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What are common mistakes seen in images taken by beginning photographers?

For example, a friend of mine pointed out that the horizon was not straight in one of my images, and now I see it everywhere! What other mistakes am I probably making without realizing it? I'm interested in both the artistic and the technical.


locked by John Cavan Oct 6 at 3:44

This question's answers are a collaborative effort: if you see something that can be improved, just edit the answer to improve it! No additional answers can be added here

18 Answers 18

My other answer aside, I think almost all "beginner mistakes" boil down to one of a few things:

  1. Not being mindful of what's in the composition. The uneven horizon falls under this, as does the classic photographer's shadow* in the frame, or a personal pet peeve of mine: chopped-off feet in otherwise full-length portraits. I know that when I look at my earlier work I see elements which I know I didn't consider at the time. Addressing this comes from taking time to review your photographs with a critical eye.
  2. Technical inexperience. Exposure, focus, all of the how-to-work-the-gear stuff. And I'm including lighting here too. This all just comes with time and practice, and maybe with reading if you're into that sort of thing.
  3. Being too caught up in equipment, and blaming what one has or doesn't have for problems. (This comes out in a whole bunch of ways: brand-name wars, emphasizing technical qualities over photographic merit, dismissing all flash photography as awful, hunting for lens defects rather than hunting for pictures to take, and so on.) This is solved by remembering to focus on the other two things and not worry about this so much. There's nothing wrong with photo gear as a hobby on its own, but it's not as fun as photography itself.

* Click that link, by the way. It's on-topic.


The top mistake made by beginners is using the flash regardless of subject distance.

This occurs by a huge margin above any other mistake. This is terrible not just because you should not be using the flash in most conditions but because when the flash fires in forced on or auto mode (not slow-sync or fill), the camera expects the flash to light up the scene and sets its exposure parameters (aperture, shutter-speed, ISO, depending on the mode) accordingly. This results in an under-exposed image a vast majority of times.

Then there are variants of this such as shooting with the flash through a window or at artwork behind glass, etc. This results in a photo of a flash reflection and little else, unless shooting at an oblique angle from the reflective surface.


I'll be short: My friends that are newbie in photography usually tormenting me with questions, like: "- should I use this mode now?", "- what is better - mode 'P' or mode 'S'?", "- Am I good photographer that I use mode 'M' most time?".

So they are focusing onto technical side, not creative. And this is most important mistake they do.


I'd add quantity over quality (still guilty sometimes myself). Shooting lots of mediocre images instead of thinking and preparing to make a good one. This has become much worse with digital where a click does not convert into real money. Theoretically LCD could be used as feedback, but in reality it seems easier to use burst mode and hope for Lady Luck, expensive equipment and post-production to save the day. Planning ahead and analyzing results (what could I have done to make this photo better?) should alleviate this.

Note that it's okay to take a backup shot, experiment, or re-take the photo in a better way; click-and-hope is not.

Also, zooming in when you could get closer seems to be very common. It might seem like it's the same, but it's not - perspective will give you away. By staying distant, you'll also leave the viewer distant, and it seldom feels good to be left out.


Letting the camera decide aperture/shutter speed. Even if exposure is correct, the subject might get blurred due to the camera's selection of shutter speed.

Putting the subject in the center of the photograph all the time. If you are doing videographic work, or documentary, instructional, etc. photography, then it might be preferred to have the subject in the center, but when you're going for artsy photographs that are supposed to evoke emotion, you often want the subject off-center. Similarly, the subject should rarely be looking straight at the camera in an artistic photograph. This is especially true if you are trying to create a "Thousand Yard Stare" impression. (The guy on the bottom left of the first picture is a good example. If he were the only person in the photograph, it would be a pretty awesome picture. If, however, he were centered, the picture would be mediocre at best.)

Not knowing how to achieve visual effects, such as depth of field, leading lines, etc., or simply not even attempting to achieve those effects due to a lack of knowledge on how to make a photograph look good.

Exposure and lighting, especially with a back-lit subject. Not waiting for or creating good lighting is a somewhat related issue. Sometimes pictures look much better if you take them in high-contrast light, or colored light (such as a sunset.)


The biggest mistake, or should I say the most difficult part of photography is being able to form a mental image of what the resulting picture will be. This may sound trivial, but there is huge difference in how a scene is perceived by you as the photographer and how it appear in the final image. Your eyes and brain will focus on the subject no matter how cluttered the scene is, but when you see the final picture often you will notice all of the distracting elements that you mentally filtered out.

The mental picture is closely related to composition. Interesting pictures tell a story to the viewer, and composition is tell the story that you want to tell. So my word of advice is: Think about the message you are sending, and not so much about how sharp your lens is.

Of cause every beginning photographer will spend some time to learn how to master the technical aspect of the tools they are given, but that is the simple part. Every topic from flash techniques, aperture and shutter, sensor sensitivity (ISO) etc are well covered by other articles.


Composition or uninteresting "pictures". Most of the photos I see, the exposure isn't too far off because modern cameras take care of it within an acceptable range the majority of the time automatically.
But there's two things left up to the photographer every time and it's those two things that bug me the most.

  • Composition - heads in the middle of the frames with vast quantities of space above, landscapes with 90% of boring blue sky, horizons off, etc

  • Uninteresting "pictures" - (this doesn't apply to like stock photography for example) If you're taking a picture of something boring like a trashcan in an office building and you don't do anything particularly special to it...I don't care if it lines up with a 3rd line and is properly exposed...its boring.

