Sometimes a Bad Image Isn’t the Camera’s Fault — It’s Yours

So you’ve gone out and dropped your hard-earned money on one of those exotic lenses you see in the credits of the images you want to emulate. Or you’ve upgraded to the latest gigapixel SLR because you want your images to realize their full potential instead of plateauing in the “not quite” category. Yet somehow, after all the money you’ve spent, you’re less than thrilled — in fact, your images actually appear worse!

Well, the reason is obvious, of course. You got a bad copy of the lens. Or your camera body has a focus issue. It couldn’t be you — could it?

Buying Isn’t Understanding

With the huge growth in photographers stepping up to buy SLRs, I have noticed a trend. While the numbers overall are growing rapidly, the percentage of people who understand the physics of photography is dwindling just as quickly.

Let’s face it. We have auto-everything now. When was the last time you saw a usable depth of field chart on a lens? Many of us are quick to jump to the conclusion that any softness in our images must be from a bad copy of the lens and not from technique or exposure settings. After all, it was in PROGRAM; shouldn’t that take care of everything? I mean the shutter clicked, so it must have been set correctly, right?

Many people say they want one of those “fast” lenses so they can shoot in low light or get that great bokeh that they lust after. But few realize what else goes into making all that happen besides the purchase of the lens.

Photography is a balancing act. We are always trying to get the perfect exposure and composition, and to achieve that we have to decide which aspects we are willing to trade. Will you trade a slower shutter speed for more depth of field? Higher ISO to get a faster shutter speed? There are many variables and we need to understand them to know what is happening in our images.

Time to Look in the Mirror

We have all probably seen photographers who are quick to blame their soft images on an equipment problem, never once believing it could have been something they did. While it is true that equipment fails and occasionally bad copies of lenses get past the quality check, I think that more often we should look in the mirror and decide if maybe, just maybe we had something to do with the problem.

One of the great tools we have instantly available to us is our exif data. If you don’t know what that is or how to read it, find out today! Using this data, we can see a whole host of indicators of the conditions under which an image was captured and use that to dissect the image’s problems.

Did you have motion blur or missed focus? Check the exif data to see what shutter speed was used or, in the case of some manufacturers’ software, check the image and look at where the focus point fell. Did you focus on the eye or the nose or the tree behind your subject? With a razor thin f1.2 lens you don’t have room for error, and if your technique isn’t correct, there is not a copy of a lens available to the masses (yet) that will help you.

It’s easy to run to a forum or blog to bemoan your latest gear problems. But you’d probably be better off reading up on the physics and technical side of photography. Learn all you can about how focal length and aperture play into your images. For most of us, it’s likely to be a whole lot easier to get a good return on investment on a $20 book than a $2500 lens.

So next time you feel like cursing at your equipment, take time to look in the mirror instead. You just might find that some small detail has slipped through your thought process to gum up your image-making.

[tags]photography advice[/tags]

4 Responses to “Sometimes a Bad Image Isn’t the Camera’s Fault — It’s Yours”

  1. Thank you for this Peter it is refreshing to see an honest article like this. The number of people I know who fit your description here is just uncanny.

    Taking control of your camera and understand the effects each control has on your image and how to use that to create your desired results. This along with learning to see and use light are really the fundamentals that people need to know if they want to achieve a good standard in photography.


  2. The oldest editorial rule in the book, for photojournalists, was "F8 and be there."
    To an extent, I still work with that, even now, with medium format cameras and organisable point and shoots, like my old XA. Even have the digitals set that way, as much as I can.

  3. Sometimes the equipment does make all the difference-- there's nothing more frustrating than a lens that does the gigue and will not settle to focus until the subject has flown off. And to be very honest, I can't see myself reading lots of technical explanations or looking at DOF charts-- but workign with a group of lenses with a specific problem can be enlightening because each lens seems to have its own temperament and capabilities which it does best and without seriously studying how that lens responds to a given problem, there can be no realistic expectations. I don't have a single "professional" or "L" lens. I have secondhand lenses that were once considered the best Canon had to offer. My 50mm 2.5 is an original, making it some 20years old, but what this lens can do is amazing. I just have to know how to use it and the situation in which it works best. However, I know that my camera has gross limitations. It has glitches that are inexplicable, such as when I wish to use full manual, why it is impossible to change the shutter speed without the exposure being altered. However, every technical or mechanical thing in this world is imperfect and it's the problem of the person using an instrument to find out the assets and limitations and work within them. There's never going to be a perfect lens or camera. And it's the problem of every photographer to understand his assets and limitations and to work within them.

    as for PROGRAM-- seriously I don';t know because I never used a preset program, not even on a pocket 4MP--

    It's not so much a slr opr program or going digital, but the mentality. Each moment is unique and each situation is unique. Light is not stable. All you have to do is spend one day in your kitchen working at a table in natural light to find out how difficult it is to do beautiful still life or a simple wineglass or a ladybug. Nut since few people keep ladybugs in their refrigerators, try the wineglass and make a study between 4-5 lenses...
    28-105 (35-105 mine metal casing)
    28-135 (35-135 mine/ metal casing)
    50 1.8
    100mm 2.8

    and it really doesn't take so long to find out that they respond very differently. Actually with a little practice it is possible to recognize which lens made the resulting images. The lenses respond differently to morning, high noon, afternoon and evening light.

    The 70-300 and 100mm 2.8 will do the Canon jitterbug in low light.

    the 50 1.8 loves bright light and half light, it loves silver, gold and high enameled objects like cloissonne...

    the 24-85 is very very flexible, but you have to take a lot of time in your layout. It can give outstanding color depth and shadows.

    but the one that has the richest color and bring out the deepest shadows, is actually the 70-300, but it has some trade-offs. It can slide and you need space. It will never give the crispness of the 100mm 2.8 or the 50 1.8, but it will give you images that are reminiscent of Corot or Chardin still life.

    and if you want really nice detail, then there is the very old 50mm 2.5

    and it does the very best work on dragonfly wings. up close and intimate as can be.

    Sometimes yes it is the equipment, but sometimes a person doesn't take time to study and compare the response of a lens to a given problem and compare results.

    and sometimes, perhaps people get lazy and think photoshop is an answer with post editing. It depends. I set rules when I began with a pocket 4MP that I would only use natural light and images had to be straight which meant that I had to work a great deal harder to come up with an image with zero overexposure or technical errors coming straight out of the camera.

    So they aren't the newest lenses, but it's the application and discipline that brings good results.

  4. unless you have some really defective glass, all lenses at f8 and at the correct working distance will give you exactly the same image. if that were not true, photography would be really difficult. that said the biggest and maybe the only, variable is lighting. photography is painting with light after all.

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