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 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.

  • AliNoorani

    If she is shooting in semi-auto modes(like Av or Tv) then it’s definitely the Exposure Compensation. Meaning that she has set the camera to overexpose whatever it calculates as a good exposure and let more light in. It’s a really powerful and handy tool if used correctly

  • Mario

    On 4: You should always shoot in manual when using a strobe. With the shutter speed you decide how much ambient light you will let in and with the aperture you decide how much impact the flash has. It’s that easy.

    You flash set on TTL is OK but you shouldn’t fall into the trap. If at all try to compensate with the exposure compensation of your camera. Trying to compensate with a high ISO only provides you with a noisy image.

    You can easily fool yourself as at a certain point you speedlite will not have any influence on the image anymore and in fact you are just shooting with a high ISO.

    The reason for this is that as you pump up the ISO the speedlite will decide to decrease its power output accordingly.

    Have a look at this video with living proof:


  • Dodo Jive

    I agree with these, especially number 3. But how do you politely ask someone not to smile? It may be me but this is often interpreted as “you have an ugly smile”. How do other people handle this?

  • Cam Miller

    I also find that my Canon T6i over exposes a lot of things. I routinely stop down 1/3 for anything in bright natural light that might reflect a lot of light – like skin – and sometimes even 2/3. That works better for me, using center weighted average metering, than anything else. I have a black cat with green eyes and I always start at -2/3 with her because that’s the only way I can get her eyes to look natural and not reflect back too bright – even if I spot meter her eyes.

Some Older Comments

  • SR April 11, 2013 04:51 am

    Very useful and practical. Look forward to similar tips in future.

  • Dale Mead April 7, 2013 02:11 am

    Great set of points. On the last one, avoiding glaring straight-on flash, you need to reveal that virtually every modern camera allows the photographer to DE-POWER the flash, or more accurately to adjust the power of the flash—built-in or external. Even a lot of serious photographers don't know that. Once they know, though, adjusting becomes as second-nature as adjusting aperture.

  • IBK April 3, 2013 02:55 am

    Thanks so much Ashleigh, got it.

  • Ashleigh hogg April 2, 2013 11:07 pm

    Re IBK's query on flash - straight-on flash means on-camera, pointed right at the subject. In-camera flash units are small point sources which flatten a photo. Use a diffuser over them (even a piece of white paper is OK) for better results. Most serious flash guns have a tiltable head. Angling this up to bounce the flash off the ceiling, particularly a light-colored one) will generally give better results and more natural shadows. Almost all flash units will give better results with a diffuser. Try it and see.

  • Jordan Barnes March 31, 2013 06:59 am

    I'm definitely guilty of all of these but my biggest one is not focusing on the eye. I try but I can never tell exactly where the focus is until I look at the pictures later. Usually it's focused on a strand of hair close to the eye, their eyebrow, or their nose and I just don't notice it until later. I usually try to use manual focus because I can never get it to focus right on the eye. I know I need to lessen my DOF but I still haven't been able to get it just right.

  • JERRY SCHNEIR March 31, 2013 02:54 am

    Very good EXCEPT dead wrong when saying take fewer pictures. Much better to raise the shutter speed to minimize the photographer's movements and take lots of pictures. I take lots and lots of pictures from moving cars, buses, and boats while traveling at 30-50 mph and the images are sharp as long as I remember to raise that shutter speed to close to 1/1000 second, even higher if I am using a lot of zoom. I try to keep that higher shutter speed even when I am walking around a marketplace. You can't tell people to stand still while you grabs shot.

  • Douglas March 30, 2013 05:33 pm

    @Scott: I have a 60D and am perplexed as to your "needle" comment. I used the "needle" on my 80's Canon AE1 film camera, but if you are in fact using a 60D, you must be talking about the "Histogram" which shows the overall brightness of an image, by cking the "image taken and looking at its histogram you can see the exposure level inclination" quote by Canon... if the white portion of the graph is shifted to the left: under exposed, near middle: normal; if it is shifted to the right then that is where a lot of folks try to get the end result however, you don't want to run off to the right, cause then over exposed!

