Let’s face it, we all make mistakes. That is one of those inevitable facts of life. We all know it, but generally don’t like to admit it. My assumption is that if you are reading this, you are a photographer. At least in some capacity. To some, photography is your profession. For many others, it is a hobby and perhaps a way to make some side income. The readers of this website represent a wide range of skill levels, from the very beginner to those who have been doing photography for years, or even decades. Regardless of where you are in your photography journey, there is one thing we all have in common: photography mistakes.
It Happens to Everyone
Those who are just starting out may be surprised to hear that even seasoned photographers sometimes make photography mistakes. To someone new to the craft, it may seem that experienced photographers get the perfect shot every time they press the shutter button. Not true! We are all in the same boat. It may take some experimentation, some trial and error, and sometimes even a little bit of luck to arrive at the image we envisioned. The important thing is to learn to recognize the mistakes, what needs to be done to fix them, and become a better photographer in the process.
Mistakes vs. Mistakes
A little clarification is necessary here. There are two broad categories of photography mistakes. The first is a mistake made without realizing it is a mistake. This is the first in the four stages of learning, where you don’t really know what you don’t know yet (unconscious incompetence). This is when you are new and just learning your camera. Mistakes are common and how we all learn when starting out. As a newbie, you get a pass here, as those mistakes are to be expected and not what this article is about. The second category is mistakes that are made even after knowing they are mistakes and won’t turn out well. They are possibly even mistakes that we’ve made time and again, either because of lack of planning or carelessness. Those are the mistakes this article will focus on and hopefully learn from the most.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the mistakes we have all made at some point. You may not have done all of these, but I would guess we have all done one or more of these at least once. This is just a short list and is in no particular order.
1. Forgetting Extra Batteries or Memory Cards
This one is pretty obvious. Probably too obvious, but it has happened to me more than once. Have you ever noticed that the likelihood of forgetting batteries or memory cards is directly proportional to the distance you hiked to get the shot? Sure enough, if you park the car and walk 50 yards to capture a sunset, you always have what you need. However, if you hike a mile or two to capture an epic landscape image, the extra battery you thought was in your backpack isn’t there. Tip: Check and double-check that all extra batteries and memory cards are packed in your bag. Even if you don’t think you will need them.
2. Not Clearing Memory Cards
I can think of a time or two that this has happened to me. In all the excitement to get out shooting, it can be easy to forget this little detail. The batteries are charged, you have the camera settings just right, and a great composition. A press of the shutter button reveals a message on the LCD screen: “Memory Card Full”. This goes along with the first one on the list, since you probably won’t have an extra card with you when this happens. Tip: Download images off your memory cards after every shoot, then reformat the cards in-camera to be ready to go the next time out.
3. Using New (unfamiliar) Gear for an Important Shoot
We all love new photography gear. Whether it is a camera body, that new lens you’ve been coveting, or lighting. New gear can make getting the shots you want easier, or even possible. However, getting a new piece of gear and using it on an important shoot without first getting familiar with it can be trouble. Learning the ins and outs of a new camera is not a good idea at a wedding shoot, or even a portrait session. The chances of missing shots will be increased and fumbling around with gear doesn’t exactly exude the confidence that you know what you’re doing. Tip: Get to know all of your gear thoroughly before going out on a shoot, especially it you’re getting paid for it.
4. Expecting New Gear to Make You Better
I must admit to thinking this and suspect I’m not the only one. New gear is fun. There are certainly times that new gear is necessary for the types of shooting that you do. New gear can also get the creative juices going and get you out shooting more, which is a good thing. But new gear does not necessarily make you a better photographer. Tip: Become intimately familiar with the gear that you have. If your gear’s limitations are preventing you from getting the shots you want, maybe it’s time to look for something new.
5. Not Scouting Locations
Whether you are shooting landscapes, astrophotography, or portraits, it is a good idea to do some location scouting first. This isn’t always an option, but plan a pre-shoot visit whenever possible. Scouting will help you get the ‘lay of the land’, to determine the best places to set up, find the best compositions, or even determine that the location just doesn’t work at all. Tip: Always keep an eye out for possible shooting locations. There may be some great places to shoot that you pass by on your daily commute. Become familiar with those locations and how they could be used for various shooting situations.
6. Expecting to Get The Shot Every Time
This one primarily applies to landscape photography. Our goal as photographers is to make the best possible images every time we go out shooting. The problem is that sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Any number of things could happen, such as a change in the weather or light, that could send us home without getting the shot. Guess what? That’s OK. It’s just not realistic to expect everything to work out just perfect each time. That shouldn’t stop you from trying, so keep at it. Tip: Be realistic with yourself and your photography. Sometimes you will get skunked when you go out for a landscape shoot. The thing is, if you aren’t out there trying, you’ll never get that epic shot where everything does line up perfectly.
