The Top Photography Myths


I was working on putting together a photo seminar one day when it occurred to me that many of the things I teach involve debunking commonly held perceptions or information that has been learned from reading some "authoritative source." In short form, here are a few of the things I find students need to reassess.

1 — Photography Documents Reality

I'm constantly amused when discussions break out about the validity of using Photoshop to tweak colors or to retouch a small imperfection. "People expect photos to document the real world, and you should print images as you took them" goes one argument. Poppycock. The mere act of taking a picture destroys the ability to "capture" reality.

You choose which lens to use. You choose where to focus. You choose the exposure. You choose the composition. You choose a direction to point the camera. You choose what time of day and what season to take a picture. You choose the exact moment to preserve (and may distort that moment by using an extremely long or short shutter speed). You choose the type of film used (or the digital camera's color settings). The list goes on and on. Meanwhile, reality also includes the moments before and after the shot, the area outside the frame, and much, much more. In short, you as photographer are making choices for the eventual viewer of your photo. The viewer only sees what you want them to, period.

On my living room wall is a large Ansel Adams print (Wonder Lake and Mt. Denali). It's a powerful image that captures the same spirit I felt standing in that same spot years later. But Adams shot in black and white. And he clearly manipulated the contrast in the final print. Even more interesting is that over the many years that Adams produced prints of that image, it appears that his burning and dodging techniques changed—later versions seem more contrasty and brooding than earlier ones. The exposure appears to be taken in very early morning on an unusually clear day (you can sit on that same spot for 20 days running and sometimes not see the full mountain). Did he document reality? I'd say no. He created an image that conveyed what he saw and how he felt in the presence of this immense mountain and Alaska's ever-changing light. And if you think he did document reality, try this exercise: take a large format camera and some black and white film to that same spot and try to duplicate the image. I'm betting that you'll find that very difficult to do, and only possible if you spend some time manipulating the final print. 

So one of the first lessons I try to teach in photography classes is to break the mental constraint that you, as photographer, are merely "recording" something. No. You're carefully manipulating the scene using all the tools and tricks available to you, all in order to produce an image that conveys what you saw and felt.

2 — There is One Correct Exposure

Every workshop there's at least one student that asks, "so what exposure are you using?" I always answer factually, but usually add "are you sure you have enough information for that to be useful?" You can, I suppose, meter using a gray card and get an average exposure that someone might label as "correct," but I've found that it rarely works that way in real life. 

I exposed slide film differently than print film, for example, because overexposing highlights on slide film results in lack of detail in the very areas our eyes are drawn to, while overexposing print film generally produces better shadow detail. I exposed Velvia slightly different than I did Provia, because shadows drop off very quickly to black with Velvia and don't with Provia. We're getting close to the answer: I clearly pick exposures based upon what I want the results to show.

With digital, my exposure techniques vary even more widely. I intentionally overexposed my S5 Pro raw files, for instance, because I found this camera had highlight recovery abilities that I would have otherwise missed. On my Kodak Pro 14n I used to regularly discard the bottom two stops of exposure that were captured, as they were invariably noisy and the quick dip to black I made actually mimicked Velvia fairly well. Of course, we all know not to blow individual channel histograms with the Nikon digital bodies by now (if you didn't know that, you haven't read any of my books). And we also have HDR (high dynamic range) techniques we can use to stitch an exposure together. 

The truth is that many scenes we attempt to photograph have light ranges that exceed the ability of film (or digital sensors) to record and reproduce, and exceed the range which can display or print. Thus, you're stuck with picking a compromise, and that compromise should be determined by what you know about your working material and what you're trying to show. Blown out highlights are okay when they're long streaks from a waterfall, but usually terrible when they're reflections off a windshield (at least in my opinion). Undetailed black is perfect for silhouettes, while any grayness tends to lesson their impact (again, in my opinion). Generally speaking, I find that composition often has as much impact on exposure as does a meter reading. 

