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Avoid These 9 Beginner Photography Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Images

In this article I wanted to share a few things I see in my classes and workshops. Some beginners photography mistakes that might be causing you some grief also. Even if you are more advanced, you may find a tip here to help you improve your photos as well.

Beginner photography mistakes to avoid
Mistake #2 overcome – always shooting at eye level

Here are the photography mistakes you want to avoid:

Are you guilty of making any of these mistakes? Let's look at each of them in more detail and some ideas on conquering them.

Not getting close enough
This is the biggest issue that I see with new photographers, and images that are less effective; not getting close enough to the subject. This means you have to either zoom in with your lens, or in many cases get physically closer. When you are shooting take a test shot and then analyze it. Look at the technical aspects such as; focus, exposure, and white balance – but then take a look at the composition. Is everything that you have included in the image necessary? Does it add to the composition or is it distracting? Does it help tell the story and draw the viewers eye in, or is it competing for attention?

Make a conscious choice about what you include in your image and what you exclude. If there is something inside the composition that is not adding to the image and is not part of the story – then it is taking away from it. So, get rid of it! If you find yourself cropping your images a lot in post-processing or on the computer later – then make a note to get closer when you are shooting.

Look at the following series of images. Notice how each is progressively closer, including less in the image. Which one do you think is is the strongest image in each set?

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Blurry image due to small aperture and slow shutter speed
You may have heard that shooting in aperture priority mode when shooting hand held is the way to go, I would tend to agree and that's how I shoot most of the time. However, what I find is that many beginners set the aperture much too small and the result is the need for a really slow shutter speed as a consequence.

Min shutter speed

Remember the aperture and shutter speed are like a teeter-totter, they need to keep in balance to make a good exposure. The more you close down the aperture (smaller opening, larger f-number) the slower shutter speed will be required to keep the exposure balanced. So when you select an aperture like f/11, the shutter speed often goes beyond what is acceptable for shooting hand held.

Rule of thumb: keep your shutter speed faster than one divided by the focal length of your lens to avoid camera shake and blurry images!
Beginner photography mistakes
200mm lens shot at 1/50th. Looks fine full image but look closer.
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Cropped in to 100% you can see the image is blurry. This is what camera shake looks like.
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200mm lens at 1/250th, this image is much sharper.
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Close-up of image above at 1/250th.

Choosing a smaller aperture to get more depth of field and having more in sharp focus in your image, is completely negated if you have a slow shutter speed and camera shake. Then you just have an entirely blurry image and nothing is sharp. So choose a large enough aperture to keep your shutter speed over the minimum. If it's too slow you can either open up your aperture or increase the ISO, or a combination of both, until you reach that level. Just keep an eye on it and be conscious of your shutter speed when shooting in aperture priority.

You need to find your own style and if you find that you enjoy images with more depth of field, shot at f/11, f/16 or even smaller apertures as in for landscape photography – then you may also discover that you'll need to start using a tripod more often and shooting less hand held. Small apertures and hand held shooting generally do not go hand-in-hand. I usually shoot wide open, and I use lenses like the nifty-fifty that have really large apertures such as f/1.8.

Always shooting at eye-level
You see the world from the same height all the time, your own eye level. So when you see an image taken at that same height it can feel very familiar and ordinary. When you step outside of that and change your camera level your photos will become more interesting to your viewers almost instantly.

Get up high and use bird's eye view, get down on the ground and use worm's eye view, get close-up, or use an extreme wide angle view; all of these options add interest. They are different ways than most people see the world so right away they will be more attracted to your images if you use these views. Look at some images by your favourite photographers and see how many fall into the range of eye level; I'm going to hazard a guess, not that many.

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Look up – look WAAAAY up!
Beginner photography mistakes
Get up high and look down.
Shooting in manual mode, missing the shot
Another thing you may have heard is that you need to shoot in manual mode to be a real photographer, or that is how the pros do it so you should endeavor to use manual all the time.

Camera dial set to manualI'm here to say – horse cookies (if you're a M.A.S.H. fan you'll remember that Colonel Potter phrase well)! I see too many missed shots due to newbies trying to mess with the exposure settings in manual, or just forgetting to set the exposure, and getting a completely unusable image that is either way under or overexposed.

