Top 10 Common Photography Mistakes by Beginners

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It’s easy to get frustrated by some common photography mistakes. Beginners often tend to make these mistakes, but they can still strike experienced photographers who get caught up in the moment.

In this episode, we discuss the Top 10 common photography mistakes by beginners. We have three things that we hope you’ll take away from these mistakes, though.

  1. Be mindful of your camera settings as well as your subject
  2. Slow down your photography
  3. Everyone makes mistakes

What Are the Top Ten Common Photography Mistakes?

Lee and I came up with this list quite easily. First, because we’ve made every single mistake on this list. Second, because we see other folks make the same mistakes, too.

Please don’t think that we’re talking down to anyone. We were all beginners at one time or another. We all made mistakes, and to some degree, we continue to make mistakes.

The trick is to avoid showing people your mistakes.

With that in mind, let’s get start with our list.

1: Wrong Exposure Settings

I added this one with something particular in mind. It’s not about making a photo too dark or too bright. Yes, that’s a mistake, but mostly something you can correct.

This mistake happens when you have a photo with two different areas with a big dynamic range difference. For example, you may overexpose the sky to get a nice exposure on your subject, or sometimes you shoot a portrait that’s backlit and your subject gets lost in shadows.

There are two answers to this problem. One is to expose for the sky and put some flash on your subject.

The easier answer is to move. Sometimes just moving your camera a few inches to one side or the other to recompose your photo and eliminate the big difference in exposure will let you end up with a great shot with everything well-exposed.

2: Forgetting to Change Your White Balance Settings

Light comes in different colors. We like to think of Daylight as white, but there is more than one kind of daylight. It could be during sunrise or sunset, which gives you different color than a clear sky at Noon.

We typically see warm, incandescent light indoors. Florescent lights have their own color cast.

Cameras use White Balance to compensate for the color variance in different conditions. That keeps your subject from looking too orange, blue or green under different types of light.

The problem is when you set it and forget it, then move to a different light source. It can really mess up an otherwise lovely photo. It’s easy to do, too.

Take some photos indoors and then go outdoors to take more. Some photos may get messed up if you don’t remember to change your White Balance.

You may not even need to move between indoors or outdoors. That bright blue sky can change the light when some clouds move overhead.

The key here is not to use Auto White Balance but to slow down. When you change location or when the light changes, go over your settings again. Use a Grey Card to set your white balance for the best results.

3: Forgetting to Change Settings From One Scene to the Next

Adding on to the White Balance issue, what else should you remember to check?

Not only does the color of your light change, but the quantity of light could also change. You need to evaluate your ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed.

In fact, there’s an acronym by Scott Kelby designed to help you – WHIMS

  • White Balance
  • Highlight Clipping
  • ISO
  • Mode (JPEG or RAW)
  • Shooting (Manual, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority)

It doesn’t sound good to add a “B” to the list but toss in Bracketing if you occasionally shoot HDR. Before we got married, Lee invited me on a wildlife photo shoot, and this burned me. I could not understand why some of my shots were so overexposed and others were just right, and still more were underexposed.

Well, duh! I left my bracketing on from a previous HDR shoot.

I should have picked up on that sooner, but Lee distracted me with her feminine wiles.

4: Shooting JPEG Instead of RAW

I know I did this as a new digital photographer, and it’s because I was cheap.

I really didn’t understand the benefits of a RAW file, but I knew I could get more JPEG photos on a memory card than RAW photos. Back when I started with my Nikon D70, I could get about 1200 JPEG files on an 8 GB memory card. Yet I could only get a couple hundred RAW files on the same card.

That made absolutely no sense to me.

Why would anyone shoot in RAW when it wastes so much space? I believed that until I discovered post-processing. Then I found out that I really didn’t have much leeway to adjust some parts of my JPEG files.

When I screwed up my White Balance and took a photo of a Las Vegas showgirl (a real one, not those street performers outdoors), I turned her into a sunburnt pink lady. It wasn’t very good.

With a RAW photo, you have a LOT more range to change a photo’s White Balance to recover details hidden in shadow or seemingly blown-out highlights.

Spend the money. Get bigger cards and plenty of them. Shoot RAW. It’s a great way to capture your images and provide some wiggle room to recover from potential mistakes.

5: Not Understanding or Using Lighting Conditions

It takes some time to truly understand how to see light. You have to know what you’re looking for, and how it may impact your photos.

Light has some characteristics that you can use to your advantage, or they can totally screw up your photos. If you know how to understand light, you can get pretty creative.

Light has Direction.  It comes from somewhere. Above, to the side, front, back, or even below. There must be a source for the light, and light travels in a straight line until it bounces off something.

Light has Color. Look at a neon sign or Darth Vader’s lightsaber for some extreme examples of color in light. Daylight variations are more subtle, but we all recognize variances between warm and cold scenes.

Light has Quality. Look at the shadows cast during different times of day. Some have a hard edge and some have softer edges to the shadow. Neither is better than the other, but they have different uses in your photography, which may mean one type of light quality is preferable to another.

