Australian Photography’s online and printed Image Doctor columns reveal a lot of photographers who make some very common mistakes. Robert Keeley lists the five biggest mistakes in photography and tells you how to avoid them.
It could be said that photography is all about using light creatively to develop your visual ideas. But it’s a long stretch from thinking about your photograph, and actually creating what you see in your mind’s eye! You improve your work through experience – generally, the more images you make, the more you can spot the problems, and then improve on them. But sometimes it’s hard to get beyond the basics. At Australian Photography we get some great images, but in both our online and printed issues, our Image Doctor columns reveal some very common mistakes.
So, in an effort to fast-track your improvement, we’re looking at five common problems photographers make, and some quick solutions for them.
01 BAD PHOTOGRAPHERS BLAME THEIR GEAR!
It’s not uncommon for new photographers (and even those who have been shooting for a while) to blame their gear. Manufacturers won’t necessarily discourage you from this thinking – after all, they want to sell you more gear! It’s certainly true that poor equipment won’t help you make better pictures, and equally, that good quality gear will be a great asset in making better pictures. Good gear helps, but knowing the limits of less expensive gear is just as important! It’s amazing how often you’ll hear the best shooters tell amateurs that they should “shoot with what you have.” Another (perhaps more effective) way of saying this is that you really need to learn about the technical limits of the camera and lens you own, then work within them.
One example might be where an enthusiast tries to shoot his or her children’s sports day with a compact camera. If you try and shoot, for example, a fast bit of soccer action on the far side of the pitch and in the process stretch your built-in zoom to its maximum limit, there’s a very good chance you’ll get a blurred or dark image (or both). You’ll be going beyond the effective limits of what your camera can shoot. You can fiddle with your poor photo later on in software, but it’s always better to get a good shot ‘in camera’. In the same situation, a better option might be to wait until the action is close to your side of the pitch. Without zooming out, you’ll be working with a wider angle lens and a better maximum aperture. Your camera will cope better, and you’ll get a better picture.
If you are shooting a sporting event with a camera that might not handle fast-moving action when its zoom lens is fully extended, wait until the action comes much closer. With patience, you may still get a good action shot.
You might not have the ideal camera for sports, but you’ll still be maximising its potential. When you know what your cameras and lenses won’t do, you’ll have a much better boundary around what they will do effectively. And once you know that you’ll soon start taking better pictures. Oh, and it may be painful, but try reading any manual which comes with your new kit. Whether it's online or on paper, these guides contain lots of userful information which can fast-track your learning.
02 ALWAYS CONSIDER YOUR COMPOSITION
Photography is about using light effectively, but arguably just as important is how you design your picture. Every time you lift a camera to your eye (or hold the screen up near your face) you are making some sort of decision to compose your image. Poor photographers don’t spend much time on this decision-making process at all – mainly because they don’t even think about it! Great photographers don’t spend much time on it either – because, by instinct, they’re making a myriad of decisions about a good composition in a very short space of time. If you want to transition from one mindset to the other, you do need to spend more time designing your picture.
These slow-moving dancers offered the opportunity to use an off-centre focus point. I was then able to compose this shot using the rule of thirds.
Start with the rule of thirds – it’s as good a place as any! Divide your frame into a ‘noughts and crosses’ grid, then place your key subject on any point where the lines intersect. It works! There are lots of other theories about composition which are worth reading about, but as much as any others, composition is about reducing problems. Before you press the shutter check your frame for distractions (rubbish, hairs out of place, closed eyes, etc), and run your own eye around the edge of the frame. Nothing is more annoying than something sticking half in and half out of your picture when you haven’t made it that way deliberately! Finally, carefully check the background behind your main subject. Hotspots, incongruous items, and even too much activity can all ruin an image, and they can often be fixed simply by exercising a bit more patience, or taking a few steps to the left or right!
03 KEEP DEVELOPING YOUR IDEA
One very common mistake for beginners is to come up with a good (or even potentially great!) idea, and then to give up on it too soon. Good ideas, especially if they’re based on landscapes or outdoor set ups outside of controlled lighting, need plenty of time to develop. Every great landscape photographer has returned to particular locations many times over, and sometimes not even come up with a shot. It’s the process that matters, and even if you don’t come back with a shot straight away, each time you re-visit an idea or a scene it will set you thinking in new directions.
An important part of the creative process is in re-thinking it, looking for every angle, waiting for every nuance of the light, and trying every minor variation of post-production. This doesn’t necessarily mean radically re-thinking your whole idea. What it does mean is considering every variation of your theme. Don’t walk away from any idea too soon!
On a country road this old gum tree presented itself as a possible image. I took a shot, but wasn't entirely happy, so I decided to wait and see how the light changed.
Around 45 minutes later, as the sun began to set, the warm light totally changed the scene. In the interim I also decided to shoot at a wider angle to include another tree in the middle distance. Both elements improved the image.
04 GET YOUR FOCUS RIGHT!
One of the most common mistakes in photography is shooting an image that isn’t properly focused. As we get better at shooting, this usually diminishes as a problem. But it still crops up. Often it happens because we rely on auto-focus. Camera manufacturers have improved their products so much we now tend to rely on their technology. Most of the time this works (they have a lot of experts working hard, trying to anticipate where you’ll want to focus in certain situations). But as you become more creative, what the computer in your camera decides should be the key point of focus may not actually be where you want your picture to be sharp.
Most SLRs will allow you to adjust the focus point in your frame, but you need to think about it. Of course, many beginners also make the ‘common or garden’ mistake of not holding the camera steady when they shoot, resulting in a completely fuzzy shot. So just before you press any shutter button take a breath, steady your hands (and brace your elbows if you’re using a bigger camera) then press the shutter button. You’ll get a much better picture.
05 STRAIGHTEN THAT HORIZON
Lots of outdoor images with distant (straight) horizons come out with a slightly ‘seasick’ slant to them! Digital SLRs made for consumers often have viewfinders which offer smaller than 100 percent of the scene before you, and it can be tricky to tell whether that horizon line you see is parallel to the frame. Some cameras offer a viewfinder line to work off, others don’t. Of course, horizons can always be crooked if that's what you want. Usually, however, for that to work they need to be dramatically tilted on an angle. If that’s the case a crooked horizon may add some dynamism to a scene. If the horizon line is slightly out, it often looks like an irritating mistake – and usually it is! You might not get this right in-camera (though you should try), but you can always fix a crooked horizon line on a computer using cropping. However, just to give yourself some room to move, it can pay to shoot a ‘looser’ composition, with a bit more in the scene than you think you might need. That way you can crop a bit off without adversely affecting your whole shot.
It can be difficult to pick up a crooked horizon line when shooting, but there's no excuse to leave it when you're shooting digitally.
A simple crop using software can straighten a horizon line, but if you're shooting this type of image you should consider a "loose" composition, so you leave enough on the edges that you can comfortably chop out.