99 Common Photography Problems (and how to solve them)

Photography Technique

99 common photography problems night photography tips

Problem No. 83: What camera settings should I use for night photography?

To take control of your exposures it's best to shoot in Manual mode so you can choose the best narrow aperture and slow shutter speed for night photography.

Begin by composing and focusing your shot, set a narrow aperture around f/16, then dial in the right shutter speed until the exposure level mark is in the middle of the exposure level indicator. Take some shots and review them on your LCD.

Remember this is what your camera thinks is the best exposure, but if your shots are looking too bright, underexpose by 1-2 stops so that they actually look dark!

Shooting at night obviously means there will be less light and therefore slow shutter speeds, anywhere from 1-30 seconds - that's way too slow to shoot hand-held. So you'll need to attach your digital camera securely to a tripod if you want sharp results.

Make sure your tripod is set up correctly and rock solid - it's easy to end up with soft images because you haven't double-checked. And don't hold onto your tripod as you're shooting with slow shutter speeds because any slight movement can mean blurred photos.

For more on how to shoot night photography, see our in-depth guide to the 12 common errors of night photography (and how to fix them).

Problem No. 84: What's the best way to photograph the moon?

Beware of automatic settings! Instead of using Auto ISO, keep the sensitivity at its base setting of ISO 100 to retain maximum sharpness and minimum image noise. Select the central AF point and keep this positioned on the surface of the moon itself.

Camera shake can be a big problem here too, so mount your camera on a sturdy tripod and use the self-timer delay, selecting the mirror lock-up function in the Custom Settings menu. Manual exposure mode is the best bet for accurate exposures.

Try starting with an aperture of f/11 for optimum optical quality and a shutter speed of 1/60 sec. Take a shot and review the results on the LCD, using the histogram display to check the exposure. The brightness of the moon in the dark sky should be displayed as a small peak about 75% of the way across to the right of the histogram chart.

If the peak is further to the right, you should successively increase the shutter speed in small increments; if it's nearer the middle or to the left, decrease the shutter speed accordingly. Air pollution in built-up city areas is notorious for degrading shots of the full moon, giving it an off-colour glow and obscuring fine detail.

To achieve great moon shots, it's well worth taking a trip out of town to get a little clean, fresh air.

Problem No. 85: I've upgraded from a compact camera to using a DSLR with 18-55mm and 70-300mm lenses. Some of my shots are quite blurred, particularly at longer zoom settings on the telephoto lens. I suspect this is due to camera shake, but how do I avoid it?

It certainly sounds like camera shake is the culprit, something that becomes more problematic with longer focal lengths. The easiest way to avoid it is to use faster shutter speeds, even if this requires increasing your camera's sensitivity (ISO) setting.

As a rule of thumb, the minimum shutter speed you can use to avoid camera shake is 1 divided by the focal length (eg 1/300). However, you need to take the crop factor of your camera into account as well.

On Nikon, Pentax and Sony cameras with a crop factor of 1.5x, your 70-300mm lens would have an 'effective' focal length range of 105-450mm. At the longest zoom setting, you would require a shutter speed of at least 1/450 sec. The nearest available shutter speeds on the camera are 1/400 or 1/500 sec, with the latter being the safer of the two options.

Image stabilisation can also be a big help in reducing camera shake. Competing optical and sensor-shift systems give an advantage of anything from two to four stops. With a three-stop stabiliser you can expect consistently good handheld results even when reducing the shutter speed from 1/500 to 1/60 sec, when using an effective focal length of 450mm.

Problem No. 86: I've been told I might be able to get sharper telephoto shots if I use my camera's mirror lock-up function. How does this feature work?

One thing common to all DSLRs is that the reflex mirror needs to lift up just before the shutter opens to capture a shot, so that the path of light from the lens is redirected towards the sensor instead of upwards into the viewfinder. Even when the camera is mounted on a hefty tripod, the mirror action can be enough to unsettle the camera, resulting in a slight judder.

It's not normally a problem with wide-angle or standard focal lengths, but it can noticeably degrade sharpness in telephoto and macro shots, where any slight vibration of the camera has a much greater effect. Mirror lock-up for taking pictures is not the same as mirror lock-up for cleaning the camera sensor - you'll typically find the photographic option in your camera's Custom Settings menu.

