Top 10 Mistakes of Beginning Photographers


You probably have some very very nice pictures that you took.

Someone paid you a compliment that you have a Great Eye.

Maybe they meant it literally.

This photography stuff isn’t that hard.

You’re thinking if you cough up about $1,000, you can do this.

And that isn’t an unreasonable assumption.

The instant feedback with digital photography gives this impression that it is easy.

There may be more to it than just having a good eye.

Anyone of you reading this could have easily taken this image. You just had to be there with the right camera and lens. This portrait of artist Johnny Dominquez was done in available light. Having someone to assist made this easier. I used one reflector. Canon 40D 80- 200 zoom mm lens. Glad I did this picture when I did. He doesn’t have the hair anymore.

Here is where I think most beginners go wrong:

1.Not researching computer & camera to determine post production capability

Your computer is part and parcel of your adventure into digital photography.

Not taking the time to research its capability and considering its age, processor speed and amount of RAM is like going to the grocery store hungry without considering the menu and how much food to buy.

Most beginners succumb to the sales jargon and hype about megapixels thinking more is better.

That is certainly true but when they get the new toy home and see how their computer slows to a crawl, they find they may have to spend more to upgrade or buy a new computer.

2.Thinking the only way to get a certain picture is to buy special equipment

The majority of pictures you see are taken by very general purpose utilitarian photographic equipment.

There are exceptions like in wildlife photographer and sports photography when long focal lenses are needed.

Not all professional photographers have the whole arsenal of lenses from super wide to super telephoto. Most use a few staple lenses.

Don’t be seduced by the ads you see in glossy magazines and so on. Understand your equipment and learn the ins and outs of it first before buying more gear. You can always rent gear if you’re curious.

3.Not opening a picture on a computer and viewing it at 100%

Every picture you take looks sharp and very nice on your 3″ LCD monitor on the back of your camera. Even with zooming capabilities, it’s sometimes very hard to see if it’s sharp. Shoot a lot. Memory cards are cheaper these days compared to the past.

4.Deleting pictures based on tiny LCD monitor on back of camera

Related to the previous mistake, deleting images without critically analyzing the reason why a picture worked or didn’t work is a big mistake.

If you want to replicate a “look” or “effect,” you need to know the exposure information. If you don’t study the results and figure out these lessons, you will always be stuck  as “lucky photographer” instead of a “skillful photographer”.

5.Shooting everything in Program or Auto Exposure mode

The Automatic and Program modes are wonderful but when you’re learning, you need to know and understand what each setting does and why you want to change it.

That is the sure way to be confident. When someone hands you a Nikon or a Canon camera, you should be able to work it.

You just need to figure out where on the camera’s body to change these settings. Once you are comfortable with these basics, you can pick up any camera and be able to use it. Sort of like driving.

Once you know how to drive, the kind of car doesn’t matter, you just need to familiarize yourself with the dashboard and instrument panel displays.

6.Buying too much camera for your level of experience

If there is a downside to digital single lens cameras and digital point and shoot cameras becoming cheaper, this is it.

As prices drop, these cameras are really becoming good value.

You can buy a digital SLR for as much as a point and shoot camera, so most folks wonder why  don’t I get one?

The trouble is the learning curve is very steep if you have no photography experience. Remember, even if you don’t intend to edit (fix and play with your pictures in photoshop or a graphic program) you’ll need to understand how to save, crop and archive your images.

For the casual user, this is a a major undertaking especially  if they don’t use a computer to begin with.

7.Not backing up pictures before deleting images on memory card

Digital is so convenient. There is no denying this, but disaster is only heartbeat away.

That image that lives on a memory card is very stable and not susceptible to many dangers like x-rays to film.

But if you don’t download your images to the computer and back them up frequently, you’re living on the edge all the time.

There is recovery software out there that might be able to avert such disaster, but their success is not 100%.

How about if your camera is stolen? You think the thief will be so kind to leave you the memory card?

8.Not buying enough memory cards

Flash memory is cheap compared to the past. When I bought my Canon 20D, I paid $200 for a 2GB SanDisk memory card.

Today at that price I can get a 16GB SanDisk card. When you run out of space on your memory card, your 1st instinct is to delete what you think is a bad image to make room.

It shouldn’t have to come to that. There is no reason not to buy more cards.

Related to this, if you have a memory card that has a corrupted image, it’s time to toss it out. There is no point using it. It is not trustworthy anymore.

9.Not buying enough batteries

As with most electronics, when you don’t have power for your camera, it is just an expensive necklace. And it’s not even a very pretty one.

10.Not reading the owners’ manual

Okay, when I get my hands on a new camera, I’m guilty of this as well.

