9 out of 10 photos that I take are boring, and this is immediately apparent when I look at a new batch on my computer screen. Since I'm fully capable of identifying a bad photo, why can't I stop myself from pressing the shutter button when I see it in the viewfinder?

It's wishful thinking, right? Not seeing the forest for the trees? Is it because I'm subconsciously chasing that feeling I get on those rare occasions when I was unsure about a composition and then it came out great?

Having a concept in mind before-hand usually makes for much better images, but when I'm out with my camera and something mildly interesting comes into view, I can't help but think that it's going to be worthwhile. It's all the worse when I'm taking a photo of a friend - what seems like a great photo in the moment usually turns out bland with the person in an awkward pose.

Has anyone managed to overcome this optimism bias and/or tunnel vision? What do you do that allows you to think critically and see the whole scene objectively before wasting film or megabytes?

Addendum: I'm a PhD student studying the cognitive neuroscience of vision, and given the way that the brain constructs the world using the limited faculties of the eye (e.g. only a small fraction of the visual field is resolved with high acuity), this inability to quickly assess a scene objectively comes as no surprise. The moments I'm trying to capture are often fleeting, and my eye likely resolves the one thing of interest and the rest of the world is filled-in by the brain's construction of reality, which is seems to be either a poor representation of what light is actually doing, or just a blissful disregard for all the boring garbage that fills the rest of the scene... Could it be that the greats like W. Eugene Smith somehow learned to quickly see each part of a scene and was able to decide if it was a good shot or not before the moment passed? Is this an ability that's just naturally present in some people, or do most photographers have to do some sort of rigorous eye training to get there? How did you get there?

The worst case scenario: I spent 10 minutes setting-up this long exposure, and I thought it might be really cool. The result though, is clearly boring, even if there are a couple of interesting elements

  • 28
    Hi Ross, Welcome to photo.stackexchange. Keep up the good work. I wish I had a 1 keeper out of every ten shots! Worse, what if you took only one shot and it didn't capture what you intended. You call it optimism bias and someone else might call it law-of-averages. Besides, it's easier to edit yourself after-the-fact than try to re-shoot anything I can think of.
    – Stan
    Aug 13, 2017 at 21:22
  • 7
    @RossAdamson it may be worth mentioning if you're shooting film over digital in that case (these days the presumption tends to be digital over film) as I would have had a go writing an answer based on digital.
    – Crazy Dino
    Aug 13, 2017 at 22:20
  • 2
    Thanks for the input everyone - @Tasos, this is the Toronto waterfront Aug 15, 2017 at 23:52
  • 3
    Have you considered evaluating every photo you take for why you don't think it is a good picture? Perhaps with others? The clearer you make this to yourself the easier it is to recognize it next time you are about to press the shutter. Aug 16, 2017 at 20:21
  • 1
    The comments were getting a little out of control, so I moved most of them that weren't related directly to improving or getting more information about the question to chat.
    – AJ Henderson
    Aug 17, 2017 at 16:14

22 Answers 22


Practice, practice, practice. This is something I set myself to do and it is progressing although not as easily as anticipated.

Like you, I decided to simply not take the poor shots after having developed an eye for what is a good photo in my vision. I started with a ratio around 100:1 from before knowing what a good photo is! With a better idea of exposure and composition, it did not take long to get to 10:1 but from there it has been very difficult, taking years to get to 8:1 and now around 6:1. Note that this is an average ratio and some situations are just harder. The more motion there is in the scene, the higher the miss-to-success ratio.

Things that made the biggest difference:

  1. Pre-visualizing. Looking at elements around you and deciding if there is enough to make a scene.
  2. Inspecting the whole frame. Most people shoot when they see something they like in the frame. It is much better to shoot when you only see something you like in the frame.
  3. Double-checked edges. Using a camera with a 100% coverage viewfinder is immensely relieving for this. I make sure nothing or no one is crossing the edge of my frames, unless shooting pattern of objects or crowds.
  4. Press the shutter slowly. While releasing the shutter carefully watch if anything is come towards the edge of your frame and if your camera is level and make sure it stays that way.
  5. Learn to see the light in a scene. Particularly contrast, since cameras have a limited dynamic range. You will have a better idea of when a shot cannot be exposed properly. Now I usually pay particular attention to the time of day and which way a subject is facing to guess when the light will hit it in a better way since light changes along the day.
  6. Review your shoots as soon as possible. Learn from them and repeat. This is essential when passing the 10:1 level. A lot of shots seemed thought out at that point but when seeing them in context, I started seeing why some were better.
  • 1
    Lovely answer. Don't want to write my own whole answer, but could 5. be expanded to mention the effect of daylight at different times?
    – Crazy Dino
    Aug 13, 2017 at 22:22
  • 4
    That #5 is a big one. It's hard to subvert all the things that our eyes and brain do to provide the abundance of cognitive fodder we get from the worst lit of scenes. Honestly, if I was going to the trouble of exposing big pieces of film, I'd probably cheat and always snap the scene with my phone first. ;) Aug 14, 2017 at 4:34
  • Indeed it is a difficult one to master, the eye is so easily tricked. It goes with knowing the camera too, now I can guess more often than not when and by how much my camera will over or underexpose a particular scene.
    – Itai
    Aug 14, 2017 at 14:59
  • 1
    I emphasize #6 as well. While we can do "critical thinking" long after the fact, much of the skill of seeing what the camera sees is handled subconsciously. The sooner you review the shots, the more likely it is that your subconscious will be able to remember the shot and learn from it.
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 14, 2017 at 16:11
  • Is the ratio really the quantity one should be interested in? Because I can not only improve this by making each shot better but also by making fewer “risky” shots. If I make 10 bad shots and 1 good one in a given time interval, this may be worse than making 24 bad shots and 2 good ones in the same time interval.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 19, 2017 at 19:09

