Perhaps you've been casually playing around with photography for a little while now, but just recently made the decision to get serious? Are you considering putting together a photography portfolio online to showcase your work? Want to be sure you're not going to embarrass yourself by displaying images filled with common beginner's mistakes? Then read on.
Just as all successful photographers tend to share certain qualities, newbie photographers frequently make the same errors again and again. Moving beyond these simple stumbling blocks can very quickly elevate your photography to the next level. Here we take a look at some of the most common beginner's photography mistakes, and explain how to easily avoid them.
1. Thinking in 3D
When we look at the world around us, our brain selectively focuses on the people, objects and details we are interested in at that particular moment, filtering out all the rest. But a photograph functions very differently: background and foreground can merge, and our eyes will give almost equal importance to all the elements in the frame, regardless of where they are located.
For example, a distant tree might not even register when we look at someone up close in real life. But if badly positioned behind a subject, it will look like it's growing out of their head once photographed.
As you go about your daily life, train yourself to see things in two-dimensions, by imagining the world flattened to a single plane (you can even do this if you don't have a camera with you). Learn to view both silhouettes and negative space. What form do two elements create when visually compressed together as a single flat one? Does this make for a good composition, or would it be better to step to one side in order to have them coincide differently, or perhaps not coincide at all?
2. Inappropriate Aperture
As a beginner, you will be told time and again that you should be shooting with your camera in manual mode. Why? Because it gives you complete control over all the technical aspects that determine the look of a photo: most importantly, shutter-speed and aperture.
Aperture affects more than just the amount of light coming through the lens and hitting the sensor, it also influences depth-of-field: i.e. how much of the image will be sharp in front of and behind the point of focus. In this respect aperture is a creative tool.
With a portrait, the main focus of your photograph will usually be on the person's face (or more precisely, their eyes). Assuming that we're not interested in seeing too much of the environment that the person is standing in, we'll get the best results by shooting with the lens wide open (i.e. using a small f-stop number, such as f/2.8), thus throwing the background out of focus. This is directly related to the previous point, in that background elements - such as trees - will be less distracting when blurred.
In some cases, however, seeing a specific detail in either the background or foreground might be essential to the success of our photo. For example, it would be a shame to go all the way to Paris, set up a shot with a subject in front of the Eiffel Tower, only to get home and discover that the tower is an almost unrecognizable blur in the distance due to an inappropriately narrow depth-of-field. In this case we'll need to shoot with a much smaller aperture (i.e. a higher f/stop, such as f/16 or even f/22) in order to get both background and foreground sufficiently sharp.
These are creative decisions. Take control of them.
3. Shooting Too Wide
Be ruthless in your framing. What's the photograph about? What are the essential elements you need in order to tell the story? Get in close and exclude everything else. Already done that? Do it again, you're probably still not close enough.
Seriously, this is one of the most common beginner's photography mistakes, and yet it's so easy to fix. Strip everything back to the bare minimum and remember that a part can often do the same work as the whole.
For example, let's say that in a particular shot it's essential to understand that there's a second person present in the scene, because of the narrative interaction this creates with the main subject. But do we need to see all of that person? Perhaps just a hand or foot creeping into the edge of the frame tells us everything we need to know?
Gear Acquisition Syndrome is a truly wretched affliction: "I'll start shooting seriously as soon as I get a full-frame camera"; "if I only had that shift-lens I'd be Ansel Adams". Stop it now. Photography is about you, not your tools.
Sure, everyone needs a fully working camera with a decent sensor and an acceptably sharp lens. But that's pretty much it.
Bluetooth? Wi-Fi? 61 AF points? Ask yourself in what way they'll make your photos better. Want to be a gear-geek? Be my guest. Rather be a photographer? Go take pictures!
5. Heavy-handed Postproduction
Good photography is about fantastic content, creative composition and mastery of light, not gratuitous effects. A killer shot will be improved by subtle postproduction and retouching, but just as easily ruined by ham-fisted use of Photoshop actions and trashy filters.
Resist the temptation to go overboard. In any case, no amount of postproduction will compensate for a weak image.
6. Wide Angle Lenses
Wide angle lenses produce a very distinctive look that can totally dominate a scene. Sure, they have their legitimate uses, but making an otherwise boring shot look more interesting is not one of them. If lens focal-length is the first thing a viewer notices when looking at your photos then you're doing it wrong.
To get everything in frame, all that's usually required is taking a few steps back. Reach for the 28mm or wider only when there's really no other way of including all the essential elements in shot (but see Point 3 above).
When shooting up close with a focal length wider than 50mm you'll start to notice perspectival distortion. This rarely flatters the human face, so if you're shooting portraits then ditch the wide angle altogether: your subjects will thank you for it.
7. HD Photography
Just don't, OK?
8. Having No Clear Direction
Look at the work of all the great photographers and you'll notice a distinct identity and continuity to their pictures: an Ansel Adams photo looks like an Ansel Adams photo; a Leibovitz looks like a Leibovitz; a Crewdson like a Crewdson. Over time, each of these photographers has found a method of shooting that works for them - that expresses their personality in the most profound manner - and then pushed it to its logical extreme.
Although in the beginning it can be hugely beneficial to learn from all the different photographers you like - closely studying and emulating their style - if you want to take your photography up another level then sooner or later you'll need to come up with something of your own. Where will this come from? From fusing all those diverse photographic influences with your own personal interests and idiosyncrasies.
Whenever shooting a series of photos (for example about the same theme, or on a trip, or for an online portfolio) try to think of it as a unified body of work, with a consistent visual identity. Decide upon a direction, and go with it. Sometimes this will mean having to "kill your heroes". I.e. even though a favorite shot may work very well on it's own, you might have to remove it from a series if it doesn't stylistically fit with all the others.
There's no single formula for becoming a great photographer, and of course the truly talented will often break the rules. But one thing you can be sure of is that none of the photographers you admire still commit any of the errors we list above. Get past this stage yourself and you'll be well on the way to mastering the art of photography.