Common photographic mistakes by beginners, amateurs and pros – and how to avoid them

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Beginners: Ever wonder why your photos don’t look ‘professional?’ Amateurs: ever wonder why you lack consistency? Pros: Ever wonder why you lose your edge or drive? Wonder no longer. This article deals with some of the most common oversights by photographers of all kinds, and how to avoid them.

Beginners

The missing subject. If it’s not obvious at a glance what is the subject of your image – i.e. what the photo is actually about – then you should probably ask yourself why you took the picture in the first place. If the answer was ‘because of the X’, and the X is not obvious, then you need to try again. The subject in a photo should stand out – by contrast, by color, by light, by motion, or by focus. In exceptional cases it’s possible to make it stand out by not having it, but this is very, very rare and requires perfect use of contextual information to allow the viewer to make inferences about what should complete the scene.

Poor perspective use. Pick your perspective before your angle of view. Wide angles are used to emphasize foreground subjects, telephotos to de-emphasize them with respect to the background. Don’t use a wide angle to ‘get more stuff in’ the frame, that will just result in boring images. Similarly, telephotos are not for ‘getting closer’.

Being stuck in the wrong gear. This includes the entire suite of woes of technical errors – exposure, focus, camera shake, white balance etc. Usually due to the driver relying too much on the camera to do the work for you: it will never get it right because there is no way the camera can know what the photographer intends to do with each image. You will have to take control somewhere along the line in the imaging chain in order to create the image you envision in your mind at the time of capture, and it’s better to do it closer to the capture process to minimize the subsequent amount of image quality degradation.

Amateurs

Worrying too much about gear. This usually takes the form of hauling around everything you own for every shoot and believing a new piece of equipment will solve some deficiency in your images that can almost always be traced back to photographic skill, or more specifically, the lack thereof. If you carry too much stuff you’ll always be second-guessing your choice of lens or camera. And if you keep buying new gear, you’ll never master what you’ve got – and be at a disadvantage because you can’t control your equipment. Before buying new gear, make sure you know exactly what it is with your current kit that is the limitation, and that it will resolve the problem – otherwise you’ll have both wasted money and compromised your photography. However, if you’re just a camera collector, disregard this item. In fact, disregard this entire post.

Intrusions and truncations into frame edges. With 100% finders being commonplace, there’s no excuse for parts of the subject being cut off at the edges, or obviously contrasting distractions intruding into the frame – like tree branches or phantom limbs, for instance.

Color issues. Odd white balance, or objects in the frame that are obviously the wrong color can create some interest in an otherwise boring scene – or things like that can just be jarring if they’re too far off the mark. This is especially important for skin tones or food. If you’re not sure what the correct white balance is, either adjust it accordingly with the eyedropper tool when converting the raw file, or manually white balance with a gray card. Don’t leave the camera to do it on automatic – if a channel gets clipped, the information isn’t recoverable. This is especially obvious with jpegs due to the limited tonal range available in the first place.

Black and white contrast issues. Amateur black and white generally tends to be too flat or too contrasty. The latter results in a loss of highlight and shadow quarter tones, resulting in an over-graphic representation of the subject and not enough tonal range to differentiate the subject from the background; the former is just dull and uninteresting to look at. It’s like knowing the chef had twenty different ingredients to make a meal, but he used only the gray, monotonous-tasting one.

Poor use of natural frames or leading lines. These little ‘helpers’ are to be found all over the place – the converging perspectives of a long hallway are a great example of this. They can help to draw your eye to the subject, but they can also lead your eye away from it if you put the subject anywhere else by the confluence of these lines.

Center-only composition. Few images work well with the subject dead-center or nearly there; the more dynamic images always have a bit of space before or after – I like to think of it as the anticipation or the aftermath. All cameras these days have more than one focusing point. I hear they even let you pick which one!

