Photography

From white skies to blurry subjects, how to fix common photo mistakes

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Incredible scenes, people, and moments all inspire a photograph — but sometimes, that original beauty is lost in translation. Maybe the photo isn’t very sharp. Or maybe that brilliant sunset sky turned out completely white. Or maybe your child’s bright blue eyes are dark and shadowed. What went wrong?

A camera doesn’t see the same way the human eye does — and without the right techniques, some of that original beauty can be lost somewhere in between becoming a moment in time and a JPEG on an SD card. If you’re just getting started with photography, or even trying to take better pictures with your phone, chances are, you’ll run across problems with blur, exposure, and colors. Here are seven of the most common photography mistakes and how you can prevent them (or sometimes, fix them) the next time.

Why are my photos blurry?

One of the most common question from new photographers is the cause of the blur in a particular photo. Blur in an image actually has a number of different causes, and determining why that photo turned out blurry starts with recognizing just what kind of blur you managed to capture.

Motion blur is created when something moves while the camera snapped the photo. Motion blur looks like someone smeared a wet painting — the objects in the photo may not even have the same shape as they do in real life. This is in contrast to out-of-focus blur, where objects will simply look softer (except in cases of very shallow depth of field, where something not in focus may be blurred to oblivion).

If you haven’t ventured into advanced shooting modes yet, try using sport mode.

Once you’ve identified that the issue is motion blur, correcting the problem isn’t difficult to do. First, what’s blurred, just one object or the entire image? If the entire image is blurred, the image is the result of a simple flaw: Your hands moved while the camera was taking the picture. To correct the issue, either increase your shutter speed or use something to steady the camera, such as a tripod.

best tripods tripod
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Increasing the shutter speed means the shutter that opens and closes to take the picture moves faster, leaving less time for your hands to shake enough to cause blur. A general rule of thumb is to use your lens length to determine a minimum speed since longer lenses exaggerate camera shake — if you’re using a 50mm lens, use no slower than 1/50 second; a 300mm lens, 1/300 second. That’s just a guideline — if you tend to have shaky hands, you may need to bump it higher, whereas if you have a stabilization system either in your camera or the lens, you may be able to get by slower.

Instead of a smeared painting, an object will look soft with undefined edges.

You’ll need to use shutter priority or manual mode to change the shutter speed yourself, but if you haven’t ventured into advanced shooting modes yet, try using the sport mode on the camera. When shooting in auto, even turning on more lights can tell the camera to bump the shutter speed up.

Also, check to make sure that image stabilization is on, if your camera or lens has stabilization.

Another solution to camera shake is to use a tripod and, even better, also turn the self timer on or use a remote so your hand isn’t on the camera at all when the image is recorded. Tripods are great for eliminating blur when photographing a subject that isn’t moving. If the subject is moving or you can’t haul a tripod around, you’ll need to correct using shutter speed instead.

Canon EOS 6D Mark II review
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If, on the other hand, only the subject is blurred, that object or person is to blame for the blur, not camera shake. If something moves while the camera’s shutter is open, it will cause blur. Sometimes, that can lead to a cool effect that might help illustrate the concept of motion and speed; but it’s not so great if you actually need to see detail in your subject. This type of blur can’t be corrected by a tripod — you need to use a faster shutter speed. Alternately, you can try panning with your subject — this can take a little practice, but if you get the timing right, you’ll get your subject in tack-sharp focus against a blurred background.

Why are my photos out of focus?

Unlike motion blur, images that are blurred because of focusing errors will still have the same shape (unless the focus is off by a very large margin). Instead of looking like a smeared painting, an object will simply look soft with undefined edges. Often, blur from a focusing error has something else in the photo that’s not supposed to be sharp, like the background. This results when your camera mistakenly focuses on the background rather than your subject.

You can increase depth of field by selecting a smaller aperture setting, either in aperture priority or full manual mode.

If you’re finding out-of-focus shots on your smartphone, make sure you’re tapping the subject on the screen — this tells the camera where to focus. If the camera still isn’t focusing, you’re probably either too close or there’s not enough light. Since camera autofocus systems need light to work, they don’t work well if it’s too dark.

If you are using a DSLR, mirrorless, or advanced compact camera, you have a few more tools available to correct focus errors. By default, these cameras are set to choose the focus point automatically, and this can lead to errors (typically, a camera will simply focus on whatever the closest object is — but that may not be your subject).

By manually selecting just a single focus point and putting that over your subject, you can dramatically cut down on the number of these errors. This feature will be called different things on different brands (Nikon calls it single point AF, Canon calls it manual spot AF), so refer to your manual if you’re not sure how to access it.

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Still getting soft shots? This could be an issue of too little depth of field, which will be more problematic the closer you are to your subject. In a portrait, for example, one of your subject’s eyes may be in focus but not the other. You can increase depth of field by selecting a smaller aperture setting, either in aperture priority or full manual mode. You can read more about aperture in our guide to exposure settings.

