Taking digital photographs can make even experienced photographers let some aspects of their practice slip occasionally. Being able to shoot and review on the spot, and the enormous scope for post-capture tweaking of images can make digital photographers careless. Standards slip and before long you find the shots on those memory cards don’t meet your expectations. Or maybe, there aren’t any shots at all!


From Photo Review Issue 45:
Taking digital photographs can make even experienced photographers let some aspects of their practice slip occasionally. Being able to shoot and review on the spot, and the enormous scope for post-capture tweaking of images can make digital photographers careless. Standards slip and before long you find the shots on those memory cards don’t meet your expectations. Or maybe, there aren’t any shots at all!

By paying attention to your equipment, your shooting procedures and your post-capture behaviour, you can eliminate most potential pitfalls. Sure, there may be the occasional unpreventable disaster than could cost you a couple of shots. But you can convert such instances from likelihoods to rarities by avoiding the following bad habits.  

1. Failing to check your equipment.
Have you ever discovered one or more essential pieces of equipment missing when you arrive at a shooting location? Avoid it by checking your camera bag before leaving home. Make sure it contains the camera bodies, lenses, memory cards, batteries, filters and cleaning equipment you need plus any peripherals like tripods, flash units and reflectors that may be required.

For longer trips, such as holidays, add in battery chargers, cables and portable storage. Don’t trust anybody else to pack your camera bag; it’s your gear so you take full responsibility. Make lists of the different items required for different types of shoot. Double-check everything before you shut the front door. (Triple check before leaving for more than one day’s shoot.)


Make sure your camera bag contains everything you need for the shoot – including spare memory cards and batteries, and appropriate lenses for the subjects you will photograph.

Always format each memory card in the camera you plan to use it in after downloading your shots. Formatting removes any ‘stray’ bits of data that can build up and may contribute to subsequent malfunctioning. It also sets the card up for subsequent use in the camera.

2. Failing to check camera settings before starting to shoot.
It’s just too easy to pick up a camera and begin taking pictures (or shooting video), assuming all the settings are correct. While this may be reasonable for auto-everything snapshooters, it’s not for serious photographers. It’s too easy to miss – or mess up – important shots by inadvertently leaving the self-timer on, or the white balance set on tungsten, or having the ISO set to 3200 when it should be on 100.


Some cameras make it easy to check camera settings on the LCD monitor. This feature is valuable for both novice photographers and more experienced shooters who photograph a wide variety of subjects in different lighting conditions.

Each time you pick up the camera, check the following: shooting mode, ISO setting, white balance, drive setting, self-timer, AF mode, metering pattern, flash setting. When you shoot in aperture-priority AE (A or Av) mode, keep an eye on the shutter speed settings selected by the camera. This lets you know whether you will be able to hand-hold the camera and still get sharp pictures, or if you need a tripod.

In shutter-priority AE (S or Tv) mode, checking the lens aperture gives you some idea of potential depth-of-field in a shot. If your camera has a depth-of-field preview button, you can also check this visually.


Depth-of-field preview buttons are normally located close to the lens mount on interchangeable-lens cameras.

3. Relying too much on the monitor when evaluating shots.
While it’s easy to check the shot you’ve just taken by pressing the review button, it’s equally easy to be fooled into deleting shots unnecessarily. Some shots that look flawed on the camera’s monitor may actually be salvageable. Although monitor resolution has improved in recent times, there are still cameras with 230,000-dot screens that cannot display the colour and detail you require to evaluate the potential of a shot. And there’s no way of calibrating them so they do.

While you may be able to recover deleted shots later with file-recovery software, there’s no guarantee the recovery will be successful. In the interim the memory card will be unusable.

Reviewing each shot as you take it will also cost you time and consume battery power. Both will slow your shooting down and may also distract you from your main objective: taking pictures.

Memory is cheap; deleted shots may be lost forever. Save your image culling until you get home and can view your photographs on a decent screen.  

4. Failing to really LOOK at the subject before pressing the shutter button.
Many photographers (particularly novices and new camera owners) are so excited about taking pictures they don’t pay full attention to what they are shooting. Pictures are made by what the photographer includes in the shot – as much as what is left out.

You must also be able to translate a three-dimensional scene into a two-dimensional picture. Some scenes translate successfully, while others don’t translate at all. The camera’s viewfinder should help you to see which view of the scene works best as a two-dimensional picture.

Make a habit of scanning the scene as you compose each shot. Practice will help you to identify which views ‘work’ as pictures. Use built-in camera tools to aid shot composition. Grid overlays are also handy for ensuring horizons are level.


