Pro Tip #3: No!!! – Ten Things NOT To Do

// April 28th, 2014 // Opinion, Pro Tips #, Technique

Trying not to be negative but… here are some things you should probably not do. So stay positive and do the opposite of these!

Still Photos

1) Don’t assume it’s all about the camera settings.

Despite all the buttons on most cameras there are really only a handful that make much difference to the final image. If you’re trying to take a specific photo and you’re not quite getting it, the problem could be any number of things outside the camera, like how the subject looks, the direction you’re pointing, what time of day it is…

There are plenty of great photos taken with phone cameras where the camera settings are almost all automatic.

2) Avoid bullseye framing

Point the camera straight at the thing you want to photograph and take the shot. Seems obvious? Unfortunately this often leads to a boring, static shot with lots of dead space. Composition is one of the most important aspects of photography. Think about it.

3) Listening to other people’s advice

People talk a lot of nonsense about photography, and those things get repeated a lot.This is the photography equivalent of bro science.

For example:
“You should shoot black and white bro, it’s more artistic.”
“Dude, you should totally get a 50mm lens, it’s what you use for portraits.”
“Nooo! Don’t use flash! It’s unnatural!”

Of course you can learn a lot from other people, but as always don’t follow blindly, verify things for yourself by checking multiple sources and your own experiments.

4) Getting over-exposure or under-exposure of parts of the photo wrong

That’s a wordy title, because this is a slightly complicated issue. I often see the advice “avoid overexposing (clipping) any part of the image”, but that’s not necessary or sufficient for a good exposure.

For example in this image probably 90% of it is either completely underexposed or blown out/clipped:

But the image really works, and moreover it would be far less interesting if I’d followed the standard advice.

In the real world there is a huge range of different light levels, often within the same physical space e.g. outdoors you might be able to see the sun in the sky and at the same time look into the window of a house and see a black cat sitting in a shadow underneath a sofa. The sun may be millions of times brighter than the cat.

Any camera can only record a finite, often quite limited, range of brightnesses in a single shot.This can lead to obvious things, like completely blown out white skies (over-exposure) or areas too dark and noisy to see any detail in (under-exposure), and also more subtle problems related to how a camera samples light and stores related numerical values in image files.

This is one of the primary reasons why photos can look very different to the things they are photos of, which can be a big frustration for new photographers who “just want it to look like it did with my eyes”.

There’s no single easy solution to this issue, rather lots of compromises and workarounds that it can take years to learn, but being aware of the problem is a great place to start. It’s all about compromises and learning where to make them – losing a sky that was just a sheet of white cloud is probably fine, but losing half an person’s face isn’t.

5) Thinking it’s easy and quick

It IS easy to occasionally take great photos through sheer luck. To get good photos can take a long time, and sometimes the better you get the longer it takes, as you learn more ways to improve and perfect your images.


All of the above also apply to video, but there are other specific issues with the moving image. Many of these things don’t apply if you’re just shooting clips for fun on your phone, but if you want to progress to anything like professional looking video you should definitely consider them:

1) Following the action too directly

This is like a moving version of (2) above. Point the camera straight at the thing you want to film and follow it/the person as it/they move around. Try it. It’ll almost always look bad. Instead frame your shot and allow movement within it, or subtly anticipate and follow action, or careful plan camera moves for the action.

2) Unstable footage

It gets really annoying really quickly to watch needlessly shaky footage, and the bigger the screen the worse the problem, so what looks okay on the camera’s screen can look horrible when seen on a TV or cinema screen.

There are genuine uses for fast, dynamic, unstable camera moves, sometimes called “shaky cam” – see the Bourne films or the insane Raid 2 – but it’s not the same thing as an unintentionally wobbly camera.

3) Incorrect basic settings

This assumes you have manual controls on your camera.

A good place to start for correct settings is:
1) Use the correct frame rate and shutter speed. This is usually:
PAL regions eg the UK: 25fps, 1/50s shutter;
NTSC regions eg the USA 30fps, 1/60s shutter;
Cinema 24fps, 1/48s shutter.
2) Get color balance right in camera.
3) Use a neutral picture profile like Prolost Flat.

4) Avoid bad sound

Sound is VERY important. Give it a lot of attention and expect it to be hard work. Or get a professional to do it!
(Matt Brown .)

5) Using too shallow a depth of field – be very careful!

This point is a little bit more advanced than the other ones but I’m including it because it’s a big problem since the rise of DSLRs for video, and I’ve seen numerous videos where there’s probably nothing ever in focus the entire time.

Shallow DoF can look instantly pretty, like sugar tastes sweet, but it’s often used as a crutch to avoid having to think about composition, and leads to some really bad focus issues. Even most feature film cinematographers don’t shoot with super shallow depth of field, and they have the best equipment and a camera assistant dedicated to just pulling focus for them.

This is a still, shot with a Canon 5D2 and Canon 50mm f1.4 lens at f1.4, a common combination for video.

I was going for a vintage medium format look and the shallow DoF helps that because medium format cameras have less DoF than a camera such as the 5D2.

But even a small change of subject distance knocks the image completely out of focus:

I think this photo still works, primarily because of the lipstick contrasting with the cool tones of the rest of the image. In fact this shot is completely out of focus on purpose – what you don’t want is just a nose in focus!

6) Extra bonus advice! Avoid vertical video!

Unless you have some very odd reason to do it, like a motion poster.