Why are my photos too dark or too light?

If your photos are too dark, the camera didn’t get enough light; we call these “underexposed” photographs. If they are too bright, the camera had too much light, and we call this “overexposed.” Thankfully, this is an easy issue to fix, but understanding why your camera over or underexposed in the first place will help you anticipate it and save you from having to reshoot multiple attempts.

A camera is usually trying to find an exposure that works for the entire scene, but if you have a very bright background and a dark subject (a person standing in shade on a snowy mountain on a sunny day is good extreme example) it may underexpose the image relative to your subject.

Exposure compensation can be an easier way of adjusting brightness without messing with manual controls.

The reverse can also happen; if your subject is in direct sunlight but surrounded by shaded areas, the camera may overexpose your subject as it tries to compensate for all the surrounding darkness. Once you learn to spot these scenes, you can anticipate how your camera will react, and you’ll be able to make adjustments accordingly even before you snap a first test picture.

On a phone, tapping on the screen will set the focus and exposure to that point. Often, just doing this will be enough to get a properly exposed image. However, you can choose to make the image brighter or darker using exposure compensation. Depending on the camera app you’re using, this is usually accessed by tapping and holding on the screen; once exposure locks in, you should now be able to drag a finger up or down to brighten or darken the image.

Galaxy Note 9 camera app
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Dedicated cameras also offer exposure compensation, and this can be an easier way of adjusting brightness without messing with manual controls. Some cameras may have a dedicated exposure compensation dial, others will have a button (again, reference your manual for the exact location on your camera). Adjustments are usually made in increments of 1/3 stop — a full stop is a doubling or halving of the amount of light, so if you adjust exposure compensation to +1, you will get an image that’s twice as bright as what you had before.

Why do my photos have weird colors?

Your eyes can easily adjust to all the different types of light we encounter in the world, but your camera isn’t as good at it. If the colors in your photo look off, the culprit is probably white balance.

Setting an accurate white balance will ensure that everything that’s supposed to be white in the photo is white, and thus other colors should fall into place, too. While automatic white balance tends to work decently enough the majority of the time, it isn’t always perfect — particularly if there’s mixed lighting in a scene.

White balance settings are relatively easy to change, although may not be available in your phone’s default camera app. Some advanced smartphone apps will give you control, however.

If you can’t move out of the harsh sun, use the flash to fill in those photos instead.

On dedicated cameras, many will have a white balance button or you can find the setting in the menu. It’s possible to set a custom white balance, but sticking to the built-in settings for sun, shade, cloudy, incandescent, and fluorescent will likely get you close enough for each type of light.

Another option is to shoot in RAW. A RAW file doesn’t have white balance baked into it the way a compressed JPEG does, which lets you change the white balance later without degrading the photo. If you don’t want to spend time editing your photos, this may not be the best choice, but it will give you the most control. And yes, this is even possible on a smartphone if you use a RAW camera app.

Why do my portraits have dark eyes?

When the light source is above your subject, it will cast a shadow directly over their eyes. You may notice this when shooting outside on a bright day when the sun is high in the sky.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the easiest way to fix this is to move into the shade. Yes, you’ll now have less light overall, but the light will be much more even, letting you get a proper exposure that illuminate’s your subject’s eyes without blowing out the rest of the scene.

galaxy note 8 camera sample portrait normal
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Of course, shade isn’t always an option. If you can’t move out of the harsh sun, use the flash to fill in those photos instead. That’s right, use flash in the middle of the day. One of the best uses for a built-in flash is to fill in harsh shadows. You’ll have to tell the camera (or your smartphone) that you want the flash on, but that should help fill in those dark shadows and even out the exposure.

The sky was gorgeous — but in my photos, it’s just white.

You see spectacular landscapes with beautiful skies filling your Instagram feed every day — so why is it, that, when you take a landscape picture, the sky turns out white instead? A white sky is simply an overexposed sky. In many scenarios, the camera simply can’t properly expose for the subject and the sky at the same time. As we learned above, you could use exposure compensation to darken the sky — but this will also darken everything else in the frame.

Fill flash can help, but only if you have a subject that’s close enough to the camera for the flash to reach — if you’re trying to illuminate an entire landscape, that’s not going to work. This is where high dynamic range (HDR) photography comes in.

Most phone camera apps have HDR modes built-in, and some may even turn on automatically when the camera thinks it needs it. HDR modes are also found in many dedicated cameras; it may be hidden in the menu or within the “scene” modes on your camera’s mode dial. While HDR in phones is designed to work handheld, note that with a mirrorless camera or DSLR, you might be better off with a tripod as the camera needs to shoot multiple exposures and then line them up to create the HDR image.

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