As a beginner in photography it can be completely overwhelming to learn all the buttons, settings and dials on your camera, think about composition, and try and get the exposure right – all at the same time. So what I suggest is to start in Auto, gradually move over to using aperture priority, and use manual mode when you've gained more confidence using your camera and doing photography in general.

image of a digital cameras controls set on autoSo do not stress out or beat yourself up if you cannot use manual mode yet. I only use it myself when I'm shooting with a tripod and the lighting conditions are constant, and the subject is not changing rapidly – such as night photography, or doing a portrait. Take one step at a time. Don't compare yourself to anyone else and track your own progress to see how you're doing. If your images are better than the ones you took last month or last year, then you're going in the right direction. If you're more comfortable and confident with your camera, then it's all good.

Not knowing your camera and buttons well enough
Knowing your camera and all its buttons and settings is key to being able to shoot in a hurry when necessary. Being able to do that take practice, plain and simple. Ideally you want to be able to adjust your ISO, shooting mode, focus point, exposure compensation, aperture and shutter speed without taking the camera away from your eye, or having to go through the entire menu system. If you aren't there yet – practice.

Pick one setting each week and learn what button controls it, where you see it in the view finder, and how to adjust it quickly without lowering the camera. Then the following week pick another and work on that one. They say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something so only by putting in the hours of practice will it become more second nature to you.

Then when the time comes that you need to act quickly, or else miss a great shot, you'll know exactly what setting you need to adjust and who to do it without even thinking about it. Be ready, which leads me to the next point.

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As I was crossing the street I noticed the shadows. I was quickly able to change my settings while walking and get this shot.

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I just happened upon a bike race in Trinidad, Cuba and by quickly switching my settings was able to get a shot of the winner as he sped by. I wanted to use the panning technique to show implied motion to indicate how fast he was going.

Missing a good shot due to not being ready
You probably take really good care of your camera and lenses – that's a good thing. But, what I often see with beginners is that you take too much care of the camera to the point of missing shots because the camera is turned off, the lens cap is on, or it's zipped up nice and neat inside your bag. Has that happened to you?

So find a happy medium between taking care of your stuff, and being ready when a photographic opportunity presents itself. My camera is almost always in sleep mode (even in my bag), the lens cap is off (often the front caps are all off inside my bag when I'm out shooting and I only put them all on when I pack and to go home), and the camera is around my neck ready to go. If you look inside a pros bag during a shoot, you'll usually see a mess of lenses, caps, and stuff strewn all over – ready to grab and use in an instant, so as never to miss a beat.

I'm not suggesting that you be careless or unsafe, just be in ready mode when you're in shooting situations like wandering a new city, going on a photo walk, or capturing a family event. Don't miss your kid or grand kid's best expression ever because the camera was turned off.

Not using a tripod in low light or night photography
Tripods – do you have a love/hate relationship with yours? Do you avoid using one whenever possible? See mistake #2 above!

Using a tripod is pretty much essential in situations of low light, when using really small apertures for maximum depth of field, or doing night photography. This image below was taken using the same lens as the parrot above, 200mm, at 1/60th of a second. This one, however, was done using a tripod so the image is tack sharp, not possible without the extra stability.

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200mm lens at 1/50th but on a tripod.

So why do beginners hate using a tripod so much? I hear things like: “it will slow me down”, “it's cumbersome”, and “it's heavy”. Sure, all that is absolutely true. But, slowing down isn't a bad thing, it helps you shoot more intentionally and actually be a better photographer. The other things are frankly just excuses. You can get a tripod that is super light and compact, yet still sturdy, so get one that isn't a burden for you to carry around and use it. You cannot get images like this (or the flowing water image above) without one!

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Shooting at the wrong time of day, or not understanding light
When you first start doing photography you may have a tendency to head out at midday because there is a lot of light – that is the quantity. But something else you want to start considering is the quality of light, or how good it is in terms of capturing the mood you want, flattering your subject, and keeping the viewer's interest.