Totally not a photography expert, but I would still like to offer my 2¢. The mistake I often do is include way too much of the part of the image that isn't relevant to the scene, just because there's some nice details there. Generally that usually means "too much land, not enough sky", or "I have to look 'up' to see the horizon". In your case, I feel you focus too much on the algae on the sidewalk (which I agree looks nice as an element, but not necessarily the only interesting feature in your photo). The problem with that is, you then totally miss the person sitting on the edge. And if you include a tiny bit of the algae, but still in proportion with the rest of the image elements, it's still a nice touch.

Consider the following crop instead

Professional photographers might disagree, but to me this is a more interesting focus of the whole.

First of all, it simulates what you would actually see as a human. The focus is the kid. Everything around him, in real-life vision, fades into completely low resolution; you would have to focus on the scene to see other details. Furthermore, we tend to perceive things more along a horizontal axis rather than a vertical axis. This is why wide-ratio photos work better (in my opinion). They just feel more 'natural'. It's also why humans in general tend to be oblivious to things happening above them or below their visual field, (unless they're really really shy). In fact, that's the other thing about including too much 'bottom details': the observer gets that uncomfortable feeling that they were cowering their head in shyness. By focusing on the horizon level, you literally lift the viewer's gaze up, and also their spirits. You're actually looking at the scene now, it's not just something that happens in the background while you're shyly looking at the floor.

Secondly, suddenly, there are a lot of interesting elements here that stand in isolation when you care to look for them. The algae, the bushes, the light, the buildings and skyline, etc. There's also some nice line symmetries at play (rule of thirds in terms of sea/buildings/sky, as well as the 'vanishing point' lines caused by the seafront, railings, and tree-tops). Also, the child is the 'central focus', but also not 'dead centre placed', which would be the equivalent of a football team shot.

Lastly, as someone else pointed out, there's a lot of nice post-processing that will bring elements out (I have done some very basic post-processing here in GIMP as an example): contrast/brightness, to bring out more details in the otherwise dark foliage; white balance / stretch hsv to get rid of that noisy dull texture overall; play with colour balance to bring out that nice pink in the sky, and the contrast to the green bushes and the bluish sidewalk. And lastly, you can simulate depth of field by blurring the image edges a bit; this simulates the whole "low resolution as you move out of focus" that feels natural to human vision, and also helps the viewer to mentally feel that the boy is indeed the focus of the image, rather than a big collection of stuff happening, all equally weighted.

EDIT: showing two more possible interpretations / approaches to the photo, as per the comments below:

Left: Focus on texture (Desktop wallpaper intent). Right: Simulated lower camera angle

  • 19
    Having said all that, from a practical (rather than a compositional) point of view, it is far better to get an image you can later crop to your satisfaction, rather than attempt to get the perfect photo on the spot. So I agree that you are more likely to get 10 photos from many angles / dimensions and choose the best one to crop, rather than aim to get that 1 perfect shot on the spot. Aug 14, 2017 at 11:38
  • 4
    @dannemp Interesting. Why do you think this? I felt I'd answered both in terms of practical concerns (look at scene, simulate viewers gaze, visual field, and overall scene theme, avoid focusing on details outside the scene, focus on a scene that has a variety of interesting elements rather than the reverse, don't worry about including all the detail if it doesn't build up the scene / look at line and vanishing point symmetries, etc) as well as in terms of 'theory of attention and vision'. What elements of OP's question do you feel have been left unaddressed? Aug 14, 2017 at 14:06
  • 14
    @dannemp - I'd disagree with that. It is perhaps not explicitly stating it, but the strongly implied answer is that the problem isn't taking bad photos, it's seeing the good photo but capturing more than just that image.
    – AJ Henderson
    Aug 14, 2017 at 14:17
  • 50
    I only noticed the person after reading your answer:)
    – Pavel
    Aug 14, 2017 at 18:51
  • 4
    Thanks for the input - and that crop does work much better, even if it the long exposure effect on the water touching the concrete that was the main thing I set out to capture Aug 15, 2017 at 23:41

Your photo looks a lot like my "wish I'd done better" photos as well. The first thing that comes to mind is that you're trying to balance a couple of ideas/rules and end up with bland. Like the person with one foot on the boat and one foot on the dock: if you don't commit to one or the other, you fall into the water.

