My Top 10 Tips - The Basics!

 Check out all my top 10 tip articles here.

 

This week I want to share the top 10 basic tips I've learned to help fix common photo mistakes based on my own experience of entering & judging competitions. With these tips I have condensed the advice I have found most useful and most relevant. Learning these mistakes and how to avoid or correct them is a great first step to progress from "someone who takes photos" to a photographer!

I'm also giving away 10% more tips for free... 11 tips for the price of 10! Even better, in addition to my normal top 10 tip guides, I'm also going to illustrate some examples using my own images - photos that fall short & why.

Know Your Subject

When making a picture you need to know your subject - what it is you are presenting to viewers. What is your story or message? What specific parts of your photo do you want your viewers to look at first & foremost. What is secondary?

Here the human element - the sihouetted fisherman - adds a recognisable shape that serves as an entry point to explore the sunset.

Here the human element - the sihouetted fisherman - adds a recognisable shape that serves as an entry point to explore the sunset.

You need to make sure that what you want to convey is what your viewers see. There are few images that will have succeed without a strong subject. You need a key focal point that serves as an entry into the image; without this your image can come across confused or muddled. Sometimes it isn't essential, such as pattern/geometry photos for instance, but when you have a message to convey, you need that place to start.

This is a pure pattern picture and a simple exploration of colour & light. There's no real focal point but that's because there's no real story - it's just nice to look at. Even so, the eye tends to be drawn to the red first and foremost.

This is a pure pattern picture and a simple exploration of colour & light. There's no real focal point but that's because there's no real story - it's just nice to look at. Even so, the eye tends to be drawn to the red first and foremost.

To some extent it doesn't matter what your subject and focal points are - it's essentially whatever story you want to tell - but you need to consciously decide what they are and how they are presented.

You might have a good idea what this is when you shoot, or later when you process. However try taking a step back and see what your eye falls on naturally. Is it what you first expected?

Simple works. Cluttered, busy images can have loads of interesting details that let the viewer explore but they need the "hook" that pulls the viewer into the image in the first place. Make sure you have a strong subject that catches the eye!

This image has a huge amount of detail and as a multi-photo panorama could be printed very large indeed to appreciate it... but there's no story or focal point and the end result it that it's quite boring.

This image has a huge amount of detail and as a multi-photo panorama could be printed very large indeed to appreciate it... but there's no story or focal point and the end result it that it's quite boring.

Driven To Distraction

You can always find a distraction if you are looking for one.

Sadly this adage holds especially true in photography :)

This tip is something you can concentrate on improving while shooting & in post-processing. The idea is that anything that isn't adding to the story you are trying to tell in your photograph is detracting. Take away the distractions and your image will be cleaner with a stronger narrative. At least that's the theory!

Distractions come in many forms and it takes an experienced eye while shooting and a rigorous workflow in Lightroom to make sure you catch them all. The bullet points below outline some of the most common distractions.

  • Highlights - the eye is drawn to the brightest sections of the image so make sure this is where you want the viewer to look. Avoid isolated bright spots, especially near the edges of the frame.
  • Darkspots - the opposite can be true too though it's usually less intrusive. The biggest culprit is usually an overly-aggressive vignette. A good rule of thumb is if you notice it, it's already far too strong.
  • Colours - something else to look out for, check for any areas of colour that are strongly opposed in hue or saturation to your subject that you weren't intending.
  • Objects - clutter can be a killer! Keep an eye out for wayward branches, litter... does that random bit of detritus need to be there or would your picture be better if you removed it?
  • Unnatural Growths - unless your subject is Inspector Gadget you don't want things growing out of them from all angles! Check the background immediately beside key focal points.
A classic case of distracting highlights. The story is about the girl and her confused expression and I tried to accentuate the feeling of confusion by turning the photo monochrome and darkening everything else. In the end there's still too many competing highlights in the background and around the edges of the frame. An "almost-something-but-not-quite" picture...

A classic case of distracting highlights. The story is about the girl and her confused expression and I tried to accentuate the feeling of confusion by turning the photo monochrome and darkening everything else. In the end there's still too many competing highlights in the background and around the edges of the frame. An "almost-something-but-not-quite" picture...

The C-word... Clipping

If you want to preserve as much detail as possible you want to avoid what's known as "clipping", in other words where the brightest parts of your picture are pure white and the darkest are pure black. You can do this while taking your photo by checking the histogram function on the camera; avoid the exposure being too far to the left or right. If you can expose your image without losing data in the highlights & shadows you will have more data to work with in Photoshop. If it's pure white or black, you can't do anything with it. 

Usually you will run into this problem with extremely contrast scenes - bright white clouds with deep dark shadows. In general, it's better to "expose to the right", make images brighter without burning them out. People expect dark scenes to have less detail but expect to see more in bright scenes.

