Digital Mythbusting

We bust some of the most common myths that digital photographers take into the field to help you get your best images
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Sharpness like the spray in this lakeshore photo is determined by several factors. Good technique and choosing the right combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO can be more important than resolution.

Digital photography became popular at the same time that Internet access and usage exploded in growth. The technology behind digital photography was new, and a thirst for knowledge gave rise to rampant misunderstandings and half-truths that circulated like wildfire in the fertile ground of the Internet. In time, many of these myths were debunked, but some persist, and they can distract you from doing your best as a photographer and having fun at something you enjoy. Following is the top-10 list of digital photography myths that need to be busted.

1 More megapixels are automatically better. While there can be plenty of benefits associated with higher megapixel counts, more megapixels don’t necessarily equate to better-looking photos. This myth has been perpetuated because it’s a lot easier to take a quick glance at a spec chart rather than the more difficult task of looking at how good the pixels are. For example, the Mars Rover has a main camera with only 2 megapixels, and it does pretty well. Megapixels aren’t about image quality; they’re about image size. Some of the best sensors in recent years in terms of their rendition of color, tonality and noise have been well under 20 megapixels and from most manufacturers.

Keep this in mind as you’re looking at cameras and what you need or don’t need for your particular photography. If you’re getting the photographs you need, never feel intimidated by someone who has more megapixels or manufacturer advertising that claims yours aren’t enough.

Auto white balance can yield strange color shifts. If you’re cropping close like this, you’re usually better off choosing manual white balance.

2 Auto white balance is great for color. I hear this all the time: “I shoot RAW, so I can shoot auto white balance and not have any problems.” While it’s true that you easily can change your white balance in any program that processes RAW files, the challenge is that you have to do the processing and you have to have some reference to make sure the processing is accurate or even appropriate. Auto white balance has two main issues when shooting outdoors.

First, it’s inconsistent. If you photograph a landscape with flowers in the foreground and shoot with a wide-angle lens, then use a telephoto on just the flowers, you’ll discover the flowers have changed color because the camera has changed the white balance. White balance is designed to change, and that’s a benefit indoors where things like fluorescent lights don’t have consistent color.

Second, auto white balance has a tendency to add a slight blue cast to scenes, especially under cloudy and shady conditions. This blue cast makes neutral colors no longer neutral and damages the saturation of warm colors. A big problem with this blue cast is the way our eyes look at images on the computer screen. Our eyes are very adaptable, and unless there’s a standard reference to work against, our eyes adapt to that blue cast and think it looks okay even though it isn’t, so we don’t adjust properly. Even if you do make the adjustment, you run into the problem of the inconsistency of auto white balance, making it impossible to know which photo is correct.

Shooting a specific white balance, such as Sun for sun, Shade for shade, Cloudy for cloudy and so forth, locks in your white balance to a specific point and ensures you don’t have the unwanted blue cast. Cloudy white balance is also great for locking in colors at sunrise and sunset that are closer to what we expect from film.

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Cameras don’t necessarily see the world like our eyes do. Here, using focal length and aperture creates a look that our eyes don’t see.

3 What the camera captures is “real.” The camera sees the world very differently than we do. Our eyes have far greater capabilities than any sensor on the market today. Every sensor is restricted in its ability to capture dynamic range, colors and tonal gradations compared to what we see. In addition, every manufacturer tunes a camera’s sensor in a way they feel makes the camera perform better, not more realistic.

If you want realistic or even naturalistic, you’re often going to have to do some processing of the image whether that’s something like a RAW file in Lightroom or a carefully setup processing of JPEG files in your camera.

4 RAW isn’t processed. This is one of those myths that has persisted forever. All cameras do some processing of the image signal as it comes off of the sensor and then again as that signal is converted into a digital file in the A/D (analog/digital) converter. This processing affects the noise, tonality and color of an image, which is why you can have the same sensor in cameras made by different manufacturers and get different-looking RAW files from each.

5 Sharpness is mainly about the lens and camera. I wrote the article “Sharpness: The Deadly Dozen,” which shows how much sharpness is affected by things like camera movement and your choice of ƒ-stop. (Find it in the February 2014 issue of OP or online at The best, most expensive lens in the world isn’t necessarily going to get you sharper pictures unless you’re also paying attention to your craft as a photographer. Cameras and lenses today are extremely good, and if your photos aren’t sharp, it’s rarely because of the lenses. It’s most often because of camera movement during exposure.

