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55 reasons your photos aren’t working (and what you can do about it)
Your photo exposures are failing because…
1. Your camera’s LCD screen is set too bright/dark
Your DSLR’s rear monitor can give you a basic idea about the exposure of a picture, but not if the screen is set too bright or too dark. There’s an option to calibrate its brightness level for the conditions in the camera’s menu.
2. You’re not making the most of the histogram
Don’t rely on the camera’s LCD screen alone to judge exposure. View the brightness histogram alongside it, as this gives a measurable guide to how bright or dark an image is, and whether you need to make any adjustments.
3. You’re not using exposure compensation
Although you can make a picture brighter or darker when you process it in software, this can degrade picture quality. Instead, get it right in-camera using the Exposure Compensation function (look for the button marked ‘+/-’).
4. You’re not resetting exposure compensation
Once you’ve taken a shot with exposure compensation dialed in, get into the habit of automatically resetting the compensation to zero before shooting a different scene. Otherwise there’s a danger you’ll add compensation on top of compensation on top of compensation…
5. Your whites are turning grey
Large expanses or white or light tones in a scene can cause a camera to underexpose the picture. If the histogram doesn’t almost touch the right side of the graph when photographing a bright scene, dial in some positive exposure compensation and take another shot.
6. The highlights are blown out
It can be tough to rescue highlights that have been seriously overexposed. So switch on your camera’s highlight warning and check the histogram to make sure detail isn’t falling off the right of the graph.
7. The shadows are turning grey
Large expanses or shadows or dark tones in a scene can cause a camera to overexpose the picture. If you’re shooting JPEGs, dial in some negative exposure compensation and take another shot.
8. You’re not shooting in RAW
Although the histogram you see on the back of the camera gives an accurate indication of exposure when you shoot JPEGs, if you switch to your camera’s RAW format, you’ll actually capture more information across the image. You’ll also be able to make exposure adjustments after you’ve taken the shot.
9. You’re using the wrong metering pattern
Your camera’s default Evaluative or pattern metering takes an exposure reading across the whole season, whereas spot metering takes an exposure reading from a very small area. If your pictures are grossly overexposed or underexposed, check that you haven’t accidentally selected spot metering.
10. You’re using the wrong exposure mode
If your camera’s mode dial doesn’t have a lock, it can be easy to accidentally set a different exposure mode as you take the camera out of a bag. You might think you’re shooting in Aperture Priority, but the mode dial may have shifted to Manual mode, and the aperture and shutter speed settings might be completely unsuitable.
11. You’re using a shutter speed that’s too slow
To control the exposure on your camera, you need to balance aperture, shutter speed and ISO. The choice of shutter speed is critical – too slow, and you risk blurred photos from camera shake and/or subject movement. To get a faster shutter speed, use a wider aperture setting or increase the ISO.
Your photo composition isn’t working because…
1. Your backgrounds are broken
It’s easy to overlook the background when you’re focusing your attention (and the lens) on the subject in front of it. But take another look: would the picture be stronger without that tree branch/red car/estate agent sign competing for attention? Yes. Yes, it would.
2. The angle is boring
Stop taking most of your pictures from your own eye level. Get down in the dirt or get high. Find a new angle to show a familiar subject in a revealing new way.
3. You rarely shoot vertical pictures
But you should. Next time you take a picture of a subject that you’d typically shoot with the camera held horizontally, rotate the camera 90° and see
4. You haven’t isolated the subject
Is the subject getting lost in the picture? Are they blending into the background? Get closer to them, use a shallower depth of field or find a viewpoint that allows them to stand out from the clutter.
5. You routinely compose shots with the subject in the center
Try moving the subject away from the middle of the photo – line them up with one of the off-centre AF points instead. Position them so that they’re looking towards the larger space in the frame.
6. You haven’t checked the edge of the frame
Compose a photo so that an important feature is just touching the edge of the frame and the picture will feel claustrophobic. Either crop shots very tightly or leave plenty of room for the subject to ‘breath’.
7. Your horizons aren’t level
Sloping horizons can be distracting, particularly in photos taken at the coast – it’ll look as though the water is pouring out of the frame. Activate your camera’s electronic level, use your Live View grid, or line up the horizon with the AF points in the viewfinder.
