode IS leaving it up to your camera’s light meter: on a Canon DSLR, for example, in M mode you look at the light meter reading, and simply adjust the shutter speed accordingly (having already set ISO and aperture). Wait till the meter reads a central reading, unless you want to under or over expose. Very easy, and much easier than using exposure comp or anything like that. I think it’s important not to paint M mode as more complex or specialist than it actually is.

  • Hi David, thanks for your comment but I think you misunderstood what I was saying when you read my article.

    I stated that a is better if you can for landscape photography, particularly at night, but you shouldn’t shy away from photographing if you don’t have one and that high ISO capabilities have made it possible to do very well these days. In addition, with street photography and moving subjects as in the top photo, you don’t have time to setup a tripod when you see your subjects.

    I’d argue that the colors in that 3200 shot are fantastic and they wouldn’t have looked much different on the X100 at a low ISO. It is true to the colors of the scene.

    With new cameras these days, you do not need to do much in LR or PS because the quality is fantastic on many newer cameras.

    I was not debunking that you shouldn’t use a tripod whenever possible, I was debunking that it’s possible to get great quality shots if you don’t have the ability to bring one with you.

  • Great point Simon. I didn’t mean to tell people not to shoot in manual mode, but for situations where you are shooting in both sun and shade and where the strength of the lighting changes constantly, Aperture or Shutter priority can make it a lot quicker to get to the same endpoint.

    I just mentioned this because I see a small but decent percentage of photographers shooting in manual because they think that’s the ultimate way that pros shoot and ultimately the best, and a lot of them don’t have the comfort with the camera yet to use it as effectively as they would be able to use shutter or aperture.

    Each one is useful, but they all can be just as important to use depending on the situation.

  • High ISO performance has really changed what is possible over the last 6 years. It’s such a luxury.

  • The point of the article wasn’t debunking the points entirely, but showing how they’re not infallible. There are many situations where these points aren’t true.

  • DSJones

    Understood, and I commend you for your article. However, using the
    word “debunked” in your headline creates a clickbait-tinged expectation
    that annoys the reader when nothing in the article is actually being
    exposed as a falsehood or proven to be wrong.

  • Clickbait is for when the article doesn’t live up to the title or when the title is misleading. If you read each point it’s not debunking that you shouldn’t use a tripod or that tripods aren’t good, it’s debunking the common thought that you ‘need to use a tripod’ in every situation, you ‘need to use a shallow depth of field’, ‘or that you need to use the lowest ISO’ to make great images. The reason for this article is that I have come across many learning photographers who have these thoughts.

  • DSJones

    Kudos for a spirited defense, but the article intro states, “In this article the author dispels 7 photography beliefs to be myths.” However, not a single one of these points are “beliefs” that are “dispelled as myths.” Put simply, the premise of headline and the intro damage an otherwise good article. This is not a condemnation of the article. Just as small mistakes in a photo can damage the message, this is simply a writing/authoring mistake you likely won’t do again. 😉

  • Ha – thanks. I understand your point about clickbait and it’s not something I try to do, but hard to do short titles for these thing.

    But anyway, I do actually believe these are commonly held beliefs that are based on experience from teaching lots of students. These are thoughts that I come across frequently so I wanted to dispel them as untrue.

    Anyway, this is all semantics.

  • DSJones

    If you republish this article elsewhere, consider something like, “Seven Hard and-Fast Photography ‘Rules’ That You Need to Violate.” 😉

  • DSJones

    In fact, I would re-title the article *now*. A great advantage of Internet publishing is that you can change, edit, and revise minor writing mistakes — instead of being forced to live with them forever. You have my permission to use some version of my suggested headline, if you wish.

  • Great one 🙂

  • PiotrekKulczycki

    Great words, you’re so right! 🙂 Article is amazing 🙂

  • Luke….

    Great article. The title is perfect! Dsjones is being rude and vainglorious.

  • Zach H

    I recently had a time when #7 hit really close to home. I was at the Leica store in SF killing some time and was flipping through the ENORMOUS book of Annie Leibovitz’s photos when I noticed something I didn’t expect. Not every photo was technically perfect. There was one of Chris Rock I remember looking at and thinking “seeing it this large, it looks like the shutter speed was a little slow”. There were other examples I found of the same, as well as ones where the depth of field was very shallow and the focus wasn’t exactly right where it was obviously meant to be. These are things I’d missed before, but were right there when you are looking at a 40×57 double page spread.
    Did that make them bad photos? Not in the slightest! I’d be thrilled for my best shots to be as good as her technically “worst” shots, because the composition/color/emotion was spot on with the rest of the photo.

  • Zach H

    Really? Because I absolutely love the first photo. Low ISO and a tripod may help with the buildings, but it won’t help with the people in the scene who are all to some extent moving. It seems to me like three different people with different stories all on the same corner.
    All respect though, not everyone likes the same stuff, and that’s what keeps it interesting.

