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6 Bad Photos & What I Learned from Them

A little good, before I present all the bad…

I’m doing a bit of digital spring cleaning today, starting with my library of photos in Lightroom. During my cleaning, I noticed all the crummy photos I’ve taken over the last few years. After feeling mildly embarrassed, I realized how much I’ve actually learned about photography, simply from taking bad photos.

So, I’m going to do something that I’ve never done, share some of my worst photos (eek) and the lessons I learned from them.

1. Learn to focus your camera manually.

Both focus and composition were not my friend in this picture.

Focusing is one of the most basic photography skills, yet it seems to be the most difficult to master. When I started I relied completely on Auto Focus, which rarely, if ever, worked in low light and back lit situations.

Because of this dependance I spent most of my time during shoots waiting for my camera to grab focus, then actually taking shots. Since I’ve been shooting a lot more video with the 5DMKII, I’ve had to master manual focus. Now, I find my eye is a lot more reliable than auto focus.

2. Learn to expose your pictures correctly.

Ouch, this photo is blinding me!

Nothing you do in post will save an overexposed picture. You cannot recover information that isn’t there to start with, so turn on your histogram and watch out for “blinkies”. Highlight warning flashes on your histogram let you know which parts of your photo are overexposed.

This is particularly useful when you are outside on a sunny day and can’t see your camera’s LCD screen very well. Look in your camera manual for Highlight warning and it should tell you how to set this feature up on your camera.

3. Don’t crop off body parts.

I haz no fingurz!

This would be a good photo except for her missing fingers and elbow… Doh! In going through my old shots, I noticed many shots where I cropped out a lovely model’s foot, chin, arm, or leg. Even your most creative editing job will not save a photo of  model with a missing chin.

4. Avoid busy backgrounds.

This background smelled as bad as it looked.

Something that is bokeh beautiful at f/1.8 looks like a hot mess at f/8.0. When I was shooting this I thought cockily, “I’ll just deal with that mess in post”. Yeah right. No amount of post can fix this background disaster.

It’s Happening. The plants are aliiiiive.

Speaking of disasters, this photo is taken at a fairly wide aperture (f/4.0) and that mess of forest jungle is completely overpowering the gorgeous model in the photo. Always watch for busy shrubbery. It will often take on a life of it’s own and ruin your best shots.

5. Choose an appropriate setting for your subject.

Tucker gives his best bokeh face.

As you know, I’m a huge bokeh fan and use it all the time in my portrait photography. While bokeh is a lovely backdrop for pretty girls, babies, and kittens, it’s not necessarily the best choice for a rock musician.

Though Tucker shows off his “sensitive side” quite well here, he ultimately did not choose this photo torepresent his musical career. Maybe if I photoshopped in a kitten? How about a kitten with an iPad?

6. There is such a thing as too much lens flare.

Lens flare attack!

I use lens flare almost as much as I use bokeh to give portraits a dreamy quality, but the nightmare of removing a lens flare nightmare smack in the middle of someone’s face is no fun at all.

7. Avoid flashing your strobe into windows

Poor dear is caught in the headlights.

Seems obvious really, but as you can see from this photo, it does happen. Also avoid taking a picture of your reflection in windows, mirrors, and shiny objects.

8. Avoid dead-centre syndrome

The model is lovely, my framing job? Not.so.much.

Not all of us have 19-focus points, so some of us have to plop our subject right in the middle of the frame for those auto focus points to do their thing. Sounds like a good excuse, doesn’t it?

I’ve noticed that my worst photos are often framed like this, most likely due to my lack of focusing skill at the time. Since we are all going to promise to learn how to focus our shots better… we can start to demonstrate our compositional talent by actually observing the Rule of Thirds.

NB. It’s easier to frame your subject if you have the grid screen enabled on your camera.

So now that you’ve seen my worst photographic efforts, I hope you’ve learnt a few lessons, or at least to not get down on yourself for making the same mistakes. Now get out there and shoot, make lots of mistakes, and become a better photographer!

What lessons have you learned from your bad photos?

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  • Reply
    June 1, 2010 at 12:59 AM

    I love how brave you were to post this – and actually I make similar mistakes all the time – something I do a lot that I hate the most is cut off body parts at awkward parts – wrists, fingers etc .. it’s so annoying haha. Great post!