Lack of balance. I did say just now that center-subject compositions are boring; that’s because they mostly are. But at the same time, you can’t have frames where all of the action happens in say the bottom-left corner and the rest of the image is empty. Visual balance is a tough thing to describe, but fortunately it’s one of those properties of an image which is instinctively easy to recognize.

Incorrect use of depth of field. Too little, and the picture becomes about the bokeh – most of the images shot with the old Leica 50/1.0 Noctilux are like this – I can never understand why people gush over a picture of a boring fence or pile of bricks just because it exhibits swirly bokeh; to me it says nothing more than ‘I rely on my gear to create a style for me because I have no imagination!’ It is, of course, a tool – used well, it can enhance an image. Used poorly, well, you’re just another camera collector who takes pictures of fences. Notice I haven’t said anything about too much depth of field – you can always compose to use this to your advantage, because any secondary element of context helps to tell the story. However, the converse is also true – there’s no context in an abstract wall of blur. Conclusion: I’m beginning to think there’s a just right amount of bokeh for every scene – or at least a range; just enough blur to help you focus on the primary subject, not too much to remove all the context.

Poor timing and not being prepared. I see plenty of shots that I call ‘near misses’. This is when the idea is there, the technical execution is well done, but the timing is off – always caused by a moving element that’s out of position. There are two elements to getting this right – practice, and practice. You need to have some ability to anticipate what’s going to happen next; you also need to have an instinctive feel for how much lag your camera has between depressing the button and the picture being taken. And the only way to make this intuitive is by shooting and getting accustomed to it.

Professionals

Getting stuck in the creative rut. Not pushing yourself and relying on the same patterns of framing time and again may ensure you get the money shot, but eventually everybody else will be getting the same money shot, too. (Certain local celebrity wedding photographers where I live are notorious for this.) You need to be continually trying new things, improving and refining and always pushing. It’s an increasingly competitive industry, and a very visual one – if your images don’t stand out, then you’re never going to be a client’s first choice – they probably won’t even notice you from the rest of the pack.

Leaving the thinking to the client asks for and no more. This is related to the previous point – in fact, it’s the precursor to it. Clients come in a continuum: those who leave all of the creative freedom to the photographer, recognizing that the reason why they were attracted to your portfolio in the first place is because of your own personal style (these are the best clients of all) – to those that tell you exactly what they want, down to the last millimeter of positioning. The former type of client is rare; this makes it very easy to fall into being a contractor/ executor rather than being a creative.

Subcontracting out too much of the retouching and styling. Another related point comes in the form of an army of assistants and stylists. Given how much of the creative process is encapsulated in the post processing portion, it seems rather risky to leave the work to somebody else – even if they understand your original vision, chances are that it will take longer because there will be many revisions required, and in the end it may still not quite be what you initially envisioned. If you let this happen for too long, technology may move on to the point where you don’t even know how to achieve the desired end result anymore. And if your assistant or retoucher leaves, then what happens?

Not trying different subjects. I’ve had endless debates with various people in the industry on this topic – is it better to be a specialist and only shoot one thing, or a generalist and shoot everything? The reality is that it’s a bit of both. You have to be known for one thing – that becomes your go-to commercial support – but you need to be able to shoot many different types of subjects. There are two reasons for this – firstly, it lets you make more income from being able to offer clients additional services; the less obvious one is that shooting different things helps you to develop different techniques that can be applied across your particular subject of expertise.

Finally, there’s working too much. This sounds contradictory, but not taking enough time out to focus on personal shooting/ creative development can actually make you lose your creativity and consequently negatively affect your business. Fortunately when this happens, you’ve got less work and more time to experiment, so hopefully you do actually go out and do some personal shooting. I’ve definitely noticed that the more commercial work I do, the less I feel inclined to do personal work – I think this is dangerous because that’s probably the only time where you don’t have limitations imposed on you by your deliverables, and can let your creativity do its thing.

And on that note, I’m off for a walk. With a camera. MT

____________

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Comments

  1. I savour, lead to I discovered exactly what I was looking for.
    You’ve endedd my 4 day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man.
    Have a nice day. Bye

  2. great insights :-)
    thanks!