In this case, if you really wanted to focus on the water, I'd have gotten down on knees and elbows to get really close to the water and that moss. Maybe zoom a bit to make the buildings larger.

Or, hold the camera out over the water but point it more to the right. Cut out the cityscape entirely and focus on the water and the contrast with the path/lights/concrete.

You've got your receding/converging line at the water's edge, the time-exposed water, the cityscape, the graffiti/concrete, the path and lights, ... and it sort of all blends into a middle-of-the-road stew. I've done that a lot with videos where, say, I'm trying to interview someone and trying to balance out the background, etc, etc, and somehow convince myself that a blank wall behind them works.

  • 1
    I agree, it's an element hodgepodge - much too busy with a gaping hole of low interest occupying a lot of the frame Aug 15, 2017 at 23:43

Well the first thought I'd have is that this is begging for some post processing.

You're completely wasting the highlights in that image that hide a fabulous sky. There are many ways to pull those highlights out without loosing the midtones and shadows.

The image you posted is fine, but you haven't exploited it to it's full potential. Post processing offers enormous opportunities to get the full impact from what you shoot (including great black and white options from any color shot).

Here's what some work in GIMP (from your basic uploaded JPEG) produce and keep in mind this isn't the best quality file to start working from.

In general you may need to think of shooting as just part one of producing a shot. Then you work on it to extract what you want/felt when you shot.

It's not always possible to get what you want. Some shots seem like better ideas when you shoot than later. But I feel you may be neglecting a lot of potential by not following through with some basic post processing.

enter image description here

  • While having a good starting material is important I completely agree that post processing is one of the most important steps in producing an interesting image. Sometimes you can turn a rather bland image into something really good. When I started using Lightroom more I have developed a sense of what can be achieved with it and now I sometimes frame a photo with some edit already in my mind.
    – dannemp
    Aug 14, 2017 at 7:54
  • I 100% agree with this answer. In this particular case, it seems like your impression of a good shot wasn't off, but the execution of the shot is the source of issue. The main "subject" of this image is the sky, or more directly the reflection of the sky. The framing focuses on it and everything else simply borders the image of the sky on the water, however the water is then apparently overexposed with no detail resulting in a wash of white with nothing to catch the eye. If the focus was going to be the side or the skyline, then the camera probably needed to be framed angled up more.
    – AJ Henderson
    Aug 14, 2017 at 14:15
  • You're totally right, I should try to get more out of that negative Aug 15, 2017 at 23:42
  • @RossAdamson - one thing to bear in mind is that no-one but you knows what that scene looked like on the day... nor, tbh, do they ever care. Colour is a tool to make it look like what people would dream it may look like.
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 16, 2017 at 17:46

I'm going to add my 2¢ too even if it's probably repeating what others have said.


You shouldn't be ashamed / scared of post processing. Even before digital professional photographers post processed their images. They also take 100s of images and select just a few to present so just be aware even they discard 99 out of 100 images (I made that number up but I'm sure it's not an too far off).

I first noticed this when I got my first DSLR. All the pictures came out bland compared to my high end point and shoot. I eventually realized my point and shoot was probably doing more post processing in the camera itself to make my pictures pop more. Of course just more contrasty pictures does not mean my composition was any good but it was a signal that post processing is important.

I used to post process sometimes in Photoshop but I'd highly recommend Adobe Lightroom because it's designed to allow you to quickly post process lots of images. I can go through images and touch them up at least 30x faster in Lightroom than Photoshop and it's made at least trying things out such a breeze. I can go out, take 30-100 images, come back and have looked at all of them, tried different things on many of them, and chosen a few to actually present in usually under 30 minutes.

I'm not a pro by any means but here's my attempt at post processing your photo in Lightroom. I'm not claiming this is good but I'll explain why/how I arrived at this as maybe listing my steps will be useful.

enter image description here

First I tried just adjusting the exposure, contrast, clarity and related settings. Maybe because I'm not a pro but nothing I did made the picture work for me. I guess I personally wanted it to be more contrasty but I didn't like where it was going. Whether that's just taste or my lack of Lightroom skills or the low-contrast of the image I'm not sure.

I tried various presets and black and white but wasn't quite sure, it wasn't working for me.

I then tried cropping out the left side of the image. To me the tall buildings on the left were a distraction. I've seen lots of advice that often the less busy a picture is the better. Unfortunately when I did that the picture didn't seem to work without more water in front of the shoreline.

