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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.

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I don't know if Michael Johnston is scoping Photo.SE for story ideas or what, but he just posted this: The Three Biggest Mistakes Amateur Photographers Make (Not necessarily beginner amateur photographers...) –  coneslayer May 12 '11 at 17:48
This looks to me like it's more appropriate for community wiki, there's no "right" answer here to accept. –  John Cavan May 12 '11 at 19:28
@mattdm: How exactly is "What are common beginnier mistakes (plural) on photography?" NOT asking for a list of probable mistakes? As far as I can tell, there is not a "right answer" here, and just about any answer supplied would be useful and valuable so long as it wasn't substantially incorrect. –  jrista May 12 '11 at 21:51
Yeah, I have to say that this seems exactly like the sort of thing we should be flipping over to CW... Great information that we want to keep hold of, but no single definitive right answer... –  Jay Lance Photography May 12 '11 at 22:29
@mattdm - Part of the premise of the site is that general questions have an answer that can be accepted. This is not such a question, I think, there will be a lot of answers that are equally valid. Such a question then can be closed as subjective, a vote for this already exists, or it can be more generally informative as a wiki page. I think wiki makes sense here, it can be useful and, as a wiki, is more open to editing than it would be otherwise and that, hopefully, leads to more useful outcomes. –  John Cavan May 13 '11 at 3:27

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.

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Yeah, great link, thanks. –  fmark May 12 '11 at 16:52
Also, +1 for including suggestions on how to address the problems. –  fmark May 12 '11 at 18:44
+1, especially for point 3. –  Jerry Coffin May 12 '11 at 19:24
I'm curious as to the downvote.... any comment? –  mattdm May 12 '11 at 20:22
I gave it a -1 'cause everyone knows it's impossible to be too caught up in equipment. ;-) (and only kidding about the -1, it was really a +1. Solid points there IMO)... –  Jay Lance Photography May 12 '11 at 22:32

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.

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I saw somebody using their popup flash for a sunset shot shooting off the top of a cliff - I actually laughed out loud at them. –  rfusca May 12 '11 at 17:22
Don't most systems now use some form of TTL flash metering that alleviates the exposure issue? –  rfusca May 12 '11 at 17:23
Yeah, I think usually these days it's just annoying and wastes batteries — the pictures come out fine. Which doesn't provide any incentive to stop doing it. :) –  mattdm May 12 '11 at 17:43
A lot of cameras use TTL but I would not say most. Maybe most very recent ones? I did not do the stats, so this is my educated guess. –  Itai May 12 '11 at 17:48
Not only in sun day. But these scared faces over night without any background (just a black mess). And they show such a picture to you and say: "- Look, there is a monument behind!" –  Genius May 12 '11 at 19:26

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.

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I would say, many famous photographers use this method ("hope for Lady Luck") - so if it works, why not? There are mistakes much worse beginners do –  Genius May 12 '11 at 19:21
I disagree with this answer. Thinking and preparing is a great way to never shoot anything. In art, the way to achieve quality is through quantity; shoot a ton of photos and pick the best one. Read Art and Fear, there's a great anecdote in there about sculpture students. –  jhocking May 13 '11 at 0:39
@Genius - could you name a couple of examples, and why do you think they play only for luck? @jhocking - why would you think about what would make a photo "best one" only during picking, but not on the scene? Will you even shoot the best one to pick it later? Should you make 50 sculptures and THEN pick the best one each time? In context of the question, when I see a beginner thinking and preparing too much, I'll make sure to edit my answer. –  Imre May 13 '11 at 5:47
James Nachtwey –  Genius May 13 '11 at 8:12
@Stainsor a sheet of paper held in front of the flash would both weaken and soften the light. If you don't have the paper (or time to use it), this is an example of situation where you can't get closer (for technical reasons). Also, if you know what "fill light" means and when you should use it, there's a good chance you're not be a beginner any more :) –  Imre Oct 20 '11 at 5:00

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.

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Or tormenting you with questions like "What are common beginner mistakes in photography?" ;) –  fmark May 12 '11 at 19:19
Bingo! I agree, 100%. It can get far worse than that too... It gets to the point where some think it's the gear that makes the image. –  John Cavan May 13 '11 at 3:24

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.)

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These are all things I'm working on. –  khedron May 14 '11 at 1:32
"Letting the camera decide the aperture/shutter speed" - are you promoting full manual always? Because I'd hardly call using A or S mode as an issue. Not understanding what A or S mode really is,when to use it, or when its wrong - that's a mistake. –  rfusca May 14 '11 at 1:40
@rfusca There's a time and a place for letting the camera decide aperture/shutter speed, but if you have the time to decide what adjustments to make and the time to make them, you should most likely manually adjust your camera. When the camera's making the choices, it pretty much won't ever give you the best picture possible... not even close. –  Michael May 14 '11 at 2:22

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.

