The Ten Most Common Photographic Mistakes

Written by Andre Gunthery

Here is a quick rundown of the most common mistakes people (like me) make that mess up a good photo or prevent us from taking a good photo. It is a big leap for me to start talking about taking photos, since it is so much more subjective than writing Photoshop Tutorials. I am on a journey and often times I look at older pictures on this site and wonder why I even took the photo (at least I have some negative examples to show you). I am taking the easy way out, starting with things that can go wrong, to kick off this series on photography techniques.

1. Images are too cluttered (less is more)

In Photography, less is often more. Before pressing the shutter, ask yourself what you first noticed in a scene that made you want to take this photo. Then try to isolate whatever you saw, without including too much in the scene. Otherwise the viewer will get confused and will start wondering what you wanted to show and why you bothered taking the photo in the first place.

Compare this photo of Downtown Philadelphia…

Philadelphia Downtown Cluttered

Philadelphia Downtown Cluttered
This image outlines how tight the space is in the city.

Philadelphia Apartment Bulding Philadelphia Reflections Philadelphia Reflections Philadelphia Apartment Bulding

…with this photo of the reflection of an old building in a new building (left).

The second image (left) is contained within the first image; however, the second image really brings out what I wanted to show – the contrast of old and new. Most “snapshots” would include a lot more of the scene than even the first image shows, dwarfing the actual subject even more.

The human eye and mind tends to see a 3-dimensional scene differently. You automatically blend out things you don’t care about. In a photograph its exactly the opposite.
The things you didn’t even see in the first place tend to pop out and come right at you: Wham, in your face viewer.
The first image is still a good image if you wanted to show how space is at a premium in large cities and how tight the buildings clinch together. For that matter, I didn’t even bother correcting the perspective (narrowing down towards the top of the image) as it tends to increase the feeling of tightness.

Even though the photo of the Apartment Buildings (right) is not exactly a photographic masterpiece, it shows exactly why I even bothered to look at the building (repetitive pattern of windows).
Had there been more in this picture, it would be a lot less interesting.

Here is an example of too much going on:

Bruhls Terrace Dresden

Bruhls Terrace Dresden
If someone even bothers to look at the picture, his eyes will start to wander. Once you are at the parachute in the lower left corner (your eye is almost out of the picture now), you start to wonder about the person that’s not even in the picture anymore and you are out of the picture. A good photo however, should draw the viewer in.

2. There is no Bad Weather in Photography

This is a myth. For Photography there is no such thing as bad weather. In fact, I have consistently taken my best photos in what most people consider bad weather. Some places look “just right” with thick thunderstorm clouds, like this image of Half Dome:

Half Dome Winter Storm

Half Dome during a Winter Storm

That day I saw many tourist leaving the park in disappointment while many others like me took photos with an umbrella and rain gear.
Often I hear comments by people complaining that they don’t have a clear blue sky (I call it a boring sky) and that their photos would look dull. Most don’t even bother to take a photo. Big Mistake!

3. No Patience

Sunset on El CapitanSunset and Storm with El CaptianVernal Falls with RainbowVernal Falls with Rainbow

Patience is a virtue. I took one of my best images in Yosemite in Winter. Winter can really be testing your patience. The whole day was rainy, foggy, and overcast and not very interesting in terms of photography (even half dome was hidden in the clouds). However, I stuck around hoping for a clearing and it really happened. I was rewarded with a dramatic shot of El Capitan peeking through the clouds, bathing in golden sunlight (left).

I admit, sticking around for a whole day is a bit extreme. Here is another example (right).

I knew that if I waited long enough for the sun to set behind me, a rainbow would show up in front of Vernal Falls. I had to wait 90 minutes for this to happen (and it only lasted a minute or so). While I was standing there in the cold mist, wondering if the rainbow would ever show, I was passed by many other photographers who stood around for a while, wondered what I was looking for, got bored and left.
Two more guys, who joined me after a while, held out with me and we had a wonderful reward.

