Photography Tips

8 Reasons You’re Taking Bad Photos and How to Make them Better

X REASONS YOU'RE TAKING BAD PHOTOS

How many times have you taken a photo, looked at your LCD and thought….Ugh?

I’ve been there. I  knew what I wanted creatively but couldn’t make my vision a reality. Or, I was close on the vision but the photo was blurry, underexposed or blown out.

From the practical to the philosophical, here are 8 possible reasons why you’re taking bad photos with advice on how to make them better.

You’re shooting on automatic

Of course you can take nice photos shooting on automatic, but the flexibility to get really creative is limited.  If you’re aspiring to capture a more innovative image, you’ll need the kind of control shooting on Manual gives you.  That means understanding shutter speed, ISO, and aperture, and how they affect each other. It takes time and practice and can be confusing, but worth the effort. To get a sense of the basics, take a one or two-day course in beginning digital photography to get you started. It’s worth the investment, and having an instructor on hand to answer questions is invaluable.

You don’t know your camera

I won’t lie and tell you that I’ve read my camera manual backwards and forwards. I tend to spot check if I have a question. That said, I know my camera well enough that I can change my settings quickly if needed. If you’re working with a new camera play with it beforehand. Get all the fumbles, manual checks and “where’s the X?” out of the way so you don’t flub a great photo because you can’t figure out how to take the shot.

(Tip: Always have your camera’s manual with you when you travel. FYI: most manufacturer’s provide pdf versions you can download, just Google the make and manufacturer it)

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Not great: Me and my dad in the dark with the sunset behind us.

You’re rushing

Don’t rush.

Sure, sometimes you have little or no time to prepare but usually you have more time than you think. Make a conscious effort to slow down. Take a few seconds to think about the story you want to tell.  Make adjustments to your composition, settings or angle so your final shot is closer to what you envisioned. This is doubly true for street portraits. It’s normal to feel nervous when working with a stranger and therefore speed up, especially if you’re worried about holding them up. But consider this, if someone shares their valuable time with you, shouldn’t you do your best to make it a great photo?

You’re shooting into the light

Light can make or break an image. One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen is placing the subject in front of a light source.  Why is this bad you ask? Because your subject will be in shadow. Unlike your eyes your camera cannot expose for the light and the subject at the same time. You have to choose what you want the camera to prioritize.

For example, lets take a gorgeous sunset—a classic scene that people habitually place their friends and family in front of. The sun looks great. The subjects……not so much. If you expose for the sunset your subject goes dark. If you expose for your subjects the sunset is overexposed. To make the most of the situation you have a few options.

  • Let it go: Take a picture of the sunset in all its glory and resist putting anything in the frame.
  • Use a flash: The downside of a flash is that it can be harsh and unflattering and will detract from the beautiful sunset that inspired you in the first place. If your camera has a built-in flash and you’re able, dial down the strength of the strobe so it adds only a hint of flash to offset the light behind your subject. It takes a little experimentation but worth it if you get it right.
  • Work the light you have: Since your subject will inevitably go dark, why not own it and make the photo more interesting by shooting a silhouette?
Silhouette of Springbok at sunset on a ridge in Damarland, Namibia

Springbok silhouette in Namibia against a sunset

You’re not holding your camera steady

If you find that your images are consistently soft (a little blurry) and you believe your settings are correct (or you’re shooting on automatic), there’s a good chance you’re not holding the camera steady. If it’s bright, your shutter speed may compensate for tiny movements but an unsteady hand in low light (or when it’s windy), that’s another story.  Whether you’re using a point and shoot or a fancy DSLR, make sure to keep your arms close to your body and elbows pointing down. Don’t grip your camera on either side like a steering wheel or put your fingertips on your left hand at on top (thumb below) of the lens. Use your left hand as a brace, palm up and under the camera body, thumb pointing up, to steady it.

(Tip: If it’s really dark and I’m concerned about my breathing affecting the shot, I inhale then exhale half way, hold my breath, then click the shutter.)

RIGHT OR WRONG

You’re not looking at other people’s photos

I love looking at other people’s photos for inspiration. The process jump starts my own creativity. I ask myself, what do I love about a particular photo? Is there something in it I want to try the next time I shoot?