A grid overlay can help you to keep horizontal and vertical lines straight and suggest suitable positioning of pictorial elements in your photograph.

5. Not knowing which file format to use.
While JPEG is the universal file format that everybody recognises, all interchangeable-lens cameras and some advanced fixed-lens models also support raw file capture. JPEGs are fine for ‘everyday’ picture-taking and are ideal for sharing online, printing at kiosks and displaying on TV screens and computer monitors. You need JPEGs when creating slideshows and most panorama stitching programs will only work with JPEGs.

But JPEGs are limited. They can’t display the full colour and contrast ranges available to raw files; the compression system discards image data permanently and your ability to tweak brightness, contrast and colour post-capture is restricted. Go too far and the image will posterise as tones and colours ‘drop out’.

Learning to shoot and edit raw files can be challenging and time-consuming if you’ve never done any post-capture editing. But it’s definitely time well-spent. Raw files provide enormous scope for post-capture editing for two reasons. Firstly, they can be adjusted non-destructively when the files are converted from raw format into an editable format (JPEG or TIFF) and secondly, because converting raw files into 16-bit TIFF files gives you a huge amount of data to work with. This equates to much more scope for adjusting files than you could every get with JPEGs.  

6. Shooting raw files without regard for correct exposure.
We’ve all heard about the ability of raw files to tolerate a wide range of adjustments. BUT, even though you have more exposure latitude than you get with JPEGs, the ability to tweak exposure in raw files remains limited. While you may be able to recover some detail from under-exposed shadows, the risk of developing unacceptable noise is ever-present.


Raw files allow you to tweak certain image parameters before they are converted into editable formats. But for best results – and greatest flexibility – shot must be correctly exposed in the first place.

At the other end of the scale, blown-out highlights are the same in raw files as in JPEGs. You can’t put in details the camera didn’t capture. When no image information is recorded, there’s nothing to develop. Correct exposure is essential – regardless of which file format you use.

7. Relying too much on post-capture editing.
No matter how capable you think you are with any editing application, it’s best to get as much as possible right when you take the shot. That means exposure, focus and white balance for starters – plus consideration of ISO and noise potential.

This should be your objective. Once it is achieved, there will be scope for subtle fine-tuning on your computer.

8. Failing to customise your camera.
Many cameras come with memory banks where you can store groups of camera settings. These can save you a lot of time when you’re on a shoot. While the custom memories are wonderful time-savers for professional studio photographers, they can also be helpful for enthusiasts because they will help you to avoid issue number 2: Failing to check camera settings before starting to shoot.

You can set up groups of camera settings to cover subjects like landscapes, portraits, sports; pretty much any type of subject you shoot regularly. (It’s like setting up your own collection of Scene pre-sets.) Once you’ve ‘registered’ a particular mode, it’s easy to re-configure the camera to your pre-sets by simply selecting that mode from the custom memory bank.  

9. Not using a tripod when the situation demands stability.
In-camera and in-lens image stabilisation systems have gone a long way toward enabling us to shoot in low light levels. However, the best systems will only give you about four stops of shutter speed compensation – and there are many situations in which that isn’t enough.

When you must stop the lens down to obtain adequate depth-of-field, you soon find you’re stuck with shutter speeds at which hand-holding the camera is no longer an option. Put the camera on even a compact tripod and the problem is solved.


There’s no excuse for blurred low-light shots if you carry one of the adjustable, compact tripods that are affordable and readily available.

Tripods are a must when shooting subjects like fireworks, star trails and almost anything after the last traces of sun are gone from the sky. Putting the camera on a tripod also makes you think more carefully about shot composition – simply because you have more time to peruse the subject. This will teach you a lot more about shot composition and help you to become a better photographer.  

10. Blaming your equipment when you don’t get the shot.
A photographer’s equipment is only a part of the overall process of picture-taking. Equipment is important – to a degree. While it’s nice to have the latest camera – and you’re likely to gain envious glances from other photographers – when it comes to image quality, it’s only part of the equation. Failure to get the shot is usually a result of one or more of the points outlined above.

Despite what the advertisements for new cameras tell you (and all the comments in the online forums) extra resolution doesn’t necessarily mean better pictures. Good A3-sized prints can be made from good shots taken with a 10-megapixel camera.

If you’re in a position to invest in gear, it’s more important to buy the right lens – particularly if your budget is tight. Investing in ‘good glass’ will pay dividends over the long term because you know you’re getting the sharpest images and greatest exposure flexibility. You will also be able to use the lens on any new camera body you buy in the future – provided it has the same lens mount.

This is an article from Photo Review Magazine Sep-Nov 2010 Issue 45.
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