10 Common Mistakes Made by New Photographers

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Whenever I teach, I get a lot of requests to review images. Over time, I’ve started to notice that a majority of the mistakes I see come from the same small group of errors that are repeated constantly, particularly by less experienced photographers.

Please keep in mind that all of these common mistakes can also be advantages when done well and with purpose. This article is not about those times, but is an observation about how often I see them done the wrong way. As a photographer, you need to build the right foundation of skills before you can successfully veer away from them.

The Most Common Technical Mistakes

Chinatown at Night. Subtle but strong and natural colors.

Chinatown at Night, NYC. Subtle but strong and natural colors.

1. Colors are too strong or unrealistic

Unrealistic and strong colors are often a fantastic creative choice. However there is a noticeable difference between when it is done purposely due to experience, and when it is done through lack of knowing any better or poor color management.

The first thing you need is a good monitor that is color calibrated. Without this, you are working on your images blind. I see photographers share images that look good to them on their screen, but they look off to everyone else. This is because their screen is the problem. How can you retouch an image if you can’t see the true colors or tones?

There is also a common tendency of newer photographers to try to make their photographs look like paintings. Once again, this can be done well, but the way I usually see it done is where people raise the saturation slider way too far. It may make the colors stand out more on a monitor and be more noticeable as a thumbnail in Facebook, but it just makes the image look fake. In a print, the colors will end up even more extreme than they do on a monitor. When you print images with natural and subtle colors those colors will look incredible and much stronger than you think. This look can sometimes be hard to notice on the monitor.

Instead of raising the saturation slider, find images where the natural colors in the scene are already strong. Find a subject that is a bright color surrounded by muted tones. Shoot at the golden hour to let the colors naturally gain strength. Instead of raising the saturation slider if you want the image to feel like a painting, overlay a specific color onto the image. Or try creating a moody image with subtle and natural color, print it out, put it on your wall, and shine some light on it and you will see how powerful that subtle color can be. That can feel like a painting too.

Smokestack and Graffiti

Smokestack and Graffiti, NYC.

2. Shots are not sharp enough

Intensional blur can be gorgeous, but to be a good photographer you need to have control of your sharpness. If you are doing a portrait, the focus point should be on the eyes. The eyes need to be the sharpest part of your image, not the nose or the ear. Also, pay attention to back focus in certain situations. This is where the camera’s focus will miss what you are aiming at and instead focus on the background behind it.

To achieve sharpness and reduce handheld camera shake, your shutter speed needs to be at least one over your focal length. So if you are on a full frame camera with a 50mm lens, the shutter speed would need to be at least 1/50th of a second (and probably a little faster to be safe). On an APS-C sensor a 50mm would be the equivalent of around an 80mm lens and on a micro-4/3rds camera it would be the equivalent of a 100mm lens, needing 1/100th of a second shutter speed. If you are freezing motion you need an even faster shutter speed. For people moving at average speeds, I prefer 1/320th of a second.

min-shutter-speed

Think about raising your ISO sometimes to get sharper shots, particularly in darker lighting situations, but also sometimes during the day. A higher ISO will allow you to use a faster shutter speed and a smaller aperture, such as f/16, to ensure that your entire image will be in focus.

3. The composition is off

Shop, Chinatown. Notice the right edge.

Shop, Chinatown, NYC. Notice the right edge.

If you are Garry Winogrand then you can skew your images purposely for that energetic effect. However, I notice many photographers struggle to get their images straight. Look through the viewfinder and find a frame of reference to straighten your image. Maybe it’s a lamp post or a sidewalk or a tree. Pay attention to when the camera might be slightly lower on the left or right side. Often it will be the same side consistently for you and it’s just a tendency that has to be unlearned. Some people don’t even notice that their images are very slightly skewed when editing. Noticing and fixing the slight skew (crooked) can make a huge difference.

The other thing I notice is that a lot of photographers don’t pay attention to their edges. Put things in the edges of your frames when possible to keep a viewer’s eyes from moving off the print. This could be a tree branch, a fire escape, a building, anything. Cut off a part of an element and place it in the corner to help keep the eyes in the frame. Look at the right edge of the image above. It makes a big difference.

Sometimes compositions can be too simple. Simple can be good but not always. Take a step back and see if you can include more in the frame. Create more complex composition with more elements. That can make for very fun and engrossing images.