8. You aren’t thinking about balance
Odd numbers work best when it comes to composition. Three is the magic number, allowing you to balance one main subject with two other elements in the frame.
9. Your viewfinder doesn’t offer 100% view
Generally, only the top-end DSLRs have viewfinders that show the entire image. If yours doesn’t, zoom out slightly to check nothing’s creeping into the frame before you zoom back in and take the shot. Alternatively, switch to Live View as this displays the full image.
10. You’re not close enough
Wide-angle lenses have such a large angle of view, that there’s a danger that everything will look small in the frame. Move closer to a subject and look for foreground interest and leading lines to draw viewers into the picture.
11. You’re being predictable
Photography magazines and blogs are always – ALWAYS – banging on about the Rule of Thirds. There’s a reason for this: it provides an easy way to balance a photo. But if all your shots are framed rigidly around this rule then your photo collection will become one-dimensional and dull.
Your photos aren’t in focus because…
1. You’re using the wrong AF mode
You know that you need to select your camera’s One-Shot autofocus mode for stationary subjects and its AI Servo mode for moving subjects. You know that, we know that. But we also know how easy it is to forget to check the setting before making the shot…
2. You’re letting the camera choose the AF point
Left to its own automated whims, your camera can end up focusing on the nearest thing to it or pick out a sharp detail in the background rather than the subject of the photo. Don’t take any chances: take charge and choose the AF point yourself.
3. You’re not choosing the right AF point
Many photographers use the precise centre AF point to focus on the subject, keeping the shutter release half-pressed to lock the setting and then reframing the shot for the best composition. But do this with a wide-angle lens, and the subject may end up out of focus. So, select an AF point that matches their position instead.
4. Your lens is back-focusing or front-focusing
If the lens autofocuses on a subject but the subject looks blurred when you zoom in to check the photo, it may be because the autofocus is slightly off. Use your camera’s AF Microadjustment feature to rectify this.
5. You’re too close to focus
Lenses have minimum focusing distances, and if you try to focus them any closer than this then the AF system won’t lock on. Check for the focus indicator lock in the viewfinder – if it’s blinking or not there at all, the subject will be out of focus.
6. You’re using the full focusing range
If you’re struggling to get sharp images of moving subjects, you probably need to give the AF system a helping hand. Learn to predict the movement and prefocus on a spot close to where they’ll pass. If the lens has a focus limiter switch, use it to speed up focus acquisition.
7. You’re not using Manual focus for close-up photography
When you’re photographing a subject with a macro lens, each time you refocus you change the size of the image in the frame. Instead, use Manual focus to set the magnification, then rock the camera and lens backwards and forwards to focus.
8. You’re not making enough use of Live View
Use manual focusing and Live View’s magnification feature for near-pixel level precise focusing. An image that appears sharp in the viewfinder may require a slight adjustment of the focusing ring to make essential picture details razor-sharp.
9. You’re not using hyperfocal focusing for landscape photography
By using a small aperture and manually focusing around a third of the way into a scene, you’ll be able to make more of it appear sharp. For precise hyperfocal focusing distances, download a smartphone app like DOFMaster.
10. You’re using a very wide aperture
A ‘fast’ lens used close-up at its maximum aperture will offer a very narrow depth of field (the zone which appears acceptably sharp in a picture) and even the slightest focusing error can cause important details to become blurred.
11. You’re not seeing clearly
If your manually focused pictures look soft, check the eyepiece diopter (a small wheel usually found behind the viewfinder eyecup). This allows you to adjust the viewfinder clarity, so you can be sure you’re focusing accurately.
Your photography lighting isn’t working because…
1. You’re not taking pictures in the best light
Bright, midday sun doesn’t usually make for the most evocative images. Get out early and stay up late to make the most of the softer ‘magic’ light at the start and end of the day.
2. You’re not thinking about the shadows
When you’re taking someone’s portrait, the quality of lighting is vital. On a sunny day, the harsh shadows created by direct sunlight can be unflattering, so move the subject into the shade.
3. Your subjects are squinting
Take a portrait with the subject facing into the sun and they’ll end up squinting. It’s far better to turn them away from the sun and use a reflector or fill-flash to provide even illumination across their face.
4. You’re not making the most of overcast days
Bright, cloudy days are perfect for close-ups and portraits, as the even lighting enables you to capture lots of detail.