  3. Reblogged this on Blajar Motret and commented:
    Artikel yang sangat bagus menurut saya.. :)

  4. This article is the bomb! Permission to reblog? (Do I even need to ask permission? I’m new to blogging..)

  5. Very nice article,
    It’s too easy to get lost in bokeh, makes the image nice looking but empty, that is why I recomment manual P&S when starting, to rely less on gear and more on the image. I do not agree with the High contrast BW, many, many pros use it very well, maybe you were thinking of relying too much on HC BW?

  6. Great perspective and very accurate.
    However, my problem seems to be second guessing if I am doing something right because I lack formal training and constructive criticism. I need a MENTOR!

  7. Reblogged this on The Biotank.

  8. A very well thought out and neat article.
    Best part is it covers all facets of a photographer irrespective of which stage of learning curve that person is.

  9. I thought this arctical might be a nice read but it turns out its just your opinion.
    Some examples would’ve bean nice to see and a little less moaning about gear and that its not the gear that makes a good image.
    I’ve bean shooting professionally for 13 years and the gear makes a huge difference to image quality.
    Bokeh (the out of focus bits) as you Americans call it does matter and does add to an image otherwise we’d all be shooting at f/32.
    It all depends entirely on what you want from your image, there is a huge difference between say Art and News photography. Errors in one style maybe be irrelivent in another.

    I think if an amateur reads this it misleads them as to what photography is about.
    Personal choice ie. if you like it, shoot it and if you like what you took, print it out.
    The key with all photography is understanding why you like an image not why everyone else may like it.
    Art is all personal, not everyone likes the same thing, if we all shot by the same rules then I would be out of work and every image would become the same.

    • Everything online is somebody’s opinion, especially if it’s about photography, because if a client is going to pay for OOF shots – then doesn’t that make it ‘professional’?

      Firstly, I’m not American. Secondly, at no point do I ever claim that my findings are anything other than opinion (other than quantitative tests within the limits of scientific testing) – you are of course welcome to go elsewhere.

      A crap shot is going to look crap with a bigger file size if it was shot with a higher resolution camera. It isn’t going to fix compositional shortcomings. Similarly, a good shot will still look good at a smaller file size. And I’m not about to go out and shoot bad photos to use as examples; too little image control on the internet means that your work might land up somewhere out of context and used against you. I’m not going to take that risk.

      Finally, I don’t disagree on your last point – though if you’d read any of my other articles before forming your opinion, you’d know that.

  10. if you had attached sample photos it will be so good for us

  11. yoshi360 says:

    The thing with the perspective is really difficult. Admittedly, I prefer shooting portraits where a tele lens is better suited anyway (no perspective distortion), but usually I try to avoid wide angle lenses simply because I just don’t know how to fill the frame: You can’t pack in too much, but you can’t leave everything empty, either. I find it easier to shoot tele lenses because you can isolate stuff better – no risk of distortion for one, but it also compresses the depth. The different perspective with wide angle lenses introduces much more of the background into the image which I find difficult to manage. Actually I don’t even know when I would really want to emphasize depth anyway – portraits are usually shot at 50mm or longer, street at around 35mm (FF equiv). Wide angle feels kind of artifical to me. Personally I feel most comfortable with 50–75mm (FF equiv).

    I guess wide angle is more interesting when photographing geometric stuff like architecture and the like. That also seems to be the subject of most wide angle photos I’ve seen so far. BTW I think in landscape photography wide angle lenses are indeed used to get more stuff in, no? I’d really like to know more about that!

    • I think you need this article

      • yoshi360 says:

        Thanks, I read that already (I’ve read your blog for a few weeks now and I really like it). However, that article is pretty short and only features one example of how not to do it and one example of depth compression. There are no examples of how or when to do it!

