10 Myths that Photographers Teach

In Features by Jim Harmer35 Comments

photography myths

A young photographer who will probably fall prey to many myths before he learns (I had to do SOMETHING to relate the picture to the post!)

What is true for one person is probably not true for another person.  This raises problems in learning photography, because most beginners learn from the “famous” photographers.  The problem is that the solutions used by professionals to fix professional problems often aren't the solutions that 95% of their listening audience should use.  This post is a list of a 10 things I've heard “famous” photographers recommend to amateur photographers in the last month, and why I think there are better answers for an amateur.

I don't have every lens ever made like Scott Bourne, or a giant production crew like Jeremy Cowart, or the resources to travel the world for the best photography locations like Trey Ratcliff.  While I receive most of my income from photography, I am not all that different from most of you.  I do what I can to save money on gear, I don't have an assistant for most of my shoots, I don't own a studio, etc.

I mentioned these three photographers by name because I LOVE reading their stuff, watching their videos, and reading their books.  I'm a better photographer because of them and other photography instructors on the interwebs.  I'm grateful that they are willing to share their knowledge.  However, I believe that many (not necessarily the ones I mentioned) “famous” photography instructors are so out of touch with 99% of photographers, that they give advice that leads amateurs astray.  Most photography learners shoot for a hobby, and many of the photographers who earn money from photography do it only as a part-time gig.

Here is my list of 10 ridiculous myths that are often taught by “famous” photographers, which may be perfectly true for them, but which aren't necessarily the best advice for 99 % photographers.

Photography Myth #1: You don't need more than 10 megapixels. Without any doubt whatsoever, I would prefer one stop of increased low light performance to 3 more megapixels any day of the week.  Low light performance is extremely important; however, most photographers don't have the budget to buy expensive $8,000 supertelephoto lenses, so when photographers go shoot their son's football game or the owl in the city park, they need megapixels to be able to crop in tight.  Megapixels are extremely valuable to photographers who want telephoto results on a budget.

Photography Myth #3: You HAVE to shoot in RAW for quality results. I need to preface this point by saying that I shoot everything except sports in RAW.  I do that because I use Lightroom and Photoshop and I feel that I need the extra latitude in editing power.  Many beginning photographers will only be frustrated by the extra work that RAW requires.  JPEG is terrific for many beginning photographers, or photographers who aren't technically apt.

Photography Myth #4: Shoot in RAW so you can change the white balance after the fact. Ugh!  You can easily change the white balance on a JPEG.  The only difference is that the edit on the JPEG file will be “destructive” whereas RAW editing is “non-destructive.”  The practical result in a white balance adjustment done to a JPEG compared to the same white balance adjustment done to a RAW file will be absolutely imperceptible.  (NOTE: Someone commented below to disagree with me on this point.  I simply emailed him 5 photos.  Some of them were white balance adjusted from the RAW, and some of them were white balance adjusted from the JPEG.  The results? Indistinguishable).

Photography Myth #5: You should buy X focal length. Over 70% of the readers of this website, and probably most photography websites, use crop frame cameras.  Many pros use full-frame cameras.  I often hear pros recommend a certain focal length and realize that they are not taking the crop into consideration, and thus their lens recommendation will lead the reader astray.  For more information about this, check out this article on full frame and crop sensor cameras.

Photography Myth #6: You need to calibrate your white balance for every lighting situation. Are you kidding?  I rarely feel the need to set a custom white balance.  In fact, the only time I do it is when working in a studio (how many of you are shooting in a studio?  Not many…) or when doing product or commercial photography.  In these situations, the lighting is being controlled by the lights and likely will not change (at least on quality strobes) during the shoot.  In these specialized cases, it makes sense.  But if I see one more of my beginning students whips out a gray card for a beginning landscape class, I'm gonna scream.  It will only distract you from doing the things that will actually improve your photo.

Photography Myth #7: You need to buy the full version of Photoshop. Most people who perpetuate this myth obviously haven't read my article on the differences between Photoshop and Photoshop elements.  Again, I'm a hypocrite.  I use the full version of Photoshop because there are a few features that are convenient for the type of work that I do; however, most hobbyist photographers or photographers who only rarely do paid work will be perfectly happy with Photoshop Elements.  You'd be surprised at how slight the differences are.

