Five Mistakes Made by Beginning Photographers

Posted on September 7, 2008

I begin with a quick disclaimer: Though I’ve been taking casual snapshots for years, I myself am very new to serious photography. How new? If you browse to the end of my Flickr photostream, you’ll notice that the first shot I considered good enough to upload was taken a little over a year ago. Not long after that defining photo, I bought a dSLR, a stack of photography books, and threw myself into the craft with an abandon which had some people questioning my sanity!

To this day, I don’t really consider myself an Ansel Adams or Cartier-Bresson, but I do believe I’ve gotten better with experience; to the point where I’ve fallen in love with some of the shots that have come out of my camera. But of course, I didn’t get to this point without quite a few hard, expensive and/or frustrating lessons. Talking to other photographers, both in person and online, quickly showed that I wasn’t the only one who learned these the hard way:

Not Taking Enough Shots

Taking Too Many Shots

Failing to Pay Attention to Your Surroundings

Thinking: “I can fix that in Photoshop”

Buying Too Much Equipment  

And now, without further ado…

Not Taking Enough Shots 

Repeat after me: Storage is cheap!

Don’t believe me? A 4 GB memory card can be had on Newegg for under $20. On my Nikon D40, this translates into more than 530 RAW shots, or well-over 4000 JPEGs! The moral? Take as many shots as you need to get the one. And even when you’re sure you’ve got it, take some more for good measure– it’s not killing trees, putting mercury in our drinking water, or overcrowding our landfills.

Don’t always trust your first shot. Those LCD screens are great little liars – telling us we’ve captured something magazine-worthy when blurry areas, blinked eyes, compositional errors, or exposure issues we can’t see on a thumbnail actually make it a mediocre shot, or just plain bad. And the Universal Law of Irony dictates that you will realize this only when you get home and open them up. 

See something interesting, but don’t believe you can capture it well? Shoot anyway, because as the New York Lottery Dude would say: “Hey, you never know.” Some of my favorite pictures are ones I took casually, with no real hope of getting anything good.

Don’t be afraid to pull out your camera. I’ve been teased by people who’ve called my enthusiasm obsessive – only to marvel at my pictures later. Remember – photography is about expressing your vision as an artist, and not pleasing others – don’t we do that at work or school every day? I’ll bet my Nikon on this – you’ll kick yourself a lot more for the image you didnt capture than for the shot you tried and failed.


Taking Too Many Shots 

“Hey Nigel, make up your mind!” you might be saying. “First you say it’s a mistake not to take enough shots, and now you’re saying it’s a mistake to take too many?” The problem is that sometimes we fail to think in between shutter presses. Ask yourself – why would I want another picture of the same subject?

A sports photographer might say: “The action is unfolding even as I take the picture, and so I’ll grab a whole bunch of frames to make sure I walk away with the best shot.”

A portrait/model photographer might say: “Slowly but surely, my subject is relaxing as the shoot progresses – the pictures are starting to look more natural. Let’s take a few more…”

Someone like me might say: “Yuck – she blinked her eyes. Reshoot!”

The point is, between frames something is changing – either the subject, or the photographer’s technique. Shooting multiple frames in which both subject and technique are entirely static is usually a waste of time. If you see something wrong in your shot, fix it in your next ones – don’t just hold the shutter and hope that everything will work itself out.

You’ll come away with a higher percentage of “keepers”. And it’ll save you a whole lot of time sifting through crummy duplicates later.


Failing to Pay Attention to Your Surroundings


Seeing with the Viewfinder, Instead of the Eye

Our cameras are fascinating devices, able to isolate, focus on, and capture subjects with the twitch of a finger. I’ve seen a few people with their eyes glued to their cameras, as if a peep show were playing in the viewfinder. They stand a better chance of seeing, (and thus capturing) the next Kodak moment, right?

Not quite. God (or evolution, or karma, or whatever you believe in) actually gave us a far superior viewfinder – our eyes. Counting our peripheral vision, we have nearly a 180 degree field of view, and the wherewithal to realize when something interesting (and possibly photo-worthy) is going down in our vicinity. To use these gifts, however, we have to be willing to look up from the camera once in a while.

