Why are my photos so bad?

After getting really unsatisfactory results with my previous digital camera, I resolved to discover why, and then improve my photography.

With the last digital camera I had, I used it in a “brain off”, automatic, point-and-shoot kind of way, and the results were very variable, and mostly disappointing. Some photos were good, and many, many were mediocre to bad. Enough was enough, and I decided to learn where I was going wrong. It’s probably how most people use their digital cameras though, so what follows may be of interest to those who wish to improve their photos and learn from their and my mistakes.

What’s up doc?

To start with, I decided to review my photo library and make a list of faults that I could easily identify. I came up with list below. Bear in mind that many of the problems occurred when taking indoor photos.

  • Blurred photos
  • Yellow photos
  • Red-eye
  • Overexposed photos
  • Underexposed photos
  • Dark shadows
  • Small subjects
  • Blown-out highlights
  • Dark faces on a bright day
  • Lack of blue sky
  • Blurred moving objects
  • Depth of field

Blurred photos

The main reason I seemed to be getting blurred photos was due to taking indoor shots with insufficient light. When I didn’t use the flash, this caused the camera to try to use a slow shutter speed to let more light in, thus increasing the chances of camera shake causing blurring. Generally, when taking indoor shots in auto-everything mode with the flash enabled, there was less blurring, but many of the pictures still seemed to suffer from one or more of the following: yellow lighting, red-eye, too bright, too dark, or had nasty shadows.

Yellow lighting

Some of the photos suffered from being too yellow in appearance. The yellow appearance was caused by the indoor incandescent light bulbs. This is fixed by getting the “white balance” correct, or using proper flash technique. More on this later.

Red-eye

Many photos of people had red eyes like an albino rabbit. The red-eye appearance is caused by having the flash too close to the lens. The angle that the light is emitted at, causes it to go directly into the back of the person’s eye and reflect off the blood in the capillaries in the retina at the back of the eye. The light then bounces straight back into the camera lens with a red shade. This is easily avoided by either increasing the distance between the flash and the lens (usually by using an external flash mounted on the top of the camera), or by using an external flash to bounce light off the ceiling so that the flash light illuminates the person and surrounding area from above. Bouncing the light off the ceiling also has the advantage of helping to avoid dark shadows (see below). Using an external flash might not be possible with some of the cheaper point-and-shoot digital cameras which do not have a flash hot-shoe mount on top of the camera.

Overexposed photos

When using a flash indoors, the effect can be that the person or subject you are photographing looks very bright. This can cause blown-out highlights and dark shadows. Basically too much light is hitting the person’s face and reflecting, causing loss of picture detail in some areas. Try reducing the power of the flash, or bouncing light off the ceiling instead to resolve this.

Underexposed photos

Generally, indoor photography requires use of a flash unit, due to there being insufficient light available for most cameras to operate well. When using a flash indoors, if the flash has insufficient power to reach the subject, the pictures will be too dark in appearance.

Dark shadows

When using a flash indoors, use of a flash that points directly at the person’s face (or other subject) will generally give a bright, and sometimes overexposed face, together with dark shadows behind the person. This is easily fixed by bouncing light off the ceiling or wall, by pointing the flash towards the ceiling or wall.

Small subjects

Of course, it depends on what you are taking a photo of, but if you are taking a photo of a person, you probably would like to see them quite large compared with the background. So either get close enough so that the person appears big in the camera’s viewfinder, or zoom in. Use the optical zoom (lens magnification) to get a high quality picture. Try to avoid using digital zoom, which is merely blowing the picture up by increasing pixel size, resulting in pixellation and jaggies when printing.

Blown-out highlights

When there is too much light in the picture, either from bright sunlight or flash unit, your subject may become overexposed. The symptom of this is that you will lose detail and things will have a blinding white appearance. You cannot fix a photo easily that has lost detail due to overexposure, but it is easier to recover an underexposed photo. Professional photographers may take multiple shots of the same scene with differing exposure levels to increase the chances that they will have at least one shot that will be of high quality, and therefore be usable. This is called bracketing, and some advanced cameras can enable you to do this very easily. Some photo management software can also automatically group photos that are shot using bracketing, see Apple’s Aperture program, for example.

Dark faces on a bright day

Even on a bright day it is possible to get underexposed portions within a photo. For example, it’s a bright day, and you take a picture of a person who is standing in the shade, in front of a bright, sunlit background. The camera tries to expose correctly, and sees a bright background, and so it sets the exposure according to its exposure algorithm — i.e. to use a fast shutter speed to limit the amount of light. This often means that the person’s face will be underexposed, as it is not as bright as the background. Use of a fill-in flash can resolve this problem, as it will cause the person’s face to be at a more similar brightness level as the background.

Lack of blue sky

So I read, shooting towards the west in the morning “golden hour”, or towards the east during the evening “golden hour” can help to provide a nice blue coloured sky. This is apparently because in the morning’s first hour or so of sunlight, the western sky contains remains of the dark blue night-time sky. Similarly for the eastern sky in the evening. Knowing this, you can orient yourself towards the east or the west depending on the time of day to increase the blueness of the sky.

Blurred moving objects

To ensure that a moving object is sharp and in focus, ensure that the shutter speed is sufficiently fast to avoid blurring. A shutter speed of 1/500 of a second is generally fast enough to stop dead any moving object, but you may need a faster speed for objects moving very fast. To achieve this, you will need to put your camera out of Program exposure mode (P) and into Shutter-priority exposure mode (S). Then you need to dial in the required shutter speed, and then the camera will compute the required aperture size according to the light available when you release the shutter.

Depth of field

Sometimes you want to control how much of the picture, from front to back, is in focus. This can be controlled by putting the camera into Aperture-priority mode (A). Then you need to dial in the required aperture size, and then the camera will compute the required shutter speed according to the light available when you release the shutter.

By decreasing the aperture size (increasing the f stop number), you will increase how much front-to-back area will be in focus. Bear in mind that by decreasing the aperture size, you will let less light in, so this could be a problem if there isn’t much light available, because the camera may need to use a slow shutter speed to let in sufficient light. A slow shutter speed is likely to lead to blurring due to camera shake. This is where Nikon’s VR (Vibration Reduction) or Canon’s IS (Image Stabilisation) technology can come in very handy. If you don’t have VR or IS, then use of a tripod will be required. And if you don’t have a tripod, then perhaps you can rest the camera on a car or a wall, for example, perhaps using the timer function, or shutter release delay, so that depressing the shutter release button will not cause the camera to shake when it is taking the picture.

By increasing the aperture size (reducing the f stop number), you will decrease how much front-to-back area will be in focus. This shouldn’t cause too much of a problem for the camera, as it just needs to increase the shutter speed to reduce the amount of light it lets in, if required.

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2 Responses to “Why are my photos so bad?”

  1. Hi !
    I am frustrated with “yellow photos”. Please could you advise me of correct White balance or the flash necessary
    Thanks much -
    Ms.Frustrated

  2. As you correctly pointed out, the problem is with the white balance. I assume you are using Auto White Balance mode on your camera (AWB), and that this is appearing too yellow. If so, then you’ll need to alter the white balance.

    On the camera you have, you need to select the ‘light bulb’ or ‘incandescent’ white balance setting. If that doesn’t work to your satisfaction, depending on your camera and lighting, try looking for manual control of the Kelvin value for white balance (K). For incandescent (light bulb) style lighting, you’ll need to dial-in a white balance setting of something around 2500-3200K.

    For any pictures you have already taken, try using software like photoshop etc to tweak the white balance. When you find the right amount to tweak by, use the same value to tweak all the photos taken in that shoot that were taken with the same lighting.

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