Even if your style is to crush the shadows & burn your highlights, make sure this is deliberate & enhances what you're presenting.

In this image the sky is pure white and the shadows pure black but it works because it's a simple, highly stylised image. 

In this image the sky is pure white and the shadows pure black but it works because it's a simple, highly stylised image. 

If you print your images this tip is especially important. Blacks don't look too bad as a solid block of colour but whites can show the underlying paper-white and this is generally taken as an error. Before printing I add a Levels layer in Photoshop and set the limit to 254, just to be sure, but a better idea is to shoot your images to preserve as much detail as possible.

Avoid Amputations

This issue is almost completely avoidable with practice and patient shooting. You simply need to make sure all of the important, prominent elements of your scene are in the frame without being chopped off at the edge. It's a very simple mistake to make in the heat of shooting and although it can sometimes be fixed later it's better to learn to not make it at all! 

Where it's really noticeable is with people and I made two errors here - having the arm disappear out of the frame, then reappear from nowhere, followed by the newspaper being chopped off. Both are important, I should have included the V of his elbow and the whole newspaper.

Where it's really noticeable is with people and I made two errors here - having the arm disappear out of the frame, then reappear from nowhere, followed by the newspaper being chopped off. Both are important, I should have included the V of his elbow and the whole newspaper.

It's a simple little thing to do but I was so focused on the bee that I missed the pink petal creeping off the edge of the frame. It's enough of a mistake for a judge to vote this image down.

It's a simple little thing to do but I was so focused on the bee that I missed the pink petal creeping off the edge of the frame. It's enough of a mistake for a judge to vote this image down.

The image above was an reflex shot - the model changed pose and I snapped away. Sadly I chopped her hand off. The shot below is the second, slower and more deliberately framed image. Not only does she have her hand back but there's a little more room under her left elbow too, making for a more compelling composition.

Choose Your Settings With Care

The three main technical settings used to create your image - aperture, shutter speed & ISO - all have their effect on your image. What you need to be clear about is if the settings you have chosen are "correct" and producing the image you want the world to see, or if there's a mistake. If there IS a mistake, you then need to be honest with yourself... assess if it's a trivial error, or if the techie mistakes are going to be too distracting for your viewers. If you're entering your image into competition you need to be even more careful that your choice of settings doesn't look like an error. Here are some examples.

  • Shutter speed is the most common mistake, usually when the subject is not sharp because of camera shake or motion blur. Whether this is a problem depends on the image - many of the world's most famous images are decidedly NOT sharp but it doesn't matter because the story or imagery they present are so powerful. Get it sharp if you can but get your story sorted first!
  • "Sharpness is a bourgeoisie concept/sharpness is overrated" is a quote you might hear, implying sharpness doesn't matter if your photo is good enough. The reality is that most people will think you've made a mistake if they see blur and there's no harm in trying to get sharp shots. 
  • Depth of field is, in my experience, generally not a common problem. If it is, it's usually the case that DOF is too shallow & focusing is slightly off, meaning the subject is very slightly blurred. A problem when it's someone's face maybe but practice & good technique usually counters this.
  • Noise is easily the least likely artefact to cause image quality issues & it's the easiest to fix. If I were to share one niggle I have it's that many people are petrified use higher ISO for fear it ruins quality! There really is no need - between capable modern cameras & super-clever processing tools it's usually a total irrelevance. Older, famous photos are usually riddled with noise in the form of grain but again the story outweighs the techie niggle.

Whatever settings you use, take a step back and look at your image - will a photography-savvy viewer understand why you used the settings you did or will they think you've made an error?

Finally... I've seen it the world over, and there's always a minority who view any form of technical "error" as a deal-breaker. If your image isn't perfect, it's worthless, regardless of any emotion, artistic-excellence or narrative. I give these guys the time & effort I think they deserve.... if you catch my drift!

Compose Yourself

Composition is a huge subject in its own right with as many theories and opinions out there as there are photographers. It's an interesting one too because it falls into the "you must learn the rules before you learn when to break them" category. Time you spend researching photography composition will be time well spent. I plan to scratch the surface myself with an article in the near future.

Personally my approach is to shoot as many different variations on the scene as I can, the idea being if I shoot my subject in a range of different compositions I have more to choose from later. Rule of Thirds is always a good fallback.  Just beware if you place your subject centrally in the frame... it's like waving a rag to a bull for competition judges! Like many of these tips if you are going to do something that might be considered a beginner error, make it as obvious as you can it is not a mistake.

My go-to example of where a centre crop is not a mistake. Shooting anamorphically to stretch the frame shows that the placement of the model right in the middle was deliberate.