Also, a surprising number of people overly rely on either vertical or horizontal shooting. It’s good to have a preference, but when I see it in beginners it seems more like they are just uncomfortable shooting the opposite way. It’s not like they are shooting two verticals for every one horizontal, some are shooting six or more verticals for every horizontal, or vice versa. It’s not on purpose as they default automatically into that way of shooting no matter the situation.

Most importantly, I find that people will see something interesting, stop immediately when they notice it, click a few shots, and move on. It’s almost like a robotic move. Stop yourself when you see something interesting and take a few seconds to actively think about the best way to capture it. Horizontal or vertical? What is the best focal length and where can I move to get the best viewpoint? Are there other elements that I can include in the frame? How is the lighting?

SoHo, New York.

SoHo, New York, NYC.

4. Not close enough

Robert Capa once said it all, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Don’t hover from far away like a sniper. Get in there close, and get in there with a wider angle lens. This can work for portraits, landscapes, or any type of photography. Sometimes it is best to get closer and capture what is most important, large in the frame.

5. Contrast, exposure, black and white levels are off

The overall tones in your image are vital and you need to get good at working with the contrast, exposure, black levels, and highlights. Always try to get the exposure as close to perfect as you can in the camera. I know you can fix it later and often you can do it well, but it’s just not the same as getting it right in the camera. Also think about whether your images might be too dark or too light.

Getting the contrast correct is tough. Be very careful about overdoing contrast as this is a very common mistake. You also don’t want to add the same amount of contrast to every image because the amount of contrast needed depends on the lighting that was in the scene. I notice both tendencies from photographers who use too little contrast or too much contrast. Sometimes this is the monitor’s fault but other time it is the photographer’s.

Having blacks and whites in your image are good things. Often you want some detail in the shadows or highlights but you want areas of white to draw the eyes in and areas of black to ground the image.

6. Heavy-handed HDR

HDR in black and white, Central Park.

HDR in black and white, Central Park, NYC.

I’m not against HDR. I swear I’m not. I just see it overdone so much that it makes me want to cry. HDR can be done subtly, and it can look amazing when done right.

However, what I often see is HDR done to such extreme that the colors look far from real. It doesn’t even look fake, it just looks bad. There are absolutely no shadows or blacks, and no highlights or whites. I’ve seen entire images that are all middle tones!

You can take some detail out of the shadows and bring in the whites somewhat to get a better dynamic range. Try to find that fine line between realism and looking as good as possible. Retouching is about finding that fine line where an image works and not going over or under it.

The Most Common Conceptual Mistakes

Shoe Store, SoHo.

Shoe Store, SoHo, NYC. Notice the consistency in the next three photographs.

7. No subject

Photographing beauty, light, and color is so important, but sometimes your images need some substance to them as well. Great photography is the merging of both form and content. If you can mix a beautiful image with an interesting subject matter, you have hit photographic gold. Think about subjects, ideas, or emotions that are portrayed within an image. Figure out what that substance is that appeals to you and develop it. Think about what your voice is and develop it.

Prince and Broadway, SoHo.

Prince and Broadway, SoHo, NYC.

8. Photographs are not consistent enough

You can photograph many different subjects and you should try different styles, but organize these subjects and styles into cohesive groups. Try to give these groups a consistent look with an overall feel and related content. Consistency is developed with experience, so the more you photograph, the more you will start to think about it. Pay attention to the flow of one image into the other.

9. Too many travel photos and not enough close to home

Trash, SoHo.

Trash, SoHo, NYC.

So many people say to me that they only photograph when they travel. I don’t care where you live, or how busy you are, it’s so important to photograph where you live.

If you don’t want to lug your camera around then use a phone camera. Phone cameras are pretty good. Schedule some time every week, even if it’s only 20 minutes or during a lunch break, to photograph somewhere, anywhere. Photograph in the parking lot, on the corner, at the market. I promise you that there will be interesting subject matter there if you look. But you have to go out and take the time to look.

10. Too many photos

It’s fine to take a lot of photos. It’s fine to show a photograph a day if you shoot a lot, but edit your work down to the best. Nobody has the time to wade through a million photographs to find the gems. They will miss the gems if they have to look through too many mediocre images.

