11 Photo Lessons Every Pro Learned the Hard Way


Avoid making an embarrassing or expensive photographic mistake with these top tips from the pros. We spoke to professional photographers in a number of different genres and put together the common pitfalls that plagued them all.

Photo lessons 1: Download images and format cards straight after a shoot

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It’s annoying enough when you fill a memory card mid-shoot and have to change to another, but if you reach into your bag and realise that you don’t have a single empty card, you’ll really be kicking yourself.

It also doesn’t impress a model or client if you waste their time while you scroll through your images looking for duff shots that you can delete to create space.

Save yourself the hurt, and download your images straight after every shoot.

Then format the card so it’s ready to be used as soon as you need it.

Photo lessons 2: Shoot raw files


There may be loads of occasions when the JPEG results that you get straight from your camera are exactly what you want, but you can bet your last bean that it’ll be a crucial shot that has the wrong exposure and/or white balance.

If you’ve shot a raw file you’ll be able to produce a much better image than you ever will with a JPEG.

Don’t chance it, shoot raw files whenever possible.

Photo lessons 3: Work around a baby’s routine


Photographing babies can be very rewarding, but it will be a frustrating nightmare if you don’t bear in mind the little one’s normal routine.

If you planned to get shots of the bambino’s big eyes looking into the camera and he or she is fast asleep, wait until they wake up naturally and have been fed / changed / winded etc. Any other action will result in ear-piercing cries and lots of tears.

Conversely, if the baby is wide-awake and you want shots of them asleep, you’ll just have to wait until his or her usual nap time.

That’s how it goes with babies.

Photo lessons 4: Use fast lenses


Lenses with large maximum apertures are expensive for a reason; they let lots of light in and allow you to use shutter speeds that will freeze movement and camera shake even when it’s quite dark.

Even if your camera has a very high maximum sensitivity setting, if you’re shooting sport or music gigs in low light there really is no substitute.

In these situations using a lens with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 rather than f/2.8 can result in soft, blurry and unusable shots instead of pin-sharp images with bags of detail.

There’s also usually a dramatic impact on the camera’s ability to focus the lens.

If you don’t shoot moving subjects in low light on a frequent basis and you fancy giving it a go, consider hiring a fast lens for the day, it may not cost as much as you think.

Photo lessons 5: Modeling lights get hot

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Most studio flash heads have a modelling light that allows you to see where the flash will fall on the subject.

This allows you to position the lights to give the perfect balance of illumination and shadow.

The only problem is that these high-powered bulbs often get very hot after a few minutes use.

Unless you’re photographing delicate flowers or an elaborate design made from chocolate, it’s not usually a major issue for the subject, but you need to be careful when fitting light modifiers (softboxes etc) or packing the lights away.

Avoid touching the bulb with anything that is likely to burn or melt until it has cooled for a few moments.

Photo lessons 6: Take spare cameras and lenses to weddings


If you’ve been commissioned to photograph a wedding, the bride and groom will show you absolutely no sympathy if you stop shooting half-way through because you’ve dropped your lens or your camera has seized up.

In fact they are likely to get pretty upset about it.

They’ve spent a fortune on their big day and they expect you to continue shooting whatever happens. Reshoots are not an option.

The moral is, if you’re photographing a one off event, make sure that you have back-up equipment with you.

Photo lessons 7: Find wedding shoot locations in advance


Sticking with the subject of wedding photography, all good pros scout the location before the big day — preferably at the same time as the ceremony to find the best light and shooting locations in advance.

Even if the forecast is for fine weather it’s sensible to find alternative locations in case the sun is too strong, the wind whips up or a freak hailstorm starts.

Being prepared in this way will give you confidence, allowing you to concentrate on getting the composition, poses and exposure right.

You’ll also look much more professional than if you’re wandering around looking for a good location with the bride and groom trailing behind you.

Photo lessons 8: Buy a good tripod


A decent tripod doesn’t cost the earth these days and it’s a worthwhile investment if you want to make the best use of all those pixels on your camera’s sensor.

However, don’t rush into the decision about which model to buy.

Think about what type of photography you will mainly be using it for, where you will use it and how you will transport it.

