For many of us, photography is simply a way to disconnect and spend time outdoors but regardless of our ambitions, most have a shared goal: create more compelling images that we’re proud to share.
Understanding the camera settings can be a challenge itself, so it’s easy to forget about other important factors. Even simple mistakes might have a negative impact on your images; your camera settings might be perfect but the images still lack the quality many pursue.
The mistakes I’ve gathered in this article are based upon the mistakes I’ve made myself and those I most commonly see amongst my workshop clients. It’s important to understand that avoiding them won’t instantly make an average image good but it’s part of your learning and development.
There are many factors that determine how the final image looks like and these are only part of it. However, these mistakes have a negative impact on your photography and eliminating them will take you one step closer to your goal of creating better images.
#1 Using the camera’s Automatic Mode
An important step in improving your photography is to stop using the camera’s automatic modes. Yes, it’s convenient to take a picture without having to manually change (or think about) the settings but the image quality suffers. A lot.
While cameras are becoming more intelligent, they struggle to consider image quality when choosing the settings. Its main objective is to get a well-exposure image and avoiding any clipping in the shadows and highlights. This is done by adjusting the ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed. You and I will adjust these settings to give us the best overall sharpness, depth of field, exposure and image-quality but the camera isn’t able to get quite the same results.
The camera doesn’t consider the depth of field and noise levels in the image and typically makes adjustments to the aperture and ISO that we want to avoid.
Using automatic modes might be fine if you quickly want to freeze a moment to keep in the family album but it’s one of the biggest mistakes you can make if you wish to improve your photography. If you’re not quite comfortable with that thought yet, I recommend reading through our Comprehensive Introduction to Landscape Photography eBook.
Challenge: During the next days I challenge you to go outside and take pictures while using the camera’s Manual Mode. Think about the Exposure Triangle and consider what settings will give you the best exposure while maintaining optimal quality. Feel free to share the images in a comment below, I would love to see what you come up with!
#2 You’re photographing without a tripod
Before you chop my head off and put it on a stick, let me say this: it’s perfectly possible to capture STUNNING images WITHOUT using a tripod but there’s a reason why it’s considered an essential tool for landscape photographers.
Recommended Reading: Leaving the Tripod Behind? Read These Tips for Handheld Photography
A tripod isn’t necessarily needed when photographing during the daytime but it is once you start photographing around the Golden Hour. Once the light becomes dimmer, you need to adjust the camera settings in order to get enough light for a good exposure. This typically includes increasing the ISO or using a wider aperture. The problem is that both of these options have a negative impact on image quality.
Ideally, you want to keep a low ISO and optimal aperture while instead lengthening your exposure time. Many of you realize this and make the correct adjustments but forget to mount the camera on a tripod. Using a slower shutter speed hand-held leads to blurry and soft images.
If you haven’t yet purchased your first tripod, here are some reasons why you should:
- It allows the use of longer shutter speeds without getting blurry images
- It reduces the amount of unwanted camera vibration in the camera
- You can to take multiple exposures without movement
- You can use a low ISO in dim conditions to maintain a noise-free image
- It makes it easy to carefully optimize the composition and perspective
#3 You forget to level the horizon
Forgetting to straighten the horizon is a typical mistake I notice amongst beginner photographers; no matter how beautiful the image is, a tilting horizon is disturbing and makes the image less impressive than what it could’ve been.
There’s one particular image that stands out from my early days in photography: I had only been capturing images for some months but I managed to capture an image that I was incredibly proud of. Looking back at it today I almost feel a little dizzy.
Luckily there are a few easy ways to make sure that you’re images are straight:
- High-end cameras such as the Nikon D810 have a Virtual Horizon; a great tool to see if your image is straight
- A cheaper alternative than buying an expensive camera is to purchase a $6 3 Axis Hot Shoe Bubble Spirit Level
- Should you still find that your images have a tilting horizon, it’s easy to fix it in software such as Adobe Lightroom or Luminar 4
Truth be told, you’re always going to have some crooked images. It’s not the end of the world but it’s something that should be fixed before sharing or printing the image. It doesn’t look too good if you’ve hung an image with a tilting horizon on the wall.
#4 You snap wildly without considering the composition
The composition is one of the most important aspects of photography and one that’s often overlooked by both beginner and intermediate photographers. A truly great image is dependent on having a strong composition.
I’ve always been fascinated by how certain photographers are able to capture stunning images of what I consider “less interesting” scenes. What all of these have in common is a good understanding of compositions; they know how the viewer’s eye will be led through the image and toward its main subject.
Compositions in photography is a complex subject and one that takes years (or decades) to master. However, you don’t need to be an expert in order to take advantage of it. Start by building a general understanding by learning the most common compositional guidelines in landscape photography such as the Rule of Thirds, Golden Ratio and the use of leading lines (as well as when NOT to follow them).
Having this general understanding and knowing when to apply the guidelines to your images is going to have a huge impact on your photography. If you only take away one thing from this article, I hope it is that you should start studying compositions.
#5 Failing to consider the light
In addition to having strong compositions, great images tend to have good light. Now, good light can be found both during the middle of the day and the darkest nights but many consider the hours around the sunrise and sunset to be ideal for most types of landscape photography.
In our article Why You Should Start Shooting Landscapes During Golden Hour, Nick Dautlich explains the importance of photographing in the correct light. Many are surprised to see how drastically the scenery changes from mid-day to late evening.
Try to consider the light the next time you go out photographing: Where is the sun positioned in the sky? How does the light hit the landscape and how can I use this to my advantage? Are there any elements illuminated by the light?
Taking these questions into consideration can help you capture more compelling images when in the field. The light is important in creating the atmosphere and mood in an image.
#6 Your images are out of focus
You come home excited after a great session outside and rush to your computer to look at all the great images you’ve captured but to your disappointment, most of them are blurry and slightly out of focus. Just enough to make it distracting. Does this sound familiar? Then you’re not alone.
We’ve all been there and it’s a common mistake when photographing.
There are several reasons why your images may be out of focus but some of the most common are:
- The camera’s autofocus is bad
- The lens or camera is damaged or low quality and isn’t able to capture sharp images
- You’ve taken the step towards manual focusing but haven’t been able to fine-tune it yet
- You use manual focus but forgot to re-focus when setting up the next composition
- You’re using the ‘wrong’ aperture
- You’re not familiar with the hyperfocal distance
I’ve always been a proponent of using manual focus over automatic focus but there’s no secret that it takes time and practice to master. The most precise way to focus manually is to use the camera’s Live View (if you have one), zoom into a subject that is about 1/3 into the image and adjust the focus ring until this point is at it’s sharpest.
Note: Focusing 1/3 into the frame isn’t always the best option but it’s a common practice in most situations. I recommend reading the article Understanding Your Camera’s Hyperfocal Distance by Cambridgeincolour for further information on how to better focus.
These mistakes are quite common and you shouldn’t be discouraged if you find that you’re guilty in committing one or more. We’ve all been there and it’s a natural part of our evolving as artists. How boring would it be if we all were world champions after day 1?
Learning how to avoid making these mistakes when photographing is only step one towards capturing images that you’re proud to share. They won’t make you an award-winning photographer overnight but I guarantee that you will see progress soon.
Are you guilty of making these mistakes when photographing? Share your story with us in a comment below and tell us what you did or are doing to overcome it!