We all take mediocre images but the best photographers do the best job at hiding those images.  Do your viewers a favor and pick out the gems for them and only show those. You want people to want more rather than wanting less, because if they want less then they’re probably not coming back.

Do you have any other mistakes you think should be added to this list? What are you guilty of,  and willing to admit it?

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James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the unique personalities and stories of the city. He is the author of the e-book, "The Essentials of Street Photography" and runs photo tours of New York. To view his work or connect, visit his website.

  • Johan Bauwens

    On the other hand : if you always take the same pics and specialize in just 1 thing, you might lose your creativity or fun !

  • Del Bancroft

    I totally agree with #6 HDR. I see so many looking like paintings. If I wanted to look at paintings, I would go to the Gallery.
    As for #4. I was told one time that get as close as your fell comfortable with to your subject… then take another step closer.

  • Liz

    Thank you for talking about the over use of HDR! I have nothing against it either but many photographers sometimes would rather use that then work harder at just taking a better image that doesn’t need all the bells and whistles.

  • Walker

    Hmmm. I think you’re mistaken here. There is nothing “low light” about shooting a concert… Yes, you are often shooting inside a venue that is dark, but last time I checked concert lights (LEDS, strobes, etc…) are quite bright.

  • RK

    I think that it’s okay to shoot a lot of different things. You just have to recognize that after so much time, you might be pretty good at all of them, but if you had chosen just two or three styles to focus on, you’d be great at those few in the same amount of time because you’d have put more time into bettering your skills at shooting those subjects. Shooting anything will make you better to some degree in all areas of photography, so I don’t think it’s wrong to learn to shoot a lot of different things. But it is true that when you look at people who are famous or even just really good photographers you’ve happened across, they do quite often have just one or two kinds of pictures they specialize in.

    I guess it just comes down to who you want to be as a photographer. The person who’s good at everything, or the person who takes some of the best landscapes, for example, that you’ve ever seen.

  • Thanks for the comment T. I agree, sometimes it’s impossible to get close, but in this case filling the frame with a telephoto view would work instead.

    I don’t think that people striking poses should deter you from trying to get close. It’s very possible to get close and still get candid shots when you do it right. Perhaps using a smaller wide angle prime on your camera to make it smaller will help as will acting a little bit like you are not about to take the subjects photo, or quickly taking it before they notice and pose. No matter what, some people will pose, but there are ways to get good candid images from close in these situations.

  • Hi Philipp,

    Thanks for your comments. I mentioned in the article that all of these things can be done for good purposes, but this article was not about those times. It was about how newer photographers make many of these mistakes when starting out. For instance, slightly skewing the angle of a photo without knowing it. Yes, this can be done on purpose and can work well, but a lot of times this is an accident that is not noticed by the photographer. I feel that if you are going to break the rules it is better that you know them first and break them on purpose, rather than by accident.

    1. On purpose this can be done well yes, but a lot of photographers starting out revert to this right away and do it wrong.

    2. The eyes do not always need to be the sharpest yes, but it most cases they do. This was meant for the newer photographer learning to take a simple portrait. If the nose or ear is sharper than the eye then you have a problem.

    3. A weird composition done on purpose is good, but done by accident without knowing what they are doing is most often a problem.

    9. Because most people don’t travel that often and when they do they don’t know much about the place they are traveling to. If you want to improve as a photographer it can help a lot to photograph in an area that you know well.

    10. I disagree with this. Just because there are one or two who might have figured out a way to show so many photographs in a good way, this is usually not done well. Editing your work to the best is just as important a photography skill as taking the image.

  • I agree. And many go too far with it. Subtle HDR can be gorgeous.

  • Richard Taylor

    Havn’t seen leds and stobes at classical music concerts, or traditional opera. This is at a rehearsal I was covering. I am not taling about “rock” concerts etc.

  • Richard Taylor

    I am talking about classical music (and opera) concerts and rehearsals – not rock concert/opera

  • Specializing in HDR photography, I absolutely agree on #6, overdone HDR. I’d say the majority of the HDR photos out there are overcooked. I invite interested folks to read my article on what to watch out for when creating HDR photos: http://bit.ly/HDRinfo

  • MissionBernal

    Good feedback. What would have been helpful is if you had examples of how NOT to do things, and then how to take the same shot better. As a visual person, getting a visual example is usually a bit more helpful than a simple description.