If you’re looking for a tripod to use at home or in the studio then it can be big and heavy because you don’t need to carry it far.

If, however, you plan on making long expeditions on foot to remote shooting locations you may want something a bit smaller and lighter.

Small and light tripods are fairly easy to find, but it also needs to be strong and rigid to hold your camera still in strong wind and this can bump the cost up.

Don’t stint or you’ll end up having soft images and have to buy a second (better) tripod.

If you want to use your tripod on the beach, perhaps even with the legs in the sea on some occasions, then consider investing in a model that is designed to survive harsh conditions and has seals to keep the salt water out of the joints.

It won’t be cheap, but it may be the only tripod you ever need to buy.

Photo lessons 9: Master flash


Many enthusiast photographers are nervous about using flash in their photographs, but it can really set your images apart from the masses.

Professional social and event photographers use fill-in flash because it brings subjects to life, injecting colour and sparkle – and that increases sales or the likelihood of being hired again.

If you’ve got an event coming up that you want to photograph, get practising with your flash in advance so that you’ll be confident about how to use it on the day.

Photo lessons 10: Check all images at 100%


Failure to check images thoroughly can lead to expensive mistakes that are only revealed when you open the packaging of the 20×16-inch acrylic print you ordered.

To ensure you’ve spotted out all dust marks and checked every part of an image, view it at 100% on screen and use guides to divide it into screen sized sections that you check methodically.

Photo lessons 11: Weatherproof your kit


Unless the manufacturer states that the camera and lens you are using are weather-proof, you can safely assume that they are not. Don’t take chances with your kit as even a small amount of rain (or sand) can cause major problems that mean your camera has to take a trip to the service centre.

There are specialist weatherproofing kits available, but a clear plastic bag can be pressed into service with the addition of a rubber band around the opening to hold it tight on the end of the lens.

About the author: Several PhotoVenture contributors helped shape this post. PhotoVenture is a photography blog for everything post-capture — improving photos, image management, sharing and more. You can keep up with their articles by following them on Facebook and Twitter. This article originally appeared here.

  • markz

    though I don’t do weddings (what little paid for stuff I choose to do these days is travel and architectural) that’s pretty much how I’ve been dealing with memory cards for the last 4 years, until now, when I changed to an camera setup that uses SD card, the cards are so cheap it’s OK just to include them as an shoot expense just like film was.
    1x4GB card for that real estate shoot… shot, uploaded, back up +off site backup, then SD card gets put in a clearly documented envelope and put in one of my fire safes …. 4x8GB cards for Tokyo? ditto. etc etc

  • markz

    still better than hand held. and I trust my 475 studio tripod, with column fully extended, to be more stable than I’ll need (and it’s held every thing from crop DSLR’s to large format without a iota of visible shake even on 60minute + exposures)

    the only tripod I’ve ditched the centre column on is my travel one, only because it saves almost 250g off my carry on weight (it has no foot spikes … another bugbear of purists but it lets me get it on as carry on, which is important when you’re flying carry on only)

  • Adam Cross

    I have tried those shots, I have fast primes, but that DoF at large than 2.8 is useless to me, I’m speaking from my own experience – I don’t necessarily expect my view to translate across all genres of low-light photography

  • Adam Cross

    like I said – with new sensors the amount of noise at 3200 is negligible.

  • Adam Cross

    I shoot on gloomy film sets, I too don’t have the option of flash, I have fast lenses but apertures larger than 2.8 are basically useless to me, I’m just speaking from my own experience, I don’t expect that to translate across all genres

  • Adam Cross

    I’m not stopping you from doing anything, I’m just speaking from my own personal experience. nothing more.

  • Steve

    Put your phone number and the word REWARD on each compact flash card.

  • Jeremiah True

    Printers all use calibrated equipment so at the very least you know what you are seeing on your machine is “correct” and as long as you work with a consistent color profile and save your work for print/display/online with an embedded profile, sRGB is usually safest in this regard, then you will have more consistent results.

    I usually work in ProPhoto RGB as it has the widest color gamut but then save versions out and convert them to sRGB when they are going other places. I use the DataColor Spyder 3, version 4 is out now, and I have been very happy with it.

