Common Mistakes Made by Novice Photographers

by Sheree Zielke on June 30th, 2011
Come on, Baby, light my fire! You know you want to!

I saw a flash of yellow out of the corner of my eye. I peered through my kitchen window at my back deck where I have hung several bird feeders. Wow, I thought, my first American Goldfinch. I grabbed my Canon 50D with its attached 70-200 lens, and tried to capture a shot.

However, I had used my camera the night before to shoot indoor mixed martial arts fights, so my settings were way off—shutter speed wrong, ISO too high, and white balance set to tungsten. I scrambled to set a correct exposure against difficult back lighting. By the time I was ready, the pretty yellow bird was gone. Sigh… I had broken my #1 golden rule:  Always return your camera’s settings back to neutral or to an AUTO mode after a shoot.

The above is one of the most common mistakes made by photographers at all levels of experience.

Here are some common mistakes made by more novice shooters:

  1. Scene modes:  See those cute little icons on your camera’s mode dial? They are not decorations. Learn what the icons stand for and use them. Learn from these handy manufacturer pre-sets. After taking a shot in a scene mode, examine your image’s EXIF data (shutter speed, aperture width, ISO settings, etc.) to find out what the camera determined as a good formula. Adapt the camera’s settings to another mode like Aperture Priority, and improve upon it.
  2. Silhouettes: Everyone can shoot a silhouette at a beach during sunset—by accident. But it takes thought to properly expose your foreground subject. Pop your camera’s flash. Dial down the flash compensation if it is too bright. Change your metering from evaluative/normal/pattern/matrix to center-weighted. Or try metering on a darker subject; lock your exposure, recompose, focus, and shoot.

    Hint:  Do you have a hard time getting a good exposure when shooting outside? Meter and lock on the bluest part of the sky (AEL), recompose, focus, and shoot your scene.

  3. Blurred action shots: To freeze action, you must use a faster shutter speed. If there is not enough light, and you have set a fast shutter speed, your image will be dark. The only way to achieve both a crisp image and an acceptable exposure is by employing (what I call) the camera’s “marriage counsellor”—the ISO. If you are having trouble achieving a quick shutter speed, and your aperture width (f/stop) is at its widest, then bump your ISO. A higher ISO makes your camera’s sensor more sensitive to light; therefore, your shutter speed can be set more quickly.

    Hint: A high ISO will introduce digital noise; try to keep your ISO number as low as possible, especially on older model cameras. Newer cameras have incorporated anti-digital noise controls in their firmware, but a lower ISO must always be a priority.

  4. My name is Trinity! The End is in 2012!
  5. Blurry night shots: Low light conditions (like night shooting) necessitate the use of a tripod or “jamming” (setting your camera on a stable surface). Handholding your camera (even with the best image stabilization firmware) will result in blurry images (camera shake). Use a tripod even when employing one of your pre-set modes like Night Portrait.

    Hint: Remember to turn off your IS (image stabilization—Canon) or VR (vibration reduction—Nikon) when using a tripod. Otherwise, the camera—while searching for vibrations—will accidentally cause camera shake.

  6. White balance: I see this mistake regularly among my new students. Because all light sources have a color cast, and the camera can “see” this color, the camera must be instructed to balance the color to “white.” When a WB icon like sun is selected, the camera is being told that it is under light with a slightly bluish tinge; it compensates by adding a bit of orange—in order to achieve white. If you leave the sun setting, go indoors, and begin shooting under incandescent lights, your images will turn out very orange because of the incorrect WB setting. Always return your WB to AUTO after manually choosing a setting. If you shoot in RAW, your WB should remain in AUTO.

    Hint: When shooting sunsets, choose a cloudy WB—this will deepen the orange tones.

  7. Exposure compensation: There is a control on your camera that some refer to as a “lazy man’s” control. I call it brilliant. Without understanding the triangular formula (EV) between shutter speed, aperture width, and ISO sensitivity, a new user can force a camera to brighten or darken a shot. The exposure compensation control is the little box with the diagonal line bearing a plus and minus symbol. Adjust your camera’s EC as you would open or close venetian blinds—select a (+) setting to brighten an image; select a (-) setting to darken an image. The camera will make the necessary changes to the EV.

    Hint: When shooting sunrises, reduce your EC to -2 to deepen your exposure. Remember to raise the setting as the sun goes down and the light diminishes.

  8. Underexposed dark details: Maintain detail in your darks and your shadows especially when shooting black cats and ravens. Lock your exposure (AEL) on something green, recompose, focus, and take the shot. Works like a charm.

    Hint: This works inside, too. Lock your exposure on a green plant and then shoot that dark-haired dog.

  9. Focus modes: All camera’s have at least 3 focus modes: Single shot or AF-S (for still images), ai Servo or AF-C (continuous) for moving subjects, and AF-A (auto) or ai Focus when you aren’t sure if your subject will remain still. Choose a continuous focus mode for a subject moving away or towards you; the camera will predict where the subject is going to be and lock a focus only when the shutter button is pressed.

    Caution: Leave your focus mode in ai focus or AF-A only if you want the camera to decide whether or not to refocus. This will slow focusing considerably.

  10. Focus points or zones: An accidental setting of a focus point can cause great grief among new camera users. Activate ALL your focus points (the camera will focus on the closest subject); or activate a center point and choose what you want in focus. If you move the center point around (up to 19 different positions in some cameras), be sure to return it to the center of your LCD screen or viewfinder, or you risk out-of-focus images.

    Hint: Always return your focus points/zones back to ALL or AUTO.

  11. A Mother's Day Lamb-ent
  12. Composition: I often see sunset images with the horizon and the orb of the sun situated in the dead center of the photograph. Ugh. Use the “rule of thirds” (imagine a tic-tac-toe board) and move your horizon to the top or bottom third of your image. Strengthen your composition by moving your sun to the left or to the right.

    Hint: Horizons should be straight. Turn on your camera’s grid or electronic level (if equipped) to help you.

As a final note, if you have bought an expensive camera (like a DSLR with a removable lens) because you think it will automatically take better pictures, you are fooling yourself. Your camera will respond very well under normal shooting, bright light conditions in any of its AUTO or SCENE modes, but in order to shoot under more difficult lighting conditions, or in order to exercise artistic control over DOF (depth of field), you must learn the relationship between shutter, aperture (f/stop), and ISO. That will take time and practice. But it will be worth it.

Happy shooting!

Sheree Zielke

Sheree Zielke has been a photographer most of her life. At 8 years old, she found her first camera, a Brownie box camera, in a garbage dump; it still contained a roll of black and white film. Looking through the viewfinder and clicking the shutter became an instant addiction. Since that day, Sheree has shot images for newspapers to go along with her articles, and she has won photo competitions. She just won the Alberta/BC region of the Royale Tissue 2011 Canada Collection. Sheree currently teaches digital cameras at her city’s arts college. Sheree is also a novelist having published both Martha’s Vine and its sequel Martha’s Mirror. Sheree lives in Edmonton, Canada.
Find Sheree’s photography on Flickr