But I already know what I need to work any camera. Most of the time, it’s buried underneath some confounded 4 or 5 layers of menus.

When it comes to figuring out how to work your particular camera, I’m afraid there is no escaping this one.

11.Not shooting enough

I know, I know I said top ten but this is such a big one I can’t leave it out. Many beginners take a picture, look at their LCD monitor right after then stop shooting the scene or their subject after one frame. Stopping after one picture was understandable in the film days but with digital? Expressions change quickly in portraits. Keep working the subject shoot a lot, try different viewpoints or different lenses.

I probably missed some others, but generally speaking these are the most common errors. If you think of others, by all means suggest them by commenting.

28 thoughts on “Top 10 Mistakes of Beginning Photographers”

  1. Good list Pete. A good start for the beginning photographers. I’d have to agree with your list. I’ll respectfully disagree with Tony’s comment about #5. I agree with Peter. It’s important to learn manual exposure. Peter’s comment was not shooting “everything” on auto or program. While Tony makes a great point in that it’s OK to use auto or program, I feel it’s important to know manual exposure. I use aperture priority on many occasion especially when the light changes from one moment to the next. Situations like sports where clouds overhead are changing the light constantly and the need for a fast shutter speed is imperative, lend themselves to aperture priority. When I shoot concerts and the light changes in a split second, aperture priority gives me fast response, provided I have the proper exposure compensation set. The problem is aperture priority and other program modes are balancing the scene to match an 18% gray card. This is fine for many things in photography especially sunny days and consistent lighting, however, at a concert, the black backgrounds or white backgrounds or bright lights can throw off the meter. This is where learning manual exposure is key. Sometimes the aperture priority just cannot figure out a particular scene. When it fails…and it happens quite often…I fall back on my experience because I know manual exposure inside and out. Learning manual exposure is going to be the difference in getting the shot to look good, or having a shot that is blown out or too dark.

    Keep up the good work Peter!
    Rodrigo Pena

  2. Welcome Marcie. Congratulations on your purchase. May I ask what you bought for yourself?

    Stay in touch. Hopefully I’ll learn to write better through my association with you, and you’ll learn to take better pictures.

  3. I just purchased a DSLR because I figured it was time for me to grow up in photography and I’m feeling tips 10 and 11. I take good pictures, but I want to get better. This info was helpful.

  4. Thanks all for a very good thread!

    I actually went to school with a ‘Biff Barker.’ Quarterback, Homecoming King, School Letters, Most Likely to … [grrrr]”)

    Whether you make a living at photography or not has little to do with being a pro, at least in the non-dictionary sense.
    There are some very/excruciatingly good amateur/hobbyist shooters out there, and some of their images can help us all get back in touch with humility.

    Being a pro, however, involves a lot more than than the ability to make award-winning images. Primarily, it means being able to consistently deliver at a very minimum, a usable product whenever you commit to do so.

    ‘Back In the Day’ all you had to do to win a ribbon at one of the [my state] PPA competitions was be the one whose entries most resembled [insert one each wedding and portrait photographer member here] (HINT: They were the ones whose images most often appeared on the cover of the PPA mag.)


    14. (or whatever) Assuming that just because they are an amateur/volunteer, etc. shooting with a flashcube doesn’t automatically mean that mean they couldn’t shoot circles around any of us. It just means that they are not inclined, have not chosen to, or are not willing/able to do so on a dependable, under pressure basis.

    O.K., so if they are shooting with a flash cube, odds are they are an ‘Aunt Matilda’ moron and you may feel free to step in front of them with no guilt.

    In any case, don’t suffer from the affliction of arrogance. Cut the new guy some slack, he may be your boss some day.

    One of the things that has always impressed me with the online community is the overall willingness to unselfishly share, rather than withhold knowledge.

    When you see a would-be shooter who is willing and ABLE to deliver a wedding for 25-50 bucks, including negs, don’t disparage them, HIRE THEM, nurture them and make them your own!

    From an old-timer.


  5. Biff,
    I love the name by the way. I’m always fascinated by the origins of names. I can’t even begin to guess what it’s short for.

    You’re right about the idea that anyone with a digital camera now thinks they can make a living from photography.

    The very superlative “best photographer” is tough to define. No 2 people with agree on that. The other matter is that is a perceived value.

    The best photographer title almost needs to come with a price range attached like, “The Best-Restaurant-under-$10-an-entree.”

    In the end, we all should lighten up. Not worth getting worked up over titles.