Buy your lenses based on the focal length’s unique qualities and on what you can afford. Then hone your craft to get the most out of whatever gear you own, and you’ll be surprised at how sharp your images can be.

A little noise in the photo can help to bring the viewer’s eye to the main subject.

6 All noise is bad. Because cameras today are doing such a good job in controlling noise in digital photos, a rather arbitrary idea exists that any noise in a photo is a bad thing. To the contrary, noise can be helpful. For example, an image with even a slight bit of noise often will look sharper than an image without any noise. This was well known by black-and-white photographers who shot TRI-X; when the grain (which is similar to noise) of that film was sharp in a print, the image looked sharp, even if the focus wasn’t spot-on. Also, photo retouchers often add some noise to images that aren’t quite sharp because they know viewers then will have something to focus on, thereby making the photo look sharper.

In addition, noise can add a grittiness to a photo that gives it emotional content that can’t be had in any other way. A photograph of wildlife in extremely bad weather conditions, for example, can look kind of unreal if there’s no noise. Having some noise there adds a feeling of grittiness that adds to the mood. So consider that noise can give you some creative and technical possibilities.

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7 Contrast is bad. With the popularity of HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography has come the rather arbitrary idea that contrast is no good. Consider this: Photography has always been about contrast. Contrast in tonality, contrast in color, contrast in texture all help define and structure a composition. Without contrast, a photograph can look flat and dull.

It’s true that cameras have a more limited capacity—dynamic range—than our eyes do. This naturally results in contrasty images. That’s neither good nor bad except as it affects how you want to portray your subject. HDR can be ideal for certain subjects because it can be used to reveal elements in a scene that are important and can’t be captured by the camera without it. On the other hand, the drama of contrast can be equally important, and working to eliminate that contrast can weaken a photo. In the final analysis, contrast is simply a tool to be used by the photographer to control the image and give it the interpretation that works best for your subject and your needs as a photographer.

8 You can always crop for a better photo. Technically, this isn’t a digital myth. Photographers used to do it with film, as well. With high-megapixel cameras, however, there has become almost a culture of cropping as a way of creating images. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with cropping, and sometimes that’s the best thing to do with a photograph. However, if cropping is always used as a way to improve the image, that means you’re not getting the best photo from the start when you take the picture.

Underexposing the photo while shooting RAW can lead to problems. If this image had been underexposed, most of the texture and detail in this dark scene would have been lost.

9 RAW should be underexposed for highlights. This is another persistent myth that started early on in digital. Images always should be exposed as accurately as possible, and that means making bright areas bright in the exposure. When bright areas are underexposed, everything else in the photograph is underexposed, as well. All digital sensors are at their worst in the darkest parts of an exposure. This has to do with the physics of how sensors respond to light. When an image is underexposed, you’re pushing midtone tonalities and colors down into darker parts of the exposure, which is the worst place for them to be recorded by the image sensor. Even if you process the image to brighten it, you’re never working with the best-quality tonalities and colors. Image tonalities always look their best, no matter what processing you do, when they’re exposed to hold good detail from dark to bright.

An easy way to check this is to look at your histogram. You never want to have a large gap on the right side of the histogram; that means underexposure that’s causing problems for your sensor.

Getting close up to a foreground subject with a wide-angle lens creates a different look than simply cropping. Many new photographers have the mistaken belief that they can simply crop the image to create this look.

10 Cropping is the same as getting closer. Cropping, in this sense, is about cropping an image when processing, but it also refers to standing in one place and zooming in and out. When you set up your camera in one spot and zoom, you’re essentially cropping your scene. To prove it, try taking some photos from one spot with your camera on a tripod and shoot a wide shot and then a telephoto shot. In the computer, crop your wide shot to match the composition of your telephoto shot, and you can see that it matches exactly, other than possibly losing some image quality due to the crop.

Physically moving closer to or farther from your subject changes things that can’t be changed by cropping or zooming. As you move, you change relationships of foreground to background, you alter perspective, and you affect the appearance of space within your photograph. These things can be significant, which is why the same subject shot with a wide-angle lens up close and with a telephoto lens from farther away will have totally different looks even if the subject is the same size in both photos.

See more of Rob Sheppard‘s photos, buy his ebooks and sign up for his workshops at Sign up for his online class “Shooting Intimate Landscapes” at