Photography pet peeves

Okay, right up front, let me say this: I’m not an expert photographer, but I’m not half-bad either. I have a decent grasp of the fundamentals, and can generally get the photos I go for.

More relevant to this post: I know how to spot many of the most common photography mistakes–the sort of problems which are so common and easy to avoid or fix that it drives me right up the wall when I see them. So here are my three biggest photography pet peeves and what to do when you see them in your own photos.

And before you ask: No, I’m not immune to these errors. Every single example of “what not to do” below is taken from my own collection.

For I, too, am just an ordinary sinner.

Slanted horizons.

This has to be the most common problem I’ve seen, and it’s crazy easy to fix.

Left = Bad; Right = Good

When you’re taking a photograph of a landscape or similarly-wide view, you want your horizon to be straight. So before you take the shot, make sure your camera is level. If you’re using a DSLR camera, look for a built-in leveling indicator, or you could use a tripod with a bubble level.

Can’t get level when you take the shot? No problem. Just eyeball it and fix it later. There are a ton of free or dirt cheap photo editing apps out there, both mobile and desktop, which you can use to straighten your photos after the fact. This is a really quick fix which will improve the quality of your landscape photos tremendously.

The shot that almost was.

You sneak up on a bumble bee, get in close, and snap off the shot. Boom!

Yes, it sucks that you didn’t get the shot you wanted. Deal with it.

Alright, so you didn’t get the photo you wanted. The bee’s cut off, out of focus, and everything is terrible. So why post it?

My guess? Most people post photos like this because they feel like they have to get something for their efforts. They went through the time and trouble to set up the shot, and feel like it’s somehow wrong to just walk away with nothing to show for it.

I get that. But learning how to walk away from a bad photo is just as important as learning how to take a good one, so maybe don’t share this one to Instagram.

Blown highlights.

This is the trickiest of my photography pet peeves to explain, and it can be a lot trickier to avoid. You take a shot near water or some other reflective surface under bright light, and wind up with a big blotch of pure white in your photo.

At left, the photo as taken. At right, I’ve colored the “blown” section in red so you can see it.

That’s called a “blown highlight,” and what this means is that the spot was so brightly lit that the camera just said “to hell with it all, that’s white.” There’s no way to fix it. No way to bring back the detail that was there. It’s just gone.

Blown highlights are most common for outdoor photographers who have to rely on sunlight for their shots, and it’s why a lot of us tend to avoid shooting from about ten in the morning to three in the afternoon. During those hours, the sun’s hitting at very near its full power and everything is all harsh light and dark shadows–a situation which cameras have a really hard time dealing with.

Some cameras have a setting called “Exposure Compensation,” which you can use to prevent blown highlights when you take the shot, but after the fact? There’s just no way to fix it.

Creative choice trumps all.

In ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, you want to avoid these mistakes, but sometimes, sometimes, they’re not mistakes at all. Like almost anything in art, you can invoke one of these “problems” as a creative choice, and that’s totally fine.

For instance, I’m fine with the blown highlights in this photograph…

Blown highlights as a deliberate, creative choice. (Gray border added to illustrate.)

Is this a particularly good photograph? Eh…not really, but that’s not important. What is important is that I intended to have the top third and those two windows blown out to pure white. I made a creative choice to break with my “no blown highlights” rule for this shot, and I got the photograph I intended to take.

Creative choices like this trump all the rules. So, if you want that horizon at a forty-five degree angle, or you want everything blurred out or chopped off, go for it.

But only if you mean it.

How To Weather Paper

Last week, I spent an entire morning baking paper in my oven.

See, I have an idea for a “concept photo” that I want to shoot (actually, I have many such ideas, but let’s not talk about that) and in order to pull it off I need to make a document that’s essentially been ruined, but in an interesting and “artistic” manner.

The problem: I had no idea how to go about such ruination. Or really any idea of how to make props at all.

So, I decided to start small, and focus on one piece of the puzzle: learning how to weather or age paper. Five hours of tutorials, tips, and trial and error later, I think I have a semi-decent handle on one method to do it.

In case you might be interested, here’s what I did, and how I did it.