  6. Now with some sleep under my belt and feeling a whole lot better, it is time to make my last comment much more coherent. ;o)

    Many photographers in the business to are jumping from one place to another because of the economic situation. With newspapers cutting their photo staffs and or closing down all together, a slew of photographers that would never claim to do weddings are right in the heap.

    Never asking should they do it! It is just not an easy way to make a buck. It is an art form. Because you shoot for newspapers or catalog house or pick up a camera and feeling this could be something one could do, should not be the reason to start. One has to ask, are willing to give up weekends, take the time to improve one’s craft. Can you handle the different personalities one comes across, and so on.

    Are you willing to sit in front of your computer and learn not just Photoshop, but layout programs, Lightroom. Keep up on emails and phone calls. Because it is not just taking nice pictures. It is a business thru and thru! It is not just “Hey I have a nice camera, it should make me money”.

    I have seen that attitude over the 20 something years that I have been at this endeavour! I am not saying that new blood can’t be in the mix, matter of fact it helps keep the whole market going. I love to see new photographers out there, but go get trained. Work for a studio that has multiple photographers that you can learn from, and when you feel you have more to offer or more to give, then hang your shingle.

    Thank you for the nice comment on what I photograph. I Love It!


  7. Hi Biff,
    Must have been a heck of an insomnia. Believe me, I’ve been there myself. You probably got home from shooting a long wedding and you’re too wired to go to bed. Too tired to look over your images and start working, so you’re unwinding. I’ve been there myself lots of times. More times than I cared to say. You’ve got some very nice work by the way.

  8. Pixel Pete,

    One essential question that was not asked. Ask yourself are you ready for the wear and tear the 70 hour weeks. The eons of computer time look at each image to make the next one better! Are you ready to do what it takes to make it work for yourself? Ask is your family ready for it? Are you ready for the angry client take has not got their book yet? Are you ready for the one wedding where everything goes wrong and sopent the money already!

    Are YOU!


  9. Hello Greg,
    Thank you so much for sharing with me and helping others who read this your experience. This list can’t possibly be so comprehensive to apply to everyone. Since there is no way to quantify a “beginner,” I have to write in general terms. Shooting in Auto and Program modes work very well for those point and shoot situations where the lighting is not tricky or if it doesn’t require quick focusing or, in your case of the black Labrador, a change in White Balance.

    But all bets are off the moment there are situations outside the “normal”:

    • 1.mixed light sources
    • 2.your subject has extreme contrasts like bride in white and groom in black tux against black or light backgrounds

    It used to take a lot of rolls of film and careful methodical analysis to figure out what went wrong but not so much anymore, the EXIF data is there when you shoot manual. All it requires is for you to look it up.

    Once again Greg, thanks for sharing your experience.

  10. Good list, and I really agree with #5. Here’s an example of why.

    I recently shot a conformation dog show, and because I wanted stop action on wagging tails, gaiting dogs, etc. I shot almost everything in Tv mode. This mostly worked – but some really good images were sadly underexposed, to the extent that adjusting exposure in the raw image left magenta colored artifacts on an otherwise wonderful image of a black Labrador Retriever. If I had shot this in Program mode I would have learned nothing about the limitations of using Tv in this situation. Fortunately, I have a lot of very usable images, but losing one of the best forced a learning experience – I’ll do it differently next time.

  11. “Most beginners succumb to the sales jargon and hype about megapixels thinking more is better.

    That is certainly true…”

    Wait, if it is true it isn’t hype. But if it is hype it isnt’ true. But if it is true it isn’t hype… 😉

  12. The problem with being overly ‘prolific’ [aka trigger-happy] is afterward, when wading through an ocean of ‘almost there’ and ‘virtually identical’ images. A few seconds of extra thinking behind the lens could save a lot of time and indecision later.

    When some of us ‘old-timers’ [aka geezers] started, every shot got a bit more thought, if only because of the costs involved. When you’re shooting 4×5 or 8×10 chrome you REALLY have to think through each shot.

    It wasn’t unusual, however, for two to four shooters to burn up over 2,000 frames each during a basketball game or other sporting event, with the possible exception of golf.

    “Who cares, it’s the editor’s problem…” was really good until I was the editor.

    But then again, having it and not needing it is a lot better than needing it and not having it, so I guess there’s a case for both sides.


  13. Hello Frank,
    Thanks for stopping by and giving me input.

    You’re right to suggest that beginners think of what they want before they take a picture. But at the very start of my own path through photography, I remember shooting miles and miles of film. Back then, there was no short cut. You couldn’t tell till you develop your film. With digital, because of the instant feedback many beginners they assume they have the shot. Till they get back and see the image on their monitors…

    Again how much to shoot depends on what the subject is. If it’s sports, you have to. If it’s a portrait, you don’t have to shoot as much. Unlike the film days, shooting a lot is not a waste. You’re just maximizing your chances. You’re trying to get that one frame where the ball is in the picture or the smile or expression is just right.