Make it Your Own

We as photographers are creatives at heart and like other artists we enjoy and respect the artwork other people produce. It's perfectly understandable and I imagine everyone reading this article has at some point in their life photographed a piece of art someone else made. Be it a sculpture, graffiti, street performances or painting, it all makes a tempting target for our camera.

In the UK at least this is often a much-maligned practice. Judges & critics often  point out that by simply photographing something, let's say a piece of graffiti, and presenting it as-is, the photographer isn't adding anything to it. They're basically recording a moment in time without adding any of their own creative juice to the picture. I tend to agree - as guilty as I am of having just photographed art before myself, it's always better to do it in such a way that adds your own context or story to it. Showing how the art sits in its landscape, showing how people interact is telling a much better story than "here is a thing, I photographed it".

A bad critic? Well they will say it's "just record photography", give it a crappy score and move on!

I have added none of my own artistic flair to this image - it's entirely the work of the graffiti artist. Although there is merit in preserving these fleeting works of art you'll develop more as an artist if you focus on telling your own story.

I have added none of my own artistic flair to this image - it's entirely the work of the graffiti artist. Although there is merit in preserving these fleeting works of art you'll develop more as an artist if you focus on telling your own story.

Processing - is less more?

I'm delving deep into the depths of personal taste here. Before I offend anyone remember I'm just suggesting what I do myself, and what I have seen tend to work well. How you process & present your photos to the world is your decision but it's worth knowing how others may judge your image purely on how you have processed it.

My own philosophy I stick to is "less is more". Whether I'm creating a composite from multiple different photos or shooting the world as I see it, I always start by erring on the side of caution and making sure my final image looks like it has not really been processed. That's not to say I don't spend hours in photoshop - I do - but that's because I usually want to present images that are a fair reflection of the real world, tell the story I want to tell and don't look like they were photoshopped! Once I have a realistic-looking baseline I then decide what processing I need to apply next to make the image pop or really add weight to my story.

If I had to sum it what I wanted people's first reaction to be in a sentence it wouldbe "Wow what a great picture" rather than "Wow what great Photoshop skills".

Photoshop is not a crime, it's a tool just like your camera.

Generally speaking I find this approach serves me well in international competitions, although less so in UK competitions where the current vogue is for heavily processed images with a certain look & feel.

I can't talk about processing without a word on HDR - high dynamic range. Remember what I said before... what you like, and how you want to present your image, is your prerogative.  That said, I think every photographer goes through an HDR phase. For a few weeks, every image I made looked like a vomit of colour with all the sliders pushed to 110%! HDR processing is just another tool you can use. When used well it can be fantastic, especially when it's used to subtly bring detail out of your image that might have otherwise been lost. But when it's used "badly", producing over-saturated, unrealistic images then it can lead to other photographers dismissing your work out of hand. Crappy HDR is all too often viewed as a beginner's mistake so if you use it, bear this in mind.

Horizontals & Verticals

A few simple points -

  • Make sure your horizons are level, especially for the sea/sky. 
  • If you DO angle the frame, make sure it's very deliberate and for a good reason - otherwise again it will look like a mistake.
  • Verticals look better if they are vertical - mostly the challenge here is with wide angle lenses looking up/down tall buildings.

All of these can easily be fixed with Lightroom's perspective tool.

In The Frame

Check where & how you crop your image, and where you subject is placed in the frame.

For the former bear these tips in mind -

  • Make sure you leave a enough space - but not too much - around subjects like people or animals. If you crop too close it can almost feel "claustrophobic" where the subject doesn't have enough room in the frame.
  • Experiment with different ways to crop your image. Look for empty spaces in the frame that can be cropped out - often an unusual crop can make an image stronger even if it feels strange ending up with an image isn't in the usual 3:2 ratio.
  • Watch out for lines, paths, the direction people are looking... anything that leads your viewer out of the image. Use lines to lead viewers INTO the image, directed to where you want them to look.
  • Look for objects in the environment you can use to provide "natural" frames for your subject - in some ways creating a picture within a picture.
  • While shooting experiment with different ways of framing; try different angles & shooting at different heights. Don't just shoot at eye level.

I've taken one photo and tweaked it here to prove the next point. If something is pointing in a specific direction in the photo, frame it so they have "space to move into". The image above is how NOT to do it, the bird is crammed up against one edge, looking outwards. The image below gives the bird room to "move" on the left and it feels more balanced & natural.

Murder Your Darlings

This is a very simple tip - don't let the time & effort you have spent to produce a picture cloud your judgement as to whether it is actually a GOOD picture or not.

People who view your photo don't know, or care, how hard it was to take; how early you needed to get up in the morning or how many hours you have spent fixing tiny imperfections. They look at your photo and judge it within a few seconds.