Photography Myth #8: You want to know, in excruciating detail, their recommendations for packing thousands of dollars worth of photography gear for travel in an airplane.  Thanks for the advice, but most of us don't regularly travel with 10 large packs of photography gear.  It seems that this is the most common blog/podcast/video topic on every “famous” photographer's website.  How many times do we need to see the solution to a problem that most photographers will never face?

Photography Myth #9: Your histogram should lean to the right. I can't tell you how often one of my students asks for help in shooting a situation because the histogram isn't leaning to the right.  Ugh!  If you're shooting a gray card, then sure…  Your histogram should have one large hump leaning slightly to the right.  That's true.  This is important to high-end photographers who need to capture technically perfect photos for commercial clients, but it only distracts amateur photographers from focusing on the important aspects of learning photography.  The truth is that all you need to look for in checking the exposure on your LCD is that the detail is kept in both the highlights and shadows.  In fact, I only check the histogram when shooting night photography and when taking landscapes that include the sun in the photo.

Photography Myth #10:  You need to have worked in a dark room to fully understand printing. Uh… nope.   You don't need to have worked in a dark room to know how to print properly.  It's pretty far-fetched to say that you need to know how to physically burn and dodge in the darkroom to know how to grab the burn or dodge tool in Photoshop to touch up a photo.

If you enjoyed reading this article, then check out this article about famous photographers.


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.

Comments

  1. Excellent post. Thank you for articulating every point that I have thought about when I hear these “professionals” giving advice. I can almost identify which “professional” your’re talking about when I read this.

    I think you missed one however. How about – “You need to calibrate your monitor every three weeks.” While I agree that monitor calibration is important, I’ve found that other than brightness, calibration equipment is just another expense. Today’s LCDs are pretty darn accurate in terms of color. While I agree that for commercial work this may be important, for the rest of us it’s simply not necessary. A simple B/W calibration bar on your screen will do nicely to set contrast and brightness, and you can find excellent ones on the web for free.

  2. I don’t think they are ‘ridiculous myths’, Just not ‘beginners priorities’. The only point that you made that is valid is on photoshop. I’m an Aperture user. I only have photoshop because I won a copy in a photo contest. The comment on Drobos? I can’t tell you how many images it has saved me. 1TB drives WILL fail. I’ve lost many images to them! But, even though my first Drobo was only “30%” full, it was recoverable when the next drive did fail. I now have almost 8 TB of images on that Drobo and wouldn’t be without it. As to correcting white balance on jpegs? Good luck! I also shoot primarily raw images. Even sports. With the large cards available, I tend to shoot raw + jpeg in cases where uploading quickly is required. But it’s nice to have that raw image available in certain situations, since lighting can be so difficult in many sports venues. There are other benefits to shooting raw than white balance.
    The rest are mostly personal preference. But I feel it’s misleading to call them myths. They are just attainable goals in the many phases of learning photography.

  3. Author

    FYI, I sent @photogoofer 5 photos to his email address. Some of them were white balanced from the RAW, and some were white balanced from the JPEG. The results? Indistinguishable.

    Again, I almost always shoot in RAW. It’s better! I’m just saying that people often overstate the limitations on editing a JPEG. You can do tons of editing on a JPEG with fine results, but just not as much as a RAW. I don’t like that people use white balance adjustments as example of why editing a RAW is better, because it really makes practically no difference. A more apt example of why it is important to edit a RAW is the amount of light data it holds.

  4. WOW. Good post. I laughed about #8 because I’m a pro and I’ve traveled and had all the gear I needed fit in ONE Lowepro 200. But some professionals do need several suitcases of gear and their advice is valid. However, this advice and the other points you mentioned need to be tapered to their audience, and truthfully most rich famous photographers’ audiences are people who are 1) hobbyists 2) part time professionals who have creative (or even terrible typical corporate “day jobs”) and 3) a few full time photographers, who i’d like to mention are NO BETTER than #2. So true…to be a good instructor or blogger, you have to genuinely consider your purpose, message and audience.

  5. RE: #4 “…the edit on the JPEG file will be ‘destructive’ ….”

    What if you first make a copy in .psd, then do your editing?