    Thanks for stopping by, Frank.

  14. I don’t agree with point 10.

    It’s not important to shoot much… that’s the digi photography.
    First think of what you’re going to do then take a pic!
    Not just shoot and after don’t know what you did.

    Frank Lodder

  15. Hello Steve,
    Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment. It’s easy to be seduced by gear. It’s a phase every photographer goes through. I can see if I were only interested in macro photography, my equipment list would be so simple. But when you’re a beginner, you don’t know what your niche is. It’s all part of the learning process. That’s why I recommend renting a lens or some piece of special equipment.

    Deleting images based on what you see on your LCD robs you of an opportunity to learn why the picture didn’t work. Was it camera shake because of low shutter speed or was it out-of-focus? If you can see the EXIF info, it helps you troubleshoot.

    Everything looks nice and sharp on that teenie LCD monitor as I”m sure you’ve noticed.

    Besides Steve, if you keep enough supply of memory cards, you won’t be under any pressure to delete your images in the camera. Happy shooting!

  16. A good list with things I hadn’t thought of before. As a beginner, I use to be guilty of No. 2 where I was obsessed with gear. I have since learned to work with 2 lens primarily, a 17-40mm and a 50mm prime. For my style of photography, I find these two lenses are sufficient.

    I am still guilty of No. 4 however and need to stop deleting images bases on what I see on my LCD.

    Thanks for the post.


  17. Hello Mandie,
    Thank you for stopping by and more importantly adding your comment.

    For better or for worse, digital photography has forever changed the landscape for creative folks. Cost of equipment has come down a lot and so has the cost of equipment. This makes it readily available to the masses, giving an impression that it is easy. Understandably, everyone given enough memory cards without extensive training gets lucky and all of sudden has a “great eye.”

    I’ve seen the bashing pros in those listing. It’s a very touchy subject as any discussion of livelihoods is concerned. My earlier post on Pros vs. Amateurs clearly show this.

    Now that I’m teaching, I educate my students on all those points you make about undercutting the pros, how it’s not in their interest in the long run.

    Many don’t even consider that their vehicle or transportation is as important as they camera, lenses and flashes. Thanks again for reading!

  18. I am not sure I’d classify this as one of the “top ten mistakes” I’ve seen, but with Craigslist has come a whole different breed of beginners: those who bash their professional peers for charging professional prices.

    I think all beginners need to step back and think before publicly advertising their services in a manner that aims to de-value the profession of photography. While a beginner is portfolio building, I think it’s entirely acceptable, and important, to build a portfolio. So sure- give away a portrait session for $25 with all images on CD. Shoot a wedding for $300 and hand over the disc at the end of the night. However, before you bash the “atrocity” of wedding photographers who charge over $1000, sell prints, require album purchases for digital negatives, etc, etc- figure out where you’re going first. Could you pay your mortgage by shooting $300 weddings once a weekend? Or $25 portrait sessions five days a week? Do you invest the money and time in editing photographs properly? And on and on.

    Bashing your professional peers will give you a bad name in your local community, and one day you may find yourself in a position where you could benefit from camraderie with your peers. You might even begin to understand why prices are generally higher for more experienced, polished work- and if you have a reputation for touting how wrong it is to charge those prices, you might have a challenge on your hands.

    Great tips- thanks for posting!

  19. Leon,
    Thank you. Thank you. How did I forget this one? It’s absolutely true.
    Editing or rather being very selective and picky is something many beginners never think about. That’s why feedback is important. Along with asking for feedback is “having the right attitude” when it’s given.

    I occasionally come across students with such egos that they feel every picture they take have to be complimented. That is such a turn-off. They sometimes come into my class as if to “show off.”

  20. Steve/g2,
    Thank you so much for plugging my blog. I appreciate it very much.

    I need to come clean that like many photographers, I was one who went through the equipment envy stage as well.

    Fortunately my days at the newspaper cured me of that. I’ve used the best and latest gear as a result. These days my purchases are very practical and absolutely must-have items.

    It’s sort of like finding location for pictures. You actually don’t have to travel very far to exotic places to get good pictures. It’s really about your imagination and sense of curiosity.

    While my classmates who had $$ made trips to Florida to photograph the space shuttle launch, I had to contend with finding subjects closer to where I went to school which were within my means.

    Here’s an example.

  21. Don’t forget this one:

    12. Showing way too much photographs to the audience.
    Everyone knows the effect of being shown 875 holiday pictures, of which lots are kind of blurry in any kind, so please don’t do it yourself. Thrown away (or hidden in a far sector of your harrdisk) 825 of them, the presentation really is much better.