This can be disheartening when you have poured so much into producing an image. The trick is to take a step back & time away from it then come back later. Is it still awesome now that the memory of the ordeal you went through to get it isn't so fresh? One of my favourite phrases is something writers use - "murder your darlings". If you are writing a novel and you have characters you love, who do cool stuff and are generally all-round perfect characters for your book then it probably means they are actually BAD for the novel and need killing off!

The same line of thinking can be applied to your photography - do you love your photo because it's genuinely an awesome picture or really does it need murdering? :)


Examples

Stating the rules is all well and good but sometimes you need to just show pictures that never quite worked out! I've shared a selection of my own images to show those that didn't make the cut & why.

London Bridge Station

Numerous issues with this image.

  • No Subject - Idon't actually remember what I saw here that made me take a photo. It may be a pattern/geometry shot as the rails lead off into the lights but there is nothing really compelling about this image at all.
  • Bad HDR - it's too intrusive. It has let me capture lots of detail, particularly in areas that would otherwise be dark shadow, but in an unnatural, artificial looking way.
  • Distractions - The top of the frame has highlights from white spotlights and the red light signal light are all quite prominent.
  • The sky is ugly. Orange, light-polluted clouds aren't particularly attractive.

Model Photoshoot

  

  

Tawan was a lovely model, one of the best I've worked with, so all the mistakes here are of my own making.

  • Her expression is peculiar, almost confused. Because there is essentially nothing in the photo but the girl, its all about what her expression has to say and here it's "mild boredom". The cause? I fired away multiple frames rather than waiting for one that actually worked.
  • Amputations - Is that her hand touching her lips or someone else's? It's reaching up out of nowhere! I really should have included her whole arm in the frame.
  • More Amputations - On the subject of hands her other one is creeping on behind her...
  • Distraction - The left edge is a blurry bokeh mess. It isn't adding anything to the photo so it's probably distracting.
  • Distraction - Likewise the highlights behind her head are a bit too prominent.
  • Processing - her eyes are are too dark. In fact the whole left side of her face is too dark - it would be tricky to fix this in Photoshop without  it looking fake

Butterfly

  • Framing - the butterfly is framed too close to the right hand edge of the frame, no space to move, and is also a little too tight to the top of the frame.
  • Settings - I used too wide an aperture and too slow a shutter speed. This means I have undesirable Depth of Field and motion blur problems. It's not sharp enough.
  • Distraction - the leaves on the right side are hugely distracting and should be cloned out or cropped.
  • Distraction II - the background is nicely blurred but I ought to darken it by about 20% and brighten the butterfly to really make it pop.

Spearfisher & Crow

  •  Distraction - it looks like the fisherman has been speared through the head and is pinned to his boat. Once you see that you can't unsee it!

Other than that I think the image works quite well!  


Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur

  • Processing - even though I have tried to make the HDR as natural as possible it's still very bright and colourful & almost too sharp.  I would need to tone it down significantly to make it feel more realistic.
  • Verticals - the buildings all look like they are toppling over, towards the centre of the frame.
  • Subject - it's flat out boring. Although an international landmark, this photo is not exciting and I haven't added my own creativity to it in any way. I could get a better photo buying a postcard!

What Happens When The Music Stops?

This one always makes me smile. I took it less than a year after starting my career in photography and it was my first time trying street photography and using a new lens. I knew enough about photography to get the shot I wanted but not enough to know it sucked :)

  • Subject - what I thought in my head was a perfectly captured moment is not really. It's a little dull.
  • My framing could be better. I ought to crop most of the wall above her head out.
  • Processing - in this case I could do more. Making her headphones more prominent would help, and maybe photshopping in musical graffiti might make the image work
  • Horizontal - it's not quite level and slightly tilted.
  • It's a Darling - my memory of the excitement of shooting led me to think the image was better than it actually is!

The Candle

  • It's a Darling - shot in a temple in Cambodia, the alignment of the stone pillar and the shaft of light seemed like I'd found a perfect photo.  The reality is that it's a little gimmicky.
  • Distraction - the tourist is a distraction, seriously hurting the image.  I should clone him out.
  • Processing - I spent so much effort in making the dust motes look good, stylising the image, it has loads of areas that are just too dark.
  • Framing - I think this would be stronger in a landscape format but cramped conditions forced a portrait perspective. I should have shot more photos in the vicinity to have more to work with .

Bear in mind though, as my recent blog post "What Would the Judge Say?" proves, just because something can be changed in Photoshop doesn't mean it necessarily should be. Sometimes what can be considered flaws by some are not judged the same by others. The old adage is true - it's important to learn the basics so you know when it's OK to break them to make a better picture.

 

Check out all my top 10 tip guides here

 

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