        Furthermore, it appears you are saying “wide angle lenses are NOT for getting closer”. Ken Rockwell has a similar, but much longer article on this topic (here: http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/how-to-use-ultra-wide-lenses.htm ), and he says … “you can never get too close!” So maybe you two are meaning the same thing, maybe not, but the thing is that with varying definitions like these it’s hard for an amateur to really understand just what the heck is going on. But I feel his article is rather solid on the matter. He doesn’t have any wide angle shots with people subjects either, though, so I still think wide angle photography isn’t really my cup of butter anyway?

        Also, when getting closer you get much more background into your image because of the wider angle of view. That makes composition a challenge for me (I said that before but I’m not sure if I expressed myself correctly).

        • No, I’m saying wide angle lenses are not for getting more into the frame. You *have* to get closer to make the perspective work.

          Wide angle shots don’t work so well for people because the perspective is not flattering. Everybody will have huge noses and bulbous heads. There are exceptions for environmental photojournalism, but usually it’s a whole body shot and not extremely wide (somewhere around 24 is the norm).

          Please bear in mind that some articles are short because I don’t have time to sit here writing all day…the site generates zero income, and time I spend on it is time I don’t spend doing paid work. I don’t have referrals or ads like Rockwell or any of the other photography sites precisely because I know how difficult it is to be perceived as impartial on things if you do.

          But if you’d like to learn more, then perhaps you might like to consider my Email School of Photography

      • yoshi360 says:

        Ming, I did not mean to imply that your articles were too short or that you should change anything at all! I’m sorry if that was your impression. I just wanted to say that I feel the whole perspective thing is really difficult the wider you get. Ken Rockwell says he did it wrong for 15 years so I’m not sure if it is really just a beginner’s problem. On second thought though maybe you just meant perspective as a concept (i.e. being aware of it), not specifically addressing (ultra) wide angles.

        • No offense taken. A bit of both – be aware of your perspective, regardless of the lens you use, and make sure that if you’re using an ultra wide, you do have a distinct foreground. There’s a reason why these lenses are so difficult to use – it’s because the don’t match the way our eyes natively see, so they’re not very intuitive.

  12. yoshi360 says:

    Regarding the view finder point: My new OMD is the first camera that has a real view finder. Before, I was a NEX shooter and only used LCDs. I like the EVF, but I have to say that it’s a bit hard for me to really see the edges because I wear glasses. It works if I kinda look around inside the view finder but by doing so I also slightly move the camera, changing the framing. That’s really a challenge! It’s much better when shooting square, but obviously I don’t generally do this. I whish I could make the image in the EVF smaller! This is really much simpler using the LCD. Still, it’s difficult to always get this right so I often crop or ‘shop to get branches and the like out of the picture. I wonder how this is solved with rangefinder cameras where you can’t exactly see what’s being captured by the sensor?

    • I compose using the outside of the frame lines with the M9 instead of the inside. And after a while shooting with the same few lenses, you become somewhat used to the inaccurate framing and learn to compensate for it.

  13. Hi Ming,
    Nice article. It is a journey being a photographer. Very few people instinctively get the composition almost always right. Thanks for another illuminating post.

    Mo

  14. > All cameras these days have more than one focusing point. I hear they even let you pick which one!

    Your D800 is clearly different than mine. :-/

  15. Excellent post. I always enjoy your write-ups and images. It might be nice to include a follow up with expanded detail and/or photo examples of good and bad too.

  16. My bad habits:

    1. Worrying too much about gear or “GAS”
    2. Poor perspective use, especially with a 21mm. But working on it./Library/Application Support/Fire/Themes/MoreIchatSmileys3.firetheme/Contents/Resources/embarrassed.tiff

    • I find 21 a bit difficult to use as a normal lens, it’s very much special application only. The wide perspective is so obvious that you MUST make sure you have a distinct foreground.

  17. Jonathan Balaban says:

    Thanks Ming, you truly are a prolific photographer and writer. I may just be missing it, but do you have a D800 lens list? I would imagine all the D800E lenses could be a subset of that list, but having sold all my Canon bodies and glass thanks to the advent of the D800, I’d like your perspective as I build up my Nikkor collection.