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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

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@Genius - your math sucks if thats 90% sky to you and its not a boring sky either –  rfusca May 12 '11 at 19:33
it isn't really a very good photo either –  JamWheel May 12 '11 at 19:38
I think the main issue with "Uninteresting" is that it is hugely subjective - it depends on the intended audience, that audience's interests etc. –  JamWheel May 12 '11 at 20:22
Crop the shoe pic square, add some vignetting, cross-processing effects, maybe some scratches, and it'll be a good photograph. At least that's my understanding based on the Internets. –  coneslayer May 13 '11 at 0:17
@coneslayer - better? ;0 i.imgur.com/oyFC5.jpg –  rfusca May 13 '11 at 4:09

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.
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+1 to asking questions here. –  mattdm May 12 '11 at 17:44
-1 for the flattery, though. really, other people here deserve being mentioned more than me. :) –  mattdm May 12 '11 at 17:44
This bothers me a little bit. Maybe your answer is geared towards "beginner to DSLR photography who has a lot of experience in regular photography". The first step for a newbie should not be buying $4000 worth of lenses! –  khedron May 12 '11 at 18:00
@khedron Yeah, we mainly bought our 550D to document my partner's art now that she has started selling her work so we only have the 50 f/1.8, but its opened up a whole new world of photography to me. So many pictures to make even with only one focal length! –  fmark May 12 '11 at 18:41
On the suggestion of spending a lot of money to start: theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2010/… –  mattdm May 12 '11 at 20:25

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.

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So you're answer is: "there are no mistakes"? –  fmark May 12 '11 at 16:23
Nah, my answer is: it's a mistake to get hung up on mistakes. From the end of the essay: "The idea is to put a pick in one hand and a guitar in the other and with a tiny movement rule the world." In this case it's a camera instead of a guitar, but that's a minor detail. –  mattdm May 12 '11 at 16:31
The essay also has excellent advice on choosing a camera brand. –  mattdm May 12 '11 at 17:07

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.

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I remember doing that ;-) 90% of my photos were at f/1.4 after I bought a fast prime lens. Nowadays, I try to stick to f/16 and almost never go beyond f/4... –  eWolf Oct 14 '11 at 18:47
I would say that "blindly" sticking to any one aperture is just as bad, regardless of which one it is. You probably wouldn't take many portraits using f/16, either. –  Michael Kjörling Oct 18 '11 at 14:25
On semi-auto (P) mode, the Canon T1i takes the 50 f/1.8 wide-open as fast as it can. Admittedly, I'm mostly taking pictures at night, indoors, after dinner and before the toddler's bedtime, so perhaps it's not making a bad decision, but that's what I've observed. I've become much more conscious of it, especially since when you're up close, the DOF can be so thin (eyes in focus, ears not, etc). –  khedron Oct 18 '11 at 16:43

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).

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Looking at a photo after an event the other day, I thought I had cut off everybody's feet. I was quite embarrassed and disappointed in myself. Then I realized I had actually just zoomed into the photo without noticing, and the picture was fine ... I was equally embarrassed. –  Vian Esterhuizen May 13 '11 at 2:40

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.

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Assuming you shoot the big 2, not all of us do. –  John Cavan May 13 '11 at 3:18
My guess is renting doesn't make economic sense for most people. Why not just buy on Amazon and take advantage of their excellent return policy (assuming of course there is a decent chance you would want to keep the lens)? –  rm999 May 13 '11 at 19:09
My own example - I was helping my wife with a soccer tournament that she organized, and realized that it would be nice to have some great "Sports Illustrated look" photos from the event. I rented a 70-200 f/2.8 VR lens for the weekend for $50, and captured a great deal of fantastic pictures, printing some of them poster-sized. Outside of that event, I wouldn't have much use for that $2,300 lens. –  Toybuilder May 13 '11 at 20:22
Fair enough, but I wouldn't call it a common beginner mistake. –  rm999 May 13 '11 at 22:07

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.

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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.
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There really needs to be more information here - especially if you're going to reference something as dynamic as Facebook. –  rfusca May 13 '11 at 17:42
Updated. I think it's still a mistake new photographers make though. –  Nick Bedford May 13 '11 at 22:51
Starting a business? Sure, thats a mistake - it wasn't even clear until you went to facebook that that was what you were talking about though. My downvote removed. –  rfusca May 14 '11 at 1:36

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.

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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

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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.)

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I have to say, I actually preferred the first shot. It had a lot more depth and contrast to it, the second looked washed out and plain. Sorry, you may need a better example... :) –  John Cavan May 13 '11 at 3:17
I have to agree with @JohnCavan. The first photo would have been quite impressive had the flash been zoomed/snooted/shielded keeping it from spilling on the pavement. Certainly more interesting than the second one where the light sky grabs attention away from faces. –  Imre May 13 '11 at 5:24
darn, well thanks for the feedback! –  jhocking May 13 '11 at 11:08
Just to counter that, I prefer the second one. It looks far more natural! –  ChrisFletcher Jul 18 '11 at 16:54

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.

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