What makes a bad photo? Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder, right? But usually, it goes something like this: You see something that really inspires you, you take the photo and you’re completely underwhelmed because what you had in your mind’s eye is not what you imagined.
I feel you. I’ve been there. I knew what I wanted creatively but I wasn’t able to make my vision a reality. Or I was close to the vision but the photo was blurry, underexposed or blown out.
From the practical to the philosophical, here are eight possible reasons why you’re taking bad photos plus my advice on how to make them better.
Sounds good, right?
Updated March 2020
You’re Shooting on Automatic
Of course, you can take good photos shooting on automatic but your 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. The more you know, the more you can use that knowledge to create the photos you want.
It takes time and practice but it’s worth the effort. To get a sense of the basics,
Personally, I prefer learning in person because an instructor on hand to answer questions, for me, is invaluable.
You Don’t Know Your Camera
I won’t lie and tell you that I’ve read my camera manual backward and forward. 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 before you go somewhere you want to photograph. 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 picture.
(Tip: Always have your camera’s manual with you when you travel. FYI: most manufacturers provide pdf versions you can download, just Google the make and manufacturer.)
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 working with a stranger and therefore speed up, especially if you’re worried about taking too much of their time. But consider this, if someone shares their valuable time with you, shouldn’t you do your best to make it a great photo?
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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, let’s 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 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 utilizing a silhouette?
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 halfway, hold my breath, then click the shutter.)
You’re Not Looking at Other Photographers’ 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?
Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder but the things that usually make a bad photo are usually objective. Look at as many images as possible to learn the nuances of good vs bad photography.
I look for unexpected compositions, interesting light, compelling use of depth of field, unusual angles or other aspects that make you stop and really look at a photo.
If you’re not sure where to look for inspiration, here are a few resources I love to get you started.
- National Geographic’s Your Shot: Once part of the famous website, now relegated to Instagram only, Nat Geo’s “Your Shot” feed posts amateur and professional photographers’ photos from all over the world. It’s a great place to find a wide variety of great images.
- (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.
- Photograhy 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.
Vivian Maier was a nanny with a penchant for Chicago street photography from the late 1930s to the 1970s, 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
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 from 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 an 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 frames: I 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 focus 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.
You’re Not Shooting Regularly
I’m so guilty of this.
When I’m home in the city I get distracted by day-to-day life. 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 a while 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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