Twelve Mistakes Rookies Make :: Digital Photo Secrets

Twelve Mistakes Rookies Make

by David Peterson 0 comments

No one is born knowing how to use a camera. Every single photographer you know from amateur to professional at one time picked up a DSLR (or an SLR) camera, turned it over awkwardly, looked at all those buttons and thought to himself, "How the heck do I use this thing?"

Rookie mistakes in any field are usually pretty predictable. That’s because they’re honest mistakes, and it’s pretty easy to see how the unschooled and unpracticed might end up making them. Even if you’ve come a long way since the first time you held a DSLR, it’s worth reviewing this list so you’ll know which mistakes you’ve moved past, and which ones you may still be making (don’t worry, your secret is safe with me).

1. Forgetting to check your settings.

This is something that happens after years of taking photos with a point-and-shoot camera. When you’re not mentally in tune with your manual settings, you don’t tend to pay much attention to them. Up until you got your first DSLR, you probably depended on your camera to do most of the thinking for you. So even when you do venture out of manual mode, you may forget that your shutter speed is going to slow way, way down in low light, and you’ll need to compensate for that with a larger aperture or a higher ISO. If you’re not aware of what your camera is doing behind the scenes, you may come home with a card full of blurry images.

  • Nikon D90
  • 800
  • f/5.6
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 105 mm

Blurry But Not. by Flickr user catd_mitchell

2. Not getting close enough.

This is one of the most common beginner mistakes, and for some reason no one really notices they’re doing it until someone else points it out. If your subjects look like ants in your photographs, then you’re not close enough. Even if your subjects are identifiable but there’s more background than subject, you’re still not getting close enough (unless for some reason that background is equally as important as your subject is). People photos in particular just look more compelling when you fill the frame, or when you almost fill the frame. Use your judgment of course, based on whether or not your subject is interacting with something important in her environment—but for the most part it’s good practice to cut out the clutter and distractions and fill up the frame with whatever it is you’re taking a picture of.

3. Using your popup flash.

It’s really easy to see why beginners get this wrong. Many of us grew up in households where the only camera we had was boxy little instant thing that needed flash to capture any sort of decent image indoors. Flash was just what you did, and you even learned to live with (and ignore) the results—those, washed-out faces and ugly black halos. Your popup flash really isn’t going to give you results that are a whole lot better than those old photos were—popup flash is still direct and it’s still too bright to give you a nice photo. In fact you may still wonder why camera manufacturers equip their DSLRs with flash at all, and the answer is really just because they can. Most consumers are baffled by the idea of a camera that doesn’t have a flash, and when you’re out of options and the only alternative you have is missing the shot, it might be handy to have that popup flash available. But the best reason why it’s there is because popup flash can be useful for things like filling in dark shadows at midday, so don’t rule it out as a completely useless tool. But as a way to add light to a dark room, avoid using popup flash whenever you can.

  • Nokia N73

with flash -- the colors are all washed out by Flickr user freshelectrons

4. Trusting your meter.

But wait, shouldn’t you always trust your meter? No! You should never trust your meter. You should listen to it and take its advice when it makes sense to, but your meter is one of the most fallible parts of your camera. That’s because it’s designed to assume that everything in any scene will average out to roughly middle gray. Most of the time, this is true. But there are many scenarios where this system is going to result in an underexposed or overexposed photograph, because the truth is that not every scene does average out to middle gray. Snowy landscapes, for example, have more white tones than gray or black tones. This is an extreme example, and there are even more scenes where you’re going to get a little bit of underexposure or overexposure depending on how far off that middle gray estimate is. So whenever you enter a new scene, you should be checking your histogram and your LCD to see how close your meter came to getting the exposure right. If your LCD shows you “the blinkies” when you view the image, you know you’ve got blown out highlights (“the blinkies” is the technical term for those flashing areas you see in an overexposed photo). If your histogram is skewed to the left or right, you know you’ve got underexposure or overexposure, respectively.

5. Underutilizing your memory card.

This is especially a problem for those of us who were born during the era of film, because a roll of 36 exposures cost money. It also cost money to take that roll of 36 down to the drugstore and discover that only 4 images were even worth keeping. People who lived through these dark times aren’t in the habit of taking lots of photos, even though intellectually they may understand that individual photos cost nothing to create, view or delete. But old habits die hard. If you come home from an event with just a handful of photos, you’re not using the technology to its fullest potential. Don’t be afraid to try different things, to take multiple shots of the same moment or to walk around a scene and shoot from every possible angle. It costs you nothing to get it wrong, and the rewards for getting it right are priceless.

6. Ignoring the background.

Photography can be a sort of tunnel vision. Sometimes, we’re so focused on our subject that we completely forget that there is a world around the subject, and it’s all going to end up in the photo, too. That’s why beginners get a lot of shots of people with trees, signs and other unfortunate objects growing out of their heads. That’s why they end up with so many shots of people standing in front of trash bins, billboards or other things that really don’t belong in a photo. One thing that really separates the pros from the beginners is the ability to consider the entire photo, not just the subject. Busy, ugly backgrounds should be angled out, blurred out or avoided entirely.