  • Reply
    Tweets that mention MostlyLisa.com » Blog Archive » 6 Bad Photos & What I Learned from Them -- Topsy.com
    June 1, 2010 at 1:13 AM

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dan Biggins, Photo Addicts. Photo Addicts said: 6 Bad Photos & What I Learned from Them: Learn from your photographic mistakes :) http://bit.ly/cNkidd […]

  • Reply
    June 1, 2010 at 1:26 AM

    reading this was like i was learning from my own mistakes… i used to do exactly same mistakes and was in the process of learning from them… but bravo you documented your journey of photography so beautifuly and boldly.
    starters like me learn a great deal from this sort of stuff..

  • Reply
    June 1, 2010 at 3:25 AM

    hi Lisa, this post is definitely useful and I just want to thank you. I used 5D mkII as well and find that the focus point is so little sometimes (compared to the new 7D -_-, let’s hope 5D mkIII will have much more focus points), so, when you are shooting portraits, you shoot with manual focus now? definitely helpful tips, once again, thank you

  • Reply
    June 1, 2010 at 10:00 AM

    I know all of these things on a conscious level. Unfortunately, the gap between knowing and doing seems to be an ever widening gulf at times. About the only one of these I practice religiously is number 8. And even then I sometimes slip up and put my subject right square in the middle of the frame when it doesn’t work.
    Number 6 I have problems with because I forget rule number 9 (a rule of my own). “Clean your lenses BEFORE going out on a shoot.” Its one of those prep tasks that should be right alongside charging batteries and formatting memory cards yet I often overlook it. If you don’t do it you get diminished contrast and sharpness not to mention nasty lens flares.

  • Reply
    s h e r r y
    June 1, 2010 at 11:30 AM

    Thanks for sharing your learning process! That first shot is gorgeous <3

  • Reply
    Henry Lee
    June 1, 2010 at 12:34 PM

    Thanks, Lisa, for your candor. :)

  • Reply
    Kevin Thornhill
    June 1, 2010 at 12:44 PM

    Superb article, thanks for sharing your mistakes. Allowing others to learn from them and see where they could be going wrong very generous of you.

  • Reply
    June 1, 2010 at 1:05 PM

    Great post, many things to be learnt there.

    Manually focusing. Oh well. I have a Pentax that seems to have the largest viewfinder of any non full-frame DSLR, and I find it hard to focus when it is dark, even though I have a split prism focusing screen. And that’s where I need to focus manually. After all it’s easy to move around the active focus point or just point on the motive, focus, then compose.

    Which brings me to a thing that helped me a lot:
    Make use of all those buttons on the camera. My setup is: Focus with the button in the center of the D-pad. Use the D-pad to move around the focus point. Really helps me, so I can decouple composing the shot and focussing, take several shots without having to wait for the AF, recomposing etc. It of course also helps to have a lens that allows you to focus manually without having to set the camera to MF.

  • Reply
    June 1, 2010 at 2:00 PM

    Number 1 is my main bugaboo, for a couple of reasons. My eyesight isn’t good enough for manual focus to be a reliable option (though focus confirmation helps some with that). And my extreme left-eye dominance puts my nose in the way of that little focus point selector joystick thingumy.

    Interesting that your lessons are almost entirely resistant to the 21st-century “I’ll just fix it in post” cure-all.

  • Reply
    June 1, 2010 at 4:43 PM

    Thanks for the tips.. I will keep all these things in mind.

  • Reply
    June 1, 2010 at 4:46 PM

    i’ve pretty much done all 8 of the list. lols. the most horrible i think are the missing body parts, i’ve been beating myself up for an almost perfect shot minus the fingers and such hehe.. thanks for posting =)

  • Reply
    Sagar Gupta
    June 1, 2010 at 4:47 PM

    Thanks for sharing. Manually focusing is something one has to learn and it takes time.

  • Reply
    Salomão Fresco
    June 1, 2010 at 4:48 PM

    Lisa, thanks a bunch for sharing your mistakes and what you’ve learned from them.
    It’s a process that we all should know hot to appreciate.
    I’m not a portrait kind of photographer because i’m not too confidant in my abilities, but you gave me the itch to try…
    I’ll be sharing my tries on Flickr, so you all can help me to do a better job at it.


  • Reply
    Stephen Terlizzi
    June 1, 2010 at 5:04 PM

    Hi Lisa,

    Great set of mistakes…I have done every single one of them, too! In the spirit of sharing, here is one of mine!