7. Shooting in Manual Means You Are A Real Photographer
You’ve probably heard something similar to this, or maybe even thought or said it yourself. It’s just not true. Shooting in manual definitely has its place. In fact, that’s basically what my Fuji camera is set in all the time by default. That means nothing about my ability as a photographer. Sometimes it makes sense to use the semi-auto modes, such as Aperture or Shutter Priority. Other times you need to have total control of all three parts of the exposure triangle. Use what works for you. Tip: Just because you let the camera do some of the work for you doesn’t mean you are less of a photographer. In fact, it may just give you more freedom to focus more on finding the best light and composition for your image.
8. Leaving a Location Too Early
This has happened to me when shooting landscapes at sunset. I’ve also watched many others leave a site right after the sun dips below the horizon. It’s best to stick around for at least 30 minutes after the sun goes down to get the best color in the sky. This is especially true if there are some low, thin clouds near the horizon that will light up and change color with the setting sun. Tip: After the sun goes down, stick around for a while. It may seem like a good idea to head out before it gets too dark, but you may miss some of the best shots of the day if you leave too early. If the conditions are right, you might even want to try shooting the Milky Way or star trails after dark.
9. Not Taking Advantage of the Technology
The cameras of today are amazing machines. They are essentially small computers that we carry around that take pictures. Along with that technology comes tons of features that can help us make better images and to learn faster. Most digital cameras have an LCD screen and Live View function. Review your images and the histogram to see if you need to make adjustments to camera settings. This is called ‘chimping’ and may be frowned upon by some. I say use it if you have it and who cares what anyone else thinks. Tip: Get to know all the different features on your camera and how they can be used to create better images. The camera manufacturers put in those features for a reason, so we should take advantage of them.
10. Shooting Too Much…or too little
There may be a fine line between how much is too much or too little. Using the ‘spray and pray’ method may be appropriate in some situations, but most of the time you should be more deliberate with your shooting. On the other hand, it is easy to just delete images you don’t want later in the computer. It’s nice to have a variety of images to work with, taken at different angles and perspectives, as well as different camera settings. That is preferable to not having enough images and feeling like you missed the shot entirely. Tip: Take the time to be more deliberate with your compositions and utilize available light and shadows to your advantage. Once you find something that works, try it from a different angle or change some settings to get more creative shots.
11. Thinking there isn’t anything to shoot
This is such an easy trap to fall into. I’ve done it myself time and again. After a few dozen times of going out shooting in the area where you live, it may seem like there just isn’t anything else to shoot. That’s an easy cop-out and an excuse for not getting the camera out. The truth is, there is always going to be something new, if you just look hard enough. Tip: You may have shot that lone tree on the hillside or the flowers in the park a hundred times, but there is always something new to try. Switch things up and try a new technique. It may seem like a monotonous exercise, but can really help you to grow your creativity.
12. Not Turning Around
Sometimes we get so stuck on looking at what’s in front of us that we don’t think to turn around. This tunnel vision could mean that you miss what could otherwise be some great shots. Keep your head, and camera, on a swivel and be aware of your surroundings. Tip: The scene in front of your camera may be a good one, but what’s behind you may be great. If you are hiking a trail, it is also a good practice to look back from where you came once in a while. That can be helpful for finding your way back out.
13. Getting Stuck in a Rut
I’ve heard that a rut is a grave with both ends knocked out. Does that mean it is where ideas and creativity go to die? I’m not sure, but it’s not a good thing to get stuck there. At least not for long. We’ve all been there, it’s just a matter of what you do to get out of it as quickly as possible. Maybe you need to try a different genre or come up with a photo project to change things up a little. Tip: If you find that all your images are looking the same, try something completely different. If you typically only shoot landscape, try some street photography, or macro, or portraits, or…you get the picture. I recently took a trip to meet some friends in New York City for a few days street photography. That’s not something I typically do, but it was so much fun that I can’t wait to return some day.
14. Using a wide angle for portraits
Don’t get me wrong, using a wide angle for portraits can work in some situations. However, it is not typical to use wide angles (say 24 mm or wider) for portraiture. If you do, make sure you aren’t right up close or it will totally distort face and body features and not look right. Tip: Good focal lengths for portraiture are typically 85 mm or longer. I prefer to use a 70-200 mm lens, usually at the longer end, to really separate the subject from the background.
15. Not Changing Lenses
Most people reading this probably shoot with some type of interchangeable lens camera. So often, though, it seems we are looking for that one all-around lens that can do it all. Sometimes that is the best option, but most times there’s no reason to not change lenses when necessary. Good lenses are expensive, which is also a major factor. However, it is usually better to have 2-3 good lenses that cover a zoom range than one super-zoom lens that has sub-par image quality. Tip: Don’t be afraid to change your lenses, even though it may increase the chances of getting a dirty sensor. The sensor can be cleaned fairly easily and you will likely get better images anyway.
16. Staying in one place
I’ve heard this a few times and believe it to be true, especially when shooting with a tripod. Once the tripod is set up, there is a tendency to leave it in one place and shoot only from there. After all, who wants the hassle of moving and re-leveling everything again. Problem is, you’ll end up with 50 shots of virtually the same composition and probably miss some of the best shots. Tip: Practice setting up, leveling, and moving your tripod around. The quicker and more comfortable you get with doing this, the more likely you are to move around when it really counts.
