5 Ways To Ruin a Picture (V)

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Self Portrait in Ottawa

A lot of you have been asking me questions about photography and how to achieve certain effects. While I’m by no means an expert, I’m an avid photographer and I had to chance to experiment a lot. I’m also always a teacher at heart and yes, I like talking about photography, because I’m sure I can give you some tips and learn from you as well.

So I decided to start the Saturday Series again, this time with a focus on photography. A new “lesson” will be published every Saturday, for a total or ten posts. Enjoy the “Ten Photography Tips“!

When I got into photography, very little made me happy. Basically, as long as you could recognize what was portrayed, I was fine. Blurry? Meh. You can kind of see people’s faces, right? Oh, and this tiny black spot in the foreground —yes, that’s the beautiful insect I was telling you about! Look at this building… why would I straighten it? You can tilt your head, right?

Long gone are those days. Now, I take hundreds of pictures each month and maybe only 70% make it through my very own quality control parameters. I realized that if I wanted to improve my skills, I had to be hard on myself. Sure, I keep some not-so-great shots because they mean something to me. But I worked hard at eliminating my five pet peeves: camera shake, lack of focus, crooked shots, wrong colors and bad composition.

I looked into my archives and I found this picture, one of the first I took with the Kodak EasyShare, my first digital camera. This is one of my worse pictures and it illustrates the point.

Worst picture ever! What was I thinking...??

The idea was to capture the ice on the glass panel of the bus stop. First, I fired the flash and it reflected on the glass, you can see the two bursts of light. Second, because I use the “night” setting, the shutter was slow. I didn’t have a tripod so you can see camera shake, i.e. the picture is blurry. You also have no idea what I was trying to capture: I’m too far for a snow flack macro, but too close to show the whole glass panel covered in ice. And finally, the colors are way too yellowish. Phew.

Camera shake — Some blur, such as motion blur, can be artistic and convey a meaning: for instance, this tube train in London, or this kid drumming. But pure camera shake can ruin a picture. So don’t forget to keep your camera steady, especially when taking pictures in low-light conditions.

Lack of focus — I’ve been guilty of that one so many times, and didn’t even realize it. What should be the center of your picture is lost in the frame. See this cute little critter for instance? I should have come closer and fill the frame because when you see the picture, you don’t know where to look. See the difference with this Brazilian butterfly, which is clearly at the center of focus? Now that I have a DSLR, I can play with depth of field to single out something and throw the rest out of focus. For instance, this flower at the Tulip Festival, these little soldiers, a bee gathering pollen, the 9/11 commemorations or even laundry day.

Crooked shots — Once again, guilty as charged… Lens distortion is a combination of different factors and almost every lens has it. Normally you don’t notice it, unless your picture has straight horizontal or vertical lines, such as a building, a doorway, or even a product box. See this picture of Notre-Dame for instance? Sometimes, it adds to the picture: I like this perspective of the Eiffel Tower for example. But really, taking a few second to make sure the horizon is straight dramatically improves pictures and it took me a while to pay attention to that detail.

Wrong colors —If your exposure is too long, your picture will be overexposed (too bright). If your exposure is too short, it will be underexposed (too dark). Using natural light is almost always the best. Note that contrary to popular belief, the sun can actually ruins a picture: sometimes, the colors will look best under a cloudy sky, because the clouds are like a filter.

Plainness — Finally, something that can’t be fixed in Photoshop: plainness. When I look back at some of my pictures, I’m wondering what the hell I was thinking. Look at this picture I took a few years ago at the Tulip Festival: it screams “hey, I was there, by the flowers, and look, there are tons of them!”. But really, this shot is plain and boring. I like this one much better: it has more focus. Same here: which one looks the most appetizing, these pastries or these ones? As for this one… I don’t even know what I was trying to take. I’m looking at it now and falling asleep—that boring.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. One photo out of focus is a mistake, ten photo out of focus are an experimentation, one hundred photo out of focus are a style.

    – Author Unknown –


  2. I was laughing while I read this because all of my pictures have these problems!!!! I’m a terrible photographer!! Thanks for the tips, I’ll try to use them next time.

  3. If 70% of your pictures make it through your own QC, that’s very good!

    Out of the 5 ways to ruin a picture, plainness is more difficult to overcome. I still struggle with it…

  4. You see, imperfection can also be perfect. 🙂

    Quite a few of my Nice & Athens photos are off focused…
    Reason: the sun was so strong, I put on my sun glasses and took those pictures!
    Ha ha… When I returned, I only realised they’re not 100% sharp…

  5. Wonderful tips that gave me something to think about next time I take pictures. (That last photo depressed the hell out of me though. Ugh, winter!)

  6. Great post. Some pics are really hard. I have a time with doorways because of the “curving in” that can happen.

    The boring factor is my biggest failing. I take far too many shots like the tulip garden pic you use as an example. When I experiment and try different perspectives and angles and look for the particular is when I’m happiest with a shot but I’m still way down on the learning curve.

  7. Aaah! I wish I were a bit more selective with my photos.
    I tend to rush a bit too much 🙁
    Lately I’ve been shaking a lot while taking pics and I don’t manage to control it, really annoying!
    but my worse defect is probably the crooked syndrome, this is desperate! I’m working on it!

  8. Zhu I guess I don’t have an artist’s eye because I don’t think there is anything wrong with your picture of the tulip field – I like it actually, it show how many flowers there were, it gives the impression of a massive amount of flowers which you cannot get it from the lovely couple of tulips alone. I think it depends on whether you wish to have arty shots or show pictures to go along with a text. I bet you think my pictures of Savannah are boring? I could have taken a single shot of the Spanish Moss in the moonlight (and wish I knew how) but then readers would not see how huge the trees are.

  9. @chinmai – Thank you!

    @Sidney – This is very true… but what happens if you mix all the bad things?!

    @Soleil – Nah, you are too hard on yourself. I saw some of your pics and they were great!

    @khengsiong – I agree, I’m struggling with that one too. Maybe my quality control is still too lax!

    @London Caller – Oh, I make this kind of mistakes all the time! Some of my imperfect pictures mean a lot to me though.

    @Pauline – I know, I can’t bear of thought of shoveling the snow… Hopefully fall will last. Although I find it’s cold early this year.

    @Yogi – You can easily fix lens distortion in post-production, if you want I can show you how. And for a lot of pictures, it doesn’t matter. All photographers have the same issue!

    @Em – I had the crooked syndrom too, and the key to fix is actually not to rush things. Instead of click-click-click, I now take my time, unless I’m doing street photography for instance where you must capture the moment.

    @Vagabonde – Your pictures are fine, especially considering you are almost doing a photo-documentary. They fit the text and illustrate your point. 🙂

  10. Thanks for all your great tips! We learn from each other. I think your creativities of taking photos is the best! Capture the ice spot on the glass panel was a great idea and I don’t think that is the worst picture you have. It turned out something so unique!

  11. Oooops, my comment just vanished!

    Anyway, as I was saying, you’re an amazing photographer. And for some reason, I love overexposed photos, not sure why, I just like the way they look 😉

  12. Another popular mistake I did is to use flash at night when taking pictures of far away objects. For example, if you sit in a stadium and use your flash to take pictures of the field, its going to be useless!

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