3 common mistakes by beginner photographers (and how to fix them)

[The fol­low­ing is a tran­script of the embed­ded video.]

Are you dis­ap­point­ed by the qual­i­ty of your pic­tures because they look pix­e­lat­ed, or the colours don’t look authen­tic, or they’re sim­ply too light or dark, and you just want them to look good? 

Let’s sort it out.

My name is Paul and this is Expo­sure Ther­a­py. I’ve taught group pho­tog­ra­phy work­shops for the past three years, and in this video, I’ll dis­cuss three com­mon prob­lems encoun­tered by begin­ners, and what you can do to fix them.

1. Picture quality and resolution is set too low

The first prob­lem relates to pic­ture qual­i­ty and res­o­lu­tion, and it’s the eas­i­est to rem­e­dy. If you’re notic­ing that your high-megapix­el cam­era isn’t pro­duc­ing pho­tos with the lev­el of detail you’re expect­ing, you have an issue with pic­ture res­o­lu­tion. The Res­o­lu­tion affects how close­ly you can crop or zoom into your pic­ture on a com­put­er or phone before notic­ing obvi­ous pix­e­la­tion. In this exam­ple, you’re see­ing two ver­sions of the same pho­to. The left one was saved at my camera’s high­est res­o­lu­tion, which is 24 megapix­els, and the right using a low­er set­ting. Notice how I can’t zoom as close­ly to the image on the right, and when I force it, we see pix­e­la­tion instead of fine detail.

The solu­tion is to go into your camera’s pic­ture set­tings, which on most cam­eras is locat­ed at the top- or left-most of the menu list, and ensure your selec­tion is set to the largest res­o­lu­tion, which is most com­mon­ly des­ig­nat­ed as Large or with the let­ter L. This tells your cam­era to save your pic­tures using the full res­o­lu­tion of your image sen­sor so that you’re using all the megapix­els you paid for. 

In addi­tion to res­o­lu­tion, your cam­era also lets you choose between dif­fer­ent image qual­i­ty set­tings. This affects how much data com­pres­sion your files under­go; more com­pres­sion can pro­duce images that show vis­i­ble block­i­ness, arti­facts, and colour degra­da­tion, espe­cial­ly around high-con­trast edges or areas of flat detail. In this exam­ple, both pho­tos were saved at the same res­o­lu­tion but with dif­fer­ent qual­i­ty set­tings. The pho­to on the right was saved using low­er-qual­i­ty than the pic­ture on the left, and with clos­er inspec­tion, it shows some degra­da­tion, which isn’t ide­al.

To make sure this doesn’t hap­pen, you should go back into your camera’s pic­ture set­tings and select the high­est JPEG qual­i­ty that’s avail­able. This is typ­i­cal­ly described using words like Fine, Extra Fine, or the let­ter F. The high-qual­i­ty set­ting on Canon cam­eras is depict­ed with a smooth quar­ter-cir­cle icon.

Your cam­era is now set to record pho­tos using its high­est res­o­lu­tion and best JPEG qual­i­ty. Keep in mind that pic­ture set­tings are what I call “per­sis­tent”, which means that you don’t need to wor­ry about repeat­ing this process every time you turn on your cam­era. 

2. Poor colour balance (white balance)

Now let’s tack­le the sec­ond com­mon prob­lem, which relates to colour. You’ve expe­ri­enced poor colour bal­ance if you’ve ever tak­en a pho­to that appears to have a cool­er or warmer colour cast than you remem­ber see­ing with your eyes. This some­times hap­pens when you’re tak­ing pic­tures of large­ly mono­chro­mat­ic scenes, like those in which a sin­gle colour is a dom­i­nant hue, or when you’re tak­ing pic­tures in dim indoor lights. Such sit­u­a­tions cause your cam­era to mis­in­ter­pret the colour of the light, and you end up with an unwel­come colour cast. 

You can eas­i­ly avoid such mis­takes by telling your cam­era the cor­rect colour of the scene’s pri­ma­ry light source. This is a two-step process. 

First, you’ll have to step out of the com­fort of full Auto mode and into Pro­gram shoot­ing mode, which is a ful­ly auto­mat­ic expo­sure mode that gives you access to sev­er­al fea­tures that were pre­vi­ous­ly unavail­able. You can shift between modes using the Shoot­ing mode dial, which is locat­ed on the top of most cam­eras. Here it is on my 11-year-old Canon 7D. Turn the dial to “P”.

Now that you’re in Pro­gram mode, you can make changes to how your cam­era inter­prets the colour of light sources. The set­ting you’re look­ing to adjust is called White Bal­ance and is labelled “WB” on many cam­eras. Here’s the White Bal­ance but­ton on my Canon 7D; and here’s how I change it using the on-screen menu. If you haven’t changed it before, its prob­a­bly set to the default “AWB”, which stands for Auto White Bal­ance. 