17. Not Sharing your images
How many hundreds or thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of images do you have languishing on your hard drives? I have more than a few myself. When starting out, I was reluctant to share images anywhere. That was probably a good thing since many of those images were not very good. I have tried to get better at sharing, but still have far to go. Sharing images on various social media platforms, photo sharing sites, or your own website is a great way to improve. Tip: Start now by selecting your 10 best/favorite images for 2016. Jeff Harmon has talked about doing this and wrote this article about it. Share those images with friends and family. Share them on the various Improve Photography Facebook groups. If you are looking for constructive critique, you’ll find it there.
18. Failing to Survey the Scene
Jim Harmer talked a little about this in his Block Method Composition training. Check it out on Improve Photography Plus. The idea is to take some time to look over a scene before even getting the camera out of the bag. It is tempting to just start shooting right away and, in the excitement, miss pertinent details or overlook the best composition. This could go along with #5 and scouting a location before you plan to do any shooting. Tip: Before setting up the camera, or even getting it out, take a walk around a shooting location. Check all directions and different angles and perspectives to find the most pleasing composition. You could carry your camera around with you and just take quick shots to evaluate how a composition looks on the LCD.
19. Shooting at eye level too much
We naturally see the world at eye level and a lot of times, that is where the camera is and the perspective of most images. It’s easier to just put the camera up to your eye and take a shot. That may be fine in some instances, but most of the time those images seem be lacking. Tip: Getting the camera high above your head or low to the ground can make much more dynamic images. Try shooting from different perspectives to see which one works the best. For a very high perspective, I’ve mounted my camera on a monopod, set the 10 second timer, and held it as high as I could to get the shot. This may take a few tries to get it right.
20. Not trying something new
It is easy to become content and do what is most familiar. Unfortunately, that can lead to the aforementioned rut (see #13). It seems that there are always new shooting or post-processing techniques to try. Tip: Keep things fresh by getting outside your comfort zone now and then. Try a new technique that you’ve never tried before. There are always new things to learn and tons of resources out there to help you figure them out.
21. Dressing improperly for the weather conditions
Nick Page recently did a Tripod Podcast on this topic. More than a few times I have went out without paying much attention to the weather forecast. Some of those times I have ended up wet or cold, or cold and wet. It’s not fun, and usually means that shooting and creativity take a back seat to discomfort. Tip: Check the weather forecast before going out for a shoot. In hot and humid climates, wear light, loose fitting, moisture wicking clothing and be sure to protect yourself from the sun. In the winter, dress in layers, and make sure you stay dry.
22. Spending too much time on virtual photography
This one hits close to home for me. I enjoy spending time watching video tutorials or reading about photography techniques. There are tons of resources available for this, from Youtube to Improve Photography and other websites. Don’t get stuck behind the computer screen and never get out shooting on your own. Tip: Think of a technique that you’ve been wanting to try. Watch a video tutorial or two, then shut down the computer, pick up the camera, and try it yourself. You may be surprised how much you will learn just by trial and error and solving photographic problems that you encounter along the way.
23. Following all the rules
There are so many photography rules and it is great to know them and understand their importance. Following some of those rules is a good idea most of the time. It is not a good idea to get so bogged down in the ‘rules’ that you never try anything new. It’s been said that once you have a good understanding of the rules of photography, you should feel free to break them once in a while. Tip: The first person you need to please is yourself. If that means breaking all the rules, then do it. Don’t be afraid to break the rules or the backlash that may come from doing so.
24. Always shooting alone
If you’re like me, you spend most of your photography time out shooting alone. It is a great way to just take a break from the everyday and relax. However, it also a great idea to go shooting with other photographers. You will learn new things from others that you may not have discovered on your own. Tip: Join a local photography club or a Facebook group to get acquainted with photographers in your area. Give a group outing a try and see if it works for you. Not only can it be a great learning experience, but it is also a great way to make new friends.
25. Not Taking Time to Enjoy a Scene
Here’s the scenario: you arrive on location for a sunset shoot. All the location scouting has been done, you have surveyed the scene and found the best composition, the camera is set up and you start shooting. The sun goes down, but you stay late and get some great color in the clouds on the horizon. After it gets dark, you pack up and head home with a card full of images to edit. Sounds great. The only problem is you didn’t take a few moments to just enjoy the scene before you. Tip: After you capture a few images, just step away from the camera. Take a look at the scenery, the vista, the sunset that is before you. Really take the time to see it outside of the confines of a viewfinder or LCD screen. You’ll be glad you did…and you’ll still have plenty of great images when you get home.
There you have it. I’ve been guilty of almost all of these things since getting my first ‘real’ camera almost 5 years ago. It is said that we learn from our mistakes and I think that is true. This of course doesn’t mean I won’t make these mistakes again, but hopefully they will become much less frequent and more easily recognized.