When mirror lock-up is activated, the first full press of the shutter button lips the reflex mirror up and locks it in place. A second press of the shutter button is then required to open the shutter. Naturally, touching the camera when it's mounted on a tripod can also introduce vibration, so it's best to use mirror lock-up with a remote shutter release.

If you don't have one, a handy alternative is to use mirror lock-up with a two-second self-timer delay. Some cameras, such as the nikon D300s, don't enable you to use a self-timer delay with the mirror lock-up function. In this case you can use exposure delay mode instead.

Photoshop Effects How to fake perfect panning photos

Problem No. 87: I've tried motorsports photography, but in all of my panning shots the background is too sharp or everything's blurred. Can you give me any tips?

It's difficult to find a shutter speed that's slow enough to create motion blur in the background but fast enough to stop unwanted camera shake blurring the car or bike that you're shooting.

Bear in mind that you'd normally aim for a shutter speed of about 1/500 sec to avoid camera shake when using a 300mm lens on most DSLRs. This is because the crop factor of about 1.5x or 1.6x gives you a longer effective focal length of 450mm or 480mm.

To create attractive motion blur in the background, you need a much slower shutter speed of about 1/60 to 1/125 sec, so developing an effective panning technique is a must. To get panning right, place your feet comfortably far apart, so that when you're facing forwards you're aiming at the position the vehicle will be in when you shoot it.

As the subject passes, swivel from your hips rather than your upper body as smoothly as possible, and gently squeeze the shutter button rather than stabbing at it. Continue the panning movement for as long as possible, even after you've taken the shot.

(Pssst... don't tell anyone we told you this, but here's a quick guide showing How to fake panning photos).

Problem No. 88: I'm having problems tracking moving subjects in continuous autofocus mode. Am I doing something wrong?

Modern DSLRs and lenses should do a good job of tracking moving subjects in continuous autofocus mode, apart from when they're moving towards you or away from you at too fast a speed for the system to keep up. The situation that causes most people to experience problems is when the subject is fairly small or moving in an erratic manner, and they're using a single AF point.

If the object strays from the AF point you're using while you're panning, the camera will lose its focus. The solution is to switch to a multi-point autofocus setting.

For example, when using AI Servo (continuous) autofocus mode on Canon SLRs, the central AF point is used to capture the initial autofocus setting but, crucially, if the object strays from the centre of the frame, the camera will automatically switch to other AF points.

The 3D tracking option on Nikon cameras such as the D90 and D300s, which feature Dynamic area AF, is particularly good at locking on to objects using multiple autofocus points.

Problem No. 89: What's the best way to photograph big groups of people?

Big group portraits are a real challenge and one that often sends photographers scurrying for a wide-angle lens. This is actually a bad idea because, due to the inherent distortion of wide-angle lenses, the people towards the edge of the frame will end up with very wide-looking faces and bodies, which they probably won't thank you for.

It's a much better idea to use a more moderate zoom setting and move further back, but this also presents difficulties if you have to shoot indoors, as you might not be able to get far enough away and will literally have your back up against the wall.

Another problem with shooting indoors is that if you have to use flash, the people at the front of the group will probably be effectively illuminated but those towards the back of the group will be in relative gloom. It's much better to get outdoors and use natural daylight.

Overcast weather is no problem at all, as it has the benefit that people won't be squinting into the sun. To see everybody's faces, you really need to be higher up than the group you're photographing, so a step ladder or something else to climb on is ideal, or try shooting from an upstairs window in a building.

Finally, take plenty of pictures in continuous drive mode because someone will inevitably be blinking in any given shot, but you can copy and paste faces from different shots in Photoshop to make sure everyone looks their best.

Problem No. 90: What does shooting with a camera 'tethered' mean?

Tethered shooting enables you to control your camera directly from a PC or Mac and to download photos automatically while you're shooting. Software for tethered shooting and RAW editing is included free with all Canon DSLRs, whereas Nikon charges extra.

To enable tethered shooting, you'll need to install the appropriate software on your computer, then connect your camera to your computer via the supplied USB cable - or via a wireless transmitter if your camera has this feature, thereby avoiding trailing wires.

Problem No. 91: I've bought a macro lens for my DSLR and have been trying to shoot close-ups of flowers and insects in the garden. But most of my pictures are blurred. How can I get better results?

A macro lens enables extreme close-ups, but places great demands on the photographer. The first challenge is depth of field - or rather the lack of it. At its closest focus distance of around 30cm (measured from the camera sensor rather than the front end of the lens), the depth of field of a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens can be as little as half a millimetre, when used at its largest aperture.