  • Wayne Werner

    I recently read http://flavorwire.com/571004/legendary-photographer-steve-schapiro-on-capturing-the-many-characters-of-david-bowie about Steve Schapiro and his Bowie photohgraphs. My favorite one is the last photo in that post which is, technically, not great. His eyes aren’t in focus, there’s a lot of grain… but it’s a *gorgeous* photograph. One of my favorite photos of Bowie.

  • rwhunt99

    IMO, all these “rules of thumb” are simply starting point guides, that you start from and manipulate as you see fit. Don’t be afraid to try something, but a good background in these “rules” or guidelines is important to help you decide when to break them. Know your equipment and it’s weaknesses, and what it is you want to convey in the photograph.

  • Wayne Werner

    I’m starting to get a lot more comfortable switching back into the “auto” modes. For a while I had been dogmatic about only using manual, but I’ve had a few shots that I’ve missed because I got the exposure all wrong (wrong ISO, wrong shutter speed, in some cases just a too-wide aperture).

    I’m starting to get a lot more comfortable flipping on auto ISO, or aperture mode (since I’ve been shooting my tilt-shift lens lately that only has one aperture)… but I definitely need to find some situations to shoot in shutter-priority!

  • Good points, points that every photographer needs to remember. Really boils down to are you an artist or a technician. Always amazes me how few seem to get to that artist point.

  • Wayne Werner

    better ISO performance is actually what moved me to get a newer, but slightly less-awesome camera (a Canon T5 from a Nikon D100 after my kids knocked over the tripod holding my D70s) to fit my budget. That, and a larger review screen. I’ve been extremely happy with the improved quality of the low-light performance, as well as the larger screen (and occasionally live-view and video modes). If an upgrade is in your budget, I highly recommend it, if you ever take shots in lower-light situations. If you’re just shooing in a studio with flash then higher ISO is probably pointless 🙂

  • Zach H

    Fantastic! Thank you! Can’t wait to read this.

  • Zach H

    I try to stay in manual as much as I can, but there are times when its just too much. For example, shooting weddings (which I’ve gotten out of the last few years). Bridge and groom coming out of a dark church, into noon sun and then hopping in an awaiting car that will whisk them away. Three different situations that will all change very quickly. Could I get a better shot if I had time to adjust everything manually? Yes, of course, but I usually don’t have the time. If there’s time to go outside and set up an manual pre-set on my camera, that’s great, as long as the situation doesn’t change, but its rare that I have a moment to do that.

  • Gustavo Artiles

    I agree with all that James says here. His reasoning and advice are excellent, and he shows his maturity and wisdom when he refers you to various classics, some of them working when photography was in its infancy. Always be aware of the classic masters and think about why they are consider classic!

  • Nelson D. Jones

    REALLY good and helpful article James. Thank you.

  • Wayne Werner

    Speaking from the perspective of a fairly new photographer – I see a *lot* of people saying things like:

    – “You should always use a tripod”
    – “Never shoot at high ISO – anything above 100/200/400 is garbage/useless/terrible”
    – “Real professionals always shoot in manual/RAW” (and maybe aperture priority, but certainly to a lesser extent)

    I also hear a lot of people talk about photos being “tack sharp” or photographs having grain in a way that makes you think if a photograph isn’t then it’s total garbage.

    Of course, by this point I’ve also read Ken Rockwell’s stuff that does a great job at debunking several of these beliefs.

    Does shooting with a tripod help? Yes, in certain circumstances. But *most* of the time, it’s not going to improve anything. Does lower ISO produce less noise? Sure, but that doesn’t mean that the photo is garbage. Can you still be a professional and shoot in something *besides* aperture mode? Of course! Maybe not “auto”…

    Sure, maybe you could provide a hundred examples of good photographs to prove the point rather than the one that the author chose. But I’d say that many, if not most new photographers hear these points as if they’re dogma, not just rules-of-thumb. And this article shows that yes, you *can* have good photos that are taken with high ISO/not on a tripod/that are not technically perfect/aren’t well received on Instagram. So if you’re one of the people who *do* hold these beliefs as fact (and not rules of thumb) then it’s proving those beliefs as false.

  • Cuttie2b

    I think your article would help many professional photographers who are technically perfect to relax a bit more and enjoy the art of photography and consider being less concerned about perfection and more about the message they want to convey. However, for a newbie photographer I think it’s imperative that they first achieve a level of expertise in all aspects of photography, from using a tripod to ISO to pixel counting and manual mode vs. Aperture and Shutter Priority first before they can throw out the things that may or may not be contributing to their photographs and their artist’s expression. You have to hone your skills first to the max then you can relax and not be concerned about having a tripod if you don’t have one, you won’t obsess about low or high ISO and you will feel confident you can go to manual and not lose a great shot. The one about shooting portraits did speak to me as a professional and it was a totally different way of considering images that I might think were great shots, but that might be perceived differently by the person and people who know them better than I do. I need to remember that aspect when I’m shooting. Thanks for the take on photography myths, but remember some in this audience may not be as proficient as they need to be in order to use some of your suggestions.

