How to steer clear of some of those bad photographic habits
“New photographers can get overwhelmed by all the new settings they have to employ to get a good exposure and get a little flustered and in some extreme cases, decide not to pick up a camera again.”

Are you a new photographer? Have you just upgraded to a DSLR from your cameraphone and looking to take more inspired photos? We all have to start somewhere and chances are you’re not going to be creating sensational photographic works of art the moment you turn your new camera on. Despite professional photographers wanting us to believe it, they are not all born perfect master of their art. Mistakes happen, lessons have to be learned and experience has to be gained. It is also probably worth noting that you don’t have to be a newbie to make mistakes, anyone can do it. You are not alone. Sometimes, things happen that are not even necessarily mistakes. New photographers can get overwhelmed by all the new settings they have to employ to get a good exposure and get a little flustered and in some extreme cases, decide not to pick up a camera again. Now that would be a mistake! Let’s run down some of the things that you should be aware of and hopefully your images will improve.

Stuck in the middle

New photographers may find themselves making this first error quite a bit. It concerns landscape photography generally. There is often the urge to take a landscape shot and place the horizon line right in the middle of the frame. This will divide the image in half horizontally. At first it might actually feel like the natural thing to do but the viewer of the image is left wondering which half of the image is the point of interest. Placing the horizon line on the lower third of the photo makes more of the sky visible and this guides the viewer to scan the sky. If you place the horizon line at the top third of the image, then it is more obvious that the ground is the subject since more of it is on show. Dividing the image up into thirds horizontally and vertically, and placing key subjects in your photo on the points where they intersect or on any of the dividing lines, is an age old guide for composition known as the rule of thirds. It is one of the things that you will get to hear about more as you progress as a photographer. One thing to note about ‘guides’ and ‘rules’ is that they are just that. They are suggestions, not necessarily cast in stone. If you, the photographer, want to break the rules, then go ahead and break them; take the photos that make you happy.

Vertical positioning

If placing your landscape photo’s horizon line on either the top or bottom third of the frame is regarded as good form for landscape photos, then shooting portraits has its own suggestion for creating balanced compositions too. Much like shooting a landscape, the chances are that if you have shot someone’s portrait, you may have placed them in the middle of the frame. This is not so much of a problem if you have taken a photo of them with the camera in portrait orientation and framed them quite tight for a head and shoulders portrait. If you are trying a landscape orientation photo it is often a good idea to place your subject on one of the vertical third lines. This will place them off-centre to the right or left depending on which line you use. Conventional wisdom tells us that this is a better composition but you, the photographer, have the right to disagree with this if you choose. Bear in mind that there is also the direction your subject is looking that may dictate which side of the frame they are placed. The general rule of thumb is to place them in the frame in such a way that they are looking into the space on the other side of the shot. You can experiment with this to see if it works for you.

Diverting attention

This can often be a classic error perpetrated by many photographers of different skill levels. In many cases, it can be that you just didn’t see that telephone line running through the back of the shot or the lamppost that is sticking out of the top of your subject’s head. Often, you can be so absorbed in framing your subject, that you miss those subtle but annoying background diversions that can ruin the shot. Yes, get your subject composed in a way that pleases you, but also take a moment to look around the frame of your composition through your camera viewfinder or live view monitor screen. Is there anything that diverts attention away from your subject (and not in a good way)? Can you reframe the shot to remove those distractions from the photo? If so, do it.

Slice and dice

Cutting parts of your subjects off in a photo is another thing that a lot of us have been guilty of doing in the past. In many cases, it is the removal of feet that is a typical thing to do. If not feet, it can often be the top of someone’s head or a hand near the edge of the frame. It isn’t restricted to portrait photos, it can happen in general landscapes as well. Shooting an interesting church and lopping off the church’s spire or removing the top of a tree in a landscape is common. Of course, it may be that your lens isn’t wide enough to capture the entire scene from that particular position. You may have the option to move further away, if you have room, and reframe the shot. If not, then you have to make some decisions that include the deliberate cropping of your subject. If you slice off a small amount off a subject it can sometimes look like an accident and you weren’t paying attention to the crop. If you deliberately crop much tighter, it can then look much more deliberate and a creative choice on behalf of the photographer. With people’s legs for instance, cropping off less than a third of their leg looks like a bad mishap but cropping off two thirds or more of their leg seems to work.

New camera, better photos

Have we not all been a little bit guilty of lusting after the latest camera tech in the hope it will suddenly transform us into amazing world-class photographers? It is an oversimplification but the camera doesn’t take the photos, the photographer does. The latest camera may have a few more pixels, it may be able to shoot a few more frames per second in burst mode and it might have a higher max ISO than your own camera but it is an inanimate object. You have to take the photographs and you need to have good technique to get the best out of your shots. No camera in the world will save you if you can’t capture a well-exposed photo. Automatic mode will get you so far but you will need to learn the ropes if you want your shots to be noticed amongst the blizzard of average photos out there. Even humble compact cameras can take great photos. DSLRs that are years old will still be able to take amazing photos if the photographer using it knows their stuff.