  • Joe Shelby

    Per Johan’s answer, it depends on if one is going professional. There, the intention is different.

    “The primary concern for the musician is music. The primary concern for the professional musician is business.” – Robert Fripp

    Seems to apply in photography as well (and most other creative/commercial arts). IF I were to try to specialize in either event or landscape photography with the intent of selling, I’d stop shooting the other and turn my hobby into a *practice*, one that refines the craft of the field I have chosen in order to consistently produce great results.

    I choose not to. I choose to remain a hobbyist who shoots for fun, to capture images of rock musicians (who don’t mind photography during a show – I wouldn’t shoot at a King Crimson gig) for my memories, to capture the actors and performers at my local renaissance festival to share, as they are my friends, and to capture landscapes to remember and share my vacation experiences plus to make good backgrounds on my computer desktops.

    I’m good at all 3, and I remain good at all three, and comfortable at that, BECAUSE I did not choose to specialize and professionalize. If I wanted to be *great* at one, with the intent of entering the commercial space as implied by the question and the original post, I would have to give up the others. I personally am not willing to do that. My practice and profession is software development, and has been for 22 years.

    I accept what Johan was saying in the intent – the question was geared very much to making it as a professional photographer. Just be also clear that the answer was the answer to the question in context, and not generally applicable. If his answer even to the hobbyist would be to specialize, then there I completely disagree with him.

  • Joe Shelby

    indeed. here was one case where everybody saw the golden-red colors to the west (which were great, but *everybody* shot them that day) but I seemed to be the only one to look east to see something different and unexpected:

    https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-lqH9_LVvRDI/VCnot9yxpcI/AAAAAAABu9Y/2cS9135xEgQ/s1600/20140907_193304.jpg

  • Joe Shelby

    Another concern in getting close I can think of is the safety equipment on the site. depending on where you are, the safety nets or fences may interfere with the clarity of the shot (or worse still, throw auto-focus completely out the window, but i suppose if you’re pro you’re hand-focusing in any case) – e.g., being close to behind home plate at a baseball game. The solution for that is to be at a different position/angle where the fence isn’t in the way, but that usually means increased distance and therefore a need for a longer lens.

  • Joe Shelby

    Re 10 – filters (e.g., albums) can help in this. Keeping landscapes separate from weddings separate from events separate from portraits is probably a good thing in any case – the person looking to hire you can just look at what is relevant and decide if you’re what they need without the distractions.

    Certainly amateurs and #10 are HORRID on free sites like facebook, instagram, flickr, and picasa/g+. I often will find someone posted 137 shots of the same half hour show and put ALL 137 OF THEM UP, blurry or not, good or not. As you say, the gem is lost because *I* have to be the one to mine for it. As I’m not the one emotionally invested in it (as the artist, it should be YOUR goal to make me invest my emotions into the work), my desire to do that mining is minimal unless I (or a member of my family) is in the collection I’m reviewing.

    (worse still is when I’m in the set and get facebook-tagged in all 137 of them and have to untag myself in every one that stinks, which is usually all of them.)

    I find that for a half-hour shoot at an event like one of the shows at the Renaissance Festival in the area, I get about 10 that are “shareable” on Facebook (as in they positively accentuate my perception of the subject, usually my friends as I have worked this show for 20 years), of which 3-5 are worth putting on my photo-a-day blog, and 1 absolute winner for a permanent place on a gallery or in print (though occasionally my idea of the winning shot is not that of some of my friends, particularly the subject of the shot who may be rather self-conscious in viewing it).

    This 10-4-1 seems to hold out if I shoot 30 shots or 300 in that half hour (and knowing this has made me click less and compose more, which is a good thing).

    I guess my point is that one CAN share more shots from the same event, or a variety, but *context matters*. What you share on Facebook under your own name doesn’t have to be your best which you save for posting under your ‘brand’ (e.g., having a Joe Shelby Photography page separate from me, Joe Shelby, the multi-faceted geek). The brand that represents you as a photographer to the *general* public needs to be focused, even if the person that you are to your friends can share more of what you believe is relevant to them.