When the sun is high in the sky it is very harsh and causes deep shadows that are hard to overcome. If you have a choice of what time of day you photograph try shooting at the edge of light after dawn or just before sunset, and at twilight. You'll find that the flower you photographed at noon looks more more pleasing at sunset with the golden light streaming through its petals. Likewise the photo of your friend or family member is more flattering to them taken later in the day, or in the shade. If you haven't got control over your shooting time such as when you're traveling or on vacation, use the light wisely and look for areas of good light in smaller pockets like at a market, a flower in the shade, etc.

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This was the light I had to deal with when we visited this school in Nicaragua. Look at the images below to see how I worked around the harsh lighting conditions to get some good images.
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Here I put the sun behind the girls and exposed for them, letting the background get overexposed.
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Same girls later, in the shade next to the building. They seemed to be best buddies.
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Kids in the classroom, out of the sun.

It has been said that in photography light is everything; in fact the very definition of photography is: drawing with light. Learn as much as you can about it, and how to use it to your advantage, and your images will improve.

Using on-camera flash
The flash that comes with your camera, the little pop-up one, isn't great for most things. It can be good for lightening shadows to reduce contrast but using it as your main light source will create flat, textureless images with no dimension. If you've used your flash indoors and gotten that deer in the headlights look from your subject – the flash and direction of light are the issues. Even putting an external speedlight on top of your camera is not any better because the direction of light is still straight on to the subject.

Shadows are your friend so along with learning about quality of light, you want to start thinking about the direction as well. Have a look at a past article How to Create Texture in your Photographs that illustrates how direction of light can add depth and a three dimensional feel to your images. Flash on-camera (the pop-up one or a speedlight) basically is the least interesting and flattering light possible.

Read these articles to learn more about using flash off-camera and if you're purchasing a flash make sure to get one that tilts and rotates so you can bounce it off a wall or reflector.

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If you want to know a lot more about using light for portraits specifically – you can check out the new lighting course, now officially available!

Cheers,
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  • Thanks so much, Darlene! Your newsletter always has something of value for newcomers and seasoned photographers alike. I have linked this article in the resource section of the new Moose Jaw Camera Club blog that is going live shortly.
    Happy composing, Anna

    • Darlene Hildebrandt

      Thanks Anna!

  • Marie

    Thank you for this very interesting article Darlene. As usual, you’ve included some excellent tips and information. Now all I’ve got to do is remember them before pressing the shutter!

    • Darlene Hildebrandt

      It all takes practice and the more you do it the more you’ll remember it all.

  • Boanerges Debritto

    Olá Darlene!
    Gostei muito deste artigo: Fotografia que podem arruinar as suas Imagens, evite estes 9 erros de principiante.
    Muito interessante, estou aprendendo bastante com suas newsletter, mas gostaria de lhe dar uma sugestão. Colocar essas dicas para nós fazermos download.
    Fica a dica!
    Abraços
    Boanerges Debritto

    • Darlene Hildebrandt

      You can download them, just print or save as a PDF. Sorry I can’t make every article a downloadable file it is too much work, expense for a designer, and space to save the files on my server.

  • Michelle

    SMALL aperture=larger depth of field. LARGE aperture=Narrow depth of field.
    Choose a smaller aperture to get more in focus, not a larger aperture.

    • Darlene Hildebrandt

      That is correct. Where did I say to choose a large aperture for more in focus? I’m not sure what you’re commenting on if there is a typo please tell me where and I’ll correct it.

  • Joey

    Thanks, Darlene! Very informative article… the photos truly illustrate your points. I’m glad to have discovered your website.

  • Saurav Dhyani

    Thanks Darlene.. for writing & then sharing this interesting article with all of us here… this ia a great lesson probably for a few Pro as well. I liked the 4th point on shooting in M mode always.. i myself has felt that i am pushing myself a lot to use only this mode to learn. Someone gave me a tip that if I have to learn what camera setting to be used at different lighting conditions… he said.. click your first ppicture in Auto mode and then check if the results are what you looking for… read understand the settings, then go to manual mode and take a picture and see if thrs any difference.. by doing this it will help me in understanding the camera settings and also make me learn different light conditions and settings required for them in camera.. I have just realized that I have stopped doing this.. will definitely take care of the pointers you’ve give here… Thanks much.. 🙂

    • Thanks, that’s an interesting way to do it. If you have time it can work. But what often happens is in a hurried situation beginners can miss the shot playing with settings. I suggest use Auto,Program, Aperture priority – do what you have to do to get the shot. Then gradually as you become more familiar with the camera and settings it will make more sense and get quicker.