So, I noticed the person in the image, is that the subject? Most times when there's one person in an image they end up being the subject even if I didn't want them to. Being so small it was hard to see the person though.

I cropped wider than this at first. Again I noticed things that distracted me. The buildings were still on the left so I cropped those out. Then I noticed the graffiti on the concrete. It was large and contrasty and seemed like another distraction so I cropped that out. I then adjusted the the colors again and settled on higher contrast black and white, upped the clarity a little and added some vignetting to push the focus to the person. At the point the lamp under the trees also seemed like a distraction. Cropping that out I was personally happy with it. I might have preferred the person to be more off center, more water in front, but that would have put the buildings back in the picture. Either that or I could have cropped more on the right but I felt like I had cropped so much already that I probably couldn't go there.

Whether or not you like the result the point I wanted to make is post processing and cropping are your friend.

  • 4
    tbh, I don't like what you did with the picture - but I do like that you did it. [I hope that reads as positive... hard to do in text.]
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 16, 2017 at 17:50
  • Yes, no problem. Even though you don't like it maybe the cropping suggests different compositions or at least suggests being aware of 3 the three things I noticed, the buildings, graffiti, and lamp, that I cut out. Maybe you want those in the shot which is fine too it's just good to be aware of them. For me, in the original shot my eyes are first drawn to the lamp, then to the red graffiti, then to the buildings. As others pointed out I didn't notice the person for a while. I have no idea if that was the subject or not or if you wanted people to see those 3 things first.
    – gman
    Aug 16, 2017 at 17:57
  • I agree with the points @gman is making here - you have to consider all the parts of the image which may distract the viewer. And then you can move the camera before taking the photo to allow nice image composition without distracting elements. If you just take the photo as-is and later crop to remove the distracting elements, you'll end up cropping a lot. For example, gman mentions that he would have preferred the person to be more off center after framing the lamp out of the image. That's possible if you can move the camera around before taking the photo. Aug 21, 2017 at 12:40

Your question and explanation involves why. I can't begin to answer such a question here. Nobody can. It might even be off-topic; but, it's one of the most intriguing questions.

Every photograph answers its own "why;" however, I propose a situation that may better allow you to decide for yourself:

The next time you go off to capture your miracle, limit yourself to a single shot.

My reasoning based on experience: For years, I had one film holder and an 8"x10" view camera. I found that my choice of when to take my shot became different from when I had an ability to take many. The (effort of using a) view camera in the field changed the way I set-up, aimed, focussed, and exposed my only shot. The high cost of film and long time necessary to hand process my film changed the value of the shot. I had to plan who, what, where, when, and how before I even lifted my bags of equipment.

This exercise (no kidding) allowed me to thoughtfully examine my answer to why I was about to press the shutter release.

Try it. That's my suggestion for how to answer your question of why.


This is the same picture cropped to follow the rule of thirds. You could keep the rule of thirds in mind when first taking it.

In the original photo, the left half is water and the right half is land, which is like a giant divide down the middle. So the viewer has to choose between left and right. It's as if the artist is presenting a choice to the viewer: left or right. There could be a time for this (I believe the word is "juxtaposition"), if you want to deliberately compare two things. But these two things aren't looking to be contrasted or compared, so the viewer is simply confused.

And vertically, I think the buildings are too far away, almost like an afterthought, which leaves the bottom left very empty. So vertically it's unbalanced. And horizontally it was too centered. 3rds gives a nice balance between "too far away" and "too centered".

enter image description here

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – AJ Henderson
    Aug 17, 2017 at 16:05

Things to think about:

  • Mastering technique is paramount. Forget about "art". Reread the manual for your camera.

  • Have you color calibrated your camera? Did you measure the light levels in the scene? Did you get the ambient and overhead light spectrum for your scene?

  • The scene is oversaturated in blue due to the evening light. You should have used a filter to block this light. The human eye does this naturally. If you want a photo to look good, you have to do what the eye does: block out oversaturations and balance the color. This can be precisely done with technical filters and a spectrometer, or you can wing it with experience.

  • The image is out of focus (except the foreground). Some people think out of focus images are cool. I try to do what the eye does: keep everything in focus. Hard to get more basic than that. Focus.

  • The exposure is poor. The trees are blacked out and the water has glare. Learn about exposure bracketing and compositing multiple images with different exposures. Better yet, learn how to work your lenses and cameras to get the best possible exposure in each single image. HDR is not magic, if you feed bad images in, you will get bad composites out.

  • You are shooting down at the scene. Most things look crappy when you look down on them. Try looking up instead. When I take shots of people, I kneel.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – AJ Henderson
    Aug 17, 2017 at 16:02

Close one eye before taking the photo. Some images may look spectacular when seen in the glorious 3-D that your two eyes give you, but are a bit duller or more boring in the flattened 2-D that appears on a photograph.