Step 1 – Start with good paper

I went with Southworth’s “Premium 25% Cotton” inkjet and laser paper. I have an inkjet printer, so that much of my selection should be obvious. What’s more important, though, is that weathering paper means putting it through some serious abuse, so the paper you start with needs to durable.

We’re going for “looks ruined” and not “actually ruined.” You can get 250 sheets of this stuff for around ten bucks, and it held up well.

Step 2 – Make some tea

I did some tests with coffee, dirt, and muddy water, but tea gave me the best results by far. It’s a cliche for a reason—it works.

I used four Lipton black tea bags, because you can buy a box of a hundred for like three bucks. You’re not going to be drinking it, so go cheap. I tossed the tea bags into a cup and a half of boiling water, poked them around with a wooden spoon until they were soaked through, then turned off the heat and let them steep until everything had cooled down enough to handle.

I’ve heard various claims about what the temperature of the tea should be, but I didn’t notice any difference between hot tea and room temperature tea.

Step 3 – The soak

I squeezed out the teabags to retain their precious fluids, tossed them, then poured the results into this big glass baking dish I had laying around. Whatever you use, it has to be large enough so that your paper will lay down flat on the bottom.

Slip your first piece of paper into the dish of tea and carefully move it around. You want to make sure of two things: that the whole page is under the surface, and that there are no air bubbles under the paper.

Because I was experimenting, I soaked my paper for different amounts of time, ranging from two minutes to eight minutes. The longer it soaks, the darker it will get, obviously. However, the longer it soaks the more fragile it will get, particularly around the edges.

That can give you a bad time when you lay it out to bake.

Step 4 – The bake

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees if you’re an American, and 93.3333 degrees if you use Celsius. (Y’all must have some weird stove displays.)

Carefully take the paper out of the bath, shake off the excess as best you can (just so’s it doesn’t drip all over your work area), and lay it out on your baking sheet.

Small air bubbles under the paper are fine, creases and wrinkles are not. Creases and wrinkles will create harsh lines in the page once it’s done, which will probably ruin your day.

When your oven’s ready, stick the paper in it for 15 minutes.

Step 5 – Repeat the soak and bake

I got the best results with two “full” soaks and bakes, and one “edge” soak and bake. I’ll get to the edge soak in a second, but for now, just take your paper out of the oven and look at it. Too wrinkly and crinkly? Don’t worry, there’s a tip below to fix that. Just look at the color and pattern.

If it’s not dark or marbled/mottled enough, repeat steps three and four until it is. Then we’ll consider the edges.

Step 6 – Darken up the edges

As it ages, paper almost always gets darkest at its edges. So, we should make that happen. Do a quick, thirty second soak of the whole piece of paper, just to get it wet, then lay it down on the baking sheet.

Once down, use a paper towel to soak up some of the tea from the bath, and sprinkle/dab it just around the edges of the paper. Get a decent, thin bead of standing tea mixture on it, then carefully stick it back into the oven for another 15 minutes.

This will darken up the edge, and I think it gives a very nice effect. That said, it may take you a few tries to get the fade just right.

Tips/Tricks

That’s pretty much it, although there are a couple of other things you can try which may improve your results.

  • For a tattered or ragged edge, set up the paper as you would for an edge soak, but before putting it into the oven, worry the edge with a wooden toothpick. Work slow, taking tiny, tiny bites of the paper away from the edge to give it a subtle roughness, or go for big fat hunks for a chunkier look.
  • Paper too wrinkly for you? Iron it. Go ahead and crank up that iron to its hottest setting and give it a whirl. Just keep the iron moving, and do both sides of the paper a couple of times. Be careful, don’t set the paper or yourself on fire, and it’ll turn out fine.
  • If you need a single piece of weathered paper, plan on making four of them. You might get things perfect the first time, but don’t count on it. There’s a certain trick or art to this, and you’ll get the best results if you experiment, do multiple batches in parallel, and pick the best of the lot after all is said and done.

And lastly, a warning. Every one of my attempts to weather paper with inkjet printing on it have failed. The paper itself looked alright, but the print is far too crisp and resilient. It gave the whole thing an artificial look that just destroyed the aesthetic I was going for. You may have better mileage with pen and ink, but I haven’t tried that yet.

Look for a follow up post once I do.