Top Five Photography Misconceptions 

In our previous article, Five Photography Myths, I cover the top five untruths I’ve witnessed in my four decades as a photographer, now I’m going to explore the top five photography misconceptions. As you read these explanations, hopefully you can gain something useful that you can apply to your photography. Please feel free to share this information on photography misconceptions with other photographers too, especially through your social media friends; I thank you in advance, now on with the lore. 

Model Photography

One of our models during the photographer model extravaganza event in Atlanta.

Zoom Lenses are Better than Prime Lenses

In the old film days, prime lenses (fixed focal length) were normally better quality that zoom lenses (variable focal lengths); however, with improved digital technology that is not necessarily true, as the quality of glass has improved in zoom lenses. Both type of lenses have their pro’s and con’s, so this topic is more a misconception of understanding lenses and their purposes. Where prime lenses are much better than zoom lenses is prime lenses tend to have wider apertures than a zoom lens, thus providing you a brighter viewfinder that comes in handy in low-light or when shooting something like a sunset where the sun is behind the subject and focusing is difficult.

When autofocus first came out, most pros laughed at it until we got older and autofocus improved—it seems like we can’t live without it now. This is where prime lenses normally beat a zoom lens in that the fact a prime lens, at the same focal length of a zoom lens, usually has a maxim aperture value of at least one to three more full f/stops of light. This means your viewfinder is at least twice or more bright, and this comes in handy with autofocus speed in low light scenarios.

A Canon 85mm f/1.2 prime lens will go “zip” and nail the focus if we have a model with the sun behind her at sunset, where a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens will go “zip, zip, zip,” before nailing the focus—a lens with a maxim aperture value of f/4, like the Canon 70-200mm f/4, might not nail the focus as the viewfinder is too dark. You as a photographer may also have difficulty seeing your subject in this situation.

Another thing a prime lens will do is force you to “see” in one perspective, which is a great advantage to a pro, whereas a zoom lens gives you a variety of perspectives which is not bad either. Some professional photographers will also tell you zoom lenses will make you lazy, and there is some truth to that. While zoom lenses can come in handy for shooting things like sports, don’t let them make you lazy when it comes to shooting something like portraits. It’s been said, “your best zoom lens is your two feet.”

Photography Myths, Perspective

On the way to Lake Louise, Alberta, I stopped to capture this photo perspective.

So in the case of photography misconceptions, let’s call it a partial misconception, as the choice to use a prime over a zoom lens will impact many photographers differently. Ultimately it’s all about what end result you are trying to achieve and your photographic style—ultimately, use the right tool for the right outcome, but know the differences between each tool, or lenses in this case.

Auto White Balance Works For Everything

While auto white balance has improved since the inception of digital photography, it doesn’t work for everything, thinking so is a photography misconception. Personally I prefer to shoot in the manual white balance mode, but on occasion, like at a child’s birthday party, I’ll probably select auto white balance mode on my camera.

Perhaps the better topic is that as photographers we must understand the Kelvin scale, or the method used to measure color temperature of light. While we don’t expect every photographer to memorize the Kelvin scale, as it’s vast, there are three parts of the Kelvin scale every professional photographer should learn. The low to mid 3000K’s, the low to mid 5000K’s, and 6000K to 7500K which is the common color temperature found in open shade. The mid 3000K’s is more for incandescent and tungsten light sources and the low to mid 5000K’s represent typical flash, or noon to afternoon daylight on a bright sunny day.

Remembering 3200K, 5400K, and 6500K is probably even easier if you plan on practicing white balance adjustments as they become great starting points when dialing in white balance manually. Think of 3200K as tungsten or warm light, 5400K as neutral or daylight, and 6500K as cool (bluish) light found in open shade or on a overcast day. The latter is the easiest to remember because if we move our bodies from the hot bright sun and stand under a shade tree, we do so because it’s cooler—the same with the light source.

Another reason it helps to understand those specific values is there are times, like waiting for the late evening when you have that Golden Hour of light, where auto white balance will automatically remove that golden, warm light. Auto white balance is a mode in your camera calibrated to make a known white (100 IRE), white under any given light temperature. In addition, you can trick your camera, especially when photographing people, and “bump up” the manual white balance setting to 6000K when using flash (5400K) or natural daylight.

In manual white balance mode the camera only knows what we tell it, so when you set your camera to 6000K, it will naturally add warmth, the opposite of cold, to the formula and thus if our light is actually 5400K, you get a bump of 600K warmth. One thing to note in the Kelvin scale, a 600K bump at the higher end of the white balance scale is only a slight color shift and at the lower end of the scale, it’s a more dramatic bump.

Photography Misconception

Here we used a green gel and custom white balanced to ensure the sky would turn magenta during one of my Virgin Islands photography workshops.