4. The Digital Attitude

Digital Photography is a blessing. You can take as many photos as you want without paying a dime and you can get instant feedback in the field.
However, people often use the feedback the wrong way. When you ask ten people with a “digicam” what they like best about their camera, a large percentage will tell you that the best feature of digital cameras is that they can delete pictures they don’t like !!!!!!
Since when is deleting a picture a good feature?
The quality of a picture can only be judged on a large screen, and unless something is really wrong (e.g. someone walked into your frame while you pressed the shutter), you should NEVER delete a picture in the field.
Correct exposure can only be judged by means of a histogram (those screens are not calibrated and may not look right in the bright sun).
Only use the metrics (histogram, exposure, aperture, ISO) to judge your image exposure.
Never judge by how it appears on the camera screen. You can always delete the pictures at home (if you are trigger happy), but I usually keep everything. Flash Memories are incredibly cheap. I usually carry an image tank with me; this way I can back up my cards and never have to delete anything.

5. The Photoshop Attitude

I recently wrote a post about this: Photoshop it Later. A “photographer” took a photo of a group and noticed that the flash hadn’t fired. He put the camera in his pocket with the comment “I’ll photoshop it later”.
There are so many things wrong with this (read my post if you want to know more), but even if he could solve all his problems with Adobe Photoshop (he would at least get increased noise levels), he would need to spend a lot of time on the photo.
Taking a second shot with the flash enabled would only take a few seconds. So if you think a photo didn’t come out right and if you have the chance, always take another one (but don’t delete the first – see 4, someone might have their eyes closed in the new one or there might be some other reason the previous shot turns out better).
Photoshop is an invaluable tool for photographers (I even wrote some Photoshop Tutorials myself); however, it is not a remedy for everything and you cannot turn bad photos into good ones with Photoshop alone.
I am a technical (computer) geek and we used to say, Garbage in – Garbage out. The same applies to Photoshop.

6. Unwanted things in a scene

Polynesian Idols with cluttered background

Polynesian Idols with cluttered background

Polynesian Idols

Polynesian Idols Isolated

Often you thought about everything and you think you got the perfect shot. When you review the photo on your computer you see an ugly tree branch, a power line or something else that you didn’t recognize while taking the photo. Just as it was true in mistake number 1, the brain plays tricks on us. Before pressing the shutter, take your time and scan the scene through your viewfinder. Scan it with your eye from the upper left all the way to the lower right, focusing your mind on trying to find these items.
Often times a slight change in angle or a step left or right can solve the problem and make a photo so much better.
In the two pictures above, I had shot the Polynesian Idols as I approached them. I quickly realized that the background was competing with the figures. This is due to the fact, that the three dimensional scene is mapped to a two dimensional photo. The background distracts too much from the idols. Taking two steps to the left allowed me to isolate the subjects.

7. Always shooting from eye level while standing up

Often times a scene can be much more interesting if photographed low (on your knees or belly):

Oregon Dunes Grass Bush

Oregon Dunes Grass Bush

I took this photo lying on my stomach.Lying on the stomach close to the ground, I could make the small bush dominate the entire picture and show the curvy windswept texture of the dunes.

Here is another Example from Baltimore.

For other photos consider climbing to a higher vantage point:

Nevada Falls - Yosemite

Nevada Falls – Yosemite

Shot from the trail Often you won’t have the choice of a much higher vantage point. You can climb on a tree or stand in the doorframe of your car (the picture above was shot from the trail though).
It is just a matter of deciding to go the extra few steps and climbing a nearby mountain to gain a slightly different perspective that may work much better. It won’t always work out, but you will soon learn to appreciate seeking different angles and Points of View (POV). Those will make much more interesting and less static images.

For this image of Cusco Peru (left),
Cuzco Plaza de Armas

Cusco Plaza de Armas

It wasn’t easy to find the perfect vantage point for this photo. I walked around for a while, always keeping in mind how I wanted to photograph the city.
Rattle Snake

Rattle Snake

I kept searching for a good place that would let me include the market, the two churches and the hill with the writing, but however much I kept wandering around, my sight was either blocked or I couldn’t get everything in the picture I wanted to include.
After a while, I found an old abandoned church and a little girl was friendly enough to guide me up the spire (she was somewhat the unofficial keeper of the key).
I repaid her with a tip for her kindness and both of us were very happy.
I was able to get a photo that noone else had, because I spent the extra time looking for a better vantage point.
In fact it is very hard to photograph the city square from anywhere else, since there is no open view.

