I’ve taken well over 15,000 shots with my Nikon digital cameras, and have critiqued more than 10 times that number of pictures on critique sites.
Here are seven major flaws that I look for in every photo I evaluate, be they yours or mine.
1. Camera shake
There’s some amount of camera shake in every hand-held shot. Using a fast shutter, you can minimize it, but it’s always present to some degree.
Pay attention to your shutter speed. If it’s faster than 1/60th of a second, your picture might come out reasonably sharp, but only if you’re at the wide angle end of your camera’s zoom range. If you’re at the telephoto end, you’ll need something faster than 1/250th of a second. But no matter what the shutter speed, if you want optimal results, use a tripod!
2. Misplaced focus
Most of those soft, dreamy pictures don’t look artistic, just out of focus. It’s caused by the camera’s auto-focus system locking onto the wrong element in the picture.
That’s a killer issue for macros and close-ups, where clarity is the first thing a critic will look for, and sharp focus on the eyes is essential for portraits.
Read the manual on the various modes of auto-focus your camera offers, and use the one that will place primary focus where it will do the most good.
3. Empty skies
A blank sky does nothing to enhance a composition. It can be a sign of improper metering, poorly chosen perspective, or impatience.
Want great results?
Get up early or wait until the late afternoon to take that picture of a red barn standing in a field of waving wheat.
Editors note: a sky can be added to some photos when editing.
4. Titled Horizons
A tilt of as little as half a degree in the horizon can throw a fine landscape out of kilter. That’s why pro landscape photographers buy expensive tripods that have built-in levels. Digital photo editing programs make it much easier, since there are leveling tools built into them.
Make checking for a level horizon a top priority. If you don’t, it will be one of the first things you’ll hear about.
5. Bad Backgrounds
Trees and other “stuff” growing out of people’s heads, bright objects drawing attention away from the subject, blown highlights… the list is never ending.
The fact is, the background will account for 50% of the grade your picture gets.
It’s so important that I compose for the background first, and then figure out how to insert the subjects into it.
6. Direct Flash in People Pictures
Skin, eyes, lips, and teeth are all reflective surfaces. Fire a flash directly at them, and you’ll have a maze of distracting harsh highlights and shadows.
A camera’s internal flash is like a half-sized spare tire useful only in emergencies. For quality results, use natural light or buy an external flash than works in bounce mode.
The Unsharp Mask is both wonderful and the most destructive filter in your toolkit.
It’s often misused in attempts to correct camera shake or misplaced focus. In that mode it’s great for creating ugly halos at the edges of objects, and crunchy skies. Better not to use it at all than to over-apply it.