    1. Author

      @cjt, that is still a destructive edit because you will eventually re-save out a jpeg. Every time you edit and resave the jpeg, you lose data.

  6. #2: The point of a Drobo isn’t storage, it’s security. It doesn’t matter whether your internal hard drive is 80% full or 10% full–if it goes, it goes. You may not need a Drobo per se, but you DO need a solid data backup plan, and THAT is what most photographers are talking about.

    #4: You can do the equivalent of white balance tweaking to a JPG, but it’s not the same thing. It’s an artificial edit. Take a JPG and RAW of the same image into Adobe Camera Raw and see which one has better white balance control.

    #7: I’ve never heard a photographer suggest this.

    #10: Never heard this one, either.

    An otherwise good write-up, but I think you’re taking a few things that may have only been your own personal experience and attributing them to “conventional pro photographer wisdom.”

  7. Ahh thankyou for this post. In fact it’s almost a whole other art to get great iamges on basic/limited equipment. Maybe it’s something those you’ve mentioned above would probably have trouble with!

  8. Mike Ricca said basically everything I was going to. Especially the point about #2. RAID/Drobo is not about the increased storage capacity, it’s about hard drive fault tolerance. If your one $100 terabyte drive fails, then what? Your pictures are gone. Have a backup plan.

  9. It is really not easy to be beginner these days! If only more folks would rise their heart above their head 🙂
    Thanks for showing your side on the “famous” thing.

  10. My only comment is on the topic of learning to print in a darkroom, lor digitallly, the hard part is knowing what a good print looks like when you have made it- – –

  11. Yep, pretty much agree with most of what you have said. If you are a professional then you will learn what you need and if not, you don’t need all that fancy stuff. :^)

    Sometimes even professionals might be better off with less rather than more. I state this from experience and sometimes force myself to take less on a day shooting although I make sure for specified needs, they are covered but in general too much equipment is hauled around unless you have some pack mules.

  12. Great article. On the backup drive, just like with memory cards, it’s better to buy them in pairs rather than getting the largest. I use 2 cheap external drives and manually mirror them (storing one offsite).

  13. He mentioned in the article that the Drobo wasn’t just for storage. Either way, there are cheaper backup solutions than the Drobo as well.

  14. I tend to agree with most of that. I teach beginners too – early stage tutoring, mostly.

    I don’t necessarily agree with your statement about RAW and .jpg though. I like to teach beginners to use RAW, so they understand it, but usually recommend RAW + .jpg. That way, they have the RAW for later one when they want to do comparisons for editing purposes.

    A beginner photographer doesn’t necessarily know how to edit the white balance on a jpg, may not have the necessary software either. A lot of beginning photographers I’ve tutored don’t really have any editing skills at all, except to know how to crop.

    I’ve seen a lot of jpg files edited for white balance that basically are pretty bad.

    But I too recommend Photoshop Elements, over PS CS (which I use) more expensive programs. Beginners can get as much out of Elements and be less confused and frustrated than if they bought the heavier and more expensive version.

    And…checking the histogram on the LCD is something I almost never do. Oops 🙂

  15. Link bait? It’s not my post and yet I find that comment offensive.

    It is not link bait, it is truth. As I said earlier, Jim Harmer hit the nail on the head on nearly all points. The fact that some consider it link bait proves this.

    Just as all the “professionals” tout their wares and their affiliates by feeding enthusiasts all these myths behind podcasts and Twitter feeds that can’t be responded to, Jim Harmer has the right to post his opinions on the same things. And he doesn’t deserve to be accused of link baiting.

    Not all of us are mesmerized by the so called “pros” and follow along like lemmings to pay exorbitant amounts of money to feed our hobbies based on these myths.

    Kudos to you again Jim!

  16. Great practical advice! Photography is such diverse field everyone has their own personal approach to it. If you find one famous pro teaching you to do things one way you will find another teaching the opposite. There is no one way to do things, it’s all a matter of personal preference.

    Here’s one myth i hear over and over

    “Gear doesnt matter” sure you dont need nice gear to get good photos but if you are shooting with a purpose like a wedding or a paying gig you still need the right tools for the right job.

    I dare any pro who says this to shoot their next wedding or paying portrait session with a phone camera or point and shoot. Having said that it wont make you shoot any better if you dont know the basics to begin with.

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