  18. William Jusuf says:

    wow Ming..
    very bold and enlighting article..

    reading those thoughts makes me chuckle a lot.. wow thats me me me and me hahaha

    Sometimes I am in denial of my lack of this and that
    but reading it from someone who has travel the journey….. very refreshing

    makes me rethink my position… allow me to keep try practice and learn from everywhere and anyone

    Thanks .. many thanks for this great article of you

    Sincerely
    From a beginner trying to be at least an Amateur
    William

    • Thanks. There are too many places where you can have your ego stoked even if the photo is crap, or be crucified even if you could have won awards with it. I think I’m probably the only person who’s trying to be fair :P Good luck!

  19. Vincent L says:

    Nice list Ming. For beginners you should also add not paying attention to the background. Many amateurs use a busy background which distracts from the subject and confuses the eye. Tree branches and telephone posts growing out of heads are another common issue :)

  20. I’m not a fan of swirly bokeh.
    Poor timing is a common mistake even amongst professionals. I’m not used to street photography, but I decided to try it recently to learn more about timing and approach issues. It’s very useful for events such wedding receptions, for example. Definitely, a consistent timing is not easy neither a lucky matter.

    • Street photography is both about reaction times and timing. For pure timing, shoot sport – you’re almost always pointed in the right direction and anticipating already b

  21. You sum it up very well Ming :)

  22. OC Mike says:

    You have so much brillance for a young man. And the best always get better!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Common photographic mistakes by beginners, amateurs and pros – and how to avoid them […]

  2. […] pitfalls faced by photographers; I was asked this enough to make a handy list, which can be found here. By and large, if you have most of the four above – other minor infractions become secondary […]

  3. […] Of course, before one even progresses to that point, it’s important to be aware of the common pitfalls faced by photographers. I’ve been asked this enough to make a handy list — here’s a summary of some of these photographic mistakes: […]

  4. [...] Common photographic mistakes by beginners, amateurs and pros – and how to avoid them [...]

  5. [...] Re: wide open look I do not understand the wide open look idea. For me the attraction to the M system is about small lenses with high resolution. I owned once a Summilux 75mm – but I used it rarely at 1.4 . I understand the photographic utility of a shallow depth of field but I see to many examples of pictures where open look means only ignoring the background because it is "out of focus". Ming Thien has on his website an interesting statement about: Incorrect use of depth of field Common photographic mistakes by beginners, amateurs and pros – and how to avoid them – Ming Thei… [...]

  6. [...] Una reseña de todos los errores que cometen los principiantes, amateurs y profesionales y como evitarlos. [...]

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  9. Anonymous says:

    [...] a pretty bold title, but I have to say that Ming hit a number of nails on the head in his piece. Common photographic mistakes by beginners, amateurs and pros – and how to avoid them Ming covers Beginners: The missing subjectPoor perspective useBeing stuck in the wrong gear [...]

  10. [...] travel, concerts and food. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here. Share this:LinkedInStumbleUponFacebookTwitterMorePinterestLike this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  11. [...] About the author: Ming Thein is a Malaysia-based photographer whose career has spanned fine watches, wildlife, photojournalism, travel, concerts and food. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here. [...]

  12. [...] Beginners: Ever wonder why your photos don’t look ‘professional?’ Amateurs: ever wonder why you lack consistency? Pros: Ever wonder why you lose your edge or drive? Wonder no long…  [...]

  13. [...] Beginners: Ever wonder why your photos don’t look ‘professional?’ Amateurs: ever wonder why you lack consistency? Pros: Ever wonder why you lose your edge or drive? Wonder no long…  [...]

  14. [...] Beginners: Ever wonder why your photos don’t look ‘professional?’ Amateurs: ever wonder why you lack consistency? Pros: Ever wonder why you lose your edge or drive? Wonder no longer. This article deals with some of the most common oversights by photographers of all kinds, and how to avoid them.  [...]

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