Closing one eye shows you what it looks like in 2-D, and therefore is a better representation of the photo.

  • Doesn't matter if it is obvious among photographers, we have lots of new photographers just starting out that might not know it, and you're right, nobody pointed it out yet. It's a good observation and a good answer that could certainly contribute. No need to specify that you aren't sure if it's too basic.
    – AJ Henderson
    Aug 17, 2017 at 15:41
  • If you have good enough gear, 3-D look can be emulated using big iris opening (low f-number). You have to select one point of interest in that case and put the focus there, though. Aug 21, 2017 at 12:42

Long short, photography is different from human vision. The brain does a lot of pre-processing, post-processing, filling in the gaps, etc. It produces an "idealized" image in the mind. The camera is basically an eyeball. You aren't going to be able to capture "what you see" with a camera. So, do what the brain does-- take lots of images, disregard most, and manipulate the heck out of the ones that are good.

  • Right, but how do we get past our limitations? Aug 15, 2017 at 23:54
  • 1
    We don't transcend our limits. I think the situation is with the greats, you are only seeing their best work, and not the thousands (literally) of photos they took that were boring or even bad. I heard, somewhere along the line, that some well-respected famous artistic photographer said that, in his career, his ratio of worthwhile shots to bad went from 1% to 3%. You just have to shoot thousands of photos, consciously compose them, figure out what went wrong with the bad ones, and keep at it. Nobody bats 1000. Fortunately we are in the digital era and thousands of photos cost next to nothing.
    – user151841
    Aug 16, 2017 at 0:30
  • 2
    @RossAdamson here's one exercise I picked up a long time ago. Whatever it is you saw in that scene above, keep shooting it until you capture it. It doesn't matter if you shoot it every day for the rest of your life. Do it because you're driven, because you have to, because you're an artist. Try different lenses, different cameras, different film, different techniques, different post processing. Photoshop it, do the image as a collage, paint it. Do it because you need other people to see what it is you saw, because you have to share your experience with us.
    – user151841
    Aug 16, 2017 at 1:24
  • You can't simply press a button and expect it to just work.
    – user151841
    Aug 16, 2017 at 1:25

I am a street photographer and so my ratio of 'good' shots is trivial (perhaps 1:100). My definition of a good shot is not just a shot that is in focus or decently composed but a shot that is more than the content. These kinds of shots depend on tweaking something within the viewer that makes shot meaningful in some way - intellectually, psychologically or emotionally.

My 'bad' shots are ones that don't have that something extra, the 'good' shots are ones that resonate not only with me but, I hope, with the minds of a good proportion of the viewers. The good shot hits universal points.

enter image description here

  • This is a great point. It's perhaps a bit tangential to the OPs question since they are dealing with landscapes that are less fleeting, but certainly when photographing people, that perfect moment for the shot is much more fleeting and harder to capture, so hit:miss ratios tend to be much, much worse.
    – AJ Henderson
    Aug 16, 2017 at 13:31
  • @AJHenderson The question mentions only one photographer, W. Eugene Smith, as a reference. He was a newspaper photographer by trade (from the age of 14) and his typical work looks like something that could be called 'street photography' (anachronism not withstanding).
    – user50888
    Aug 16, 2017 at 22:10
  • Discussion of emotional connection in photography has been moved to chat.
    – AJ Henderson
    Aug 17, 2017 at 16:03
  • Is that a good photograph or a bad photograph? It's hard to tell from the context.
    – wizzwizz4
    Aug 19, 2017 at 12:03
  • @wizzwizz4 the answer to whether it is good or bad resides within your mind. Good or Bad depends on how the photo resonates with you. Apr 23, 2020 at 20:22

The answer to why is because understanding a good photo and taking one are different skills. Think of it this way - can you tell when someone plays a musical instrument poorly? Probably. Can you play that same instrument better? Unless you've done some training in that particular instrument, probably not. Have you ever thought a feature film was bad? I have! Could I write, direct or act well in a feature film? No.

The skills involved with critiquing a photo have to do with recognizing things like composition, lighting, focus, etc. The skills involved with taking a photo have to do with capturing a good composition with good lighting and good focus.

The way to get better at most things is with deliberate practice. Pick one piece of the puzzle that you're having trouble with and take a bunch of pictures where you try to improve that aspect. I did this with focus, for example. I was having a lot of trouble with focus in my pictures, so I read up on different techniques for getting better at focusing. Then I went out and took a bunch of pictures where I tried to improve the focus in the shot using those techniques. Eventually I reached a point where I was happy with what I was capturing and it was time to improve the next thing on my list.