      • Saurav Dhyani

        Agree with you on this. I need to start using these modes. That’s a learning n reminder for me. Wil work towards adding this as a habbit

  • Lynne

    Another great article Darlene. I’m looking forward to your next course 🙂

  • Lynne

    Done 🙂 Thanks for the heads up!

  • Lynne

    Darlene I have a question on blurry images. I still get a bit confused with the aperture settings. If I choose a low setting and have more than one person in the frame, I always have some blur when I choose the eye nearest the camera with spot metering. Should I change the meter setting or should I focus behind them, or in the middle to get them both in focus or choose a higher aperture and watch the shutter speed, using a tripod if it goes too low. My camera’s ISO only goes as high as 1600 and even at 400 I get noise. Thanks!

    • I think you are confusing two things: the aperture and metering. The aperture is the opening in the lens and the size of it controls depth of field. How you meter just controls how the camera measures the light. It’s hard to tell if you have blur from really shallow depth of field, or a slow shutter speed without seeing the image and your settings.

      That is a big limitation on the ISO range. Do you have a nifty 50, a 50mm f/1.8 lens? If not that will help but if you shoot wide opened you really have to be precise with where you focus and you cannot get groups all sharp at f/1.8. If you’re doing a portrait it is essential to use a tripod and I’d suggest f.5/6 or even f/8 for groups.

      • Lynne

        Thanks Darlene, I do have a nifty 50 and will definitely use it more, especially in low light conditions! I think my problem comes in with hand holding vs tripod but as I like to be mobile, perhaps I need to seriously look into my equipment. I mainly take pics of the children in my family and there is no way I can run after them with a tripod and make them stay still! Focusing on on one is not problem but when I want two of them in the same frame I have a problem!

        • Lynne

          What would your settings have been for the girls in item 8 above…. they were both beautifully exposed with no blur!

          • Likely fairly wide open on my 70-200 which is f/4. But they are both in focus because:

            1 – it’s not low light it’s bright sun so a very fast shutter speed. I just checked: ISO 400, f/4.5 at 1/2000th

            2 – they are side by side so same distance from each of them to the camera. You run into trouble when one is behind the other.

            If you mean the one right below it of the same girls they are in the shade but it’s still fairly bright. ISO 400 f/4 at 1/640th

          • Lynne

            Thanks for the settings, I think the penny just dropped 🙂 I’ve also been looking a the 70-200 lens, would this be a good lens to have? I go to game parks quite a bit and only have my 18-135. I’ve taken some decent shots but would love to get in closer. My problem is I have carpal tunnel in both hands so I need a lens I will be able to hold for a couple of hours.

          • Hi Lynne the 70-200 f/4 or f/2.8? The latter is a really big and heavy lens, the other isn’t much smaller. Holding for that long could cause you some discomfort. I’d recommend getting a monopod to help support it. You might want to look at this one too: 200 f/2.8 or something similar if you have Nikon. It’s faster and smaller and less $$$. Weighs the same at the 70-200 f/4 but you get 2.8 out of it. I’d look at Sigma options as well.

          • Lynne

            Thanks for the info 🙂 I’ll go into a camera shop so I can hold them and see. I have a Canon EOS 450D which I bought off a friend to get me started, but, Xmas is coming up soon!!

        • Yes kids are tricky with a tripod so the f/1.8 will help in low light but getting two, both in focus, in low light – near impossible.

  • Phil McClellin

    Well-written and explanatory. I like it. 🙂

  • Megan Nixon

    The past 2 shoots i have done have been outside when the sun is at its peak. Thanks for the tip, I was starting to think it was bc I was just horrible at outside pictures. Definitely will be avoiding this as much as possible!

  • mona mohammod

    Tremendous article, But I hope you do me a favor …. “How Could I deal with Sony and it is settings?

    • I’m not sure I understand the question. If you do not understand how to use the camera read the user manual, or go to YouTube and search for your model of camera and find a video to help you. I’m not sure what settings you mean. As I do not have a Sony I can’t really help more than that, sorry.

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