5 Old School Photography Rules that are Outdated (5 Photography Myths)

Photo by Luke Lung on Unsplash

Just a few years ago, certain photography rules were considered to be infallible aphorisms in both art and craft. And yet, with the ever advancing technology, these rules are becoming more and more irrelevant. People that learned photography ten years ago or even that started out with 35mm film photography nowadays know these “axiomatic” photography rules all too well. Each individual photography rule discussed here:

  1. Are Prime Lenses better than Zoom Lenses?
  2. Is Image Stabilization worth it, or negligible?
  3. Is there an ISO value to not exceed at all cost?
  4. Does Manual Mode make you a better photographer?
    Does Manual Focus make you a better photographer?
  5. Do you need a “real” camera to make good images?

Back in the days, these concerns were valid … but are they still relevant as a photography rule now? Or are they just to be taken with a grain of salt?

What is a Photography Rule?

Simply put, a photography rule is something you learn to watch out for and keep track of if you want to make “better pictures“. This includes to watch aperture, ISO value and shutter speed according to your subject matter but also more specific photography rules that have become subject to change with changing and advancing technology and thus have become potentially outdated like the rules of photography below.

Outdated being that they still apply on the older lenses, older cameras and older gear, whereas new gear and new applications are advanced enough to overcome the “early” “limitations”.

So hear me out and rethink what you may have learned.

(1) Prime Lenses are better than Zooms?

Especially those that learned their photography rules from older books will argue “zoom lenses will never be as sharp as primes“. But what is sharpness? How can we measure it and is the difference really important?

Regarding “Sharpness” of Primes vs. Zooms

Earlier on, I made a comment about “DxO Metrics” basically reiterating that their claims have to be taken with a grain of salt, but they’re one of the few sites that do offer a substantial database to get standardized values from, so we can still use this for the best of our knowledge here and to prove a point. (Why the grain of salt?)

Sharpness is generally the ability of the lens to properly picture any given image in relation to the camera sensor’s megapixel count. A good “imaging performance” for a given lens means that the lens is capable of exploiting the available Megapixel a sensor has. If the lens is “sharp enough” for a sensor, an image quality improvement would be seen when the same lens is used on a camera sensor with more megapixel. If the lens wasn’t “sharp enough”, the image’s quality improvement would be minuscule to non-existent when equipping a higher Megapixel sensor. In simple theory.

Ten to twenty years ago, the claim was indeed true that zoom lenses often lack a certain sharpness. That reduction in sharpness was increasing with an increasing focal length coverage. A lens covering 60-600mm zoom was to be seen as less sharp than a lens covering 200-500mm zoom and this, in turn, less sharp than a lens at 400mm prime.

And yet, nowadays, technology has advanced and most of the newer zoom lenses offer surprisingly superb image quality almost over the complete zoom range with only minor flaws at certain focal lengths. Take, for example, the Nikon 24-120mm f/4. A lens covering quite a vast range. From my own experience, the metrics at DxOMark are precise in that regard and I could replicate them. (They rate the lens sharpness above 12 megapixel as “green”.)

Sharpness isn’t always the only concern!

If it were just for the sharpness, why not get the “Carl Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85 ZF.2”, “Sigma 85mm F1.4 DG HSM A” or the “Tamron SP 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD” and keep it always on your camera? Why isn’t every photographer running around with one of these lenses and none other? Because sharpness isn’t the only factor what makes a lens “useable” or even “recommendable”, of course.

First of all, the focal length of 85mm is a sophisticated portrait length, if you ask me. It works perfectly for portraits and especially with an aperture of f/1.8 or even f/1.4. But this lens would not find much use in the everyday photojournalism or architecture and landscape photography solely because of the limited and specialized focal length of this lens. Things like sports, architecture, landscape, animal and — arguably — even people photography benefit highly from a variable zoom range of some sort. Whether it’s 24-70mm or 70-200mm or even 24-120mm. Most often, if you’re shooting outside of a studio, photographers don’t have the necessary control over their backgrounds and composition they’d like to have. They also often lack the ability or room to move to the position required for the perfect composition of their subject, so they might tweak their focal length from 50mm to 55mm or 85mm to 90mm.

Secondly (albeit with decreasing importance due to in-body image stabilization), most prime lenses do not offer an in-built lens stabilization. Image stabilization is something not to be underestimated in low-light situations, as discussed below.

Arguably though: Fashion and product photographers might benefit more from the wider aperture of f/1.4 than the usually common and comparatively still affordable f/2.8 zoom aperture, so they’ll likely have to stick with prime lenses. In that regards: Know your needs and choose your tools accordingly – but don’t restrain yourself because some old photography rule told you so.