I look for unexpected compositions, interesting light, compelling use of depth of field, unusual angles, or pictures that make me jealous.  I keep a list of images that have inspired me and the reasons I like the photos in a feature called, Photos I wish I had Taken, if you’d like to see for yourself.

If you’re not sure where to look for inspiration, here are a few of resources I love to get you started.

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  • National Geographic’s Your Shot: Millions of amateur and professional photographers upload to National Geographic’s “Your Shot” web page each year. You can search via hashtags and trending topics or if you’re limited on time, just review the “Daily Dozen”: A showcase of photos Nat Geo editors think are extra special. (Tip: Look for  “Editor’s Note” on the upper right hand side of a photo listed in the “Daily Dozen”, for information as to why the editor likes it.)
  • Magnum Photos: Magnum is a photo agency representing some of the most prolific and talented photojournalists in the world. You’ll find up to the minute images as well as some amazing archival photos.
  • Photo Books: I have a whole stack of different photo books from photographers I admire who shoot everything from landscapes and portraits to street photography and photojournalism.  I think looking at images across many genres help to develop my eye for when I’m out in the field. Here are a few from my coffee table.

Istanbul: City of a Hundred Names

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Alex Webb’s use of color and eye for layered compositions are nothing less than extraordinary.

Vivian Maier: Street Photographer

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Vivian Maier was a nanny with a penchant for Chicago street photography from the late 1930’s to the 1970’s, but it wasn’t until after her death that her artistic genius was found and fully appreciated. (There’s a wonderful documentary about her story called Finding Vivian Maier on Netflix you may enjoy. I’ve watched it twice.)

African Wildlife Exposed: A Celebration of Nature Photography

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A stunning array of color and black and white wildlife photos by 2013 Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Greg du Toit. I especially love his panning shots of lions, wildebeest and rhino.

Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs

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Steve McCurry’s photos were taken all over the world over many years. They’re lush, dramatic and absolutely stunning.

(If you have some books you’d like to recommend, I’d love to know about them. Please include in the comments below.)

You’re not experimenting

No matter your skill level, experimentation is always worthwhile. It will take your technical as well as your creative skills to a new level.  I’ve listed a few ideas for experimentation to get you started.

  • Shoot whatever you normally don’t photograph: If you love portraits, shoot landscapes and vice versa. Work your creativity outside your comfort zone.
  • Choose a static object and play with aperture adjustments: I chose a bouquet of flowers. Get a feel for how changing the aperture changes the depth of field and what that does to the mood and story your photo is telling. See how your distance from the object varies your results. (Do the same with shutter speed and moving objects. I play with shutter speed by planting myself on a bike path or busy road where I know there will be plenty of traffic to keep me occupied.)
  • Give yourself and assignment: Tell a story with pictures about a person, place or thing you love.
  • Try emulating a photographer’s work you admire: You may find glimpses of your own style hidden in the process.
  • Check out a website called 52 framesI recently became aware of this site and I think it’s fantastic. Each week the site announces a new photo challenge designed to help photographers improve their skills that focuses on a specific topic such as black and white, geometric shapes, graphics or portraiture. Tips and articles accompany to get you started and if you want you can upload your images to the community for feedback.

52 Frames 52Frames.comYou’re not shooting regularly

I’m so guilty of this. When I’m home in the city I get distracted by the day-to-day. I can go weeks without shooting. When I start again, it’s as if my photography muscles have atrophied. And like any muscles when they’re not used it takes me awhile to get back into shape. Before any trip, I make a point to shoot beforehand. I don’t usually have a plan, I just wander around and see what captures my fancy. I’m not tasking myself with creating award-winning photographs (though it’s always nice when I like them too), I just want to warm up so  it’s not as hard to get back into a groove when I land in my destination.


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49 replies »

  1. Good post, you’re right on with some of the reasons photos are bad. Add to that trying to take good photos with a phone or iPad when you can’t really see what you are shooting.

  2. Good tips in this post, Susan. Especially looking at images by others. The same approach works when you planning to travel to an area you don’t wel, can lead you to locations you may never have found on your own.

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