5. You’re not controlling contrast
The dynamic range of your camera sensor dictates how much detail can be captured in one exposure. If the contrast in a scene is too high, beyond the sensor’s dynamic range, then detail will be lost. Landscape photos are particularly prone to this, and can often have either a correctly exposed foreground (with an overexposed sky) or a correctly exposed sky (with an underexposed foreground). This is why landscape photographers use graduated Neutral Density filters to bring both foreground and sky within the dynamic range of the camera.
6. You rely on Auto White Balance
The colour of light can have an affect on the mood of your pictures, but the Auto White Balance setting will often try and neutralise it. This is particularly obvious with sunsets, so try using the white balance presets: Daylight, Cloudy or Shade will add warmth.
7. You’re taking pictures using multiple light sources
If your scene is lit by different light sources, then the mix of colour could prove distracting.
8. You’re using on-camera flash
A blip of flash from the small pop-up unit on your DSLR is good for filling in shadows, but little else. It’s a hard, directional light that casts hard-edged shadows and can cause red-eye, and its affects are particularly obvious when the camera’s held vertically. Use an off-camera flashgun where possible, ideally with a diffusor attached to its head.
9. The light is falling off towards the edges of the photo
If the edges of a picture are darker than the centre, use Peripheral Illumination Correction – an option available in some cameras and software – to correct this.
10. You’re not using a lens hood
If you don’t shield the front element of a lens on a sunny day, then there’s a risk of flare reducing the quality of the image. Use a lens hood, or cast a shadow over the front element using your hand.
11. Your night photos are too dark
Ironically, night photos lack character if they feature inky black skies. Try and shoot when there’s some colour left in the sky, as this will stop scenes lit by bright artificial lights from looking too bottom-heavy.
Your photo editing is failing because…
1. You’re not correcting the Levels
If your digital photos look flat and grey, take a look at the Levels histogram. Drag the white and black sliders towards the edges of the histogram to create a more dynamic look.
2. You’re over-editing
Aside from the taste aspect, general over-editing – apocalyptic colour saturation, hyper-real HDR and the like – can cause exposure problems. Keep the histogram visible as you make adjustments and check that highlights aren’t being pushed off the scale.
3. You’re not magnifying the image enough
Don’t try making selections, carrying out cloning and doing other photo editing tasks that require attention to detail without zooming into the image. Well, you can of course try, but chances are you’ll miss a bit…
4. You’re over-sharpening photos
Leave sharpening until the final stage of image processing, and take it easy. Zoom into 100% and, if you’re using Unsharp Mask, don’t be too aggressive with the Radius and Amount settings, or you’ll end up with glowing halos around objects.
5. You’re heavy-handed with noise reduction
You’ll end up removing detail from a digital photo if the noise reduction is applied too strongly. Hair will end up looking like a featureless helmet, and clothing will become texture free. Do the noise reduction on a separate layer, and add a mask to bring back essential details.
6. Skin tones in your portraits are smoother than margarine
When you’re retouching a portrait in Photoshop, be subtle when it comes to applying a skin smoothing action – it’s easy to overdo it and end up with ‘plastic skin’.
7. You’re overprocessing eyes and teeth
Brightening up a person’s eyes and teeth will add sparkle to a portrait. Just be discerning when you’re doing it: ice-white teeth and mannequin eyes will prove a distraction rather than a distinctive feature.
8. You’re cropping photos too severely
Substantially cropping a shot will reduce the quality of the final image. Photos taken on large megapixel, full-frame cameras can take more cropping, but try to get it right in-camera
9. You’re oversaturating colours
You’ll notice that there’s a theme throughout these photo editing tips: subtlety. When it comes to Photoshop enhancement, less is usually more – and this is definitely the case with colour saturation. Avoid the garish cartoon look…
10. You’re not being bold enough with black and white
Simple desaturating a colour image or converting it to grayscale rarely cuts it for a black and white conversion. Use Photoshop’s Black and White tool along with Curves and dodging burning techniques for a much punchier result.
11. The colours in your photo prints don’t match the digital image
This is certain to be a calibration issue. Either your monitor or your printer (or ideally both) need to be calibrated. Alternatively, check the printer ink levels – if one supply is running low, colours will look wrong.
Happy Shooting :)