Secrets of taking good pictures: Top 10 don'ts

Great photos come from attention to detail; here are some specific reminders of the biggest photography no-nos.

Camera 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Camera 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Tom Langford is an event and commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
The picture below shows ten mistakes that should be carefully avoided. Some are obvious and some are subtle, but they are all common. If you can spot seven errors then you are probably an experienced photographer and can take good pictures consistently. If you can spot all 10 then you should stop wasting your time reading columns like this and be out taking excellent shots.
Mistakes 1 and 2
Most snappers try to avoid the first mistake, a tree growing out of the head. Slightly less obvious is the spear-through-the-ears error when a background detail appears to come out of an ear.Mistakes 3 and 4
A quick way to improve any snap is to avoid including distracting details. The large stepladder would be fine if the subject was holding it and about to climb. A less obvious distraction is the area of strong color.Mistake 5
Early on in my career I took a shot of a fashion model that was chosen for her portfolio. I had not noticed an out-of-focus head in the background that was just visible behind the model’s head. This was in the days of film and chemical darkroom work and it took some skillful retouching using bleaches and photo dyes to remove this distraction.
This is mistake that’s worth avoiding. Did you spot the distracting head in this shot?Mistakes 6, 7 and 8
It’s never a good idea to shoot with the sun almost directly overhead. This gives an illuminated crown and dark shadows under the eyes. Either move the subject to a shaded area or switch on the pop-up flash. It may seem strange to use flash on a bright day but this is one way to brighten up both the eyes and subject. Different cameras have different “fill flash” capabilities so you will need to practice and find out the best way to use yours.
Placing the head in the center of the frame rarely works well for portraits. A shot of a pilot with aircraft flying in the sky overhead is an exception, but usually you need to place the head in the top half of the frame.
Mistakes 9 and 10
I’m amused when I see actors pretending to be photographers in films. They rarely look comfortable handling the camera and nearly use the fingertip to press the shutter button. This can cause the camera to jerk and the shot to be slightly blurred. Use the pad of the finger rather than the tip to gently squeeze until the shutter is released.
Subjects that can gaze directly into the camera are the easiest to photograph. They reveal something personal about themselves and the viewer can connect with them. Subjects that are self-conscious are more difficult to shoot successfully. You can try distracting them with small talk and catching them unawares.
Good portraits are taken usually when the subject feels at ease. This has more to do with the photographer creating a relaxed atmosphere than with equipment and technique. However it’s important to make sure that you are familiar enough with the camera that you don’t fiddle with buttons and menus: If the photographer is not feeling at ease, neither will the subject.
In the analogue age we could always ensure a good result simply by asking the subject to say “cheese.” This doesn’t seem to work now that we’ve switched to sophisticated digital technology. If I ever figure out why, I’ll let you know.
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Tom Langford is an Event and Commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and improvers. Details at: and