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

How many times have you taken a bad photo, when in your mind’s eye what you imagined was wonderful?

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?

Susan Portnoy photographing in Africa -Taking Bad Photos
Photo: Lori Duvall

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.

It takes time and practice but it’s worth the effort. To get a sense of the basics, take a one or two-day course in beginning digital photography to get started. It’s worth the investment and 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 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 start to shoot. 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.)

Susan Portnoy and Father on a beach - Taking Bad Photos
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 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 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.)

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47 replies »

  1. Hi. When you mention Vivien Meier, it might be more correct “she was a photographer who worked as a nanny to make a living” rather than calling her a nanny who photograohed…There is much incorrect information about Ms Meier. The Pamela Bannos book “A Photographer’s life and afterlife” is a good place to start to get the correct story.

  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.

  3. 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.

  4. Well, I am guilty at the moment of not shooting regularly….definitely not a good idea, my photographic muscles are going to pot…”

  5. Fantastic post and hits the nail right on the head on some of the suggestions. I am going to keep trying and experimenting with the camera and see how it goes. Will be super awesome if you can check some of my posts sometime.


  6. My pre-digital SLR was a lot easier to use than the new ones.
    I have a terrible time with focus. Already, I can’t see the little display well enough. Will start holding my breath. Sometimes I use a tripod and timer, but most of my photos are taken on the run.

  7. Thanks for this reminder! Just this weekend I was taking ‘bad photos’ :’-(… I need so-much-practice! It’s not even funny! My low light & moving shots are always blurry and I can NEVER remember which one, aperture or shutter speed, to adjust, ugghhh!!! Then I pop my flash up and it’s all washed! My Canon G15 has a ‘*’ magic button that adjusts the aperture & shutter speed but it wasn’t helping this weekend 🙁

  8. I love this! Such great tips especially about experimenting and going out of your comfort zone! I will say I do love a good silhouette with a sunset (or sunrise). Their is something stunning about the human form being in shadow with nature in all of its glory. <3

    • I’m so happy you found the piece worthwhile Kate! It’s so important to experiment. I don’t do it nearly enough but I’ve got myself jazzed up about from writing the piece so I’m looking forward to playing around this weekend.

      I adore silhouettes. Really drawn to them. I love the mystery and drama a simple silhouette can impart on even a boring backdrop. 🙂

  9. I love this post. I am an amateur photographer myself. These tips are very helpful. I have to tell you the camera has so many functions I am lost. I am going to post some pics on my blog soon as a new page. Check it out when it is up and running. I look forward to your posts. They are great. Thanks again.

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