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Resolution, More Megapixel and 35mm Film

Even more so, what’s to be considered, is that back in the days a high quality and high resolution could only be achieved with film and sizes above 24 megapixel were simply out of reach for digital cameras. In that case regard the old and outdated “The Megapixel Myth” from Ken Rockwell, where he states that:

If you do fret the pixel counts, I find that it takes about 25 megapixels to simulate 35mm film, which is still far more than any practical digital camera.

Ken Rockwell on “The Megapixel Myth”, December 2008

Twelve years later, professional and prosumer-grade DSLRs and DSLMs offer 24 megapixel (about the 35mm film equivalent) and more. In these terms, as Ken Rockwell did state, this resolution is often, if not mostly, sufficient. Especially for websites, a photograph will, most likely, not viewed at a 100% crops. To save bandwidth for the users, it is even advised to trade image quality with enhanced loading speed. Most of us regulars aren’t having a gallery or exposition of their own (yet) and 46 or even 61 megapixel for Instagram and Flickr is to be considered “cool, but overkill”.

Personally, I prefer to go with “Having it is better than needing it” and if you want a 10 feet high poster, you’ll fare better with a higher megapixel count, of course. So I’d argue it’s personal preference if you “need” a high megapixel count, but I dare say that you shouldn’t fret if you’re working with an old Olympus E-30 and 12 megapixel.

Comparing Primes and Zooms in Practice

To get back to the original topic, Zoom Lenses offer a versatility that Prime Lenses do not. Hence, I’d like to reference the video from “Tony & Chelsea Northrup” polemically titled “Zooms are for AMATEURS!“. Without wanting to spoiler too much, in general they share the same conclusion as I do. Primes are a tad sharper but restrict you, obviously, to one specific focal length which might not always be the best restriction to have.

So — know your use case and buy accordingly.

(2) Image Stabilization is not worth it?

If you want to produce sharp images, many people argue that the photography rule of thumb you should go by is the “one divided by the focal length of the lens” rule. This means, generally, a focal length of 50mm results in a minimum required shutter speed of 1/50sec for a sharp hand-held image. Image stabilizers, both in lens and in body stabilization (IBIS), change that photography rule drastically.

Every company has their own name for the same technology, so to speak. For example, Canon calls it “Image Stabilizer” (IS), Nikon calls it “Vibration Reduction” (VR) and Tamron “Vibration Control” (VC). Nikon’s “Nikkor lenses” offer in between 2 to 4.5 stops of stabilization, their Z7ii in-body stabilization even allows for up to 5 stops of stabilization. The Canon R5 even allows up to 8 stops of stabilization when combined with the integrated stabilizer in some of their lenses, which is very impressive.

But, what does “n stops” even mean? How beneficial is that stabilizer, really? For the sake of simplicity, we assume a 500mm telephoto lens and you wanting to picture a sleeping cheetah on a safari. For that, without stabilization, you’d need to keep your shutter speed faster than 1/500sec if you’re shooting hand-held. If stabilized with one stop: one stop below 1/500sec is 1/250sec. Five stops below 1/500sec is 1/15sec. Eight stops is below 1/500sec is 1/2sec. So, if you were achieving such a great stabilization on such a large lens, you could ditch your tripod right away.

Indeed, the only thing to let more light on your sensor is a wider aperture. If you try to shoot sports or if that cheetah decided to get up, a stabilized lens or body won’t help you much. The only thing really causing any blur will be the movement of your subjects — or you dropping the camera after carrying it around for too long.

A stabilized lens costs more money, a stabilized body might even drain your battery more as well. And yet, the benefits of a stabilized system far outweigh the disadvantages if you ask me. If someone tells you “VR is not worth it”, then they’re clueless. You, most often, do not want to set up your tripod before every shot and definitely don’t want to carry it around everywhere, so definitely feel free to get that extra stabilization.

(3) Don’t go higher than 400 ISO?

If only that were always possible, I’d even stay at and advise to go with ISO 64 but the sun isn’t always shining. In principle, the lower the ISO, the better the dynamic range and the lower the noise in the picture.

It’s an old photography rule back from the film-era where ISO 400 film was generally considered to be “fast enough” and “noise-free enough” for the price associated with it. The typical “always fitting” film roll, so to speak.

Nowadays, digital cameras allow us to change the ISO values with a simple button click. Depending on the circumstances (e.g. changes in natural light or movement speed of our subjects) we can always ensure a perfectly exposed image. The downside being potentially reduced contrast and more noise in the image.

What ISO to use?