  • Digitaleye March 30, 2013 03:40 pm

    Most importantly think of your expressions you like good in. Also the posture you are comfortable with. Just exactly you see yourself in the mirror and think of you that how you look :)

  • Lance Kozlowski March 30, 2013 08:36 am

    One of the biggest problems I see with pictures of people is that the human element is too small. Modern point and shoots are often starting at wide angle, which is generally a poor way to photograph people. If you want to shoot someone, always try standing back zooming in slightly at least. Don't include hips, knees or feet unless you need to (isn't the sky usually more interesting than the ground?). And be aware that faces near the sides of a photo frame become distorted (wider) if you shoot wide-angle.

  • Jim McAnlis March 29, 2013 06:39 pm

    Nice article . . . and helpful. #1 does it for me - particularly useful. I have done this frequently - not deciding the important point to focus on and, even when I do, not quite getting it right (largely due to poor eyesight). Gotta concentrate more!
    !I'm not sure that you have to buy an expensive lens to shoot in the dark. With today's control of ISO, you should be able to get a reasonable 'shot in the dark' . . with diffused flash

    Thanks James

  • IBK March 29, 2013 10:21 am

    Thanks James, good tips ... but please explain this further since I don't generally use flash, but would like to explore it more.

    "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." ????

  • S Dionne March 29, 2013 08:15 am

    Unfortunately my 5DMII, lacks a preset for ''Adrenalin Reduction''. Had Canon thought of this, probably wouldn't have to think of Items 1 through 5. Great points!

  • chauncey March 29, 2013 05:31 am

    I would suggest that we all have done those things a time or two.

  • DougS March 29, 2013 03:40 am

    Nice article, but it would have had a little extra "umph" to it if you had some examples showing the good and the bad for each of the points. Especially for #1 and #4.

    I think #2 is the most important one for how to really screw up a photo. Not only will you possibly get a mediocre result, but more than likely you will get an unusable blurry picture. Another one related to this (and to #1) is to make sure you picture is actually in focus. I was looking at a photo archive of a social event at work that was taken by a (hopefully) amateur photographer using a decent camera (Nikon D90). Seeing him at the event, you would think he would produce some decent photos, but probably 80% of them were completely out of focus.
    I don't know if he just didn't look at them, or if he didn't know how to use his camera correctly, but most of those pictures are just wasting storage space on a hard drive.

    @ Bob Merc: I think you are commenting on the wrong article. You missed the "bash photoshop and anything that has been retouched article" by a week or 2. As for the 50's, have you never used a dark room? You can do many of the same things with a physical picture that you can with digital now, it's just faster now and doesn't smell as bad (or good depending on your memories :)

  • Cindy March 29, 2013 03:38 am

    Thank you for this well presented piece. I take your 5 with me to Kauai in a couple of days.

  • Dave March 29, 2013 03:37 am

    #5 should be "Don't Underexpose". You'll get a superior image if you ETTR ("Expose To The Right of the histogram) and then correctly do your Raw conversion and adjust the exposure. We're not shooting Kodachrome anymore. The goal these days is to obtain as much digital information as possible in the intitial exposure and the optimize the image in Raw conversion and post processing.

  • Tonia March 29, 2013 03:22 am

    #3 Going back and looking at some of the pictures I've taken, l purposely look at smiles now for that very reason. Now I'm experimenting with taking multiple shots of their smiles vs the natural looks. Most of the time they like the natural. #4 I'm guilty and maybe someone can give me pointers but I have the Nikon 35mm 1.8f and I purchased it because I read so many reviews that it was one of the best in low light. I am guilty of not have enough confidence in my 35mm therefore using the flash. I've practiced more and more with low lights. #5 I'm working on towards not having to "fix it later" attitude...

  • eosDave March 29, 2013 03:16 am

    @Bob Merc: They may not have had Photoshop back in the 50s but they did modify their images a lot in the dark room via their choice of paper, development process, printing exposure, and dodging.

  • Jim March 29, 2013 03:05 am

    Good stuff! So much to remember as a novice, these tips really help!!!