A new angle

You pick up your camera, hold it to your eye and take a photo. Seems pretty straight forward. For many shots, that camera angle is absolutely fine but as time goes by, you will have a library of shots all taken from head height. Don’t forget to experiment with different camera angles. Many new photographers can get used to shooting in landscape orientation only and may often just forget that the camera can be turned on its side for taking portrait orientation photos. Another simple one is to drop the camera to the floor and shoot up from a very low angle. This change in perspective can add a great deal of variety to your visual repertoire. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new angles. Shoot down from higher vantage points, get your camera on the level of your subject particularly if it is a child or an animal, just keep adding different angles to the mix, even if you end up using the first shot taken at eye level. Next time, that low angle might just be the killer shot you need.

Really use the camera

Don’t keep the camera on auto. You have an amazing piece of imaging technology in your hands so use it. If you don’t know enough about it, then spend the time and learn how to use it. Learn about aperture, shutter speed and ISO and how they all interact with each other and you will not regret it. You will have total control over your images and the camera will not have control over you and the choices you want to make. If you really get a good grasp of the basics, then the whole world of photography really opens up and you will be using the camera to its full potential. You will make some mistakes, we all do. A classic is to set your lens to manual focus for a very particular subject shoot and not switch it back for other shots where autofocus is required. Another is using manual settings for a shot and then shooting with those same settings in a different lighting situation but not looking at the results on your camera’s monitor screen.

Just ask

A common issue for newbies is not having access to a mentor or another experienced photographer that they can talk to. If you are out shooting at a location where are other photographers around, why not go and have a chat with them? Photographers are a genial bunch and happy to chat about the subject and share insights and help newcomers who are trying to get to grips with their cameras. Think about joining a local photography club. You will be part of a larger group of likeminded enthusiasts who usually plan photo expeditions and go as a group. This is an excellent way to learn the craft. It just requires that you, the photographer, are comfortable enough to go and ask for help and advice when you need it.

Easy on the post-work

This one can separate the newcomers form the pros. Post-work allows you to take that photo and wring every last bit of detail out of the shot to make it the best photo it can possibly be. However, it is also possible to over process the photo and turn it into a lurid over-sharpened version of the original. Take your photo and then, at the post-process stage, add subtlety. Yes, you can add saturation, contrast and sharpness, but learn to see when you’ve taken it too far. One area that suffers the most abuse is the world of HDR photography. HDR (high dynamic range) photography requires the taking off several photos of the same scene but at different exposures. These are then combined to create images that contain much more tonal range than a single photo. However, those new to HDR can often go so far overboard with the processing that images are created that can give the viewer a migraine at twenty paces; again, subtlety is the key. Try to become another photographer who can save us from too many horrible HDR photos.

A golden rule

It can’t be stressed enough, if you want the best from your shots, you need to switch to Raw shooting mode. This is an important consideration for the new photographer, since many will continue to shoot in jpeg format and never be aware that they can use the Raw format if their camera supports it. Most modern cameras now allow you to capture your images in Raw format. Raw as the name suggests is the uncompressed and unprocessed image data straight from the camera’s sensor. The files are much bigger than their jpeg counterpart but they give much greater latitude when it comes to processing your final image.

Light fantastic

In photography you may hear reference to ‘the golden hour’. For gorgeous landscapes you cannot do better than to shoot at sunrise and for an hour or so after that; or at sunset and the hour or so before it sets. The light has a luminous warm glow, shadows are long and show off the contours of the land. The sky ignites in pink, orange and red hues and if you catch a sunrise or sunset with an interesting set of cloud formations, then all the better. It may be your creative choice, but try to avoid midday shooting. The shadows at midday are harsh and sit directly beneath objects in the scene. Shadows reveal shape and form, so always think about the time of day you choose to shoot at.

You are not alone

This is the key aspect that new photographers should keep in mind. Everyone has to start somewhere and everyone makes mistakes when they start out. Even when they become seasoned photographers, mistakes can still be made. Another key piece of advice we can give you is that you need to have fun with your camera. If mistakes happen, learn from them but don’t let it put you off. Enjoy your camera and love your photography.

A different animal altogether

If you are new to photography and are looking for subject matter to try your camera skills out on, then pet portraits are a great way to learn. They can pose as many, if not more, challenges than an equivalent human portrait. If you want to stretch beyond standard snaps, think about using different lenses for wide or macro shots, as well as lighting options for more dramatic portraits.