2 Mistakes the Best Photographers Never Make

2 Mistakes the Best Photographers Never Make

If you want to be the best, you need to refine and perfect your craft. You also need to recognize your errors and eliminate them. Here are two of the most common amateur mistakes that the best photographers never make.

Life would be pretty boring without mistakes. How else would those hilarious meme creators get their content? Life without mistakes would also mean you've stagnated and are no longer learning new things. Mistakes are inevitable. That said, quickly identifying mistakes and making efforts to redress those errors is a skill that separates the best from the rest. Here are two common mistakes I see beginner photographers make far too often. The best thing is that they are totally avoidable.

One and Done

It honestly fascinates me to see photographers - in any genre - rock up to somewhere with all their gear, get one shot, then leave. Worse, it's often the same shot that a thousand other photographers have taken. It fascinates me for two reasons: first, if you've made all that effort to get to a place for a photo, why are you in such a rush to leave? To prepare, you have to charge your batteries, clean your lenses, choose your gear, pack your bag, get to your location, and perhaps hike to a specific spot. For what? Wham bam one and done, let's get outta Dodge?

The second reason it intrigues me so much is that, if you're shooting outside, conditions change so much over the course of a day. There are so many options when you're shooting a particular subject. Even if you're inside in a studio, you can play around with almost endless variations in your lighting setup and subject's position. 

Don't be a one and done photographer. Take your time, move around, think of different, creative, original possibilities to shoot your subjects. Let me give you an example to demonstrate what I mean about variation of a single subject.

This image above was taken from a recent typhoon swell in the south of Japan. This location is a well-known big wave spot, but most photographers like to stand side-on to this wave so they can see inside the belly of these beasts. This shot, however, was taken from a more front-on angle in which I used a wider lens to pull the scene back to give the viewer more context.

It's hard to believe, but the shot above was taken on the same day as the first image. The difference is twofold: first, this was taken about five hours later, in the afternoon, so the light and the colors are vastly different. Second, I used a longer telephoto zoom lens to really get in close to the surfer so the viewer can almost feel the power of the wave and the exhilaration of the surfer.

Finally, this is a completely different perspective, yet it's the same location and same wave. To get the image above, I used a drone, but this time the focus was not on the surfers or the wave, it was on a festival that was happening at the time. But in the top portion of the image, you can see the wave breaking along the reef. The position of the drone gives the viewer an entirely different experience and lets them see the landscape around the location as well as the dangers of the shallow reef formations, not to mention the interesting party going on in the foreground.

From these three images, you get a unique story in all of them and a much better understanding of the wave, the location, and its nuances. That's because I took the images from three distinct locations with three different lenses.

Next time you're out shooting, spend some time looking around for original shots of a location that might have been shot a thousand times before.

I'm Not Interested In That

The other big mistake I see from beginner photographers (and experienced photographers if I'm honest) is that they limit themselves in what they do. For example, they might say, "I'm a landscape photographer, so I'm not interested in sports." Or it might not relate to genres, but gear instead. For instance, they might say, "I only use prime lenses."

We could use a million hackneyed cliches to support this idea, such as "Jack of all trades, master of none." But the truth is, if you obstinately refuse to even entertain the idea of trying new things and stepping into territory that you're not at all familiar with, then you're only preventing yourself from growing as a photographer and a creative force.

I can use myself as an example in this one. When I first started out, I never shot black and white. Then, after a couple of years, I started to think of black and white as something to use when your colors weren't so great. A fall-back option when nature didn't co-operate in giving you the light or conditions you were hoping for. How horribly naive.

As I grew as photographer and began to meet more people in the industry, I became friends with a number of photographers in different genres who specialized in using black and white. Their knowledge and expertise in illustrating the reasoning behind black and white photography was jaw-dropping. I was genuinely embarrassed by how clueless I'd been about black and white photography until that point.

They taught me about the importance of things like contrast, texture, shapes, patterns, lines, and shadows. Now, when I go out shooting, I can immediately identify what will make a good black and white photo and I don't use it as some kind of safety net back-up option.

Once I'd learned what to look for in black and white photography, I was able to apply it to my bread and butter, landscape photography. In the image above, you can see example of all the elements I discussed earlier: contrast, lines, shapes, texture, and patterns. If I'd never opened my ears and allowed myself to drop the ego and listen to others, I'd never have progressed as a photographer.

For you, it might not necessarily mean trying out black and white photography. It could mean shooting flowers with a macro lens or doing portraits using natural light. It doesn't matter, the main thing is that you always open yourself to learning new things and never limit yourself. Doing so will only hold your progression and your skill-set back.