  • Gina March 29, 2013 02:55 am

    Thank you for mentioning the part about getting it right in camera. I am a big proponent of mastering that & not relying on software to fix it later. I don't have time to spend trying to fix what I should have perfected already. If it's not right SOOC then it's trash in my opinion. I won't even spend the time to work on it. Which is also why I don't shoot RAW. If I'm telling my camera to do all the right things to begin with (it's not making those decisions for me if I'm in manual)- there is no reason to then do that all over again in processing. It's coming out how I want & then I can go from there.

  • Geoff Naylor March 29, 2013 02:51 am

    I constantly have to remind myself to be patient; for instance when shooting a building or object. Take the time to walk around it, as far as possible. Because you found a subject interesting doesn't mean to say that it can't be even more interesting looked at differently.
    Also wait to see if a better shot develops; such as busy or crowded situations. Sometimes there's suddenly a gap in the human traffic and there's the shot you wanted, without (other) tourists in the way.

  • Geoff March 28, 2013 12:19 am

    I've made almost all of the mistakes you mentioned, especially the forced smile. The worst thing I can tell my grandkids when I take their picture is, "Smile." It comes out forced every time. Now I just try and say something funny to make their smile more genuine. Thanks for the great tips. All great reminders.

  • Scott Pacaldo March 27, 2013 02:45 pm

    I have a question regarding #5. I try to get the correct exposure in-camera, however, I rely on the "needle" that goes left to right. I always have it on the middle or 1 or 2 lines to the right (Canon 60D).
    Is this okay or should I start to assess the situation first and from there, determine the combination of shutter speed and fstop?

    The answer to my question may be obvious but I still want to hear some opinions. Thank you :)

    - Scott

  • Bob Merc March 27, 2013 02:29 pm

    Don't use Photoshop at all...is ANYTHING photographed REAL anymore??? The photographers of the 50s couldn't cheat the way people do now. Some people get really out of hand with Photoshop.

  • Joseph March 27, 2013 02:28 pm

    I have made many of these mistakes, if not all of them at some point. And the only excuse I will give is that sometimes I'm shooting events so fast in six different lighting scenarios that I literally have run out of time to mess with exposure if it's close enough, knowing I can fix it later. Events ALWAYS have the absolute worst lighting for any kind of photography. It's like a rule that they can't have decent lighting, so sometimes if there are things I have to catch, I'll shoot knowing I'll need to fix it later. Life.

  • Mridula March 27, 2013 01:18 am

    I have done it all!


  • gnslngr45 March 26, 2013 04:00 am

    I completely agree with all of this. I don't really have much else to say. If one eye isn't sharp, it definitely shows.


  • trevor campbell March 23, 2013 09:54 pm

    thanks for the tips digital photography, such a great website, so clear and easy to understand.

  • James Doyle March 23, 2013 01:32 pm

    Thanks for the tips. Always looking to expand my bag of tricks.

  • richard March 23, 2013 09:43 am

    Your are absolutely right, in our fast moving world, it's so easy to make a simple mistake that I call beginner's mistakes. Even after years of shooting, once in a while, I get caught with a $$%&% mistake. ;))

  • Scottc March 23, 2013 07:55 am

    Guilty! Of these as well as a bunch of other ways to screw up photos. These are great points.


  • Cramer Imaging March 23, 2013 05:38 am

    I once screwed up a shoot where I was shooting into the sun with a tree in between. The tree worked to block the sun most of the time, but there was one critical shot that I could have easily fixed by twisting my tulip shaped lens hood to stop the sun from hitting the glass straight on. I couldn't see my view screen to see the problem. When I got home, I was most disappointed to see that much of the image was washed out by lens flaring. My client wanted a print of that arrangement and it was too late to fix it. I later learned about equipment to compensate for not being able to see the view screen in the field, things like a Hoodman Hoodloupe. Needless to say, that was the next purchase of photo equipment I made. Not being able to properly see my view screen in the field really screwed up that shoot and taught me a valuable lesson.

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