  • Sony SLT-A55V
  • 3200
  • f/7.1
  • 0.003 sec (1/320)
  • 160 mm

Listen, it's *my* umbrella, and I need to get back to work. So you're just gonna have to get wet -- sorry! by Flickr user Ed Yourdon

7. Ignoring the light.

Light is one of the most fundamental elements of any photograph, and ironically, it’s also the one element that beginners don’t pay much attention to. But light is one of those things that can turn a mediocre photo into and amazing one. If you’re skeptical, try shooting a scenic location at different times of the day, and decide which one of those shots you prefer. I can almost guarantee you you’re not going to prefer the one you shot at high noon. Direct overhead light almost never makes for a great photo. The light you get near sunrise or sunset is nearly always going to be preferable. And the direction of the light matters, too. Light that comes from the side creates images that look more three dimensional, while front lighting can flatten out a subject and make it look two dimensional. Back light can make a subject look more dramatic. Analyzing the light is one of the first things every photographer should do before taking a photograph.

8. Sticking with matrix (or evaluative) metering.

Many beginners aren’t even aware that their cameras have multiple metering modes, so they may be missing shots in situations that call for a more precise metering mode. Spot metering, for example, should be used in extreme lighting situations—for example, when your subject is backlit. Backlit subjects may become silhouettes if you don’t meter directly off the subject’s face, which is something you can only do if you switch to spot metering. Spot metering also comes in handy for shooting stage products and concerts, when the performer is brightly lit and the rest of the stage is dark. These aren’t the only two scenarios where you’ll need to use your spot meter, so it’s worth developing a good understanding of how and when to use your camera’s various metering modes.

9. Disrespecting dust.

A camera is a big investment. But it may surprise you to hear that many beginners don’t really understand how to take care of that expensive DSLR and the lens that came with it. A camera’s lens should always be cleaned with a microfiber cloth, for example—when you use a tissue, or the corner of your shirt, you’re going to leave behind fibers. You may even inadvertently leave fine scratches on the surface of the glass. And never store your lens without a cap on the rear element, or your camera body without a cap where the lens should go. Dust can easily settle on your camera’s sensor, and the dust that gathers on the exposed rear element of your lens may also be transferred to your camera’s sensor. Always change lenses quickly and in a place that’s sheltered from dust and wind, and don’t make too many unnecessary lens changes—any time you separate the lens from the camera body, you’re leaving that sensor vulnerable to dust and other debris.

  • Canon EOS 350D Digital
  • 100
  • f/36.0
  • 0.033 sec (1/30)
  • 120 mm

Dirty by Flickr user Håkan Dahlström

10. Overdependence on autofocus.

Autofocus is not the only way to get a tack-sharp subject. Sometimes it’s a terrible way to get a tack-sharp subject. Be aware of situations that may call for you to switch to manual focus, and don’t be afraid to use them. Low contrast settings and situations where your subject may be behind another object are good examples of when you should turn off your autofocus and try shooting with manual focus. And it’s a good idea to understand your focusing modes, too—you may need more precision when you focus, which means switching to single-point AF. Or you may need to have focus tracking turned on for moving subjects. For very fast moving subjects, you may need to go manual and prefocus on the spot where your subject will eventually be, because your autofocus might not be fast enough to keep up even when you do have focus tracking turned on.

11. No focal point.

This is especially a problem with landscapes—the (wrong) idea that a pretty scene is subject enough. Every scene needs a focal point, or a place for the viewer’s eye to go when it first encounters the image. Find something interesting to draw attention, such as an old, gnarled tree or a waterfall. Make that the focal point of your photo, and then the viewer’s eye will travel from there to the other elements in the scene.

  • Nikon D7100
  • 200
  • f/3.5
  • 1/6400 sec
  • 18 mm

Skye Landscape [EXPLORE] by Flickr user Antonio Cinotti 

12. Overprocessing.

Sometimes we go a little processing nuts. We sharpen a little too much, we turn up the color saturation a little too high, we go overboard with noise removal. It’s really easy to do this as a beginner, because the changes made in post processing are often not as obvious on the screen as they are when you actually print an image. Whenever you are in post processing, start with the basics like levels and color saturation, and make fine adjustments. Look at all your images at 100 percent, because mistakes you make in post processing will be more obvious at this size. Oversharpening, for example, can create weird outlines and halo effects—if you start to see these, you know you’ve gone too far. And make sure you aren’t editing originals—always “save as” and keep the original untouched, so you can go back to it later if you make a mistake.

  • Nikon D80
  • 100
  • f/5.6
  • 0.008 sec (1/125)
  • 300 mm

Oversharpened Peacock by Flickr user e_cathedra


Are you guilty of any of these transgressions? It’s OK if you are. Being aware of the mistakes you make as a beginner, or even as a more advanced photographer, is one of the first steps towards correcting those mistakes. So think carefully about each one of the items on this list and ask yourself, “Am I making any rookie mistakes?” And if you are, just fix them. Remember that even Ansel Adams once looked at a camera and wondered, “What the heck is an f-stop?”

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