8 Photography Habits You Need to Unlearn

Yvan Cohen

Wed May 24 2023

8 Photography Habits You Need to Unlearn

1. Don’t let your camera do all the work

As technology evolves and as artificial intelligence develops, there’s a temptation to leave the heavy lifting to your camera. Today’s cameras will make sure your picture is in focus, suggest an ideal exposure and even pick out faces in your composition. However, is heavily relying on your tech the best approach for a professional photographer?

There is a liberating aspect to the technical prowess of modern digital cameras. Freed from the difficulties of learning to master a complex machine, your photographic vision is free to express itself in a spontaneous way.

But there is a bad habit nestling amidst this technological fairytale. With most cameras – even the pro versions – selecting ‘Auto’ or ‘Program’ settings, reduces the photographic process to little more than a simple point and click. Leaving the camera to make all your photographic calculations, means you are missing out on an important part of the creative process.

Master your photography

Understanding the interaction between light, aperture, shutter speed and sensor sensitivity, will give you access to the kinds of insights that lie behind some of greatest photographs ever taken.

To be a true master of your photographic eye, it’s essential to understand how the interplay between light and movement can be harnessed and molded to your personal vision. All this just by choosing a particular aperture or shutter speed setting. Think of it as the difference between a chess player who only plays against a computer and the chess master who must adapt to and understand a human opponent.

Your photography should be more about you and how you see the world, and less about how great your camera is at taking pictures for you.

The bottom line is, you’ll likely have more fun with your photography and find its creative challenges more rewarding if you turn your camera into a tool, rather than letting technology make all the decisions for you

Point and shoot Photo by Mario Cuadros

2. Careless composition

Composition – how you arrange the physical elements in your image (including light) – is what makes a picture. A good composition creates meaning and mood. It is the visual equivalent of musical harmony. A subtle balance of disparate elements that, when perfectly struck, determines the impact of your picture.

Sounds obvious doesn’t it. And yet many photographers get so distracted by their subject, their camera settings or just by the world around them, they forget to focus on the essentials of composition. As a result, what might otherwise have been a great picture becomes mediocre, forgettable or sometimes just bad.

If you’re a photojournalist covering a momentous event, it’s easy to get drawn into the drama of your subject matter or to get distracted by the clamour of the crowd and the heat of the moment.

Remember, however, that to take a great picture it’s not enough to just be there camera in hand. Taking a great picture is about re-organizing reality and translating it into a moment that goes beyond mere record. You want to speak to the viewer at a deeper, emotional level. Strong composition – noticing all the elements contained within your image (sometimes in a split second) – is what makes the difference between a forgettable image and a powerful photograph.

Composition before anything else

One could even argue that even if your exposure is a little off, or your image slightly blurred, these defects will matter less than if your picture is poorly composed.

A good habit is to force yourself to think of composition before you press the shutter. Check the corners of your frame for unwanted elements and remember that an object that might be behind a person’s head in the three dimensional real world, may be right beside it when your image is rendered in two dimensions.

3. Back-up and back-up again

It’s so easy – and a very bad habit – to overlook backing up your files immediately after a shoot.

As a rule, the first thing you should do when you finish a shoot, even before checking, cleaning and putting away your gear, is back up your files.

The memory cards we put in our cameras are fragile pieces of plastic and comprise circuitry that can easily be damaged. It’s not worth risking your work disappearing into the ether, just because the chances are nothing will go wrong and you’d rather put your feet up after a long or challenging shoot.

Best practice is to back up your work right away and then back up your back up for extra security and peace of mind.

You should never have a single digital copy of your work. Ideally, you might consider a double backup onto hard drives and then placing a selection of your work into a cloud-based archive system accessible from anywhere with an internet connection.

This is exactly the kind of useful storage and management service offered by LightRocket.

Editing pictures on a laptop Photo by picjumbo.com

4. Quantity over quality

Taking pictures is so easy and, with storage being so cheap, it’s inexpensive to shoot a variety of angle. So go ahead, shoot a little more so you’ll have all the choice you need later on.

Exploring the visual potential of a subject, ‘working’ a scene to find the best angles and lighting, usually requires taking many pictures. So it’s definitely not a ‘bad habit’ to shoot plenty. After all, the images you create are the raw material of your shoot, so you may as well have lots to work with.

Where bad habits do emerge, however, is in the editing process. It is here that you absolutely must aim for quality over quantity.

Think of it as the 1% principle. Imagine that 99% of the pictures you take are part of a process that is contributing to the creation of that 1% (give or take) that will constitute the ‘jewels’ of your shoot. These will be the pictures that you show to your client and to the world.

