Over the years, I’ve taught many new photographers and observed how they used their cameras. I have noticed a handful of common mistakes that many of them make. While there is a lot more to learn about photography, if you can avoid or fix these issues alone, you will find that your photographs will be much sharper and of much better quality.
1. Not raising the ISO high enough
It used to be commonly taught that you always needed to go as low as possible with the ISO for digital cameras. This was because early digital cameras had horrible noise at higher ISOs. These days, that has completely changed. Newer digital cameras can shoot with incredible quality at ISO 800, 1600, 3200, and even 6400 for higher end cameras. The noise is much less noticeable than it used to be, and it is much more pleasant looking.
This has changed how we can shoot. While your ISO should still be as low as possible when the camera is on a tripod when you’re shooting handheld you will often want to raise your ISO up much higher. Unless I am purposely shooting with a very large aperture such as f/2.8, I typically keep my ISO at 400 in sunlight, 800-1600 in light to dark shade, and 3200 and 6400 when handheld at dusk or at night. This allows me to use a faster shutter speed to offset handheld camera shake or motion in subjects, along with a decent depth of field. My shots are much sharper because of this.
Unless you are shooting in Manual Mode, I suggest taking your camera off of auto-ISO. You never want to let your camera choose two of the three settings (shutter, aperture, and ISO) because it will mess up your photographs a lot of the time. The camera should only be choosing one of those three settings for optimal use.
2. Using a shutter speed that’s too slow
To offset the handheld camera shake, the shutter speed always needs to be ONE over the focal length of your lens. So if you are shooting with a 50mm lens, your camera will need to be at 1/50th of a second (or faster) to make sure the image is sharp. This comes even more into play with a zoom lens because a 300mm lens will need a 1/300th of a second shutter speed in order for the image to not look blurry. This is because slight vibrations are much more noticeable when you magnify a small area in the distance. This is also why I will often raise my ISO when zooming at far distances.
For subjects in motion, you will need a fast enough shutter speed to freeze them. I prefer a minimum of 1/250th of a second to freeze people walking. You will need an even faster shutter speed as you get to subjects such as cars.
3. Not using exposure compensation (+/-) or the right meter mode
If you are using Aperture or Shutter Priority mode, Exposure Compensation is your best friend, particularly in scenes with tricky lighting. Your camera’s light meter is not creative – it wants to make everything look a neutral gray, but that is problematic in images with lots of dark or bright tones. Maybe you want those tones to look gray for creative purposes, but most likely, you will want them to be true to the scene. This is where Exposure Compensation (+/-) comes into play.
For instance, in scenes with lots of bright snow or a bright sky, this could trick the camera into thinking that it needs to overly darken the image to make those white areas look gray. Or if you are shooting at night, or in a dark alleyway, the camera’s light meter will try to make those dark tones look like a lighter gray, thus brightening the image too much. Similar problems can also appear when shooting in areas with both bright highlights and dark shadows, or if your subject is backlit.
On a related note, many photographers keep their camera on the wrong metering mode. There are three main metering modes; Evaluative, Center-weighted, and Spot metering. Evaluative will expose for the entire scene, Center-weighted will expose based on the spot that you focus on and an expanded area around it, and Spot metering will measure the light based on only the spot that you point to. I personally find Evaluative to be too broad and Spot to be too focused, so I mostly use Center-weighted metering mode.
4. Not getting the focus point right
Some photographers leave their focusing completely up to the camera. This is a terrible idea as the camera will often focus on the wrong point, ultimately ruining your image. You need to be in control of your focusing and put the focus on the most important subject in the image.
On a similar note, it is common for photographers to get that new 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens and immediately think that they need to shoot everything at f/1.4 because they can. Some situations will be good for f/1.4, but it’s important to realize how shallow the depth of field is at that aperture.
If you are shooting with a really shallow depth of field, the focus needs to be perfect and exactly right on the most important subject. If you are photographing a person and you put the focus point on the person’s ear or nose instead of their eyes, it will be noticeable and it will mess up the photograph. Often, I prefer to shoot portraits like this at f/4 instead of f/1.8 or f/2.8. There is still a beautiful background with bokeh, yet more of the person is in focus. This minimizes any focusing mistakes as well.
5. Using image stabilization when using a tripod
The image stabilizer in your lens or camera will make your photographs sharper when handheld. However, it can also create minor vibrations while keeping the camera steadier, and these vibrations can actually backfire when you are on a tripod. Sometimes they will introduce blur. So always make sure to turn the image stabilizer off when you are using a tripod. If you ever notice your photographs on a tripod are slightly blurry, this issue and wind are the most likely culprits.
There you have it. The bottom line is that if you can learn to conquer and avoid these five common beginner mistakes, you’ll be on your way to better photography.