Basic Photography Series: Common mistakes explained
Common Beginner Photography Questions
With 7 image examples and a quiz
As a beginner in photography, you often wonder why a specific image looks the way it does. You maybe notice that only a bit of the subject is in focus, or there is a color shift and you don’t know how that happened. Other common questions are around motion blur (moving subjects are blurry, but stationary things are sharp in the image) and camera shake blur (everything is not sharp with a distinct direction of the trails) or out-of-focus blur (everything is blurry, but without a trail). Another area of questions are around the brightness of the image (too dark — underexposed, or too bright — overexposed).
When we look at the example images below, I state a question first, and if you want to get the most out of it, you can then think about the answer before looking at my answers. To make it harder to cheat, I’ll put the answers further down. :-)
How many you can answer?
1. The background is more blurry than I wanted
You saw that lovely shell; you got real close and took the shot. Only the front bit got sharp. But you wanted the whole shell sharp!
What should you change the next time?
2. Moving things do not look like they are moving
You got the camera out of the bag in time to capture the helicopter as it was starting. But you wanted the rotor blades to look blurry, because they were moving fast. Now it looks like the helicopter is falling out of the sky!
What should you try next time to support the impression of movement?
3. Everything is sharp, but I only wanted the eyes to be sharp
You took a portrait photo and noticed later that everything is sharp, but this time you were hoping for that look where they only get the eyes sharp, like this one here:
How can you achieve this shallow depth of field (DoF) effect and get only the eyes sharp?
4. My indoor photos look so orangy, what happened?
At your latest Christmas gathering, you took an image of the wonderful Christmas tree. But when you reviewed your shot, you noticed a distinct orange color cast. You remembered the colors a lot cooler.
Why did the camera pick up the colors so differently than you perceived them? And what can you do next time to capture the colors more natural?
5. There is so much grain in the image, what’s going on?
The question is already in the title.
6. The whole image looks blurry.
The image has something to it. Nice bokeh, but that was unintentional. You wanted to get the lights in focus.
What do you think you have to do to fix that next time?
7. The image is not sharp, and I have these short trails.
Not much sharp in the image. What went wrong here?
All right, do you feel you have all the answers?
When you read my answers, keep in mind that sometimes there is more than one solution. The exercise was not about getting everything right, but to get you thinking about what camera settings have which specific effect on the result. You can also do that exercise with your own images at home.
- You have a very shallow depth of field (DoF) in the image, only a very thin focus plane is sharp. That is normally the case when you have a very large aperture (a small f/number), and you have a large magnification. Here, you are very close to the subject.
There are several ways to get more DoF and keep the same distance from the subject. You could use an advanced technique called “Focus-Stacking”. Or the simple solution would be to stop down, that means you select a smaller aperture, that increases the DoF, more of the shell would be in focus. Just know that the camera selects a slower shutter speed when you select a smaller aperture (less light getting in through a smaller opening in the lens) to compensate for a good exposure, but with these close-up shots, you probably have to use a tripod anyway to get a sharp image.
- Freezing motion in an image happens when you have a very short shutter speed (e.g. 1/4000s). To get the rotor blades blurry — you can see the effect a bit with the small rotor at the tail — you should increase the time the shutter stays open, maybe start with 1/150 second. The blade speed also changes, so you have to experiment with helicopter images, they are not the easiest subject to capture.
When you slow the shutter speed, keep in mind that it increases the time the light hits the sensor, the camera now compensates with a smaller aperture to get a correct exposure.
- You have the opposite situation as in 1. If you want to have a shallow DoF, then you need to get closer and select a large aperture (small f/number)
- When you do indoor photography and have artificial lights like the Christmas tree lighting, the color of the light source can be a lot warmer (more yellow-orange-red) than natural daylight. The camera setting you want to have a look at is the “White Balance” you can set it to a suitable setting matching your environment. Normally you have settings for bright sunlight, overcast, and several artificial light sources. The topic of white balance needs more space to explain, I’ll cover that in a future article.
For the more advanced: If you shoot your images in RAW format, you can change the white balance in post processing according to the dominant light source you had in the image.
- That was a mean question. I just put a more or less random image of my catalog through a filter of the Nik Collection (Silver Efex Pro 2), which created noise in the image to simulate film grain. In the old film days, a fast film (high ISO/ASA) had a more grainy appearance, so you had to change film to a slower film to get less grainy images.
- The focus was way off on something either very close or far away. That can happen quickly if you normally shoot in auto-focus mode, and then you switched to manual focus mode without noticing. In this extreme example you would have noticed your mistake, but sometimes it is dark and the focus is just a bit off.
Sometimes the camera is focus-hunting and can not find enough contrast in the image to determine where to focus. You can hear the lens trying to find focus, that happens often in low-light situations. If you release the shutter before the lens was successful in acquiring focus, your subject will be out of focus.
- This kind of motion blur happens when you move the camera in the time when the shutter of the camera is still open. Basically a form of camera- shake blur. In the image you can see a circular trail, so I must have rotated the camera around the lens axis. No clue why I did this, could have been accidentally released.
To avoid camera shake blur, hold the camera still. Especially when having longer shutter speeds. The amount of camera shake depends on several factors. Just hold the camera still, and you will be fine. Or use a tripod. But without a tripod, try to select a faster shutter speed if you can’t hold the camera steady enough.
The topics touched several concepts you might not be familiar with: Shutter speed, aperture, white balance, ISO. I also assumed that you know how to change the different modes of your camera to select shutter speed or aperture (and let the camera calculate the other, leaving ISO alone).
I’ll explain that in more detail in one of the next articles. Stay tuned!
Hopefully, you had a bit of fun with the photo quiz, and learned something, or at least practiced a bit of mental photography.
Have fun taking images!