  • Interesting analogy - there's a difference though: when I press the shutter button, it's because I've decide that the photo is 'good', but when I fool around with a guitar I know for sure that what I'm doing sucks. I think you're right about deliberate practice Aug 15, 2017 at 23:48

About 15 years ago I took a photography course. We were still using film, since digital SLR cameras were much too expensive. One of our teachers told us to expect not more than one good shot per roll of film (of 36 shots). This meant loading a roll on the camera, taking shots and developing the film would result in at most one useable shot.

I believe the same rule still applies today. You have to take lots and lots of pictures to get only a couple good ones. After years of practice this ratio will slightly improve, but expect to take lots of bad pictures and only a few good ones.

  • 1
    This! The only way to quit taking bad photos is to quit taking photos. Every master, of any form, I've ever met, could cheerfully say, "Wow, that's just awful!", about their own work, and throw it out. The best ones did it the most. Cheer up, and go make something!
    – Neal
    Aug 16, 2017 at 13:18
  • With digital, I just snap & look at the screen... & snap & look & snap &... until I get what I want. Good job I'm not trying to do sports ;) For my day job I work in the movie industry, where an hour for a camera move/re-light is not unusual. There's a stand-in who's paid to get bored while that is done, then the talent comes on & the shot itself is done.
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 16, 2017 at 18:05

It looks a lot like you are a landscape/street/architecture type photographer. Some thoughts for this discipline.

When you find a scene that appeals to you, try shooting a few totally different perspectives instead of just the one that seems like a winner. Often the best image is more about capturing some ineffable quality of the scene than being technically interesting.

Another great exercise is to shoot with only one focal length for a while, eventually with practice you will be able to anticipate the images before lifting the camera.

This always requires practice, for everyone, even the masters.

Nobody takes 100% perfect images.

Considering the photo in the question. Long exposures in the evening tend to have very flat colorless light, even though they look fabulously colorful to the photographer's eye. You probably saw amazing colors reflected in the water and present in the sky that made this composition make sense.


I think "bad" photos are needed for comparison. Without trial and error, one would not be able to define what is good or bad.

In my opinion one should combine the advances of both: the impulsiveness and more thoughtful photography. So, carrying a pocket camera (or good quality phone camera) along with you all the time is strongly recommended. Keep on taking impulsive snapshots of anything that interests you, and then, if you have time, check the results right there on the spot and see if you can do better. There is no need to save all the taken photos.

Moreover, consume images! I personally learned most about photography when I participated to 365 image challenge on social media, where a group of people are trying to get one picture taken per each day of the year, post them to a group, and discuss about them. By seeing pictures taken by others and to get some comments is the most rewarding and educating process.

  • Thanks =) I'll be learning slowly what is the best way around here. I suppose in general a few well formed answers is better than many. My point is more less what Itai said: "Practise, practise, practise." From contructivist learning point of view, every situation is a rehearsal for the future. Aug 17, 2017 at 5:40
  • Yes, and having diverse answers is good. That isn't to say that you can't provide a similar answer but better explained or with more detail if existing answers don't really seem to fully cover it though. The idea with voting for answers is that the best answers hopefully bubble to the top, It can get hard on posts with lots of answers and is particularly hard as a new poster on a big post like this because some people may not look at some of the newer user's posts, but I'm glad you're here and adding your perspective.
    – AJ Henderson
    Aug 17, 2017 at 15:54
  • You can also hop in chat if you ever want more interactive discussion or feedback too. It's not always active, but we have a lot of people that stop by and check in on it regularly.
    – AJ Henderson
    Aug 17, 2017 at 15:56

Art is something you constantly can learn and improve on. It is not that you don't stop taking bad photos (though yes, the occasional error will still occur), it's that your opinion of "good" and "bad" change drastically as your skill increases.

I do photography professionally as a side job and I have photos that I discard as "bad" that others think are great photos. Similarly, if I revisit old photos, I wonder how I ever thought many of my early photos were good.

In my experience, hit rates do improve quite a bit, but you never get rid of "bad" photos entirely because part of the process of learning is capturing images and then seeing what worked and what didn't. As you learn more about what does work and what doesn't, you avoid the things you know don't work and the quality goes up, but so does your skill, so you start looking for new things to disqualify your work as "bad".

The hit to miss ratio is most pronounced when photographing people, especially later in developing your skill, since people have much more fleeting moments when great photos can be taken, but the principle still applies to landscapes. Personally at this point, I generally get somewhere around a 1:5 ratio for still-life and between 1:5 and 1:10 for events. (I'm by no means a high end professional, but I'd classify myself as middle of the pack in the professional arena.) My point though is that even when you get really good at the craft, you still have lots of misses because you are constantly raising the bar to do better. (It also depends on what you consider hits. For me, anything that I would rate a 5 star counts as a hit, but there's still a large variety within that range.)

A 1:10 hit rate for still-life is plenty respectable. It just means you are still learning at a quick rate. It's a good thing that you are still learning how to improve rather than a bad thing that you "still take bad photos". It's only really a bad thing if you can look back at your photos from 5-10 years ago and not see how far you've come in that time.


