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I spend most of my time trying to teach people what has worked for me in the field of photography. I rarely provide a list of “don’ts” or write a product review of something that is terrible because I don’t have time. But once in a while, a list of “don’ts” can help you improve your photography. It’s important to approach good photography from a different angle. In other words, here are the top ten (not in any particular order) mistakes that most amateurs (and even occasionally we pros) make.

1. Blurry Pictures

Blurry photos are usually the result of camera shake. The simplest way to remedy this problem is to buy and use a good, sturdy tripod. If you can’t shoot with a tripod, remember to use a faster ISO. This allows you to increase your shutter speed. The faster the shutter speed, the less likely you are to suffer from camera shake. A rule of thumb for handholding is to use a shutter speed that is 1/lens focal length or faster. In other words, if you’re shooting a 200mm lens, you need 1/200th second or faster. Don’t forget to compensate if you shoot digitally. If you use a 200mm lens on a crop sensor body, you will need to add more shutter speed for the effective focal length of the lens.

2. Contrasty Pictures

These come from high contrast lighting situations. Learn to recognize them. Photographing in the forest on a sunny day is an example of a high contrast situation. Photographing at Noon on a bright, sunny day is a high contrast situation.

Contrast can be mitigated with diffusers, reflectors, and fill-flash, depending on the circumstances. Usually the best solution is to wait for better conditions, such as the golden hour around sunrise and sunset.

3. Underexposed Pictures

Underexposure often results from letting the camera make all the exposure decisions. Remember, the camera’s meter wants everything to be medium (or gray.) If you do use the auto exposure functions, one common mistake comes from using auto exposure compensation and then forgetting you’ve done so. Make sure that you get enough light into the scene before you press the shutter.

4. Overexposed Pictures

Like underexposure, overexposure can result from letting your camera make all the decisions. Overexposure means blown out highlights and that means lost information. Basing your exposure on shaded or dark areas and letting the camera set the exposure is a formula for overexposed images. Look for something medium to meter from or, better yet, meter the highlights. Just make sure your highlights won’t be more than two and one half (2 ½) stops lighter than medium.

5. Red Eye

This is a common problem resulting from on-camera flash. Move your flash off-axis. Use a flash bracket and connecting cord or a wireless transmitter. You can also bounce the flash off a ceiling or wall, but this won’t be as effective as moving the flash completely off camera.

6. Lens Flare

Flare occurs when direct light hits the front element of the lens and light starts bouncing around inside the lens. This causes the light to reflect off all the elements. This can reduce contrast and make your pictures look “hazy”. Most commonly, it results in a series of round highlights across your image. Be sure to use a lens hood to help prevent this. Sometimes you’ll need more than a lens hood. Try using your hand or a hat to shade the lens. If someone is with you, ask him or her to stand so that they cast a shadow on the lens.

Sometimes it’s hard to detect lens flare when looking through the viewfinder; using your depth of field preview button will make this easier.

7. Obstruction

Be on the lookout for intruders trying to make their way in to your pictures. Branches, out of focus grass blades, telephone wires….all these and more can act as distractions.

Unless you’re using a full-frame, pro-style camera body, most viewfinders show only about 92-95% of the image. Keep that in mind while photographing. You may want to try shifting your camera around to see what’s at the edges.

Some intruders are hard to see in the viewfinder simply because they’re too close and not in focus. When you look at your images on a monitor, you see things you didn’t see before. Remember, you’re looking through your lens at its widest aperture, thus the shallowest depth of field. Some things won’t be in focus. Use your preview button and you’ll see any intruders. If you don’t have a preview button, try focusing throughout the range of your lens to see what may show up.

8. Vignetting

This is what happens when items encroach on the outside edges of your camera lens’ field of view. It’s often caused by super cheap lenses, stacking filters, or by adding lens hoods to lenses that have filters attached. Other accessories, like filter holders, can also cause vignetting. If your viewfinder shows less than 100%, you may not be able to see this happening. Run some tests. Put on all the different filter/hood combinations you can think of and photograph a blank wall. Take notes and look at your images when you get them back. The depth of field preview button will also help reveal when vignetting may be a problem.

9. Color Casts

Color casts can result from using the wrong white balance or shooting in deep shade.

If you shoot in RAW mode, you can easily correct an improper white balance in post. If you’re shooting JPEGS, be sure to test your white-balance in the field.

Shooting in the shade on a sunny day will result is a bluish cast. After all, the predominant light source is the blue sky. Use a filter in the 81 series. These yellowish filters will balance out the blue.

10. Tilted Horizons

Off-center or tilted horizons are probably the most common mistake that we all make and there are several ways to quickly solve this problem. One favorite is to use a focusing screen with a grid etched into it. These are available for many cameras; check your manual. Some cameras even have grid screens that you can turn on or off as a custom function.

Another solution is to simply step back and see if your camera looks level to the world. Then take another look through the viewfinder. Sometimes we need to approach the viewfinder from an angle because of the camera position. Taking another look through the viewfinder with your head level will help too.

One of the easiest solutions is to buy a bubble level for your camera. These levels fit in the flash hot shoe. This way you’ll always know that you’re level.

There are times, however, when your camera may be level but the horizon will appear tilted. This apparent tilting results from receding shorelines; the closer parts of the shoreline are lower in the frame. Just be aware of this phenomenon so you can decide if it’s something that will be a distraction or not.

CONCLUSION

Whether you are a seasoned pro or a new shooter, these ten problems can creep up on you. So review this list often and make a mental checklist to use every time you photograph. You will notice an immediate increase in the quality of your images.

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