EDIT: Perhaps my "Uninteresting 'pictures'" portion is being misunderstood. Think of it as the opposite of my answer on this question. Without further creative action some subjects simply lack interest even with good technical execution. For evidence, I humbly submit...my foot. (If you find this picture interesting and would like to purchase it for the rock bottom price of $200 US dollars - I'll consider myself fully proven wrong...and two hundred dollars richer.)enter image description here


As a fellow newbie to DSLR photography, in addition to the other answers, the most important thing I found was

  • get to know your camera well by practicing/shooting. I had the manual (even downloaded the digital version of the manual) as a reference as I experimented shooting under different conditions I anticipate I'll encounter. For e.g. from the manual, I've learned how to set up my EOS 7D to help me avoid uneven horizon consistently even when I'm shooting moving subjects.
  • ask concisely-worded questions here. The people here have been very helpful and generous in sharing tips.
  • invest in (good) lens that fit the type of photography you enjoy. I carry Canon 24-70 f2.8 and 70-200 f2.8 with my EOS 7D which helped me capture landscape and close-up shoots of seagulls flying off the stern of the boat. Even though both lens are expensive, I've learnt that it's better to invest in good lens (since newer bodies will inevitably have new features) -- in my case, I'm planning to eventually save enough to use both my lens with either the next 5D or a 1D.
  • ask fellow photographers (and verify) their assertions/belief/bias.

I'm reminded of this classic article by David Fair of the band Half Japanese:

I taught myself to play guitar. It's incredibly easy when you understand the science of it. The skinny strings play the high sounds, and the fat strings play the low sounds. If you put your finger on the string farther out by the tuning end it makes a lower sound. If you want to play fast, move your hand fast and if you want to play slower move your hand slower. That's all there is to it. You can learn the names of notes and how to make chords that other people use, but that's pretty limiting. Even if you took a few years and learned all the chords you'd still have a limited number of options. If you ignore the chords your options are infinite and you can master guitar playing in one day.

read more..., or in (very entertaining) youtube video form.


The biggest mistake I've seen lately is that someone will buy a cheap, fast prime (usually a 50mm f/1.8) to go with their fancy new entry-level DSLR, then they never stop that prime down to anything other than WIDE OPEN.

Shooting at f/1.8 can be a lot of fun, and can be quite useful, but there are so so so many times when f/1.8 is simply not the best aperture to use for a given shot. Even stopping down to f/2 or f/2.8 would yield tremendous rewards in many cases.


When composing portrait shots, new photographers often overlook the "hacked off limbs" effect. If the edge of your photograph falls on a joint, such as an ankle, wrist, elbow, waist, etc, the extremity appears to have been "hacked off". Try making the edge of the photograph end in the middle of two joints instead (for example, the middle of the subject's forearm).


Buying instead of renting.

Many camera shops will rent lenses and other gear for a fraction of what it takes to buy -- and sometimes will credit you the rental if you decide to purchase the same. Also, renting for a weekend is often the same as renting for a single weekday.


I think a lot of common beginner mistakes result in photos that are obviously bad -- these are typically "exposure triangle" problems, where the photo is too light, too dark or badly blurred. Beginners can see these problems pretty easily themselves in many cases.

It seems like you're fishing for problems that are just a bit more subtle, and I think a lot of these are composition problems. Your crooked horizon one is one of those, as are "rule of thirds" problems, which stick out pretty quickly once you start looking for them. You can probably also include attention to foreground / background elements with composition, including use of DOF to separate foreground and background and attention to stray background elements.

Lighting problems are also pretty common -- especially shooting in harsh light, failing to fill-light, and so on.


John Smith Photography - Facebook

After one month of owning a DSLR and having begun photography altogether, you decide to start a business. There's so many reasons to avoid doing this until you know what you're doing.

  • Lack of experience.
  • Lack of gear and/or backup gear in case things go wrong.
  • Lack of business knowledge and photographer specific, such as pricing.
  • Lack of solid understanding of photography in general.

Composition - trying to get too much in the image, rather than simplifying. Busy, distracting backgrounds.

Focus - camera shake, motion blur at low shutter speeds or AF on wrong thing without knowing it

Exposure - blown highlights, dark faces of backlit subjects, failure to check histogram and no idea how to use exposure compensation

Ignorance of camera functions - fiddling with controls not knowing what they do and leaving the camera in a less than ideal state


Common mistakes:

  • Very bad composition.
  • Wrong location for the subject
  • Clipped highlights on the subject
  • Wrong White Balance
  • Shooting Jpegs only
  • Focusing on the wrong part of the objects body

Some of these mistakes are due to not knowing how to use a camera well and not having enough accessories, such as flashes, umbrellas, reflectors, selection of lenses for different applications...etc Other mistakes are due to not having enough artistic abilities or the "eye", which is developed with constant practice.


Most common mistakes which I made over time and I realized later were generally:

  1. Not knowing my camera well enough - I just avoided playing with my camera in the initial days and would just take it out to shoot and kept shooting pictures over 3 months with the default settings.

  2. Not at all following rule of thirds - I seriously had no clue what it was till the time someone actually mentioned it to me as a passing note.

  3. Another mistake which I made was actually not using the backgrounds properly. You just can't imagine how much difference it makes to select the right background. Right background can make or break a picture.


Years ago while taking snapshots with family I took two immediately after each other, one with flash and one without, to demonstrate the difference.


enter image description here

No flash:

enter image description here

Same location, same time of day, but the flash changes the entire look of the scene. Beginners use flash mindlessly without actually understanding what affect it has on their pictures.

(related quick tip: Overcast days are actually the best light for photos.)

Most of the seemingly-dramatic difference here is not due to the flash per se, but due to the difference in exposure and white balance that your camera happened to choose when you activated the flash. –  mattdm Oct 6 at 10:47

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