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.