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Common Photography Mistakes Newbies Make and How to Avoid Them

Every shooter will tell you that they all made the same photography mistakes when they were starting out. From horizon lines not being straight to poor focusing, here are some of the most common newbie mistakes and how to avoid them.

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Newbie Mistake #1 – Dull Photos

Often, one of the first questions newbie photographers ask when comparing their images to the pros’, is why their images look dull. In the majority of cases, this is because of the lighting in the scene. Light is one of the main elements of any photograph, and often if an image is not lit well, regardless of the subject, it will look dull and uninteresting. You need to study and understand light, what kind of light is suited for what type of photography, and what affect that light has on the photo when it’s coming from different directions.

For example, landscape photography often works best with soft directional light, hence why the majority of landscape photographers tend to take photos in the hours before and after, sunrise and sunset (golden hours). On the other hand, photographing food or taking portraits using natural light outside, work best on overcast days when there is diffused lighting. So spend time studying the type of lighting that is suited to your photography, then look at your photos and work out what you might have done differently.

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Newbie Mistake #2 – Poor Focus

The correct focus is absolutely integral to a photograph. It won’t matter one bit how great your subject and lighting is, if it’s focused on the wrong thing, or camera shake blurs the person or object you are trying to photograph. One of the biggest reasons newbie photographers get this wrong is because they rely on the camera’s autofocus mode (letting the camera choose which point to focus on), as sometimes the camera’s AF system will want to focus on something behind or in front of your subject. There are whole books written about focusing in photography, but as a starting point, if you take your camera off auto focus and use manual focus (or selective point autofocus), use a tripod, are patient, and allow yourself enough time to compose and think about the image, you’ll likely find this will help.

Obviously you will need to practice to become more efficient, as you won’t always have the luxury of time to set up a tripod. But with time and practice this will become second nature to you. Just take your time when making the photo, and zoom in on the LCD to check if the photo is focused correctly.

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Focus is on the bucket not on the man.

Newbie Mistake #3 – Horizon Not Straight

This is arguably the single biggest comment I make on photos by newbie photographers who ask for a critique. Unless done deliberately and very well, photos with wonky horizon lines just don’t work. If you are using a tripod, this is easily avoidable, as most tripods now come with spirit levels. If not, you can now purchase very inexpensive ones that attach to the camera (or your camera may have a level feature built-in, consult your user manual). If you are photographing handheld, you’ll need to concentrate on getting the horizon straight in the viewfinder. But if you find that it isn’t, this is easily fixed in most editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop. Just make sure you straighten your horizon before sharing with others or potential clients.

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Newbie Mistake #4 –Too Much Noise

One of the main issues newbie photographers face is being able to ensure their images are sharp. This is sometimes challenging when you are photographing with plenty of light, but in low light conditions this becomes incredibly difficult. One way to combat being able to have a fast enough shutter speed to photograph in low light conditions is to raise your ISO. This is fine as long as you have tested and fully understand your camera’s noise capabilities.

Different cameras produce different levels of noise, and if there is too much in the photo it can look soft (unsharp). The best way to avoid this is to use a tripod, but if that isn’t possible, only raise your ISO level as high as you need to take the photo. If you have tested your camera’s capabilities, you’ll know how high you can go before the noise becomes too much.

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ISO 6400, f/5.0, 1/100th of a second. Canon 550D (Rebel T2i)

Newbie Mistake #5 – Excessive Post-Processing

While every photo will usually benefit from some form of post-processing, there is a point when it will have a negative effect on the photo. The key is for the post-processing to feel subtle and enhance the image, rather than taking it to extremes. Move the sliders too far and your image will begin to look posterized and fake, and will almost certainly be rejected by any editor.

The main culprits in this scenario are usually; excessive sharpening of the image, too much contrast, over saturation, and too much noise reduction (resulting in an image that’s too smooth or soft). Always remember that if you have to make dramatic changes to the photo, then it is likely that others will notice too.

Overprocessed image

Over-processed image


Newbie Mistake #6 – Bad Cropping

The way you crop your image can have a powerful impact on the photo. Too much going on around the main subject, and it can feel lost. Alternatively, not showing the surroundings can detract from the story and mean the viewer misses the context of the photo. The ideal plan is to crop your image correctly at the time of taking the photograph. In reality though, this doesn’t always happen. For example, you may have a fleeting moment before you, when you can only take one photo. But whether it be at the time of taking the photo or in post-production, you should give thought to the way you crop your image. The beauty of digital photography is that it’s easy to try different crops until you find the right one.

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Bad cropping

Better cropping - a view of the House of Parliament.

Better cropping – a view of the House of Parliament.

Newbie Mistake #7 – Forgetting the Obvious

It might seem like stating the obvious, but all of the above will be rendered useless if you can’t turn your camera on or don’t have any memory cards. It’s incredible how often I have come across people who have either forgotten extra memory cards, or their batteries have died with no spare. You should always aim to head out with a fully charged battery and an empty memory card. Be aware that different types of photography, such as long exposures, can drain your battery faster than usual, and don’t forget that if you are capturing photos as RAW format, they are bigger files so you will require more memory space.

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Battery power indicator and shots remaining on the card.

Mistakes are a part of photography. Making them, especially at the start, is sometimes a good thing as it means you are unlikely to repeat them again in the future. The important thing is to learn from your mistakes, and avoid them in the future as much as possible.

What mistakes have you made that you have learned from? Let us know below in the comments.

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Kav Dadfar
Kav Dadfar

is a professional travel photographer, writer and photo tour leader based in the UK. His images are represented by stock agencies such as 4Corners Images and Robert Harding World Imagery and they have been used by clients such as Condé Nast, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and many others. Kav is also the co-founder of That Wild Idea, a company specializing in photography workshops and tours both in the UK and around the world. Find out more at That Wild Idea.

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