  • Jeremiah True

    Agreed. I do real estate work and have been having some corruption issues as of late. I keep the images on the cards until I know they have all been imported properly and there are no dead files. For weddings, this is even more important. I keep those cards full until it is backed up (and I know all of the images getting backed up are clean).

  • Jeremiah True

    Same goes for the head on the tripod or if you have a non-geared center column. I dropped my 7D with the 10-22 on a railing because the offset column I have on my tripod wasn’t tight enough. The clamp let go and it hit hard enough that the lens hood popped back past the retaining ring and all the way back down to the camera body. It also dinged a brand new railing in a newly constructed house.

    I came clean to the builder and she was fine with it but I was damn lucky to not have to pay damaged or make an insurance claim on something like that for the railing or the camera.

  • imajez

    If you only learnt that calibration is a waste of time, that may be because you haven’t done it properly. Not because it is inherently pointless.
    It does make a difference and it vital for professional work.

  • imajez

    Not necessarily as a faster aperture usually allows for better AF performance

  • Me

    > I’m just speaking from my own personal experience.

    Actually you’re not. It’s so bloody easy to nail a shot at 1.4 that the only explanation for your post is that you’ve never even picked one up.

  • RBliss

    Funny how you started off with “I can’t imagine” writing and throwing out phrases like “no-one buys” and all of a sudden you own fast primes. Sorry, my BS detector is going off.

  • Adam Cross

    yeah… I said no one buys them anymore for the reason stated in the article, for simply getting more light. I have them for any portraiture/head shots I need to shoot but other than that I’m using zoom lenses 99.9% of the time because primes are impractical for the work I do

  • Adam Cross

    well yes, I am, and sure it’s easy to nail shots at 1.4 if your subject isn’t moving and you have good light, in dark hectic conditions where any AF system and lens can struggle to lock focus sometimes you will miss shots – and in my experience if I push the ISO and stop down I have more shots to keep than throw away

  • RonT

    That’s an interesting point and one that has become far more of an issue recently.

    The importance of monitor calibration is, of course, related to accuracy in printing images. I calibrate my monitor so that it is in line with the printer that I use.

    More recently that I do far more digital output I’ve become more aware of the impact of the huge variation of monitors and graphics cards (let alone devices) kicking around the world.
    Given that entry level monitors (‘office grade’) are common due to price but don’t even cover 100% of the sRGB gamut, image variation has become a real issue.

    One one hand it reinforces in-person presentations for things like wedding and portraiture but for high volume work such as events, etc,where that isn’t practical (and that will always be kept as digital output by customers) I find myself setting them up for viewing on lower grade monitors rather than my own calibrated one more and more often.

  • RonT

    Even in the case of a wedding shoot it is now common for overseas or out-of-region family members to want to view the images in their respective location. There also seems to be a big upswing in the fashion to use the vast array of online image presentation companies (I’m not a fan of those for sales reasons but I understand the value of them to some).

    For non-wedding work, online viewing is often the standard. So far I’ve ended up with a ‘usable’ file which is colour-corrected and a ‘viewing’ file which is often quite different in brightness, contrast, etc.

  • RonT

    it depends on your perspective. As a user I can see your point. As a professional photographer my argument would be from a longevity point of view (decent prints will far outlast digital files) an ownership view – if you have prints then you have property rights – you can gift them away, hand them on, or otherwise transfer ownership. If you have digital only then most contracts keep copyright ownership in the hands of the photographer which actually means you are effectively leasing the images (think of the legal difference between an actual book and an e-book – you can give away the former or re-sell it but not with the latter without violating the authors rights).

    Lastly, from a business perspective albums and images are an additional source of income. For $3-4K a digital wedding doesn’t seem as good an option for the client as a digital wedding with a proof book of prints does for example, so upselling services is more viable.

  • Dan Kasberger

    All True – fine job Photo Venture… Just an addition to #1, Download files promptly, that comes from way back in FILM days… NEVER leave your cards in your cams when you pack up! Remove to a proper magnetically isolated container & carry with you – yup, on your person… (oh, sure, let’s stop for a snack on the way back so someone can rob the car while we’re parked in the sleazy lot…) In film days, one might go to **load** a roll in a camera only to find the roll with the last shots of the (fill in) getting sun tanned as you **open** the camera/holder the next day – thank you Digital-Age, no more fogged frames. Cheers!