  • Reply
    June 1, 2010 at 6:53 PM

    Thank you Lisa for such a great post. For last one year, I have been following your tips shared either here or on twitter and that has helped me improve a lot. This post on what not to do was very crucial as it tells directly what not to do. I have similar photographs in my collection and always wondered what did I do wrong and today I have my answers.

    Thank you. You are amazing!

  • Reply
    Chris Bates
    June 1, 2010 at 7:02 PM

    Great Post. This might help me overcome my fear of taking portraits!


  • Reply
    Neha Tiwari
    June 1, 2010 at 11:48 PM

    Lisa, great post! It’s not easy bearing your “dont’s” in front of the world, but I think your tips are going to help a lot of people! I am getting my engagement photos done soon and trust my photog…but I might just send this her way as extra insurance. Enjoyable read, thanks!

  • Reply
    June 2, 2010 at 1:09 AM

    very useful tips / thanks for posting this /retweet

  • Reply
    Jonha @ Happiness
    June 2, 2010 at 1:19 AM

    Wow Lisa, those were pretty helpful tips, I am going to share this to my friends who are so much into photography!

  • Reply
    John S.
    June 3, 2010 at 5:17 PM

    I never even thought about framing, I always just went with what felt right at the time. When I look back at my photos I see that some of my best shots are when I accidentally followed the rule of thirds.

  • Reply
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  • Reply
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    June 4, 2010 at 11:03 AM

    […] of the best ways to learn is from making mistakes.  Here are 6 Lessons from Bad Photos from Mostly Lisa.  I’ve made every single one of those mistakes before.  It’s the […]

  • Reply
    June 4, 2010 at 12:38 PM

    Thanks for your great tips. I just recently had a customer showing me his new Leica M8. Gulp… Back to the roots. Question: have you ever made fotos with that camera? I guess Problem No. 1 doesn’t exist with that camera ;-)

  • Reply
    Weekly Photo Links: 06/04/2010 | Your Photo Tips
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    Allan Jackson's Photography Blog , Archive » Making bad pictures
    June 5, 2010 at 1:56 PM

    […] when she went through the photos in her collection and revisited someher mistakes. She has put six of the worst up here, for us all to learn […]

  • Reply
    June 5, 2010 at 7:41 PM

    good article … thanks for sharing … appreciated …
    also … what happened to your promised review of the twitter backup thingies ???

  • Reply
    Weekly Link Post 148 « Rhonda Tipton's WebLog
    June 7, 2010 at 4:37 AM

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  • Reply
    Der Probefahrer
    June 10, 2010 at 5:28 AM

    8 Lektionen, die man von schlechten Fotos lernen kann bei @mostlylisa…

    Zugegeben, die Fotos, die Lisa in Ihrem kleinen Tutorial als schlecht bezeichnet, würden die meisten Hobbyfotografen nichtmal in Ihren Träumen hinbekommen, aber Ihr Erklärungen dazu sind klasse. Ihr Blog mostlylisa.com ist echt eine Pandora-Kiste an to…

  • Reply
    Sase Antic
    June 10, 2010 at 1:49 PM

    Good examples.
    I’ve made some of those mistakes, too.

  • Reply
    July 20, 2010 at 11:09 AM

    I change my good photos to you by your bad photos

  • Reply
    Clint McKoy
    July 30, 2010 at 2:11 PM

    Thanks for the helpful tips… love your work!

  • Reply
    December 25, 2010 at 9:43 PM

    Thank you for going back to the basics…sometimes thats what it takes!

  • Reply
    March 30, 2011 at 3:26 PM

    It is funny that you mention the “rule of thirds” while in about half of these shots, you do not seem to follow that rule. The shots for rules 2, 3, 4b, and 7 also appear to not follow this rule, yet you do not ding them for that particular reason.

    I am not a great photographer, but I have never been able to figure out how taking a portrait is better by adding more junk and clutter to one side of the picture.

  • Reply
    September 20, 2011 at 11:34 PM

    Thanks so much for sharing, Lisa. I admire your candor.

  • Reply
    January 1, 2012 at 5:17 PM

    thanks for the lesson

  • Reply
    Robert Machado
    February 21, 2013 at 5:14 PM

    Excellent blog! Not many of us would do what you did of showing their worst shots and openly criticizing them for people to learn. Specially when many of us run photography business.Congratulations for helping others!

  • Reply
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