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5 Easy Ways To Screw Up a Photo

Over the years I’ve screwed more photos than I can count.  And recently, when I was thinking about it, there have been a few constants behind many of these screw-ups.  They are all easy to fix, but in our fast moving world they are all mistakes that are so easy to make.  Here’s a short list to help us both avoid them in the future.

1.  You don’t focus exactly on a person’s eye.

1-anne-marieThis point could be taken further by just saying to always make sure to focus on the specific spot that you want the sharpest.  But I find this mistake hurts the most when doing a close-up portrait of a person’s face.  If you are using a shallow aperture, or even if you’re not, make sure that the focus is right on the dominant eye.  If you screw up focus on the eye in this type of portrait, then you screw up the shot.  When you view the portrait on a small monitor or in a very small print, it may not matter, but if you want to create a high quality portrait, then you need the focus on the eyes to be correct.  The eyes are the key to a portrait.

2.  Not stopping your motion completely before you take a shot.

I am generally a very calm person, but nothing makes me want to shake people more than when I see them not stop themselves fully before taking a photo.  It can be a tough habit to break, especially on vacation, however, the fact is that your photos will be blurry if you don’t stop yourself.

If you are traveling and taking photos, try taking less pictures and instead wait for the most interesting moments. Then, take your time on the shots that you do want to take.  If you’re walking around and quickly taking shot after shot without stopping then you might as well just put the camera away and enjoy the view without it.  And anyway, it’s so much better to have 20 amazing shots from your trip instead of 1000 mediocre ones.  Who has time to look through 1000 mediocre shots these days anyway? We have more important things to do, like looking at photos of cats doing ridiculous things on the internet.

3.  Not stopping a forced smile. 


Here’s a portrait of my wife on our honeymoon.  Isn’t she gorgeous!  The warm lighting on her face, the wind in her hair, the texture in the foreground mixed with the incredible cool blue background are all perfect.  But I wasn’t thinking.  I should have taken her bag and the camera, maybe taken a shot without the sunglasses to see her beautiful eyes, and just taken my time to capture a really good quality portrait.  Most importantly, I should have told her not to smile.  This moment just screams out for a natural expression.

Most of the time people don’t look better or even happier when they put that forced smile on their face.  It wasn’t necessary here, I should have noticed it, and I should have worked to catch her with a more natural expression.  I like this photograph of her, but I screwed up and it could have been so much better.  One standard smile and a couple small details can be the difference between an average family snapshot and the best shot you’ve ever taken of your wife.

4.  Using too much straight on flash and not enough natural light.

One of the cardinal sins of photography is the harsh, direct flash showing every pore and detail of a person’s face with the background completely blacked out.  In a few extremely dark situations this might be the only option.  However, if you have a decent lens and camera and there is even a little ambient light, then there is no reason that a flash needs to do all the work, or in many cases, any of it.  You should own a lens that can shoot at least at F2.8.  I know lenses are expensive, but you can get a prime Canon 50mm F1.8 lens for $100 and a 50mm F1.4 lens for $350.  Those lenses can shoot in the dark.

So if you’re shooting an event, a family function, or an environmental portrait in a place with a low level of light, start with a high ISO and a low aperture to see how much of the available light you can use.  Then, set your flash to provide some fill for the main subjects.  Straight on flash, even as a fill can be a terrible look, so if the ceiling is low enough, a good strategy is to bounce the light up and slightly backwards off the ceiling.  Anything but straight on.


1/50th at F2.8, ISO 1600 – Ambient light mixed with direct flash from a 45 degree angle.

5.  Not getting the exposure perfect in the camera.

I know, I know, you can fix it in Lightroom later.  But try this.  Take two shots of the same scene, one exposed correctly and one underexposed by a stop.  Then raise the exposure by a stop on the underexposed shot in Lightroom.  They look different.  The colors and contrast will be slightly off.  It’s not the same.  And yes, maybe you can get it to look similar or equal to the correctly exposed shot with a bit of work and futzing, but what if you don’t have that correctly exposed shot to compare it to?

Try hard to capture the perfect exposure in the camera.  It’s not always possible, but it’s always important.  And it will improve your images significantly.


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James Maher
James Maher

is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide.
James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

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