  • Raymond

    Actually, stage lighting isn’t as bright as you think. There tends to be a lot of action, and if you don’t want a lot of blurry pictures then you need at least 1/200 depending on the lens, add in the typical 2.8 lenses usually shot wide open or close to it, then you can get anywhere between ISO 800 to 12800, especially if you try shooting the crowd. ISO 800 at 1/200 and 2.8 is pretty damn dim. If you want a stop faster shutter you’ll go right up to 1600. Want more depth of field? 3200.

  • Raymond

    Photographers use to take many different jobs so they wouldn’t miss out on business. Refusing a portrait job because you’re a self-proclaimed architectural photographer meant missing out. With more people flooding in the market, photographers have had to specialize and settle into niches. A photographer can in fact do many things, and it’s not as much a matter of ability as possibility. It requires technical knowledge of a greater field of view, and having all of that knowledge does nothing but help you grow, but from a business standpoint it’s apparently currently more beneficial to create a niche.

  • Tim Lowe

    Oh, it’s not just new photographers. Don’t get me started. Another good article.

  • Michael

    Big mistake to buy a camera in duty free on the way to the plane. One has to spend some time with a camera to work out performance and settings. A friend did buy on the way to the plane but didn’t use the new camera while OS as she couldn’t work it out. Guess she isn’t the kind to read the manual,

  • haw80ag

    sooo ture !
    My first sunset where in the Hawaii bridal jurney… wait for the time the sun goes down and than i runned away.
    Than this year i was in Florida and in Key West… i struggled to convince my wife to stay there for a while to wait for that beautifull moment when the rays are strong and beautiful… it was hard but it pays so much !

    So, this was one o my first typical error now lerned 😀

    (there are other 6/7 error in the list that i have still to correct, but i’m in the way ! )

  • haw80ag

    Maybe due to my lack of English.. i’m not able to understand very well what you mean for “consistent”, could you explain it with an example or different words ?

    I’m quite sure that this is my first mistake in taking pics.

  • haw80ag

    yes so, the #11 or #12 could be “always check your gear before leave your house”

  • haw80ag

    so true for me !
    When i see my photos in the immediate i never found a pic that realy likes to me, then, after a week or two my feeling is very different and i can se what’s best for a persond that didn’t lived that moment and where used to see what i shooted.

    so, #13 could be “whait for 2 week before select your photos” but maybe this is too much a personal view.

  • Kati Mills

    Thanks for this article, very useful to me as an artist, even though I’m not a photographer. I paint (mainly acrylic on canvas) and I do take some of my own reference photos. I’m definitely guilty of errors in composition and going heavy on the saturation and contrast! Some of the photos I edit that way look great, but it’s such a habit that I end up doing it to photographs which would be much more aesthetically pleasing in more muted colors.

  • Very comprehensive and detailed list, James, I agree on most of them, specially in being persistent and patient, and being self-critical.

  • Geoff Naylor

    I love it James: finding examples of poor photography in my archive takes a lot more time 🙂

  • Geoff Naylor

    My experience is the opposite Hamid. Often my first impression is flawed and an image I initially ‘reject’ turns out to be worth persuing. And vice-versa of course; the photo you love at first sight rapidly loses some of it’s attraction.

  • I enjoy shooting other subjects, but honestly, I have made my mark in equine endurance riding and have specialized in that to the point that people can tell that I took a particular shot. I believe you need to get real good at one thing if you want to make money in photography…

  • Rob Bixby

    Great points. You pointed out something I have been saying for years. learn the basics well enough that when you decide to break the rules, it looks intentional.

  • bob

    I would say that this is good writing.

  • SOSTOT

    I shoot all types of subjects and in all kinds of conditions. I have been lucky enough to have a mentor, a professional photographer showing me the ropes. She send me to take photos of something and when I came back, she’d look at them and say “Do it again, try to make it more interesting.” or “Try a different ISO setting.” or something like that. She also sometimes says “Grab your camera, we’re doing symmetry today.” or “We’re going to the zoo, I want some nice shots and not just of animals.” She doesn’t want me to be a one trick pony.

  • Peter Niepel

    “Stop yourself when you see something interesting and take a few seconds to actively think about the best way to capture it. ” My problem is that I hardly ever have the time. Most of my photos are situations which are sort of “volatile”. you think about the composition a couple of seconds and it is gone. This puts me under stress and has a negative impact on the quality of my shots.