“Landscapes go well with 125 ISO, Portraits go well with 160 ISO” was a common saying that I was taught. Personally, I’d like to make my own photography rule here: Always go as low with your ISO as possible, as you’ll get the best results with it — image quality wise. But going higher than 400 is not deadly and also often necessary (in available light conditions).

Image of the Photography Exposure Triangle. Triangle with three values on each sides. ISO, shutter speed, aperture. Each varyingly de- and increasing on the sides. Each having different effects, like ISO increasing/decreasing noise. Enough alt text here.
Exposure Triangle showing the relation of shutter speed, ISO and aperture with each affects entailed with these. “More” light meaning more light picked up by the sensor. (PetaPixel)

Because, let’s face it, you’ll probably work with available light. In the best case scenario, you’ll be working in the 100-200 ISO range. If you’re trying to capture movement, however, you’ll most often need to go to an ISO range of at least 800 to even ludicrous 4000. With that, you’ll end up with a lot of noise in your image but ensure to not ruin your shot as a whole due to unwanted motion blur.

It is a photography rule that more ISO inevitably leads to more noise in the image because less light is picked up by the sensor; the magic number of “not going above 400” or “400 is the best ISO” just does not apply anymore.

(If you’re working with high-grade artificial lighting equipment, you can theoretically set the ISO at 400 and below without any problem. Even using a simple mounted flash decreases your need for an ISO increase, reducing overall noise in indoor or low light situations.)

Some cameras allow for Auto-ISO settings that allow you to set a maximum ISO or slowest shutter speed. With that, you can always ensure either only a certain level of grain in your images or a certain minimum shutter speed to perfectly capture the movement you want to capture.

Either way, different camera sensors have a different noise performance. Larger sensors (e.g. full-frame or even medium format) produce less noise than a crop-sensor. And modern DSLRs/DLSMs often perform admirably well with ISO values of way above 400, making even an available light portrait with no flash “considerably (unexpectedly) decent quality” at 4000 ISO (own experience). Others report even good image quality at 12800 ISO on the newest line of the Canon R5.

So, know your camera and gear to choose the ISO accordingly to your needs, but try to keep it low. Albeit not much is lost if your ISO is higher.

What’s to remember:
Images can be darkened and brightened in post-processing (“post”). Darkening images that are too bright is often no problem. The only concern here is that no pixels are too bright for the sensor to give them meaningful data (“blown out“). Darkening images does not introduce noise. However, brightening images often introduces noise. Noise can be used for artistic purposes but, in my opinion, reduces image quality drastically. In the ideal case, you could use a low ISO value and overexpose by a third of a stop and darken if necessary afterwards. (Noise reduction is possible but usually introduces often-unwanted softness to the images.)

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(4) Manual Focus and Manual Mode make you a better photographer?

Admittedly, it’s very fun to shoot in manual mode. It’s fun to change every individual setting based on your need and focus in closely to your subject to get it “just right“. Maybe even try different, wildly unfitting, settings just to see how it potentially would look in an artistic sense.

Back in the day you needed a lot for photography. Even for simple exposure metering you needed a “light meter“. You didn’t have autofocus in body and lens and if there were it wasn’t really reliable. If you wanted to adjust the aperture, you had no in-camera software to change it; instead, you turned a ring. And the old film cameras did not even allow you to change the ISO value in between two pictures (because once you inserted a 400 ISO film, you had to stick with it.)

Nowadays technology got smart. So smart that you don’t even need light meter, manual focus and film rolls anymore. Instead, all you need are buttons and wheels. With one press of a button, the autofocus in most bodies and lenses nowadays is not only fast and reliable but the newest models even allow for automatic focusing on the eye of both human and animal. With the advancement of technology and things like Animal-AF, photography is getting so easy it feels almost like cheating.

Why yes, of course, you can work without these and go full-on-manual-mode. But if you are shooting sports, animals, weddings, children or even landscapes and cities during the blue hour — basically anything that’s not repeatable or infinitely waiting for you to take the shot — you’ll be glad to not worry about the type of film you’ve inserted or your exposure metering that much.

Ruining precious shots because you’re too slow isn’t making you a better photographer if there are tools that you can use. You can hit nails into a board with your bare hand. It would definitely make you stronger. But why not use a hammer for that nail instead? Nowadays, you’ll not only get a hammer but also the option to choose a screw with a screwdriver already included.

When Manual Mode and Manual Focus is still required

One reason you need manual focus for, however, is when your subject cannot be reached by your autofocus points. You might be close but your subject is on the very edge of the image so you have to manually override that autofocus of yours to make it right.