Too many photographers are in the habit of wanting to show too much of their work, which ends up dulling the impact of their best images. If you’ve shot a great portrait, edit your shoot down to its essence – give choice and variety but not repetition.

5. The ego trap

So you’ve been taking photos for a while, perhaps decades even. You’ve had your work published and maybe sold some prints. You’re good – or at least that’s what you think.

The ego trap is not so much a habit as a state of mind that’s easy to fall into.

The problem is, once you believe you’re good, you start overlooking your own defects, you stop questioning your work and ultimately – and worst of all – you stop learning.

If you want to keep on getting better – and let’s admit it, who doesn’t – you should make a habit of always finding challenges in your work. you should always challenge and question your photography.

There’s a fine line between being too self deprecating and being over confident. The best photographers – those who keep on consistently evolving and delivering great work – have confidence in their talent and enough awareness to know that they’re only as good as their last shoot. Remember, you can almost always improve.

In practice this means always putting all your energy into your work and never believing that photography is easy (because it may be easy to take a picture but it’s hard to take a good one). If you keep your ego in check and remain open to what can be learned from your own and others’ work, progress will be your reward.

6. Substituting content for creativity

Number 6 on our list of bad photography habits is substituting content for creativity. As we can take our cameras everywhere – into riots, to the tops of mountains and to the front line of war – it’s tempting to mistake exciting content for a good picture.

While being in an adrenaline inducing setting can give you the impression that anything you photograph will be momentous, the reality is that only great pictures of powerful content will truly stand the test of time.

Go back and look at the work of some of the great photojournalists and war photographers. You’ll find that the essence of their renown lies in their ability to apply a powerful photographic vision to powerful content, time and time again. Thereby they transform a dramatic moment into a dramatic and informative image.

One way to challenge yourself, and avoid the temptation of substituting content for strong photography, is to try and create dramatic images of ordinary scenes. This means tuning your photographic eye to the task of finding the beauty, and the extraordinary, in the ordinary.

When the time does come for you to photograph in a truly dramatic situation, you will be able to apply the skills you have honed. In essence, it’s about learning to keep a certain amount of mental distance from your subject and keeping your mind purely in a compositional, photographic space, whatever situation you find yourself in.

Camera ISO settings Photo by Crisher P.H

7. The High ISO photography habit

The beauty of modern digital cameras lies in their ability to adapt to low light situations. In the days of film, you loaded a film into your camera with a fixed ASA/ISO level. Once you had chosen your film sensitivity (its ASA/ISO), the only way to change settings was to change your film.

For those who don’t know what ASA/ISO refers to, it is the setting which determines the sensitivity of your sensor (and used to correspond to the sensitivity of film). The higher the ASA/ISO number, the more sensitive the sensor is to light, meaning you can shoot in increasingly low light situations. Using a digital camera, you can of course change ASA/ISO settings from shot to shot.

So far so good.

However, poblems can arise when photographers get into the habit of relying on cranking up their ISO settings in very low light and dark settings.

The issue is one of quality: the higher your ISO settings the more digital noise will appear in your image. Most cameras, including the most expensive ones, show significant deterioration at ASA/ISO settings above 4000. Unsurprisingly, the cheaper the camera the quicker the deterioration in image quality. Some cheaper models will not deliver high quality images beyond around 1600.

To counter the high ISO habit, I would recommend learning how to use your lens and shutter settings to full advantage. This means opening up your lens F-stops (choosing the lowest aperture your lens will open to) and slowing down your shutter speeds (although you don’t want to go much below a 30th of a second if you’re shooting hand held or if your subjects are in motion).

8. Shoot first fix later

If you’re using Photoshop or LightRoom or one of the other digital tools available for processing your images, you’ll probably be aware of just what can be achieved after downloading your pictures from your camera.

The temptation – one could call it a bad habit – is to shoot first and then fix any exposure, lighting or compositional issues using post production software. This is a bad habit because it’s likely to make you into a lazy photographer.

As in most arts, much of the skill in taking great photos lies in acquiring a certain degree of technical mastery, of understanding the mechanics of your chosen medium.

For this reason, it’s good practice to learn how to shoot good photos with your camera set to ‘manual’. That way you’ll learn to understand the interaction between aperture, focus, exposure and shutter speed. Think about composition at the moment you take the picture, rather than shooting aimlessly and then cropping your work digitally later on.

In short, it’s best to learn the art and techniques of photography, rather than relying on the wizardry of hi-tech software to fix your mistakes.

Written by Yvan Cohen | Yvan has been a photojournalist for over 30 years. He’s a co-founder of LightRocket and continues to shoot photo and video projects around South East Asia.

Cover image by Jean-Daniel Francoeur

To read more helpful articles on photography, check out our blog page.

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