Summing Up

Mistakes are part of life. However, knowing what you're doing wrong is very powerful because that's the only way you can eliminate your mistakes. First identify, then fix. Two of the biggest amateur mistakes I see photographers make is rushing away from a location as soon as they've got a single shot, and restricting themselves to certain genres or certain tools. Be more open to discovering new things and you'll become a much better photographer.

Iain Stanley's picture

Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

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Back in the days of my film shooting sometimes I was “One and Done.” That’s the wonderful thing about digital is it’s near limitless shooting. That was something I had to overcome when I transitioned from film to digital – walking past something because it wasn’t good enough to use and exposure on.

While I agree that not limiting yourself when growing and improving your craft, you do have to be careful. I know several people who constantly chase trends at the expense of improving their own style and craft.

Each to their own, but I think trends tend to be more in the post-production phase than in the image taking stage.

I've seen quite a number of really decent photos let down because the photographer chose to grade them using the annoying orange and teal colour fad.

You were there when you were there, the light is what it was. The mid-day light on the surf shots makes for so-so images. Could have used a bit of contrast. It's just my opinion.

You are absolutely right and, perhaps unintentionally, you support my point. The mid-day shot was so-so because the light was extremely harsh with the sun directly above and shining into the lens. That's exactly why I went home, took a rest, and came back in the afternoon to shoot from a different angle in better lighting conditions, as evidenced by the second shot.

Happy you spared me!

Your point is made mainly by your comments. The change in location at a site is very important as well and different lenses. When doing landscapes I will always do bracketing you get 3 or 5 images to play with, I choose 5 at +/- 2ev at sunrise/set you get a small sun if above horizon and colors are more intense when below. I also do Milky Ways but run and gun to different location, on a Driftwood beach and a wide lens you get close and can goto many trees and if Jun/Jul you have all night so you can drive to so many places just sleep early afternoon and nap in morning and Ahh! You have 5 days before and after new moon to also go to other places along the coast of atlantic and gulf. Ever go the to Grand Canyon, you will never sleep and never take the time to edit an exp. Elk both day and night will eat the grass behind and next to you - you will hear while taking a shot of the canyon.

Same with typhoons. Before, during, after, morning, noon, and evening are all so different.

Taking time, being patient, taking more time, taking more shots, try out things - it belongs to the learning curve.

Great article! In my first college level photo class the very first assignment was to shoot 72 pictures (2 rolls of film) of a statue on campus from different angles and at different times. It's a lesson that has served me well as I enter my 6th decade as a photographer.

It's funny that the "Jack of all trades" expression has become something of a put down. I think the full original quote actually captures part of your point: “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”

I prefer "well-rounded"...

Terrific story, Iain. I think I am a "photovore:" Photographic Omnivore. I am so lucky that I will shoot anything that interests me because everything interests me. I was a working pro with my own studio, but I resisted specializing in only one or two things (say, portraits and weddings, which were the backbone of the business, but I wanted more).

I shot catalogs, industrial on-site, events (leaning on my wedding experience to this day), pets, kids, anything that tumbled over the transom. If it wouldn't fit through the door I went to it. If I knew a job was beyond my capability, I'd suggest a friend who had the skill. That honestly protected my reputation and brought repeat business.

You would think I was terrible at everything, but I cared deeply, practiced, read and studied, and never dropped any job on its head. I had a loyal following. Yes, the business ultimately failed after 16 years, but only because my bride and I never grokked business. Photography as a profession isn't about photography; it is about *selling* photography.

I'm 82 now and failing physically, but I volunteer as an event photographer for nonprofits, and still happily shoot whatever crosses my line of sight.

Great shots. Is that a taiko performance on the drums?

Yes, thank you for asking. They are members of http://www.kokyotaiko.com/
I have seen and photographed them before. These three are women, but the overall troupe is larger and (I think) includes men. The style is Wadaiko, and three drummers shake the floor and the soul. They are based in Lincoln, NE, where I live.


You are correct in so many ways. For some it is all about the gear and the photographer takes a few pictures and says it is in the camera. So many take the same image. It is the photographer as you mention who waits for the light to come to you. Then things start to happen.
It is also the photographer that looks for a different angle, or perspective that will create a much better image.
With digital, we have the option of color or b/w. Most will process the color and call it good. It is worthwhile to click on the b/w button in Raw to see if it improves what you captured. Sometimes a whole new vista awaits you.

Couldn't agree more!