This is one way of focusing on corner-subjects. Some other folks I know focus with regular autofocus on their subject and then move the camera to the right position to get their composition right. The risk, obviously, being that this could lead to a (widely) out-of-focus image.

Forum thread snippet asking: "I primarily shoot in Manual mode, Shutter speed of 1/1250, Aperture of F8 and ISO 120 (Although in Adobe Lighthouse it says my ISO is always greater than 20,000!). Does anyone know where I am going wrong?? Is it my VC controls on the Lens?"  Photography rule: Don't use manual if you don't have to.
No shame in being a beginner, but this question I found baffled me. Who taught them to go “manual mode“? For catching birds, “shutter priority” would be better. (No source given to not shame people.)

Same thing with manual mode; if you want to explicitly create under- or overexposed images or want to blur motion or freeze it at a certain shutter speed, then it is required to use manual mode for that. You do look “Pro” if you know how and when to use your tools — but please do not go in manual with one setting and call it a day and yourself a “Pro” because you set it up once.

However, self-proclaimed “professionals” will still argue that it’s a “photography rule” that you’ll only get better with manual focus and manual mode. I call this a myth.

Just know that you can use it if you need it. But don’t force yourself to it just because “you increase your skill that way“. Going with “Aperture Priority“-, “Shutter Priority“- or even “Auto/Program“-Mode is just as fine — always adjust it depending on what you want to do, of course!

(5) You need a “real” camera?

This is a divisive issue and can turn into a heated argument with some. Some argue “all I need is my phone” whereas others argue it’s a “photography rule” that: “Only a ‘real’ camera can make ‘real’ pictures”; and I argue: Both are somewhat correct! It, again, always depends on what you’re trying to do.

For various reasons, a DSLR or DSLM is the often better choice for photography. A larger sensor, a larger megapixel count, more functionality, often more (interchangeable!) lenses, better ergonomics and so on. A highly specialized tool, so to speak. But no advantages without any disadvantages like the cost and weight of these tools. If you’re, for example, travelling on a budget and even on a plane, camera gear weighing 10 kilograms out of your allowed 20 kilograms baggage sure is a burden on other stuff you could instead carry with you.

The images a smartphone, especially the newer ones, provide aren’t “bad” in theory. They often portrait good colors, acceptable dynamic range and comparatively low noise all with more than 12 megapixel. For showing your friends and family where you’ve been and what nice food you have, it sure is enough. If you were going to Iceland to capture the landscape, geysers and nature there, you might need to know your limits on what you can and cannot portray.

But then again, it’s not only a “Full Frame vs. Smartphone” issue but also the argument whether or not it has to be a “full frame sensor” for the best image results. Arguably a bridge camera, “M4/3 sensor” or an APS-C camera do the trick just as well and as good. For architecture and street photography, you could very well go with a bridge camera as well as a regular smartphone. They’re small, compact and deliver decent images in good light and on low ISO values. They might not be appropriate for specialized photography work like wildlife or astrophotography, however. Next to that, you should avoid bringing “just your smartphone” to a paying client that expected a professional portrait-photoshoot. But travelling to Iceland on your own volition will work just fine on a “M4/3” or “APS-C” sensor, and probably also on a smartphone.

The — arguably — lacking crop-sensor in a smartphone is made up for with smartphone post-processing, whereas the dedicated cameras are more focused on producing appropriate “RAW” image data.

The only thing I’d argue strictly for full frame cameras is their better noise performance and thus better ability for low-light to night photography. You pay extra for that though, as both the body as well as the corresponding lenses are much more expensive.

“Photography Rule”: Conclusion

Thanks to the internet, we’ll have so many strongly opinionated folks around — and I’m one of them — that all have a voice with some voices even ranging to a million or more subscribers on YouTube. Some of these opinions are reasoned whereas others are just outdated or even plainly wrong and even outright harmful for newcomers and starting photographers. Know your biases when reviewing and maybe try to keep up-to-date with the ever-changing technology.

Some people learned in a typical school or university and got their knowledge from textbooks, teachers and professors. These blend together with those that got their knowledge solely by testing stuff out on their own with no professional guidance whatsoever and their only source of knowledge being the internet. All of them create a hot mess of dystopian “never-go-theres” causing more worrying and anxiety than necessary. And I’m not even talking about “Nikon is going bankrupt next year” kind of guys. Either way, due to that, most photography rules tend to stick around, get repeated and just rarely questioned.

Certainly, you often cannot go that wrong in your ways as a photographer. The gear is one limitation but not such a great one as it’s often set out to be. Perfectionism can be achieved but is in fact a narrow line that’s hard to walk on, let alone run.

Instead: Learn to work with what you have and can currently do; and improve in small but steady steps.

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