John Mayer fans should be familiar with this caveat – his early song “3×5” talked about  not having “a camera by my side this time, hoping I would see the world through both my eyes.” Well, John, I don’t think we have to go that far, but yes, involving yourself in the surroundings is always a good idea. Not only will you find more interesting things to photograph, you’ll enjoy your shoots a lot more. After all, there’s a lot more to Central Park than a few great landscape shots, right?

Don’t miss the beauty of the world simply because you were trying to capture it as a JPEG.  


Thinking: “I can fix that in Photoshop” 

Besides cheap storage, the other advantage of digital photography is the ease of which images can be improved. With a few clicks in Aperure, Lightroom, or Photoshop, you can eliminate red-eye, fix exposure, change colors, crop to fix composition, put Sarah Palin’s head on a pit-bull…Some professionals complain that this ease of manipulation discourages people from taking good pictures, since they can be “fixed” later.

While I’m no authority on a digital photographer’s work ethic, I can say from experience: it still pays to get it right the first time!

First and foremost, Photoshop cannot fix everything. Camera shake, out of focus subjects, subject movement, etc, are all extremely difficult, if not impossible, to repair in post-processing. Even if you are able to repair some serious flaws, making the fixes look authentic is another exercise in patience that quickly becomes annoying.

Secondly, do you even want to Photoshop everything? If you’re taking advantage of the digital medium as you should be, you’ll likely have dozens, if not hundreds, of shots by the time you get home. Fixing every one of them can take hours. Aperture and Lightroom have tools to automate this, but you’ll still spend a lot less time at the computer if you get your shots right the first time.

Photoshop is a tool for adding dramatic effects, compositing pictures, putting Sarah Palin’s head on a pit bull…creative stuff. Not things you should have fixed in-camera. And as our first lesson says, fixing it is often a matter of taking another shot!


Buying Too Much Equipment

If there’s one thing to know before getting into photography, it’s this – it’s can be a expensive hobby. In view of this, Nikon, Canon, and other camera makers try to design low-cost kits to draw in customers. Some of these kits are a great bargain, but it isn’t long before beginners find themselves up against their new gear’s limitations.

The first month I played with the camera, everything was wrong with my kit. The lens wasn’t long enough (it was a 17-55mm on a 1.6 crop sensor). The aperture wasn’t wide enough (Only f/4-5.6). It focused too slowly, and not at all in dim light.

With a little money in my pocket thanks to my new job, I paid a prompt trip to B&H. I bought a 28-70mm f/2.8 lens for nearly $500. Soon, I found my faults with it – it was a bit blurry at f/2.8, it was loud while autofocusing, focal length still wasn’t long enough…

Not long after, I returned to B&H – by now the place was so familiar that the bag-check guy smiled as I entered. I ended up buying a Sigma 18-200 f/3.5-6.3 for nearly $600, which I thought was pretty cool at first. But soon, I became annoyed by the way it handled colors in my pictures, the stabilizer didn’t always work, leaving some shots blurry, and the 6.3 aperture was way too tiny for any indoor work…

It was an annoying, impoverishing cycle. Instead of focusing on my photography and getting comfortable with my current gear. I simply blamed it, and focused on lusting after the latest, shiniest lens. That summer, I ended up spending several thousand on photo gear, and was entirely satisfied with none of it.

Furthermore, constantly switching lenses and equipment does your creativity no good. Why? Good photographers know their gear intimately – not in terms of technical specs and test charts downloaded from the internet, but how their eyes and their camera will see when pointed at a particular subject. This knowledge is instinctive, and will only come through hours of practice, and many, many, shots with your current equipment. 

Soon enough, you’ll start seeing pictures in the world around you, even if you’ve left your camera at home! As you expand into different kinds of photography, you’ll find that different lenses will give you interesting new perspectives. But it still pays to learn to make do with your current equipment first.

Falling into these traps isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you as a photographer. Not as bad, as say, dropping your camera in the Hudson or leaving your memory card in some bar in Hoboken. Still, photography became a much more enjoyable hobby as I learned these lessons over the past year – it is the start of working creatively, and less technically.  

» Filed Under Everything and Nothing, Photography


One Response to “Five Mistakes Made by Beginning Photographers”

  1. The Lazy Photographer: Vacation Pics Without Breaking a Sweat! | Roving Hearts on December 3rd, 2008 10:02 am

    […] If you’ve read any of my previous photography posts, you’ll realize one of the biggest mistakes you can make is focusing on your camera, instead of the place and the people around […]

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