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Photography Myths

There are many "photography myths" out there. When you're just starting out in photography, it's fun to read and to learn and absorb as much information as you can. As you're learning, you may sometimes here things over and over again, that you take as fact. Some of this information may actually be long-standing myth. I've written this article to help provide some clarification on things you may have heard as you learn more about photography.

MYTH: Cloudy and rainy days are not great for photography

TRUTH: Cloudy days are some of the best days to get out with your camera. There are a variety of photographic subjects that are best taken on cloudy or overcast days, from portraits to macro and flowers, to landscapes.

For portraits, flowers, macro, insects, etc., cloudy and overcast days are often better than sunny days because of the significantly reduced contrast and shadows. When the sun is blazing, there are harsh shadows produced on the subject, whether it’s a person’s face or the delicate petals of a flower. These shadows can be a huge problem, requiring everything from flashes and external lights to diffusers and reflectors to overcome. When it’s cloudy, you get beautiful soft light on your subject. The clouds and overcast conditions act like a giant softbox, providing you with amazing soft light for portraits and flower photography. When it's cloudy out, I specifically head out to get the best flower shots!

For landscapes, thick cloud cover and even storms can create some of the most atmospheric and moody photography imaginable. This is especially true if you convert to black & white. Photos of landscapes with brooding skies, hinting at an impending storm, can have some incredible impact.



The photo above of a tulip was taken on an overcast day. Notice how there are no harsh shadows distracting from the natural beauty of the flower.

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

The image above was taken in Sedona, Arizona on a day with thick cloud cover.

The next time it’s cloudy, get out there and try one of these types of photography and you may be surprised how happy you are with the results.

MYTH: Flash is best for indoor photos or photos at night

TRUTH: Many photographers think of the flash mostly as a tool to use in darker conditions, either indoors or at night. However, one of the best uses of flash is outside during the day in bright daylight. As mentioned in the previous myth, bright sunlight causes dark shadows on the subject, whether it’s a portrait or a flower or the foreground of a landscape. One of the easiest and best ways to improve the photo is to reduce this shadow by using your flash. (This is often called “fill flash” because its primary purpose is to fill in the shadows rather than illuminate the subject). I almost always use the flash when taking outdoor portraits. The best part is that all newer cameras handle this “fill flash” automatically, without overpowering the subject with light. Just turn on the flash and the camera will calculate the correct brightness so that the flash fills in the shadow. If you prefer the flash a bit brighter or darker than the camera chooses, you can always use the “Flash Exposure Compensation” feature available in most D-SLRs to tweak it to your liking.

MYTH: Wide Angle lenses exaggerate perspective and Telephoto lenses compress perspective

TRUTH: Perspective is the distance that objects “appear” from each other in a photo, from front-to-back. (This distance in the photo may or may not reflect "reality".) While it’s true that wide angle lenses often have the effect of exaggerating perspective and telephoto lenses may have the effect of compressing perspective, it’s important to understand that the lenses themselves actually have nothing to do with perspective. It is only your physical distance from the subject and background that determines perspective. Why is this important? Because in order to change perspective and change the way the photo looks, you need to physically move your body to a new location farther or closer to the subject. Simply changing lenses from wide-angle to telephoto will not alter the perspective in any way. The myth exists simply because when photographers use wide-angle lenses, they often move physically close to the subject, which exaggerates perspective in the final photo. When using telephoto lenses, you’re often photographing objects that are far from you – which compresses the perspective in the photo. Note that in both examples it’s the distance that has caused the effect, not the lens. If you took a photo of distant mountains with a telephoto lens, then stood in the same spot and took a photo with a wide angle lens, the mountains would like identical in both photos -- they would be compressed together because you are far away, regardless of lens. The only difference in the photos is that the wide-angle lens would include a wider “view”, meaning you’d see more to the left and right and in the foreground. The mountains however, would look the same. Keep this in mind when you’re out taking pictures. Always remember to alter your distance from the subject so that you can try out different perspectives to see how they affect the photo.

MYTH: HDR produces unnatural photos

TRUTH: Many people see HDR photos on the internet and are immediately turned off by the unnatural appearance and overly saturated, often “cartoony” look. While it’s true that these photos have likely been produced with HDR software, it’s important to realize that those photos were produced by photographers who’ve intentionally created images with that look. HDR can look incredibly natural, and very often you may not even know that a photo is HDR. It’s just easier to “notice” the over-processed, over-saturated, cartoony ones. Many of my own photos are HDR and it’s difficult to tell at first glance. Sometimes, after a while, I occasionally forget which ones of my own are HDR! HDR is incredibly useful for architecture, interiors, landscapes, and a wide variety of subjects. Once you learn the software, you’ll be able to create natural looking images that have the extra dynamic range (bright and dark tones) but still look very “real”.

