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15 Photography Mistakes I Made All the Time As A Beginner
It's not possible to improve without messing up. In fact, it's not possible to have fun learning photography without messing up! The realization of what you've been doing wrong, followed by immediate improvement in the quality of your pictures is really exciting.
So these are a few of things I can remember from the time I was first discovering photography. Maybe some of them are things you are still doing if you're at that stage, or perhaps they'll just remind you of how far you've come!
1. Wilfully Ignoring White Balance
I don't know whether this was just me, but after discovering manual controls there was a long delay before I realized how important white balance was. I'd learnt to take really sharp, nicely exposed pictures, and something in my mind went, "that'll do me for now"!
Then one Autumn evening I was shooting in some woodland near my home, and almost accidentally switched to in-camera 'shade' white balance. Bam! Suddenly the reds and oranges of the leaves that I really wanted to capture came to life as I wanted them to. In due course (after another lengthy delay), I discovered how effective it was to shoot Raw and specify colour temperature when converting the file later.
2. Heavy-Handedness In Photoshop
Oh dear God no! Did I really turn this lovely pastoral scene into some kind of plastic nightmare?
I'd almost go so far as to say this was my biggest mistake as a beginner photographer. It's certainly the one I regret the most, because I took some quite nice photos that were subsequently ruined in post-production! I know for sure that this was not something I was alone in doing.
Something about learning how to make adjustments in Photoshop makes us want to push it to the limit, and then beyond. Eventually you begin to lose your natural sense of taste and create hyper-real, glowing monstrosities. (Personally, I think that HDR processing is just an extension of this Photoshop beginner's condition - 99% of the time at least).
In the end I realized that all the pictures I liked the most in other people's portfolios had been given a very light touch in processing. So I finally woke up to the fact that Photoshop is there to make your original shot as good as it can be, not to radically alter it.
3. Being Afraid To Increase ISO
When I was getting to grips with manual exposure I seemed to go to any length to avoid noise resulting from high ISO speeds. My tutor had really stressed the damaging effect that ISO can have on pictures, and that stuck with me.
The problem was I ended up slowing down the shutter speed, whilst hand holding, to such an extent that the loss of quality through camera shake was far worse than a bit of ISO noise would have been! Lots of top photographers have no hesitation about ramping up ISO, resulting in noise, if it means capturing a great scene without blur. Quite right too, as a bit of graininess really isn't that much of a distraction. Now I stick to the useful rule that shutter speed should be equivalent to the focal length, e.g. 30mm and 1/30th sec, or 200mm and 1/200th sec.
4. Never Cleaning My Sensor
I had a really good photography tutor when I was learning, who gave me loads of great advice that has served me well. But one or two suggestions were less helpful. For example, he seemed to have a pathological fear of going anywhere near his camera's sensor. He was absolutely right to be cautious, because it's pricey thing that is sensitive external objects. But you've got to clean it once in a while!
After a few months of intensely using my DSLR, every shot, particularly landscapes with sky in them, had dozens of visible dust specks. I took my tutor's advice of sending it off for a professional clean, which did the trick but set me back £50. In the end I realized that the cheapest, simplest solution was a squeeze bulb blower (and facing the camera body down when changing lenses!). Tips for cleaning camera sensors.
5. Not Investing In A Remote Release Device
After purchasing a tripod and discovering the incredible new world of shots it opened up, I was pretty convinced I had everything I needed. This would now enable me to create flawless long exposures of beach waves, fireworks, traffic lines and more.
Well, it did immediately take my photography to the next level. But I soon realized that using a finger to press the shutter release button creates sufficient camera shake to reduce the quality of long exposure pictures. The alternative, using the camera's self-timer, is a good solution, but it makes it impossible to time shots adequately (i.e. the perfect moment, whether a braking wave or exploding firework, rarely coincides with the period for which the shutter is open). A remote release device gives you the best of all world's: total control and no camera-shake.
6. Feeling Too 'Apologetic' When Shooting In Public
Interesting location and light. I know, I'll wait until someone has their back to me before shooting!
When I say 'apologetic, I obviously don't mean that I would wonder around the streets shooting and apologizing to people as I went! I just felt far too conscious of how people were reacting to me. Do they seem pissed off that I'm pointing my camera their way? Have they noticed me? etc.
The result: missed opportunities, over-use of a telephoto lens (which is not great for street scenes) and, ironically, drawing attention to myself. It's like anything - if you just act confidently people relax and don't take much notice. The reality is that on the street and at public events, cameras are everywhere. People are used to them these days and 99% of people don't bat an eyelid.
Something that helped me to realize this was watching a Youtube clip of Steve McCurry (one of the most awesome photographers in history) shooting in New York. He would be walking down the street or through the park, and then literally swing around and lunge towards someone, snap a few shots, and then be on his way! To be fair, McCurry's method is usually based on getting to know his subjects and treating them with full respect, but this little video demonstrated that you just need to go for it sometimes!
My rule of thumb now is that people do not have a right to privacy on the streets (after all, they wouldn't be allowed to charge down the highstreet with no clothes on!), but they certainly do have a right to courtesy. I try to judge the situation. If someone's sitting alone on a park bench, I'll chat to them and ask if it's ok to take a picture. If they're hopping off a bus and haven't spotted me, then I'll just take a quick snap.
7. Not Backing Up My Work
This is undoubtedly one of the most infuriating lessons to learn. But it's a valuable one. About 8 months into a photography course I took, roughly half of the images I'd produced for the current unit mysteriously disappeared. They were due for assessment in 2 weeks.