Finally, one of the times auto white balance doesn’t work for us is when we want to change the color of the sky, especially when the sky is dull and more grey than blue. If you place a 3/4 Rosco #3411 CTO gel in front of our flash it will convert the flash color temperature closer to tungsten. So in this case set your white balance manually somewhere between 3200K to 3700K, thus this will give your subject a warmer skin tone and the sky will go deeper blue. The saturation of the blue in the sky you can increase by slowing your shutter speed down, also known as dragging the shutter speed of your camera, as the duration of the flash itself becomes the actual shutter speed for your subject.

You can also use this technique to make your sky red, pink, magenta (purple), green, etc., by simply taking the opposite color gel of the sky color you are trying to achieve. So if we want a red sky you’ll place a cyan colored gel in front of your flash, then do a custom white balance, so when the flash is fired, the subject is white balanced out to a more natural skin tone. The flash doesn’t light up the sky, so the sky turns the opposite color of the gel, thanks to custom white balance. Again, like the CTO, you control the saturation of the red in the sky with the shutter speed of the camera. A higher shutter speed will provide a deep red and a lower shutter speed will lead to a more pink sky.

So while auto white balance has its benefits, so does manual and custom white balance. Some photographers will argue just shoot it RAW and worry about it later. I’ll argue, get it right in the camera as much as possible first as post-production is time consuming and why do it in post when you can do it in the camera and immediately see the results on the spot? Not to mention, the flash doesn’t impact the sky in my method, where as in RAW and post, you will impact the entire image area when making adjustments in postproduction.

Shutter Speed Affects Flash Exposure

This photography misconception is like that of prime lenses vs. zoom lenses, it all depends on your end result, however, flash exposure is normally not affected by shutter speed as we normally use flash where there is not enough light or we want to fill or enhance the already existing light striking your subject. In general, your shutter speed and aperture affect your entire scene and if you are exposing correctly for that scene, then add flash, the importance is to match your flash to the needed aperture value, not the shutter speed.

Photography Misconceptions, Shutter Speed

The duration of the flash is the shutter speed for the model in this photo, the camera shutter speed impacts the saturation of the sky.

When we add flash, the duration of the flash burst is the shutter speed for anything the flash strikes. The shutter speed of the camera impacts the entire frame, not just the subject or where the flash strikes. This is very important when you are trying to overpower the sun with flash. If you increased your shutter speed to darken your sky, or background, the subject’s exposure that the flash illuminates will stay the same. If you decrease the shutter speed, the sky will lighten up, but normally your subject overall will not brighten up, depending on the intensity of the ambient light.

There is a little trick that works with some cameras where you can actually shoot out of shutter flash sync, or a shutter speed higher than your camera’s flash sync speed. Basically you have to experiment with this, but let’s say your camera sync speed is 1/200th or less—try setting your shutter speed to something higher like 1/500th. This works best like at the beach where you have sand and water. The shutter speed being out of flash sync will create a gradual neutral density, or darken up, the area out of sync. Don’t do this in the studio though, you’ll get a partial black image.

Some cameras do this horizontally, some vertically, so play with it and find out how it works for your camera, as this is one trick to darken up the sky, or sand for that matter. Keep in mind, some radio transmitters can’t handle these higher shutter speeds, so you may have to do this with on camera flash, or find another way to trigger your flash unit.

Photography Misconceptions, Shutter Speed

The camera shutter speed and flash both stop action, not the ISO, as seen in this cover photo taken in Cozumel.

Higher ISO’s Stop Action

The higher ISO’s stop action photography misconception started back in the film days when it was called ASA, not ISO, when the first 400ASA films were introduced. The film manufacturing companies ran advertisements in print and television campaigns that showed cameras stopping leaping tigers, motorcycles and racecars frozen in action. What the photo industry wasn’t telling you was that higher film speeds allowed you to use higher shutter speeds because of the Rule of Stops. It’s not the film speed that stops action, it’s the shutter speed—oh, and flash can stop action too, that is not a photography misconception!

Photo Critiques or Portfolios Reviews Are Worthless

Most published professional photographers have worked with an editor or photo editor at some point and most have learned from those editors what makes a great photo. Almost every professional photographer has had a portfolio review or photo critique at some point too, and it’s these instances that have allowed them to advance from an amateur to a professional. So believing that photo critiques, and or portfolio reviews are worthless, is truly a sign of an amateur and is also a photography misconception. Photo critiques and portfolio reviews will take you up a notch with your photography, but only if, they are done constructively and not destructively.

Well I hope in covering these top five photography misconceptions you’ve picked up a tip or two. With that I close and ask you not to forget the men and women in uniform who serve our nation to protect our freedoms; God bless them, their families and friends, Rolando.


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