  22. Eggman!
    Thank you for your input. You’re absolutely right about the ego. Far too many photographers think that just because they do this professionally (for a living i.e), they think they are God’s gift to photography. That everyone should take a backseat to their wonderful work.

    I can count the number of times I’ve heard my egotisitcal co-worker (fellow photographers on staff) yell at other photographers to get out of their way!

    That’s plain arrogance. It’s nothing personal. At sporting events,everyone’s scrambling to get a good picture.

    If you don’t want people getting in your way, go the Ansel Adams route and shoot landscapes.

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  24. All excellent points.

    Think Number 2 is especially important and there are many serious amateurs who really need to grasp this, perhaps more so than beginners.

    Equipment envy is great is great for the manufacturers, resellers, endorsers and reviewers but the rest of us should leave them to it.

  25. Pete – not definitive, but a really good start.

    I’d have to make it the top 100, however.

    Ditto on not shooting enough. When I came back from shooting my first basketball game I was royally reamed for only going through two 750 exposure backs.

    In the list I’d also include a having at least one backup camera body and backup lighting, flash or otherwise.

    We used to interview/hire a lot of freelancers and would-be pros when I managed the UPI Compix studio in DC. We wouldn’t send anyone out unless they demonstrated (brought in) at least one backup body and/or camera system.

    XX.Thinking that just because you are getting paid that you are a better shooter than ‘Uncle Ernie” (Putting your ego above the job.)

    I’m not suggesting that anyone here suffers from XX, but being a good/adequate shooter involves a lot more than equipment.

    Wedding photographers in particular often have to orchestrate the entire event, from post-ceremony photos to the proper time to cut the cake. Even a lot of so-called wedding planners turn to the photographer for advice and assistance.

    Spot news guys need a thick skin, sharp elbows and more diplomacy than an ambassador.

    Add to the list …

    XX. A well stocked location emergency kit. Super glue, long, pearl-tipped hat pins, ‘real’ gaffer tape, empty sandbags, 3-2 Prong outlet adapters, a good flashlight, Leatherman or other pocket tool, a box cutter or Olfa Knife, needles and thread, safety pins and diaper pins, paper towels, wet-wipes, Band Aids Q-Tips, Alcohol swabs, etc.

    Remember, Murphy (as in the law) was an optimist.

    Best, and may all your frames be in focus, unless you want them otherwise.


  26. Hi Tony,
    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I don’t presume that my list is the definitive and last word. That’s why differing opinions such as yours are important.

    When I compiled my list, I drew upon my own experience as I’m sure you did in coming to your conclusion.

    I do feel that only through learning how to adjust the settings manually can you truly see what is going on.

    Automatic modes are useful after you understand how and why the camera favors aperture or shutter speeds when choosing the exposure for the user.

    Too many times beginners will use these modes and get lucky. Then when they try to replicate a similar effect, they get disappointing results. Without ability to over-ride these automatic modes, beginners wind up being “lucky” instead of mastering their cameras.

    I’m all for automation too Tony, that’s why I use autofocus. But technology has limits and if you don’t understand the limitations, you’ll get skunked.

    That happened to me when I shot a wedding recently in poor light. Try and try I couldn’t get a well focused image. Auto focus as good as it is, has a threshold when it becomes unreliable.

    In the end, I switched to manual focus, got an assistant to aim a light over the bride and groom and focused the old fashioned way.

  27. I don’t agree with you about point 5.

    The programmed exposure modes (like aperture priority and shutter priority) are excellent tools to allow a newcomer to concentrate on framing their image and getting the shot. Let them get past the basics before insisting that they learn manual exposure.

    I shoot manual exposure in the studio, but I use mostly aperture priority outside, even now. I don’t believe in refusing to use automation when it serves a purpose.

    An experiment that is easy to do when shooting digital, that would have been expensive and painful when shooting film, is to set up a still life (it doesn’t have to be fruit – I use anime figurines sometimes), put the camera on a tripod, and try shooting the exact same scene, with the exact same lighting, from the exact same place, using every possible aperture on aperture priority (perhaps using just whole f-stops). Then possibly repeat the exercise using every possible shutter speed on shutter priority. Study the images, and see how they differ – the aperture sequence is really cool, because you can see the different depths of field related to the apertures (yay for EXIF data!).

    I do agree about reading the manual. And I suggest reading it cover to cover, even if there are bits you don’t understand. Some day, you don’t know when, you will recall something you read that will solve a problem you hadn’t realised you had 🙂

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