3 — A "Normal" Lens is 50mm (32mm in DX-dom) 

One photography book I was browsing through recently repeated the oft-made claim that a 50mm lens most closely matches that which our eyes see, the so-called "normal" lens. The problem with this, of course, is that the eye/brain connection includes a number of subtle features, such as peripheral vision and near-constant reorienting and focusing. In general, I find that I "see" about a 24mm-equivalent field of view, with my vision concentrated on the equivalent of anything from a 80mm to 300mm lens (this range narrowed a bit as I grew older). (For those that are curious, most human eyes are about 16mm in focal length and the pupil's iris can manage effective apertures of from about f/2 to f/11.)

What most texts are referring to when they anoint "normal" lenses is that the focal length is approximately the diagonal of the image format. That's it, there's no hidden meaning in that definition, and very little human connection. One reason why such lenses are useful, however, is that the format diagonal tends to be the focal length that allows large usable apertures coupled with minimum performance compromises. As you make shorter or longer focal length lenses for a format, distortion, coma, chromatic aberration, and field curvature become more and more difficult to control, especially if you want to retain large apertures.

4 — Place the Subject at a 1/3 Point

You know, the so-called golden rule, or rule of thirds: divide the frame into vertical and horizontal thirds, then place your subject or focal point at one of the intersections. I've even seen at least one author suggest that putting an animal's eye exactly at the intersection has some magical power.

The rule of thirds is useful to a degree. If nothing else, it tends to get photographers to avoid centered horizons and subjects, which result in poor pictures unless you have a subject that requires symmetry. But I think that slavish devotion to this rule is just as bad as always centering subjects. When I examine my best shots, I often find that my compositions are more extreme than the rule of thirds would have me do. In fact, when I teach, I suggest using the "cartoon theory" of composition (for those of you who are wondering, in a word: exaggeration). Try placing the horizon nearly at the edge of the frame (top or bottom). Cutting off the subject isn't a no-no if done for effect. Near/far relationships are just as important as left/right or top/bottom. And the most important composition issue of all: where does the eye start and stop? (The rule of thirds tends to be mostly about where the eye stops, by the way.)

5 — You Need Pro Equipment to take Great Pictures

And the corollary: using pro equipment enables you to take better pictures. Nonsense! For years, one of my favorite pictures was taken with a Kodak Brownie when I was almost a half-mile away from the subject (a human, walking a tram cable). That's as close as I could get before the subject disappeared, and that's the only equipment I had with me. I spent hundreds of hours in the darkroom trying to coax the image I saw from a ridiculously small portion of a grainy frame, but I eventually managed an image I really liked. And that's the goal, isn't it? It's not about the equipment, it's about the image. Using fancier equipment may allow you to make fewer compromises, or work a subject more easily, but unless you see the image you're trying to create, it really doesn't matter what equipment you have. Great equipment can take lousy pictures, and poor equipment can manage wonderful images. The difference? You.

Now don't get me wrong. I'd be the first person to encourage someone to acquire better equipment, if they can. If nothing else, it withstands constant use better and therefore lasts longer. You also get more flexibility (bigger sensors and larger apertures give you more depth-of-field options, for example) and more consistent results. Given the choice between using a 500mm f/4 Nikkor or a third party 500mm f/8 mirror lens, I'd take the Nikkor any day (at least any day that I didn't have to carry it dozens of miles). But never get confused: having good equipment doesn't make you take good pictures. To take a great picture, you'll have to work at it, regardless of the equipment you're using.

6 — Horizons Should be Horizontal

Much of the time, your horizons probably should be horizontal. After all, we generally view the world by standing perpendicular to the surface, which means our normal view expects a perfectly flat line across the frame. But there's a downside to slavishly practicing flatland rules: horizontal lines build "gravity" into your compositions. Our eyes don't easily flow across horizons, which tend to anchor one portion of an image and remove all sense of motion from it.

But motion is good. Used well, it adds a dynamic to your image that conventional pictures taken at the same place just won't have. So much so, that I'll spend time looking for ways I can effect a diagonal horizon line naturally, without being too obvious about it (for an example, look at the picture on the Cordillera Blanca page).

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