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9 basic photography mistakes (and how to fix them)

Learn how to solve some common photography problems that beginners often come across.

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Every photographer makes mistakes when taking photos. Here are some tips to help identify and solve common issues that beginners may come across.

Wonky horizon

You're in position watching an amazing sunset and happily snapping away. But in the excitement you forgot to check that the horizon was level, so the resulting photos are all crooked.

Nice light, but you forgot the horizon. Lexy Savvides/CNET

There is an easy way to fix a horizon that's not straight. Most photo editing programs can either do this for your automatically, or you can have direct control by tilting the canvas in a program like Lightroom or Photoshop.

You may also want to turn on the electronic spirit level in your camera if possible. The feature is often called a virtual horizon. The guide can help you level up your shot, and can often be overlaid during live view.

Many dSLRs have a virtual horizon feature that helps you keep the composition level. Lexy Savvides/CNET

White balance is wrong

Do your photos look a bit too warm or cool? Sometimes you can get odd casts in your photos caused by the camera reading the white balance incorrectly. Automatic white balance (AWB) can determine the best setting for the situation, but often the best way to get it right is to set a custom white balance value.

You will need a white card or neutral gray card to set a custom white balance. A piece of plain white paper is also an option.

Taking a manual white balance reading can help make all the difference to the final result. Lexy Savvides/CNET

In the same lighting situation as your subject, take a photo of the card so it fills most of the frame. Then, delve into your camera menus and look for a custom white balance option. Select the photo of the white/gray card that you just took and set it as the custom reading.

Photos from here on should look much more natural. Remember to change the white balance back to an automatic setting (or do another custom reading) after you have finished.

Otherwise, for those photographers who shoot images in raw, you can adjust white balance very easily in the editing process without any loss of image quality.

Lens distortions

Some lenses can make subjects look warped, or introduce undesirable elements in photos such as vignetting -- loss of colour or brightness around the edges of the image.

Lens distortion before and after correction. Lexy Savvides/CNET

For example, wide-angle lenses distort perspective and can be unflattering for portraits as the subject looks like it is bulging from the frame.

There are a few ways to deal with lens distortions, and the first step is to choose a lens with a focal length best suited for your subject. Depending on your camera, corrections can be applied automatically in-camera when you shoot JPEG images.

It it is easiest and most efficient to do it in the photo editing stage with a program like Adobe Lightroom. Lens profiles help to straighten lines, remove vignetting and correct other issues such as chromatic aberrations.

In Lightroom, click to expand the Basic tab in the right column if it isn't already visible. Then, click Enable Profile Corrections which will automatically detect the lens that was used to take the photograph and adjust the image accordingly.

The Lens Corrections tab in Lightroom. Screenshot by Lexy Savvides/CNET

Lens profile correction is also possible using software that came with your camera. Canon users can load up EOS Utility, while Nikon users can look at Capture NX.

Focus is not quite right

When you rely on autofocus, it's easy for the camera to get it wrong. Sometimes, your camera's AF system will want to focus on something behind or in front of your desired subject.

In this photo, my subject is in the background, but the AF system chose the foreground. Lexy Savvides/CNET

To ensure the system chooses the right point of focus for static subjects, change the focus mode to single point AF. This will force your camera to use just one AF point of your choice, rather than relying on the entire cluster of AF points to find focus.

Choosing a single AF point will vary from camera to camera, so check your manual for details.

You may also want to consider using back button focus and setting your single AF point to the centre.

When shooting a portrait, take the time to check the focus after the shot has been taken. Use your camera's LCD screen and zoom in to the point of focus to ensure things look crisp. Unless you are going for an artistic effect, set your focus on the subject's eyes.

Images are not sharp

You've taken an amazing photo, but it's just not as sharp as you'd like. This lack of sharpness can be caused by a number of factors: camera movement during the exposure; subject movement; or the camera choosing the wrong point of focus when using AF.

This photo is soft and fuzzy, thanks to camera shake at 1/15s. Lexy Savvides/CNET

Unless you choose to create blur for artistic effect, there are several things you can do to get sharper photos.

  • Increase the ISO sensitivity.
  • Make the shutter speed faster. Ideally your shutter speed should be at least 1/focal length. So if you are shooting at a focal length of 80mm with a full-frame sensor, your shutter speed needs to be at least 1/80 second. For a crop sensor camera such as APS-C, then an 80mm lens is equivalent to 120 or 130mm lens (80mm x 1.5 or 1.6 which is the crop factor). So your shutter speed needs to be at least 1/125s to avoid shake.
  • Turn on image stabilization either in-camera or on your lens which can allow you to shoot at a slightly slower shutter speed than the above rule specifies.
  • Use a tripod where possible.
  • Avoid shooting at very wide apertures like f/1.8 as this can affect the perceived sharpness of a photo, especially if focus is not spot on.

Photos look dull and dark

Sometimes your photos can look much darker than the actual scene. This is generally caused by the camera underexposing for the ambient light situation based on the meter reading.

You can read more about how your camera meters and determines exposure in this article.

Fortunately this problem has an easy solution even if you don't understand how metering works. It's called exposure compensation. This is a value that you can adjust when in an automatic mode.

The first image was what the camera thought was a correct exposure for the situation. The second image looks more like the real scene, with +2EV (exposure compensation) applied. Lexy Savvides/CNET

On a digital SLR, compact camera and even in your smartphone's camera app, find an icon that looks like a plus and minus symbol: +/-

Some cameras also have a separate physical dial that controls the exposure compensation. To make the photo appear brighter, change this value to a positive number. The reverse principle can also be applied to adjusting the exposure compensation where shots appear too bright. Change the exposure compensation value to a negative number.

This camera has a dedicated exposure compensation dial. Lexy Savvides/CNET


Composition is an important way of balancing your photos, helping to enhance the flow of an image using some tried and tested rules.

It might be tempting to take an image with the subject smack bang in the middle of your photograph, but it doesn't always produce the most pleasing image.

The main subject of interest in this photograph is placed along one of the grid lines. Lexy Savvides/CNET

One of the simplest composition methods to start using is the rule of thirds, where you divide the image up into thirds both vertically and horizontally using two lines. Your subject/s can be placed in the intersection of these lines, or along these lines, for a more compelling image.

Some cameras have the ability to overlay a rule of thirds grid over an image to aid composition.

You can also alter the composition of your photograph after it has been taken by selectively cropping.

Excessive post-processing

Good photo editing is all about subtlety, enhancing rather than overpowering an image. Too much contrast, cranking the clarity slider or excessive HDR can make a photo look garish.

Looks bad? Maybe a bit too much sharpening and HDR. Lexy Savvides/CNET

Every photograph is different, so try and avoid applying the same filters or effects to a bunch of images. For example, increasing the saturation on a landscape may look fantastic, but do the same to a portrait and it will be pretty unflattering.

Forgetting the basics

So you've got composition, exposure and focus all under your belt. But do you have your pre-photo routine in order?

Before you head out on the next photographic adventure, get into the habit of charging up batteries and having spares on hand if needed. Back up and format memory cards, and check there is a memory card in the camera before leaving home.

Finally, remember to take the lens cap off. This one stumps even the most seasoned photographers, so get into the habit early.