  • DSJones

    It might help if we eliminate from this discussion the words “beliefs” and “debunk” with regards to these photography rules-of-thumb. They are not beliefs that need to be debunked. They are long-evolved photography guidelines that should be regarded as good advice — until until they are not. This article attempts to point out those exceptions. Your photography experience and level of expertise will help you make your choice at the moment of truth, and help you avoid becoming caught up in a black-and-white choice of accepting or rejecting “dogma.” At considerable risk, I might also add that Ken Rockwell’s flippant and opinionated style might seem authoritative, but I would be cautious about embracing those opinions without reservation.

  • Happy to hear that Wayne. I don’t use auto-ISO myself, but I know a lot of people that are happy with it.

    I wouldn’t consider them auto modes though. Aperture and Shutter priorities are still kind of manual with attention as you can have an idea of the settings the camera will pick as you are shooting. It’s just a faster way to get to the settings you would choose on manual.

    I consider the auto modes to be just the auto or P setting, and like to make the distinction because it can stop people from thinking that manual is a superior way to shoot from shutter or aperture.

  • Great point Zach. I do the same. Say for events where you have to go back and forth between an outdoor and indoor areas, I’ll memorize the manual settings needed for each and go back and forth, but then will also set the aperture priority to a lower number aperture, should something occur and I need to quickly change the settings to get a shot. Then I’ll just flip it quickly to AV and know I’m safe.

  • Yeah this would have needed a high ISO no matter what to freeze the motion of the people. Glad you like the photo!

  • Thanks Richard!

  • Glad you liked it Luke!

  • I agree Wayne, thanks for the comment. And also the technology is really peaking so it’s much easier to get used or last year version cameras which work incredibly well but for significantly discounted prices.

  • This is a great comment Cutie – the artistic development really happens separately from the technical. The two sides are equally important but different. It’s definitely important to know the technical sides in and out but then also when to break them.

  • Glad you liked it Nelson!

  • Thanks Gustavo – happy you feel that way!

  • Great point Zach. I think that’s the biggest reason to go to museums and galleries and to look at photo books. You so quickly realize that not every master photo is technically perfect. Look at Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. There is a huge back focus in that but it didn’t stop the photo at all from being iconic.

  • Glad you liked it!

  • Great point – this article was basically meant to debunk that that those aren’t overarching truths, but only true some of the time.

  • Completely agree. These are all necessary to learn and master, but when teaching them the alternative situation need to be pointed out as well, or you’re doing people just as much of a disservice as not teaching them the rules of thumb at all.

  • walwit

    Answering every comment here you show respect for the commentator and that is for me admirable.

  • Mary Lee Dereske

    Your discussions about homogenizing and technical perfection are spot on. I cringe at some of the photos that I see on the internet that others think are good. I also know some of my own work is guilty as charged. But hey, I have fun!
    maryleephoto.com

  • James West

    I particularly appreciate the point that pictures don’t have to be technically perfect to be good. People are like that, too!

  • Michael

    Good points James! However, I still like to use the lowest ISO as much as possible. I own Canon 6D which has very good high ISO performance and I have tried to shoot with different ISO values in dim ambient environment. Next I compared my photos in LIghtroom after even using noise reduction panel. So ISOs 100, 200, 400, 800 gave me almost identical quality of images by examining them at 100% magnification and specifically looking at the dark area in images. However, there was progressively degradation of quality starting from ISO 1600 and up. Yes, I raise my ISO when I just can’t use a shutter speed below the safe hand-holding value like 1/60 in case when my lens focal length is not higher than 60mm. That’s why, if you can, it’s good idea to use a tripod and remote shutter release cable. Below is my recent photo-shoot in club theater during the last main rehearsal of “Fiddler on the roof”. I use modified flash mounted on the flash bracket and ISO 800 but my camera was mounted on the monopod so I could go as low as 1/20 of the shutter speed and still came up with good results. I could just raise ISO to 1600 or even 3200 but I did not want to reduce the quality of my images.

  • Mike…

    David, you are a moron, and one of the reasons so many of us think photographers are a bunch of toffee-nosed elitists whose love nothing more than throwing around their judgemental opinions. You might have valid points, but you completely lose credibility by your ‘hideous’ use of adjectives. You completely missed the point of the whole article. Clown.

  • Cath @mybeardedpigeon

    I think this is just giving people permission to relax, which is great. When we got stuck in rigid thoughts about how we SHOULD be doing things- that blocks creativity. When we try to put really strict rules around something that is a form of self expression how is that ever helpful? I think we learn best by just taking photos. Trying different settings seeing what happens, I disagree with an earlier comment that you have to master every single aspect- why? This kind of thinking stops people from continuing to follow their passion because they don’t feel as if they will ever be experts in the technical side. Great article, thanks James.

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