Not all photographs are created equal.
Although judging beautiful art can sometimes be subjective, there are guidelines in any creative practice for making aesthetically pleasing images. And when we stray, we can sense, feel, and see the cringe-worthy difference.
Recognizing bad photography is an important step in improving how you take pictures. Knowing the technical and compositional pitfalls in photography also means knowing how to avoid them.
So, what makes a bad photograph? Read on to identify the main technical and compositional reasons for bad photography and find out what are the best ways to avoid these photographic pitfalls.
Technical Reasons for Bad Photography
Mastering your exposure settings is key to capturing all an image has to offer. An underexposure will leave you with an image that is too dark and is caused by not allowing enough light to record the image. In this case, you will lose a lot of visual details in the shadows. What’s worse, in place of those missing details in the shadows, you will often get unwanted image artifacts like film grain or digital noise, to fill in those visual information gaps.
On the other hand, an overexposure of your image means that your photograph received too much light. This leads to blown-out images and a loss of detail in the highlights. Colors may be washed out and skies go from blue to white.
Avoiding Bad exposure involves familiarizing yourself with manual Exposure Settings. However, if you are looking for a quick fix on your smartphone camera, tap on the area of the image where your exposure should be set. For instance, if the sky is important to capture, tap on the sky to reconfigure your exposure to avoid a blowout. Likewise, if your subject is too dark, tap on the dark areas to lighten it up.
Bad exposure is often caused by Bad Lighting. Do you have enough light to shoot your subject? What direction is the light source facing? Ideally, your subject should be light with a light source over the photographer’s shoulder. If the lighting, however, is too direct, or if you are looking for something more dramatic, try a side-lighting on your subject.
Sometimes adding light to a scene to help exposure, highlight a subject, or create a visual balance in your composition can do the trick.
Also, consider your light source. Are your lights fluorescent? Some blue lighting can be unflattering for portraits. Do you have the option to add daylight, candlelight, or warm light to soften your scene?
Both High and Low Contrasted environments can take away from a picture. High Contrast refers to an overdominance of both highlights and shadows with little mid-tones in between. High Contrasted images can overly simplified forms while losing a lot of detail.
Low Contrasted images have an overdominance of mid-tones and little to know shadow or highlight. The lack of variance in lighting and tones makes it difficult for your subject matter to stand out. It also offers little visual stimulation for the viewer.
Bad Focus and Unwanted Blurriness
Blurriness in your image can come from two sources: the lens or focal length not being focused on the subject and motion blur most commonly due to camera shake.
Consider this image below. Upon first glance, you may be able to read the image, as far as the subject matter goes. You may even be able to ‘read’ some, but not all of the text. However, there is a shakiness to the lines in the image which makes it uncomfortable to look at for very long.
Avoiding camera shake will help reduce the risk of unwanted motion blur in your photos. With manual settings, you can adjust to a faster shutter speed to allow for more forgiving handheld photography. However, if this isn’t an option, you can still reduce hand-held camera shake by using a tripod, or if you don’t have access to one, stabilizing your camera on or against a still, sturdy object like a bench or wall.
If none of these options are available to you, you can always try shooting in-between breaths of air, it’s meditative and effective.
Compositional Reasons for Bad Photography
Bad Placement of Subject in the Frame
How you place your subject in the frame will communicate to the viewer your intention. Regardless of what your subject is, it can be a person, place, object, or event, placing the subject clearly in the frame and allowing the other elements in the image to support or draw your attention to the subject will direct the viewer’s attention in the picture.
Classic fails in the placement of the subject in the frame is having some of the subject cut off in the picture. This cut-off of the subject shows a disregard for it’s significance in the image. Contrastingly, portraying your subject fully and centered or along the lines of the Rule of Thirds, will highlight the importance of the subject both visually and in terms of content.
We can’t always control our environment, but we can control where we place ourselves when taking a picture. Very often unwanted visual distractions in the foreground or the background can essentially photo-bomb an otherwise good photograph into a bad photography corner.
Be aware of what is in front of and behind your subject. Not only can such elements add clutter to the image but they can interfere with how the viewer sees the photograph. Ask yourself, is this obstruction adding to the image or is it distracting from the composition?
Common obstructions in street photography include street signs and telephone poles. Sometimes, it can be beneficial to either change your positioning to avoid these visual eye-sores, or to incorporate those elements into the composition. The main thing is, however, is to aware of them and not to let these elements take away from your subject or your composition.
You can incorporate such obstructions in your composition in several ways:
- by dividing the frame
- by interacting with the element (for instance leaning against it)
- by widening out the frame to capture the entirety of the structure instead of only a piece of it.
When these options are not available, it’s better just to avoid any and all obstructions altogether.
Horizon line not Straight
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it may be the most common mistake that can ruin an otherwise good photograph. Nowadays the ability to rotate and crop out any tilt in the horizon is more readily available in most photo editing apps and software. However, if your space or frame is tight, correcting a horizon tilt will result in losing a fair amount of your image around the edges.
To avoid this bad photography habit, try use these tips:
- if you can’t see the horizon, find a reference point like a wall or floor or to align your vertical lines with
- take more than one image to make sure you are all straightened out
- look for guidelines in your viewfinder grid to help show you your horizon line
A Good Example of Bad Photography
Have a look at the following image and see if you can identify the classic Bad Photography fails.
You may consider the image to be aesthetically unpleasing and somewhat boring, but can you identify why that is?
Let’s start with the technical problems. One issue is that there is a lack of contrast in the colors in the image. The image is slightly overexposed, draining the colors from full saturation. Next, the image is blurry. The overall image lacks one point of sharp focus, likely due to camera shake. In addition, the man on the bike is blurry, due to motion blur and a slow shutter speed.
Next, the composition is slightly off center, meaning it is neither centered nor is it dynamic. There are multiple objects of interest that are cut off from the frame, including the man, the cars, and the roof of the house. Also, there is an unnecessarily visual obstruction with the pole in front of the house.
The final bad photography fail is the fact that the subject matter isn’t at all obvious. It is not clear here what the photographer wanted to show or why the picture was taken in the first place.
Not all the photographs we take, regardless of your experience, will be gold. However, you can easily avoid bad photography by keeping some considerations in mind. For instance, some technical issues that can make or break an image are bad lighting, bad exposure, bad contrast, or blurry images. Some compositional reasons for a photo that doesn’t seem to cut it are: having the subject cut off in the frame, having too much clutter, or even having a tilted image unintentionally.
Being aware of this issues and taking steps to correct these issues will not only improve your image-taking but increase your overall awareness when behind the frame.