Mistake 1. Wrong camera settings
So you took the camera out late yesterday night and did some amazing available light photography. Now in the morning, the ISO is set at 800 or still higher. Say hello to super noisy pictures with a false feeling of comfort on seeing high shutter speeds or small apertures. ISO, Exposure Compensation, Aperture or shutter priority or completely manual settings and autofocus mode make it to my checklist. I make it a point to check all these things before any photo shoot. If pilots can have a pre-takeoff checklist and hospitals can have a pre-operative check-list, why can’t photographers? Make your own check-list based on the camera settings that have messed up your earlier photography attempts and check it religiously before every photography session. Getting friendly with the camera and its various settings is the first step towards nirvana in photography.
Mistake 2. Blurred subject
The phantom of camera shake strikes again! This is a major mistake that even the best of the photographers make. For advanced photographers it is the over-confidence in the stability of their hands which is a common culprit and for beginners it is usually ignorance about the lowest shutter speed to try out. I too make this mistake sometimes. Quite frequently it is an oversight. A quick preview on the camera also does not show it unless viewed at hundred percent magnification. For beginners keeping shutter speed above the inverse of focal length is a good rule to start with. (If the focal length is 50mm, keep the shutter speed above 1/60 sec, similarly if the focal length is 105mm, keep the shutter speed above 1/125 sec). Default Auto-ISO setting also takes this into consideration. When I was young and used film, I was able to hand-hold the camera at insanely low shutter speeds and get away with sharp images. Now I prefer to review my images once in a while (To Chimp or Not To), and make a rational decision based on the preview at hundred percent magnification.
Mistake 3. Extremes of exposure
Our eyes have a very high dynamic range and when combined with the various support mechanisms, it is a wonder. ( Our Eyes vs Camera ) Our cameras however have a limitation of dynamic range. A good camera can represent about 9 levels of exposure value. Some high end cameras and film can go upto 10-11 levels of exposure value. In other words, the brightest scene that a good camera can capture without the highlights getting blown out is 9 exposure values above the darkest part of the image which shows any details. Quite frequently such subjects end up looking terrible when photographed. Some amount of post-processing to recover shadow and highlight details helps but it also ends up spoiling the contrast of the whole image. Another tool which photographers quite frequently use is to take multiple images with varying exposure compensation (usually by varying shutter speed) and then superimposing the images to create a high-dynamic range (HDR) image. Some recent cameras are also capable of doing it. Going back in time, Ansel Adams came out with a very simple tool called ‘Zone System’. To use this in today’s era, switch to spot metering, meter the brightest part of the scene and note the exposure value and then meter the darkest part of the scene and note the exposure value and then expose according to the best settings that can cover both of these. Once again, with the facility of image preview in cameras, zone system in its pure form is hardly used.
High and Low Key images are different. They look good the way they have been composed and exposed. More about them – Low and High Key
Mistake 4. Sharp image of a blurred concept
This is my favorite mistake which everyone makes. I am also guilty of this. A photographer should first visualize the image and then press the shutter release button. The image should stir the same feelings in the viewer that it did in the photographer. The image has to speak for itself. Do a quick google search for Pulitzer prize winning photographs or iconic photographs of some of the famous photographers (Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Irving Penn…. few names to start with, that come to my mind)
(This moment enchanted me. There was this beautiful carriage, which looked right out of a fairy tale, on a cobbled road. In the background was an old building with wrought iron railing and lamp-post and even a couple of grilled windows for basement. The image as a whole is fine but is not powerful. It does not have the impact which all of the above subjects would have had individually. Maybe I should have clicked a shot of the carriage at slow shutter speed while panning, a close up of the lamp-post and a third photograph of the grill from an angle going from one end of the frame to the other.)
Mistake 5. Weak Composition
This mistake is also linked to the importance of concept outlined above. The impact has to be there. There are tricks that can help get the impact initially. Decentring the subject, eliminating everything that is not required from the frame, going close, leading the eye around, capturing the decisive moment, using color theory, cliches like fractals or frames, drama or tension within the elements of the image….. the list is endless. These can be good starting steps but one has to go beyond these. (Composition Clichés – Part I,Composition Clichés – Part II)
Mistake 6. Wrong equipment for the job
Try bird photography with a 50mm standard lens or portraits with a wide angle lens. I know. Some photographers do it and create wonderful images but it is not the usual case. Camera’s built in flash for low light photography is a complete no go zone in my opinion. Using VR lenses while using tripod is counter-productive. Manual focus lenses with no focusing aid is like driving your car on a highway at night with no headlights.
Mistake 7. Overuse of post-processing
With great powers come great responsibilities. Very true when it comes to image editing programs (Photoshop, Lightroom, Darktable, Gimp etc). First change should be to shift to raw images from jpeg if any post-processing is planned. jpg are good when the intention is to directly use the images from camera. If they are going through a computer, it pays to click raw and post-process. Excessive use of sharpening, saturation, shadow and highlight detail recovery, changing curves…. all end up spoiling the image. Retain the looks of your photograph and follow these guidelines while post-processing – Post Processing RAW. My advice is to keep it less than what you feel is fine. Refer to this article on the common photo-editing mistakes – Top 10 Photo-editing Traps
Mistake 8. Carrying excessive weight but forgetting to carry essentials
When I coach photographers, one question that I ask everyone in the group is to tell what equipment is there in the camera bag. The reply, followed by a check of the images clicked, shows how much of excess weight everyone carries. Unused lenses, filters, speedlights, sometimes even tripods/monopods which never get used. Excess weight is tiring and takes the zest out. Our subconscious mind looses the knack to visualize images. This has to be cut down. What do I find missing? Snacks, Water, Notepad and Pen. These four things are the best support system for any photographer planning to spend a long day photographing outside, away from the comfort of home or studio. I carry a chocolate or energy bar with a small water bottle. My doctor tells me to control weight but trust me when I say that nothing works better than a quick loading dose of calories for starting to visualize powerful images. If you are a nature photographer and consuming energy bars, then a small reminder – never leave anything in the wild (which definitely includes your energy bar wrapper) except for footprints and never take anything from the wild except for memories and photographs. More about my camera bag – Inside my camera bag
Mistake 9. Laziness
Landscape photographers swear by the golden hour which happens at sunrise and sunsets. Bird photographers spot the early birds before they even catch their worms. Street photographers shed their fear of people and strive to establish contact. Whatever be the genre, one has to be proactive to create great images. Laziness creeps in without knowing and takes a toll on the images. Ample amount of rest is required for the body to rejuvenate itself and creative juices to flow but this should not convert into laziness. For most hobbyists, the time available for photography is very limited. Make full use of it. More on time management – Time Management & Photography
Mistake 10. Not visiting museums
I kept this for the last. This is something which every photographer should do. Museums have a collection of powerful artistic works. Paintings especially can help in developing strong visualization capabilities. Admiring the work of other artists and photographers on computer helps but not as much as actually seeing the real paintings. It is one of the easiest ways to strengthen visualization (A strong composition).
(Rembrandt – The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633. Excellent use of the diagonal lines, placement of the subject, use of light and shade and the hues! Sadly, the painting is still missing after the robbery from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. Photo : Creative Commons License)