South Street Seaport

South Street Seaport

The photo of NYC's South Street Seaport above is an HDR photo and would not have been possible without using HDR techniques.

MYTH: When shooting landscapes, you should stop down your lens to the smallest aperture to ensure everything is in focus

TRUTH: Using the smallest aperture on your lens degrades image quality and is rarely necessary. Due to the way lenses are built, when you use a tiny aperture like F22 or F32, the photo can actually get less sharp because of something called "diffraction". Technically, the depth-of-field will be maximized and everything will be "in focus" -- however the overall image quality will suffer and be more blurry than if you had used a slightly wider aperture. You'll often find that apertures like F14 or F16 are sufficient for many landscapes, and will result in sharper photos that are still in focus. I rarely shoot at an aperture smaller than F16.

MYTH: It’s always a good idea to use a UV filter on your lens

TRUTH: Opinions vary on the use of UV filters. For me personally, I don’t recommend using UV filters for most photography. Of course this is just my personal opinion, and I respect those who wish to use them for an added layer of protection. However, it’s important to understand a few things about UV filters and lenses in general. Firstly, lenses today are pretty tough. They’re built to take the standard knocks and bangs you might encounter. If you’re especially accident-prone, then perhaps it may make sense to use one for protecting the front lens element, but otherwise, I suggest leaving it off. This is because from a “UV” and “haze” perspective, I’ve found they do very little to improve the photo. On the down side however, using a UV filter can definitely introduce unwanted flare in your photos. Flare is usually seen as several large, colored or white blobs in your photo. This is caused when bright light sources shine directly on the front lens element. Using a UV filter adds an additional layer of glass which increases the chance of light bouncing around and causing reflections and flare. Any type of photography where there are bright lights on the lens, such as sunsets or sunrises, or night photography where there are streetlights, etc., can be negatively affected by UV filters. For these types of photography especially, I recommend removing the UV filter. The only times I could see needing them is if for example you’re on a beach and there is a lot sand blowing around, or if you’re walking through a hiking trail and branches are frequently whipping at the front of the camera. Or perhaps you’re on a boat and there is salt-water splashing up. In those extreme examples, I could see if someone wanted to use a UV filter. Otherwise, I recommend leaving them off for the best possible image quality.

MYTH: Full-frame cameras are better than APS-C or Micro-Four-Thirds cameras

TRUTH: First let me say that just about any D-SLR on the market today is capable of taking incredible, professional-quality photos. I’m a firm believer in “It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer.” Even so, many photographers see the full-frame camera as the ultimate format to own. While it’s true that full-frame cameras may often provide some of the best overall image quality of the various camera formats, it’s also true that full-frame cameras may not be the best cameras for all types of photography. For example, Canon’s two full-frame cameras the 1Ds Mark III and 5D Mark II, shoot at 5 frames-per-second and 3.9 frames-per-second. While this is just fine for landscape and studio photography, it may not be fast enough for fast-action sports or racing. By contrast, Canon’s 1D Mark IV (a non-full frame camera) shoots at 10fps, twice the speed of Canon’s fastest full-frame camera. The 7D shoots at 8fps. If you shoot a lot of wildlife or sports, you may also be interested in choosing a non-full-frame camera. Without getting into the technical details, just know that non-full-framers have the “effect” of adding extra telephoto reach to any lens. For example, if you buy a Canon 400mm lens, it basically acts as 640mm lens on a Canon 7D. By contrast, that same lens on a 5D is 400mm. The price of a 600mm lens (which is what you would need on a 5D to equal the reach of a 400mm lens on a 7D) is much higher than a 400mm lens by several thousand dollars. So you save a lot of money by using a 7D and getting 640mm out of a 400mm lens!

MYTH: It’s always best to photograph landscapes and architecture with a wide-angle lens, and to take sports and wildlife with a telephoto.