Light has Quantity. Ever find that you don’t have enough light to make a decent photo, or there’s so much that your exposure gets blown out? Fortunately, we can compensate for quantity using everything from flash to exposure adjustments and neutral density filters.

Spend time learning to recognize these aspects of light and start using them in your photography.

6: Snapping Rather Than Composing

There’s an old quote by Ansel Adams.

You don’t take a photograph, you make it.

Ansel Adams

The meaning behind those words is pretty simple. Don’t just take snapshots of things you see. Slow down. Give some thought to your composition and your exposure. You can change a scene with different focal lengths. Selecting the right time of day or year can profoundly affect a photograph.

In other words, it’s the person behind the camera who makes the photograph. Whether you make it well or not depends upon how much thought you put into it.

7: Relying Too Much on Auto Settings

I’ll be honest. I don’t do much with my iPhone settings. Yes, I have apps that will allow me to adjust the iPhone camera in manual mode, but I never use them.

It’s very different with a DSLR, though. I want my control. While I could put everything in an automatic mode and let the camera make all the decisions about exposure and ISO, why would I?

Using a DSLR in auto mode is a wasted opportunity. I may as well use my iPhone for a lot less money.

No computer chip in a camera will ever be as creative or intelligent as a human.

If you don’t know where to start, then choose Aperture Priority mode. Experiment shooting the same scene with different apertures. Pay attention to the way changing the aperture affects the shutter speed and the depth of field.

Some of the most creative opportunities in photography would never happen in an automatic mode. We wouldn’t have happy accidents with long exposure. We would never see a photo of white snow, since the camera tries to make everything grey.

Perhaps you don’t know how to use your camera in Manual mode yet, but try anyway. Just go out and practice to see what happens. It’s not like you have to pay for film and development these days, like when I was learning. Mistakes were expensive then. Today, it’s cheap and easy to screw up.

However, failure is one of life’s greatest teachers. Go screw up something and see what you learn.

8: Cluttered Backgrounds (or foregrounds)

This is a pet peeve of mine. I don’t want anything in a photo that doesn’t belong there, or is a grand distraction from my subject. So you do what you have to do. Move the background. Move to another location. Get the clutter out of your photo.

Distill the photo until it only has the elements that you want or need in the frame.

There are a lot of people who truly don’t even notice junk in the background of their photos. I see Instagram models taking selfies in the mirror with a lot of junk on the bed behind them (or in the bathroom).

Strive to do better. One of the best ways to create better photos than the average snapshot is to control what is in or isn’t in your photos.

9: Using the Wrong Focal Length

Since I picked on Instagram models, now I get to pick on YouTube photographers. I see a lot of talent in some folks on YouTube, and then I’ll watch someone pick up a 24mm lens and use it for a model’s headshot while 6″ away from her face.

That just ain’t right.

Lenses distort features. Some do it pleasingly, and some don’t. It’s not just a matter of whether a lens distorts a person, but also how it distorts the person.

If you’re thoughtful, you can make a person seem taller or more slender than they are. If you aren’t careful, you can make a fit person look like they have a big butt and thunder thighs when using the wrong lens.

Much like issues with exposure, practice using different focal lengths while taking photos. Not just for portraits, but for any photography. Learn how angle of view and compression affect your subjects. The results may surprise you.

10: Fearing Flash

Learning photography may seem daunting enough, but adding flash seems to push a few folks over the edge. So they avoid it and claim to be a “natural light photographer.”


First, all light is natural.

Second, flash photography isn’t actually that hard. You take your existing exposure triangle of ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed – then you add two more variables

  • Flash power
  • Flash to Subject Distance

That allows you to conquer issues like the #1 item on this list. You can actually shoot that portrait with the sun as a backlight. Just pop a kiss of flash on the person’s face to compensate for the shadow the initial exposure provides.

The sooner you use your flash, the more opportunities open up because of that little bundle of light in your pocket.

Bonus Tip!

We have one more suggestion based upon a problem we often see with beginners. It becomes easy to use burst mode to “spray and pray” that one of the shots becomes useful.

There are two issues with that.

First, you need to develop a sense of timing. Watch for the opportune moment and click the shutter. You’ll have a much better chance of getting the right shot using this method than a random burst.

Second, shooting in burst mode results in photos that aren’t quite as sharp as a single frame. We’ve tried this on DSLRs, iPhones and mirrorless cameras. There’s just a little bit of camera shake when you hold and burst frames.

A tripod is a good way to minimize this issue, but we generally see better results with a single frame shot than a burst.

Common Photography Mistakes Are As Easy to Correct As to Make

I’ve made every one of these mistakes and then some. Fortunately, the solution is often the same to correct these mistakes.

Slow down. Take your time and think about your photo before you take it.

The specifics vary, but mostly the answer is to give yourself time to think. You make more mistakes when you’re in a hurry. Just like Mom always told me.

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