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Fluorescence microscopy images should not be treated as perfect representations of biology. Many factors within the biospecimen itself can drastically affect quantitative microscopy data. Whereas some sample-specific considerations, such as photobleaching and autofluorescence, are more commonly discussed, a holistic discussion of sample-related issues (which includes less-routine topics such as quenching, scattering and biological anisotropy) is required to appropriately guide life scientists through the subtleties inherent to bioimaging. Here, we consider how the interplay between light and a sample can cause common experimental pitfalls and unanticipated errors when drawing biological conclusions. Although some of these discrepancies can be minimized or controlled for, others require more pragmatic considerations when interpreting image data. Ultimately, the power lies in the hands of the experimenter. The goal of this Review is therefore to survey how biological samples can skew quantification and interpretation of microscopy data. Furthermore, we offer a perspective on how to manage many of these potential pitfalls.