TRUTH: While it’s true that most often landscapes and architecture are photographed with wider angles and that sports and wildlife photographers lean toward telephotos, there are plenty of times when you’ll want to do the opposite. Using telephotos for landscapes can be perfect for picking out important details or isolating a subject. You can also photograph scenes that are far away, and because of the compressing of perspective that is caused by the distance, you can get fabulously layered photos that are really interesting. Similarly, you can use telephotos in architecture to highlight certain details that may otherwise be lost in a wide-angle shot. One of the most useful times to use a telephoto for architecture is when you’re trying to avoid “converging verticals”, that pyramid effect that happens when you’re close to a tall building and shoot with a wide-angle lens pointed upwards. To avoid the lines of the building slanting inwards, use a telephoto lens and stand further back from the building. This allows you to keep the camera pointed straight ahead, rather than pointed upwards. When the camera is pointed straight ahead, you don’t get the slanted lines.

Telephotos are often used for sports and wildlife to bring the athlete or animal closer, but sometimes it’s great to see the subject in its environment. Some of my most favorite wildlife photos are silhouettes of a deer on a mountaintop with a gorgeous sunset in the background, taken at a wide angle. It can really add to wildlife photos if you can show the beautiful surroundings where the animals live.

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

The photo above of St. Peter's Basilica in Italy was taken with a 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens from very far away.

MYTH: Low ISOs produce the best picture quality

TRUTH: While technically this is true, it’s important to understand the larger context of how ISO works. From a pure “image quality” perspective, low ISOs produce images that are clean and noise-free. However, low ISOs require you to use longer shutter speeds, which is what causes blurry photos. In almost all cases, it is better to have a noisy photo that is pin-sharp, than a noiseless photo that is blurry! Because of this, it’s important to make sure that you use a shutter speed that is fast enough to prevent blur, even if that means raising the ISO to 800, 1600, or higher. High ISOs also allow you to use a narrower aperture when shooting handheld, which increases depth-of-field ensuring everything is in focus. Today’s cameras are getting better and better at handling noise at high ISOs, so don’t be afraid to use them as necessary. Of course, if you’re using a tripod and shutter speed is not relevant, go ahead and use the lowest ISO to ensure the cleanest photo.

MYTH: A D-SLR is always better than a compact

TRUTH: Sometimes it’s easy to think that a D-SLR is better than a compact camera in all situations. You’ll often find this is not the case. Here are a couple of scenarios where a compact camera may be a better choice.

* Compact cameras are great for macro photography. It is difficult and expensive to design true macro lenses for D-SLRs. In addition, the small depth-of-field of D-SLRs compared to compacts forces you to stop-down your lens to tiny apertures like F22 to get everything in focus. These small apertures require long shutter speeds, and that’s why you almost always need a tripod with D-SLRs for macro photography where focus is critical. Compact cameras on the other hand naturally have a lot of depth of field. You can take amazing macro photos, without a tripod, with most compacts, even the inexpensive ones. Compact cameras are a great way to experiment with macro photography.

* Compact cameras are great for street photography or any photography where you don’t want to draw a lot of attention to yourself and your gear. There are many occasions and places where you may want to blend into the crowd to get more “natural” shots of people and places, whether it’s a bustling city or simply a friend's party where you’re snapping some candids. Compact cameras are great for this purpose.

* Compact cameras are the best and often only choice when you need to travel light. We’ve all heard the phrase before: The best camera is the one you have with you. (They also say that about tripods.) It’s true -- If the option is no camera at all or bringing along a compact, the compact of course wins every time. Whether it’s going on a long hike somewhere, or diving into the ocean with a small waterproof compact, there are many places where a D-SLR can be just too large, heavy, and cumbersome to bring along. Compacts are great for filling in, and many of the new advanced models have full manual control and outstanding image quality. I went hiking across the summit of Mt. Kilauea, Hawaii, with just my Canon S90 compact, and I can’t tell you how happy I was to not have my D-SLR. The hike would have been incredibly difficult otherwise. With the manual controls and a lightweight tripod, I was still able to capture long-exposure shots of the glow from the lava pools.

MYTH: Lightning photography requires special gear or quick reflexes

TRUTH: As you may have seen in my more in-depth article on Lightning Photography, photographing a lightning storm has little to do with special gear and quick reflexes. It’s simply a matter of using long shutter speeds and a bit of patience to capture the lighting. Using manual mode, set the shutter speed to around 30 seconds, and an aperture and ISO that suits the scene. Then just click the shutter and wait for lightning to strike!