Reduce the aperture to f/11 and you'll still only get a depth of field of about 2.5mm, so highly accurate focusing is critical. Macro shots are also notoriously prone to blurring caused by even tiny movements of the camera or the object being photographed, so small lens apertures can mean unworkably slow shutter speeds. Even if you're using a heavyweight tripod, a DSLR is unsettled by the mirror flipping up immediately prior to the exposure, and any slight wobble as it settles again will cause camera shake.

To avoid this, use a remote shutter release in conjunction with the mirror lock-up function, also called exposure delay in some DSLRs. This instigates a time lag between the mirror flipping up and the shutter opening.

When shooting macro with flash, it's not so much of an issue because the short duration of the flash effectively makes for a very short exposure, freezing any movement. Switch to Manual exposure mode and use a small aperture of around f/16 with a shutter speed of about 1/125 sec (for tips, see our 25 flower photography tips for beginners).

Landscape Photography Tips how to shoot better coastal scenes

Problem No. 92: I'd like to shoot coastal scenes with smooth, glassy seas. I've often seen examples of these long exposure landscapes, but I can never seem to get a sufficiently slow shutter speed. Can you help?

For slow shutter speeds in daylight, you'll need to use a narrow aperture of around f/16 or f/22, but even at ISO 100, this may be insufficient to enable a long exposure. The trick is to use an ND filter such as the Hoya ND8, which reduces exposure by three stops (for more ideas, see our 10 tips for better coastal landscapes).

Problem No. 93: I've tried taking sequences of shots to stitch into panoramic images, but they never seem to match up properly and the brightness and colour is often different from one shot to the next. How can I get better results?

To ensure consistency in colour and brightness, first select a Manual White Balance setting that most closely matches the ambient lighting conditions - Sunny, Cloudy or Shade, for example.

Next, set your camera to Manual exposure mode and take a light reading of the scene using the multi-zone metering mode. Adjust the aperture and shutter speed for a correct exposure and keep the exposure locked for each shot in the sequence.

It's good to use a tripod when taking sequences of shots for panoramas, as this enables you to level the camera and pan accurately between each shot. Ideally, set up the camera in upright (portrait) orientation and aim to leave an overlap of about a third of the frame width in successive shots.

This will give you plenty of room for manoeuvre when aligning them at the stitching stage. Take as many shots as required to capture the whole panorama.

Problem No. 94: I've tried taking shots with my camera's monochrome setting, but they always seem to end up looking a bit dull. Is there a better way to go about creating black and white photos?

Digital cameras see in colour, and the conversion to greyscale often loses something in translation when you shoot in monochrome. A better idea is to capture your shots in colour and then convert them to black and white at the editing stage.

You'll have more control of the overall contrast and how individual colour channels are treated, so you can create more dramatic mono pictures. There are various ways to convert colour images to black and white in Photoshop, such as Converting to Grayscale in Adobe Camera Raw or creating a Black and White adjustment layer.

Recent editions of Photoshop Elements have a black and white conversion tool built in, which runs in a separate window with a preview facility. This makes a wide range of controls readily available for getting the best out of your source image, and it's easy to use. Adding artificial film grain makes a nice finishing touch, too.

If you're shooting landscapes, here's a quick guide to black and white landscape conversion for giving your pictures extra impact.

99 common photography problems buildings

Problem No. 95: I've often noticed that when I take photographs of buildings, walls and roofs appear to bow outwards, and high towers appear to lean inwards towards the top. I'm finding it really frustrating. Just what am I doing wrong?

This is most likely caused by photographing these buildings from a fairly close distance, using a wide-angle zoom setting. Wide-angle focal lengths can result in noticeable barrel distortion, making the top, bottom and sides of the building appear to bow outwards.

You'll also need to point the camera upwards, which accentuates perspective and makes the sides appear to lean in towards each other towards the top. The solution is to keep your distance so you can use a moderate zoom setting of around 35mm (50mm on a full-frame camera).

For photographing tall buildings, it's ideal if you can find a vantage point that's higher than ground level - such as another building. You could apply perspective correction when editing - using Photoshop Elements, for example - but you'll lose part of the frame, so leave plenty of space around the building when shooting.

Some of the latest DSLRs also have built-in distortion correction for the manufacturer's own-brand lenses, so it's worth checking your camera's shooting menus too

Problem No. 96: I've heard that using something called hyperfocal distance can help to keep foreground and background sharp. What is this and how do I do it?