Auto white bal­ance gen­er­al­ly pro­vides ade­quate results in scenes fea­tur­ing a vari­ety of colours. Beyond that, many cam­eras let you choose from sev­er­al white bal­ance pre­sets designed to match com­mon­ly encoun­tered light­ing con­di­tions. The most com­mon pre­sets are Shade, for when your sub­ject is lit by blue sky­light; Cloudy, for pho­tos tak­en under over­cast con­di­tions; Day­light, for sub­jects in direct after­noon sun­light; Tung­sten or Incan­des­cent, for sub­jects lit by ener­gy-inef­fi­cient light bulbs; and Flash, for when you’re using your camera’s built-in flash or a speed light mount­ed to your camera’s hot shoe. The Flu­o­res­cent pre­sets found on mod­ern cam­eras are only approx­i­ma­tions for the huge vari­ety of flu­o­res­cent and LED lights on the mar­ket, so pick these with cau­tion and don’t expect per­fec­tion.

Some cam­eras have addi­tion­al, more advanced pre­sets, such as “K” and “Cus­tom”, which uses this icon, but they’re beyond the scope of this video.

For now, the pre­sets I described above—Shade, Cloudy, Day­light, etc—should help you get great pho­tos with con­sis­tent­ly accu­rate colours in sit­u­a­tions when Auto White Bal­ance has the poten­tial to be inac­cu­rate. Of course, I don’t want to imply that Auto White Bal­ance is always bad—it’s not, it has a time and place. How­ev­er, you’ll get bet­ter results when you pick a pre­set that match­es the scene’s light­ing.

Keep in mind, if you go back to using Auto mode instead of Pro­gram mode, you’ll lose the abil­i­ty to select White Bal­ance.

Let’s take a look at an exam­ple of what White Bal­ance looks like when it’s wrong and when it’s right. The pho­to on the left was tak­en with Auto White Bal­ance, and my cam­era incor­rect­ly read the scene as Day­light, which is a set­ting intend­ed to match direct after­noon sun­light. My grand­moth­er was sit­ting by a large win­dow, and although it was sun­ny out­side, direct sun­light wasn’t the main light source. Her face was illu­mi­nat­ed by the light of the sky. That’s why the scene, as shot, looks too cool and pro­duces skin tones that are almost grey—that because sky­light is cool­er than Day­light. Chang­ing the camera’s inter­pre­ta­tion of the scene to Shade, which is the cor­rect set­ting for sub­jects lit by the blue sky, pro­duces much more authen­tic and pleas­ing colours. Keep in mind, this exam­ple is sim­u­lat­ed, and in prac­tice, you’ll have to make the right choice before tak­ing the pic­ture.

By the way, White Bal­ance is a cre­ative choice as much as a tech­ni­cal one. The most accu­rate White Bal­ance set­ting isn’t always the “right” one; some­times, the right White Bal­ance set­ting is sim­ply the one whose look you pre­fer the most. So feel free to exper­i­ment and dis­cov­er your pref­er­ences.

3. Incorrect auto exposures (and fixing them using exposure compensation)

The last com­mon prob­lem that many begin­ners encounter is inac­cu­rate auto expo­sures. These are often expe­ri­enced as pho­tos that come out too dark or bright in com­par­i­son to what you saw with your eyes, or per­haps what you were hop­ing for. For­tu­nate­ly, there’s a very sim­ple and intu­itive way to nudge the camera’s auto expo­sure in the right direc­tion. This is done using a func­tion called Expo­sure Com­pen­sa­tion. Sim­i­lar to White Bal­ance, Expo­sure Com­pen­sa­tion doesn’t work in Auto mode, so you’ll have to keep your cam­era set to P mode to use it. 

On many begin­ners DSLRs and mir­ror­less cam­eras, Expo­sure Com­pen­sa­tion is set by push­ing the but­ton labelled with a plus and minus symbol—it looks like this—and then rotat­ing your camera’s main con­trol dial. Rotat­ing the dial either adds or sub­tracts the amount of com­pen­sa­tion, which is typ­i­cal­ly expressed using pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive num­bers in your viewfind­er or on the main screen. Pos­i­tive num­bers tell your cam­era to make auto expo­sures and neg­a­tive num­bers tell your cam­era to make them dark­er. 

As a gen­er­al rule of thumb, very bright scenes and sub­jects call for a pos­i­tive adjust­ment, while those that are dark need a neg­a­tive adjust­ment.

Let’s take a look at a sim­u­lat­ed exam­ple. In this pho­to of a white dog on snow, the dom­i­nance of light tones through­out the scene fooled the cam­era into think­ing there’s too much light and a reduced expo­sure is war­rant­ed. Being smarter than the cam­era, we know that both the dog and the snow should look white, not grey. So for this scene of a bright sub­ject, adding pos­i­tive Expo­sure Com­pen­sa­tion pro­duces a much more desir­able and authen­tic result. And once again, in prac­tice, you’d make this adjust­ment before tak­ing the pic­ture.

Bear in mind that Expo­sure Com­pen­sa­tion is a per­sis­tent set­ting. To avoid acci­den­tal­ly sab­o­tag­ing your next series of pic­tures, it’s good prac­tice to reset it to zero before turn­ing off the cam­era. 

Now you know how to rec­og­nize and rem­e­dy the three most com­mon mis­takes made by new pho­tog­ra­phers. If you have requests for future top­ics, let me know in the com­ments, and I’ll address them in future videos. In the mean­time, you can learn more about pho­tog­ra­phy on ExposureTherapy.ca. See you next time.

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