  • SeaSanKoa

    It depends upon what one’s definition of ‘professional’ is.

    Just because one day you decide to run out and buy a camera or pick up a can of paint and a roller and start charging for photography or house painting, in my estimation doesn’t make them a “professional”. They really are in their apprenticeship making apprenticeship mistakes while they are learning to become professional — (something better)

    Headline should read:
    11 Photo Lessons most amateurs Learned the Hard Way while in their apprenticeship of become a pro.

  • Broseph of Arimathea

    ‘Every pro’ learned lessons about shooting babies, weddings, studio portraits and landscapes?

    Wow. Y’all should consider specialising.

  • Broseph of Arimathea

    Tomorrow on PetaPixel:
    ‘You wont BELIEVE what this photographer did!’
    ’13 things only photographers say!’

  • Broseph of Arimathea

    Nope. A professional is someone that engages in something as their occupation.

    Any other feelings or assertions you want to drag in about skill, talent or remembering to format memory cards are just you inferring things into the term to make you feel better about yourself.

  • Omar Salgado

    You were already told that DoF depends not only on aperture, but in focal length and distance to the subject.

    Most what I shoot is set at f/5.6 (on a cropped sensor) or f/8 (on FF), but what I really want is a “vitreous” background instead of a very blurry one. I also take into account the magnification factor of the background (this means knowing the relationship between distance to the subject, distance to the background, focal length and aperture).

    I agree with other comments that prime lenses are far better not just about gathering light, but in sharpness, contrast, distorsions, etc. at almost all the apertures. Just compare any zoom at, say, f/5.6, against that same aperture in any prime and a) you will get a sharper image in the prime and b) an extra stop (or even two) of more light – it has to travel through less glass.

    I know you’re talking from your experience, but I sense you need to broaden it.

  • DJ_Thomas

    WTF, man. I shoot plenty of club concerts using my 85 1.4 using my boss’s D800/D3 and we get plenty of keepers all of the time. I guess I must be the world’s greatest photographer!

  • Andy

    I have a D800. Should I be using something newer?

    Seriously, forgive the snark but you may need to look more carefully at your images if you’re telling me that there are no problems at 3200 ISO. Everything is speckled, blacks are filled with grey, fabrics have no texture, people have no eyelashes, skin has no pores, hair looks like carpet.

  • ileneh

    12. Carry a spare camera battery
    13. What whoopn said – have spare memory cards.
    14. Take a monopod as spare, in case tripod breaks (happened to me).
    15. Always carry business cards.
    16. Keep a cleaning cloth or lens cleaners in your bag.
    17. Wear an orange vest if you’re shooting near traffic.
    18. Keep sun block and bug spray in plastic bag handy for out door shooting.

  • SeaSanKoa

    Broseph of Arimathea Photography: Opps. Oh I’m sorry. I accidentally formatted the cf card and erased ALL the files of your entire wedding ceremony.

    Weeping bride: But I hired a professional.

    Broseph of Arimathea Photography: A professional is someone that engages in something as their occupation.

    Weeping bride: What about skill, talent and remembering NOT to format over my wedding pictures?

    Broseph of Arimathea Photography: Look this my occupation so I don’t need skills …

    Weeping bride: Oh OK. Who do I make the check out to?

    Broseph of Arimathea Photography: It’s spelled B-o-n-e-h-e-a-d Photography.

  • iAwani

    i learned about using a fast lens and to water-proof my camera while photographing on the street. Thanks for this useful tips.

  • Jim Johnson

    You are assuming all monitors are un-calibrated in the same way.

    You calibrate your monitor to have a base standard. After that, make adjustments as necessary for your desired output. If you think your monitor is too bright, adjust the brightness in the menu.

  • Jim Johnson


    One of the definitions is someone who is “qualified in a profession.” Determining qualification is the sticking point.

    Even PPA defines a professional more rigidly than you just did.