Que panic, seething rage at my poor old laptop that had got me through school and uni, and the most intensive 2 weeks of shooting I've ever done! After the dust had settled I duly purchased an external hard-drive and a bunch of memory sticks. Never again!
8. Taking the Rules Too Seriously
There are lots of rules that new photographers are bombarded with. Many relate to technical matters and are essential to learn. But there are also quite a few creative 'rules', like the rule of thirds. I think I was a bit too eager to absorb everything that I could and apply it to every photo I took! The whole fun of being creative with photography is that you get to express what you see and in your own way.
Creative rules are only rough guidelines to help you out a bit. They're there to speed up the thought process that begins with the question, "How could I make this image stronger?". As Henri Cartier-Bresson noted, "In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct". If something looks cool to you from a certain angle, shoot it!
9. Leaving My Camera On Multi-Zone/Matrix Metering
Oh...Those rocks and sea defences looked really cool, but the sun has totally fooled the matrix mode.
Matrix metering measures light from all the areas that you see through the viewfinder and takes an average. So, in most situations, it gives a decent estimation of the required exposure. I quickly got into the lazy habit of never switching the metering mode from matrix! I had decided it was good enough, most of the time, so that was fine for me.
But all metering modes exist for a reason, and they each have different applications. Matrix is great when you need to be quick, and seize on a passing moment. But centre-weighted and spot metering are really important when, for example, photographing someone with strong back-lighting or in a scene with high contrast. When I eventually cottoned on to this fact, I took a lot less disappointing pictures!
10. Using A Shoulder Bag All the Time
The first camera bag I bought was a simple Crumpler Muffin Top, with one strap for flinging over my shoulder. It held a DSLR camera body plus 2 lenses, in addition to whatever else I could stuff into the various pouches. It did the trick in many situations.
But the problem was that I liked to go on long walks through the city, or along the beach, with the sole purpose of taking photos. Let me tell you that it doesn't take long before the weight of photography equipment on just one shoulder starts get painful!
This was particularly bad for me because I have a rotator cuff injury to my right shoulder. Despite this, I kept putting off the purchase of a rucksack camera bag, because I was determined to save up all my money for a new lens! Eventually I upgraded to a Lowepro Flipside, followed by a larger version of the same bag, which includes a great compartment for my laptop. Thankfully, my shoulder remains intact, but it was daft of me to stick with just the shoulder bag for so long!
11. Only Ever Using Manual Mode
This might seem like rather an odd 'mistake' to list, since manual mode gives you the most control. But after mastering the exposure triangle of aperture, shutter speed and ISO, I almost forgot that is was possible to use any mode other than manual!
This meant that certain subjects became really tricky. Sport, wildlife and documentary photography in particular rely on reacting quickly to opportunities. For these subjects, it's often better to shoot in program, aperture priority or shutter priority. Now I tend to select aperture priority more frequently than any other mode, because it allows me to control depth of field and shoot more quickly than on manual.
12. Taking Way Too Many Shots Per Shoot
It's a cliche that since digital replaced film we've all become a bit trigger happy with the shutter button. But it's true. I was very guilty of this 'hit and hope' mentality as a beginner. It makes me wonder where the satisfaction was in taking a good shot; after shooting a tree from 250 different angles I was bound to end up with one that looks alright! Learning to take my time and 'see' more creatively has been a huge part of my development as a photographer.
Plus, constantly firing off 200, 300, 400 or 500 shots is annoying on a practical level: it runs down your battery fast, you need to keep changing memory cards and the post-processing work becomes a chore rather than a pleasure!
13. Photographing Rubbish Subjects and Expecting Them To Look Good
Sharp, well exposed, a nice enough location, ok composition. But, ultimately, this is a picture of stones and sand!
Photography is not like painting or sketching. You might look at something apparently mundane and think to your self, "I can actually imagine that looking really cool, given the right treatment". Well, feel free to unleash your creativity in a sketch, but the chances are that a photograph will never turn water into wine.
I used to think that, becasue I'd learnt how to use most of my camera's controls, I could make a brilliant picture out of anything! That was very much not the case, but I still uploaded hundreds of crappy, boring photos to my laptop before I realized how important an interesting subject is.
14. Never Planning A Shoot
I'm not talking about an OCD level of planning here. No-one spends hours planning every aspect of a shoot, ticking off the necessary equipment, filling out a risk assessment etc! But my early photography lacked even a basic, common sense level of planning. I really was fairly stupid. For example, I can't remember the number of times I got up at the crack of sparrow fart to photograph the sun rising, and the sky was thick, led grey cloud (I could have checked the forecast on TV, radio, my laptop, my phone...or just asked someone!).
These are the kinds of things I should have been doing: checking the charge of my spare battery, always having 2 spare memory cards, checking I've got any accessories I'll need (e.g. ND filters, remote release device etc), taking spare clothing (especially socks and shoes when shooting on the beach), taking food, looking online for photography of the area/place to get ideas ideas and, of course, checking the weather forecast!!
15. Not Shooting Friends and Family Enough
I've left this one until last because, frankly, I'm still very guilty of it. You often hear full time pro photographers complaining that they never get the chance to actually shoot the subjects they're really interested in, for their own reasons. But I think us keen amateurs are frequently guilty of only shooting what we want for creative reasons, and neglecting the things that we actually really want to have photos of - family and friends.
I really regret not having taken more pictures of my family over the last few years. It'a about time I made a point of applying all the photographic skills I've picked up to creating a really awesome family album. That sounds like a good project for this year!
What are the worst, the dumbest, the most embarassing photography mistakes you used to make as a beginner? You're not alone, so share them in the comments!