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

What makes a bad photo?

Usually, it goes something like this: You see something that 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 couldn’t 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 you may be taking bad photos. Plus, some 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 creative options are limited because the camera is making all the choices.

If you’re interested in capturing a more innovative image, you’ll need the kind of control shooting on Manual gives you.  That means understanding the relationship between 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, take a one or two-day course in beginning digital photography to get started. There are great programs in almost every major city, not to mention thousands of very useful Youtube videos to learn from. Either way, it’s worth the investment in time and money.

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 really need it. 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

This is easier said and done.

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?

You’re Shooting Into the Light

Light can make or break an image. One of the most common mistakes 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 with 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 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 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 a person 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.

Nat Geo Your Shot Instagram Feed
  • National Geographic’s Your ShotOnce part of the famous website, now relegated to Instagram only, Nat Geo’s “Your Shot” feed posts photos from amateur and professional photographers from all over the world. It’s a great place to find a wide variety of compelling images.
  • Magnum Photos: Magnum is a photo agency representing some of the world’s most prolific and talented photojournalists. You’ll find up to the minute images as well as some amazing archival photos.
  • Photography 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 helps to develop my eye. Here are a few from my coffee table.

Istanbul: City of a Hundred Names

Cover of Alex Webb's book "Istanbul"

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

Vivian Maier: Street Photographer

Cover of Book "Vivian Maier: Street Photographer"

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

Cover of book "African Wildlife Exposed" by Greg du Toit

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

Cover of Steve McCurry's the Iconic Photographs

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 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 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.

52 Frames 52Frames.com

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 that aren’t 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 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 the images too). I am warming up, so it’s not as hard to get back into a groove when I land in a destination.

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From the practical to the philosophical, here are eight possible reasons why you're taking bad photos plus some advice on how to make them better. Sounds good, right?

47 thoughts on “8 Reasons You’re Taking Bad Photos & How to Make Them Better

  1. Rita Savelis says:

    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. Robin S. Kent says:

    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. lulu says:

    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. Sue says:

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

  5. shubhammansingka says:

    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. francetaste says:

    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. Pingback: 8 Reasons You’re Taking Bad Photos — The Insatiable Traveler – ITH & SB

  8. G'zy says:

    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 🙁

  9. K.M. Sutton says:

    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

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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. 🙂

  10. Patty says:

    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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