For the image of the rattlesnake, getting down eye to eye with the snake made it that much more dramatic than just standing up (a glass window kept me save, the image was taken in the Zoo, thanks for being concerned ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

8. Placing People in the Picture

Most people don’t take a single photograph without posing in front of a perfectly good scene. Don’t get me wrong, its nice to see someone was somewhere, but how many of those can you really look at and stay interested. The pictures feel extremely static and people always pose the same way. You might as well pose in front of a blue screen.
I don’t mind a few vacation snapshots and some of them can be quite funny, but I think it is a much better idea to capture the moment. People laughing and joking or having fun going after some activity is much more interesting than having them pose together in front of the camera.

9. Not including other people

This one is a 180 degree turn from the previous item on the list. There are perfectly valid reasons to include people in photographs. Often I wait for people to leave the picture, not realizing that they belong in the scene. For reasons of copyright, I usually only publish images of people whose face cannot be recognized or who agreed at least orally to being published.

The three most common reasons to include people:

  1. Guiding the Viewer into the Scene. Placing a person outside of the main area of interest and having the person look into the photo. The viewer can identify with the person:
    Condor Viewing in Peru
  2. Giving a sense of scale. Only with the person in the scene can a viewer truly grasp the size of Delicate Arch in this scene:
    Visistor at Delicate Arch

    Or giving depth to a scene:
    Hikers in Death Valley

  3. The Person is part of the scene itself, an actor or the person is the scene (sports)
    Actor on the Mayflower
  4. Documenting the life of people, the person being tightly related to the scene:
    Girl on Taquile Island - Peru

    Quechua Boy

10. Wrong Perspective

Your camera has a zoom function, doesn’t it? Use it!!!!

Again coming back to the tourist photographs. Most people that pose in front of a great scene, let’s say a mountain, get their photo taken from up close. In the photograph the mountain scene will be dwarfed by the size of the people in the scene. If you step back as far as possible and zoom into the scene, the size of the people in the scene will still be the same (you can zoom in until you are satisfied).
However, since you zoomed in, the mountain will now be much bigger, making the whole photograph appear much more dramatic. Everyone of your friends will envy your great photo, since it is not just another face shot, but it also has another big and interesting subject (the mountain).
The same is true for photographs without people. If you have a foreground and a background subject, move away from the foreground and zoom in. This will accentuate the background much more, yielding a much more balanced shot.

Santa Ines Mission with small cross

Santa Ines Mission with small cross

Santa Ines Mission with large cross

Santa Ines Mission with large cross

The only difference in the two images above is where I am standing. The cross and the bell tower are at the same distance in both images, but the image to the left compresses the depth between the tower and the cross (too much for my taste, so I stepped a little closer). Often the situation is exactly the opposite, and by stepping back you can bring the background closer.

Moving close to the cannon, accentuates the cannon and dwarfs the fort in the background (in this case the desired effect, since I wanted to show the size of that cannon):

Cannon Baltimore Fort

A cannon at the Baltimore Fort


Art is not something we can grab and hold in our hands. There are no rules and there is no right or wrong. Rules are meant to be broken and often some of the most amazing pictures I have seen did not abide by any rules. This article is meant for novice photographers to inspire the process of thinking.
I am still learning and developing my style, too. In no way do I claim to take perfect photos. Some people like them, others don’t.
However, I have made the first baby steps, and I am more than happy to share my insights with my readers.

This article will be the first in a series about Photography. So far I have focused my writing mainly on tool tips and technology.
Nevertheless, we are all first and foremost trying to improve our skills as photographers and artists.

During the next months I hope to write a lot more articles about Photography, trying to dive deep into the techniques (Exposure, Depth of Field …) the artsy aspects (Composition, Format, Placement …) and the more elusive (what to keep, how to predict the conditions …).

I hope to see you back soon.

4 thoughts on “The Ten Most Common Photographic Mistakes

  1. Daniel

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article Most Common Photographic Mistakes | The Best Article Every day, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

  2. nizam

    Nice info..thanks a lot..personally to me..the most positif action is set your mind over all before you strat shooting..thinking of all the aspect may help you do the great job..more you think less you make action..

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