The hyperfocal distance is the focus setting of a lens at which everything in your image appears sharp, from the closest possible distance right through to infinity. It's particularly useful when shooting with wide-angle lenses in landscape photography, where you want to keep foreground objects sharp as well as distant areas stretching to the horizon.

Essentially, you're maximising depth of field. As such, the hyperfocal distance is governed by the same factors as depth of field, including the focal length or zoom setting of the lens you're using, the aperture, and the size of the image sensor in your camera. At any 'effective' focal length, a DSLR with a smaller APS-C sized sensor will provide a greater depth of field, and therefore a shorter hyperfocal distance, than the equivalent focal length on a full-frame camera.

Using an 18mm lens on most Nikon, Pentax and Sony DSLRs with APS-C sized sensors will give an effective focal length of 27mm. on Canon bodies, it's nearer 29mm. Shooting with an aperture of f/11, the hyperfocal distance would be 145cm (153cm for Canon).

With an equivalent 28mm on a full-frame camera, the hyperfocal distance at f/11 is a lengthier 234cm. In every case, the depth of field will extend from half the focus distance to infinity.

In the above examples, hyperfocal distances of 145cm, 153cm and 234cm would therefore give depths of field stretching from 72.5cm, 76.5cm and 117cm to infinity respectively.

For more on how to do this, see our guide What is hyperfocal distance: 6 tips for sharper landscapes. Or you can drag and drop download our hyperfocal distance calculator.

Problem No. 97: I've seen landscape shots with really strong reflections in ponds and lakes, but haven't been able to capture this effect myself. What am I doing wrong?

Strong sunshine is great for creating mirror-like reflections in water - whether you're shooting huge lakes or tiny puddles - but the position of the sun is crucial.

If the sun is high in the sky, or even if it's lower in the sky but positioned in front of you or off to one side, you'll get a lot of glare reflected off the surface of the water, which reduces the reflections you're trying to capture.

For best results, it's best to use your feet to change your position, or pick a time of day to shoot when the sun will be as directly behind you as possible. You can also increase the appearance of reflections of objects in a scene by shooting from as low down as possible, even if this means positioning the camera just a few inches above the surface of the water.

Not only does this aid reflectivity, but you'll also get more of the whole scene mirrored in the water, rather than mostly sky. It also helps to shoot reflections on a still day, so the surface of the water is as smooth as possible.

Problem No. 98: I have often seen great photographs where it looks like multiple fireworks are exploding all over the sky. Is there a technique for shooting this effect, or should I just do it in Photoshop?

You can create this effect from multiple exposures in Photoshop, using several exposures as Layer Masks and drilling through to the areas where fireworks are going of in each, but you can get the same effect in-camera.

Switch to Manual exposure mode and set the shutter speed to Bulb, with an aperture of about f/8. Next, select the base ISO setting, usually ISO 100 or 200, to keep image noise to a minimum, and then set Manual Focus (MF) to infinity.

Mount your camera on a tripod and use a remote control to avoid camera shake. When the first firework that you want to capture leaves the ground, open the shutter in time to catch it exploding.

After it's finished, don't close the shutter again but place a baseball cap or light-blocking shield over the front of the lens, then remove it just in time to catch the next firework. In this way, you can build up multiple fireworks in one image, before closing the shutter at the end of the sequence.

Baby photography tips best flash settings for newborns

Problem No. 99: What are the best flash settings to use to take 'newborn' baby shots at a hospital?

The relatively hard light of a flashgun generally makes for poor baby photos. You're better off sticking with ambient lighting. Most current DSLRs are capable of low-noise images at high ISO settings, so increase the sensitivity to around ISO 1600 or ISO 3200 to avoid camera shake.

Room lighting usually provides pleasant soft lighting, but keep an eye on white balance and switch to a Tungsten or Fluorescent setting if the shots look yellowish. One neat trick is to use an angle-poise bedside light, which you can reposition for the best effect.

If it's daytime and you're near a window, try using daylight as the main light source. A sheet of white card or A4 paper can work well as a reflector to fill in the shadows.

PAGE 1: General Photography Problems
PAGE 2: Using lenses
PAGE 3: Digital camera accessories
PAGE 4: Digital camera settings and controls
PAGE 5: Camera exposure
PAGE 6: Using flash
PAGE 7: Photography technique


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