Lightning Strike over NYC

Lightning Strike over NYC

MYTH: Professional photography is a glamorous job of jet setting, models, and exotic locations

TRUTH: Many people dream of being a professional photographer and one day traveling the globe taking photos of exotic locales or photographing models on the beach. The job can certainly seem glamorous and extremely fun, and on rare occasions it can be just that, but more often than not, professional photography is just like any other job. You’ve probably heard this before, but pro photography is probably 20% photography and 80% running your own “business”. That business is just like any other business, and running it involves all the activities of accounting, billing and invoicing, marketing, advertising and sales, administrative work, managing client relationships, etc. You may be amazed to find out how little actual photography there is! Also, many pro photographers generate income not just from photoshoots, but a variety of other “photography-related” pursuits. For example, despite generating income by working for my architectural clients, I also hold photography workshops, I sell prints of existing work as art, I have my iPhone app, etc. You’ll need to be able to juggle a lot of different photography activities, all while running the business side of things and handling the sales, marketing, and accounting. It’s a tough career!

MYTH: You don’t need a tripod these days, because high ISOs allow low-light handheld shooting

TRUTH: High ISOs do allow you to handhold the camera in dim conditions that previously required a tripod. However, these high ISOs are purely used to obtain a fast shutter speed. For me, the beauty of the tripod is that it allows long-exposure photography, something that ISO cannot help with. Long exposure photography is one of my favorite techniques in photography, because it allows the camera to capture “motion”, which adds so much interest to the photo. That motion can be the rushing water of a waterfall or stream, the car light trails in a nighttime cityscape, or the hustle and bustle of people. None of these types of photos are possible without a tripod, so you’re missing out on a whole world of photography without one. Perhaps even more importantly, a tripod is required if you want to do any kind of exposure blending, whether manually or using HDR software. You may already know that cameras are not great at capturing a wide range of brights and darks in a single photo. Exposure blending is simply the process of taking two or more photos at varying brightness levels and combining them on the computer afterwards so that all the brightness levels of the scene are present in the photo. This cannot be done without a tripod because all the photos at different brightnesses must be taken with the camera in the exact same position, so that combining them on the computer is easy. Sure, you can attempt to hold the camera very steady to try this technique, but for serious photography, a tripod is necessary to do it right.

Colosseum, Rome, Italy

Colosseum, Rome, Italy

MYTH: Great wildlife shots require an expensive African safari

TRUTH: I’ve seen beautiful and incredibly natural wildlife photography that’s been captured in a zoo or local wildlife preserve. The key when capturing the picture is to take special care and attention to eliminate all of the “man-made” features surrounding the animal. For example, this can be done by using a telephoto lens so that just the animal is in the frame and you can’t see the man-made background elements. If the background is going to be visible in the frame, you can also use the widest possible aperture on your lens. This can blur the background to a wash of color where it’s impossible to tell what’s behind the wildlife. When photographing through glass enclosures, be sure to turn off the flash to eliminate reflections. Also get as close to the glass as possible, even pressing the front of the lens right onto the glass to ensure there are no reflections. When done properly, you may find you can take very natural wildlife photos very close to home.

MYTH: Setting your images to 72dpi is important for displaying them on a computer screen

TRUTH: To this day, I’m unable to determine the origin of this myth. The truth is that when it comes to displaying your images on a computer screen, the dpi (dots per inch) you see in your editing software is completely irrelevant. The size of your images displayed on a computer screen is only related to the dimensions of the image in pixels, for example 1200x800 pixels or 640x480 pixels. The larger the image in pixels, the larger it will appear on screen. Ignore any references to setting your images to 72dpi for on-screen viewing.

MYTH: Using image editing software is “cheating”

TRUTH: This is one of the most commonly discussed topics in all of photography. Everyone has their own opinion on it. The reality is this: No digital image produced today is completely unmanipulated. Even if you don’t personally Photoshop the image or fiddle with the adjustment controls on the camera, the digital photo itself is manipulated by the camera’s settings for saturation, contrast, etc. There’s no difference in choosing the black & white mode on your camera which desaturates the image, or the Landscape mode which intensifies blues and greens, than doing it afterwards on the computer. With film, images are adjusted in the darkroom in very much the same way, for brightness, saturation, contrast, etc, as well as dodging and burning to bring out specific details. Photographers throughout time have adjusted their images to make the best representation of what they saw. Many people like to do a little extra “adjusting” and that’s just fine – photography is art. Really the only area where minimal adjustment is required is in photojournalism. For my personal style, I prefer to keep it natural, especially with my travel and architecture photography where I know the images I capture need to represent reality. If you wish to enhance your images to make beautiful art for all to enjoy, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so! It’s all up to you.

If you have any questions about these or any other myths you may have heard, please let me know.

I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

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