  • Russell Rusty Smith

    i disagree with everything in this article. I think that the manufacturers have deceived us. Too me:

    1 Most Common Mistake is that new photographers rely too much on the technology.

    2. Auto Focus: relying too much on auto focus.

    3. Relying on auto white balance.

    4. Shooting in jpeg.

    5. Unfamiliar with post processing.

    6, Relying too much on image stabilization.

    7. Manufactures convincing us that their lenses are better than others.

    8. What is a prime lens?

    9. Relying on the biggest, baddest gear that s advertised in Shutterbug.

    10. The inability to shoot in manual, or aperture priority modes.

    How about mentioning some of the industries standards of what a good, smellable, image is? Or don’t you know?

  • argosinu

    One aspect of framing in the China-town picture — the “pill” looking to the right carries the viewer’s gaze with it. Your eyes would run off the shot without that border on the right edge.

  • TygrTat

    As a beginner myself, I’d like to add “rushing the shot”. I get so excited to get a shot, I don’t think to check the images until it’s too late. I just start clicking away thinking I’m getting award winning shots (ha ha) only to find they’re worse than I could have ever taken with my old point and shoot. I’ve gotten a lot better since I first started, but I’ve missed so many good images because I was just way too excited to get some shots and not get THE shot. I still catch myself doing it sometimes, but luckily I catch myself in time to get “THE” shot (but not always lol). I’m getting there. 🙂

  • I must agree with some of the comments. When i started out i photographed “everything” – still do but not as much. My eye has become selective at what i shoot now a days, but still like the challenge of different situations, occasions, seasons, lighting etc I say keep shooting as this keeps your creative juices flowing, keeps you challenged and curious too. For me one subject is not enough, hence why i left my office job:-) and am making some kind of living from photography:-)

  • @jamaher:disqus sorry made the last comment all about me – lol Great article and yes you are right, as you say take your time.

  • Gil Pontes

    Blown-out skies…

  • David2014

    The one question I have about a calibrated monitor. I’ll calibrate my screen and everything is as it should be. But if I share that to social media or email a friend and their computer isn’t calibrated isn’t it still going to look wrong to them?

  • George Johnson

    I think one of the biggest things that beginners have to cope with understanding is how much work is involved in creating stunning images, be they a landscape that’s taken months of planning or a great street shot taken in a split second. In this day and age we’re so used to a lot of things have quick and easy solutions, art and photography are not one of those. Photography cannot be “learned” in so far as someone can run a 2 hour course and teach you all you need to know about composition and use of light. It takes years and years to hone your sense of composition and understanding of light to a point where you start to appreciate how to make use of it. As I say to people, there’s one only magic secret to good photography, it’s not a very nice one though. It’s practice, practice, practice!

    However those days when it suddenly clicks into place you come home with a stunning image in the bag, make all the hard graft and countless failures all worthwhile!

  • Jim Wolff

    I have to say, #10 is my hardest struggle. Going through a hundred or more photos after a shoot is hard to weed it down to only 10 or 15 of the best. Mainly because, it is very time consuming and there are many options for post processing such as cropping, highlighting, etc., that can make some of the pictures I might toss aside, actually best of any of them all.

  • Joseph Ting

    I absolutely agree with Point #10! I used to take and share TOO MANY photos and realised myself that they got boring when I had to go through my old photos. I used to think that everyone would want to live through every single moment of my travels/photo session, which is definitely not true! I’ve learnt to cull my photos and I myself have enjoyed looking through my collections as they are more concise and meaningful!

  • Rick S

    The author would have a heart attack if I gave him/her my cheap camera and demanded technically good pictures.

  • Campbell Yule

    I have and still make these mistakes,went through a terrible HDR period ugh

  • Rebecca Behrent

    I see a lot of people who photograph the art someone else has done. They think the artwork will carry the photo – but most of the time it just looks like a snapshot of an artist’s work (painting, sculpture, mural, etc.). I also see a lot of “spots” in photos that create a huge distraction for me. They don’t have to be big – but if they are extremely white or extremely dark, they can ruin an otherwise good photo. They need to use their software program to lighten or darken or otherwise remove spots.

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