Here are my rambling thoughts:

I think the idea of a "good" or "bad" picture is contextual: if you were planning on exhibiting the picture above then yes, it's bad. If you were simply taking a picture of the area with a film camera and weren't going to process it yourself afterwards, then it's ok. But if, like me, when taking digital pictures you find that the first 6-8 are "warm up" pictures then this is a good start. From here I would get lower, put something in the foreground to help drag the viewers eye into the scene (rocks, more moss, a boat). I found that when I take film photos, I simply want the scene to be in focus and not dark, but when I take digital photos, I want the entire scene to be in focus, highlights recovered, shadows visible, etc etc.

When I'm taking a film photo, I always think to myself "do I absolutely love this composition/light/contrast/whatever". If not, or I have to think about it, then I don't take the picture, but I try to find the reason I put the camera up to my eye in the first place within the frame and concentrate on that. I shoot landscapes, so this is easier than people/pet/sports photography. I also try to maintain this mentality with digital photography, I will often take a picture on digital and just accept that the light is correct etc, I often won't see the image until I'm back on the PC.

Often, I try to "see" the scene first, I don't just mean the technical stuff, but actually see and feel the scene - is there a breeze moving the trees, do I want to capture it? Are there flocks of birds around, where's the light coming from, what are the clouds like? If this will be a long exposure (as yours was) what will the clouds do: which direction are they moving? etc. It's a meditative process; I'm trying to capture the essence of a scene. Too many times it's easier to click the button and depend on photoshop/lightroom afterwards. Personally, using the camera is the last thing I do when taking a picture in the field.

I have never deleted a picture; I find the "rubbish" ones are the ones you learn the most from. And often, looking at pictures I thought were rubbish 5 years ago with new eyes makes you appreciate them more.

  • Whilst it doesn't approach the covering question of "why do we take bad photos", in the OP's question he asks: "What do you do that allows you to think critically and see the whole scene objectively before wasting film or megabytes?". I guess I was thinking of my answer more as part of a conversation with the OP. I'm not a regular poster ;) Aug 17, 2017 at 16:06
  • Good point, I wasn't looking at it that way, but in that context it does fit well. Have an upvote and welcome to the site.
    – AJ Henderson
    Aug 17, 2017 at 16:17
  • A vary valid point not to delete anything, as long one just has enough space to storage and time to browse through them. I totally agree that mind and taste may change, and one can find "hidden treasures" among old shots. Aug 18, 2017 at 8:33

Like you, I also suffer from a frustrating inability to produce "good" photos. You admitted you are a 'PhD student studying the cognitive neuroscience of vision'. Perhaps I can help you to appreciate your predicament from the "scientific" side:

When you are deciding to take a picture, you are experiencing the entire environment of a scene first-hand. Your eyes and brain are doing a fantastic job of resolving what you are most interested in, but other parts of your brain/body are making huge, unappreciated contributions as well.

You are smelling the air, feeling the temperature, taking in the entire scene as you turn your head; your mood at the time and the people who are or are not present are also influencing your feelings at the time.

When you get home, your photograph is missing all of that "extra" data. Even though it can be a highly accurate measure of the photons at the scene, your picture lies there, dead, like some stranger's vacation photo.

The camera has flattened the color gamut and exposure range. It has no ability to highlight and enhance those small parts of the scene that your eye/brain did instantly and instinctively. The camera disregarded entirely the smell of the air and the touch of the breeze on your cheeks. You are left -- along with your viewers -- with something less than a view through a simple cardboard tube.

Until we develop a device that captures all this extra information, we must lean on Art to help recreate that mood. Artistic techniques gleaned from thousands of years of human experience can help to imply or instill the feelings unknown to the camera. Composition, color enhancement, focus, lighting and many more all can help to compensate for the losses, but they require skill to use.

With desire, patience and time you can learn to use the artistic techniques that can help you to compensate for what was filtered out of your experience.

Wish us both luck.


I think you're correct that you can't "see the forest for the trees," which is also known as "tunnel vision" or, in combat, especially combat aviation, as "target fixation."

I have the same problem in another domain, software and hardware design, which causes me to become fixated on oft trivial components and I end up with an overly complex, fragile design... which I then sit on fire and start over with something better integrated and simpler.

I too was originally going into the cognitive sciences but computers paid way better back the 80s, but I still keep a hand in. No one has done more research on perception and decision making than the military so I checked military sources to see how to get out my design bind.

The military trains pilots to break target fixation by forcing themselves to look away from the target, often over the shoulder, then back again. This is performed constantly, the pilot's head never still. It might be the actual origin of the term "rubber necking"

A secondary method is to look slightly away then back but fixating on a different part of the target e.g. tip of the left wing.

Both methods seem to work by forcing a reevaluation of the target in its entire. The first method seems to cause the brain to see the target as something new. It also fosters awareness of the target within the total context of the battle space allowing the pilot to better decide if the target is actually the priority. The second method rather goes the other way, triggering an a bottom up reevaluation, which links smaller parts to the greater whole and battle space in general.

In the case of photography, one would look away from the targeted image displayed in the camera and/or intentionally focusing your attention on random subareas of the focused area. Looking away and around would trigger the reevaluation and help you evaluate how strongly the general... call it "aesthetic space"... influences your perception of the quality of the actual photographed area. Focusing on random subareas might trigger better awareness of the internal composition, that created by the various elements within the greater photo.

All just a guess though. No research that I'm aware of on the matter but I've had success with it.


What is it you would like to show? The movement of the water, the sunset, the nature/trees, the lines, colors etc

What position or angle would enhance the shot? For example, your camera is pointing down a little which makes the fence posts not upright. If the focus was maybe the lines, then maybe these would work better upright, more pleasing to the eye.

Tripod, don't rush, take more than one photo. When you look through the viewfinder/LCD screen, visualize the final image.

A saying:

The person takes the great photo, photoshop can make it awesome.

If the photo isn't sharp, bad composition etc, photoshop can't help.

Play: Photography is fun, some of us get paid to do it, it's still fun. A few tips:

tripod remote fire or set camera to 2-second shutter use the zoom in on the lcd to get the image really sharp for wide shots like your post, get that aperture small. f22 etc try photos from different heights, from the floor/waist/head etc try taking photos keeping the camera perfectly level, see the outcome if you havent got a tripod, rest your arms on an object, lean up against something. finally: learn everything you can about your camera and play/play/play

  • 1
    These are good suggestions in general. However, in this particular case, the OP was using a film camera, so... verifying on the LCD, taking lots of mutiple shots, etc., wasn't an option.
    – scottbb
    Aug 14, 2017 at 16:52
  • @scottbb Are film photographers not allowed to use digital cameras? Even if doing so might improve their film photography skills? Aug 15, 2017 at 22:11
  • 1
    @BaileyS No, they are not. =) I'm kidding, of course. Yes, you are right, in the large, and especially nowadays where the (I assume) the large majority of photographers are digital, James's suggestions are very good. My point in commenting was to provide a gentle nudge that with respect to the OP's use (at least in this case), some of the points don't apply. It's a decent answer, that could be made better by somehow not being only applicable to digital photography. That's all.
    – scottbb
    Aug 15, 2017 at 22:19

What do you do that allows you to think critically and see the whole scene objectively before wasting film or megabytes?

I confirm the presence of basic building blocks like light quality, a subject I can isolate and prioritize visually, the ideal time window, and last but not least, is it even interesting.

Since I'm fully capable of identifying a bad photo, why can't I stop myself from pressing the shutter button when I see it in the viewfinder?

By all means, press it. Then look for something better. It's OK to abandon your original subject/approach.

Could it be that the greats like W. Eugene Smith somehow learned to quickly see each part of a scene and was able to decide if it was a good shot or not before the moment passed? Is this an ability that's just naturally present in some people, or do most photographers have to do some sort of rigorous eye training to get there?

You don't have to be a great. I do this, but a lot of the thinking is really forethought and anticipation. Light, you can evaluate constantly as you go. Go towards or stay in the good light. Manage your working distance according to your chosen focal length and the subject you anticipate, as you go. When I leave the house with a camera, I set the ISO based on the expected lighting conditions, and maybe the exposure too. What I know, I go ahead and prepare for, so I'll have as little as possible to think about when the unexpected happens.

You mention portraiture. Different beast with its own rules, but really the same building blocks.

For me it's down to trusting my taste, liking what I like, and elevating it when I find it. Other passions like sci fi contribute. Definitely other photographers ("What would Doug Menuez do?").

Also, watch this.


Since your specialization in the cognitive neuroscience of vision, you already know everything about composition, the gestalt principles and the many other theories about how the brain plays with our vision and what pleases it.

Why you shoot when you know that the photograph will be a waste, I can only guess that is due to the medium you are shooting them, digital. If you already are proficient in the technical side of taking a photograph, you are just rushing in, because the opportunity cost of these shots are near zero.

If you want to learn to shoot more purposefully, you could try moving to film for a while. There you only have 36 shots per roll and they cost both in money and the time to develop and enlarge a copy. You could also go all the way to large format view cameras (only two shots per chassis and each chassis takes a lot of space and some weight), which is mostly indicated your subjects are going to be mostly still (portraits, landscape and architecture), not to say that you can not take a picture of a moving subject but just setting up the camera takes a little while.

Don’t forget that the masters with luck got to around 3 picks from a full roll of film. But them and their editors were probably much more strict that what we have today.

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Contact Sheet Print: Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face David Seymour - Courtesy of Magnum Photo

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