How to Make Your Worst Photo Your Best Friend – Part I

You made all the plans. Packed your computer bag with all the equipment you would need. Scoped out the perfect spot. Set up the shot taking into consideration the correct ISO, shutter speed, aperture, filters, remotes, tripod, etc., etc., etc.

You get home to download your shoot to your computer with baited breath, sure you have “that one picture”, and discover the image was an epic fail. So you move it to the trash and carry on. Right?

Not so fast. Stop a minute and look at your failed images. As professional schools will tell you “if you haven’t failed – you haven’t reached far enough” – they will finish the thought with “if you don’t learn from your mistakes – you are destined to repeat them”.

Reflex camera problem

Failures can be our great learning opportunities. So before you throw away your “mistakes”, take some time to see what went wrong, if it can be fixed, and what you can take away from the experience.

Fails typically come in small, big and fatal varieties. Let’s look at the small fails first and introduce the fatal category here.

Sometimes our failures are so small we don’t even notice them ourselves. Fortunately we have the friendly reviewers on to carefully point them out to us. Don’t get mad about a rejected image. Every rejection comes with a reason. If the reason isn’t clear – or doesn’t make sense – reach out to the reviewer for further clarification. Then look at these common mistakes to see what your next steps should be.

Incorrect white balance

If you shoot Auto White Balance – or have a tendency to leave it set to Daylight – your white balance may need adjusting. This problem manifests itself by showing an overlying color tint (too blue or too red), or by having muted or greying white tones.

The good news is this problem is 100% correctable using your favorite post processing software. In the white balance adjustment area, try choosing AUTO adjust (will fix the majority of issues). If you are still not happy with the results – try choosing a preset that matches the condition the picture was taken (Daylight, Cloudy, etc.). Or finally, use the Kelvin scale slider until your whites are white and there is no tint to the image.

To avoid the problem in the first place, use the correct white balance settings for the conditions.

Over/Under exposed

If your highlights are blown out, or the details are lost in the shadows, your image has an exposure problem. Most of the time this problem is correctable as well. It’s just time to get up close and personal with your Histogram diagram.

Your histogram shows the tonal distribution in an image. Too heavy on the right is over-exposed (highlight clipping). Too heavy on the left is under-exposed (shadow clipping). Again try using the AUTO correct in your tone control panel. Still not happy with the results? Try using your exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites and blacks sliders to move the Histogram distribution to be more even and to eliminate clipping on the extremes.

To prevent the problem, use the correct ISO, shutter speed and aperture settings to achieve the correct exposure in camera. Play around with light sources like fill lights to fix over dark shadows in the image, or experiment with HDR tone stacking when shooting scenes with extremes in both highlights and shadows.

Photoshop is a girl's best friend


Noise appears as grain in one or more colors when the image is magnified. A small amount of noise can be acceptable, but when the image appears textured, it’s time to make a fix.

View the image with enough magnification to see the grain. Using noise reduction software (included in most post processing), adjust the luminance, detail and contrast sliders until the noise disappears. Be careful not to over-adjust to the point that the details are lost and your image starts to resemble a Monet watercolor. Back off the noise reduction controls or add in some Sharpening to reintroduce the details.

To prevent the problem, try shooting at lower ISO settings.

Unwanted objects

Unwanted element like specs from dust or scratches on the sensor can usually be corrected once you become comfortable using Photoshop or similar software. Likewise, elements that violate copyright rules or even people who have found their way into your shots can be wiped clean with a little work. Look online for some great tutorials on the subject.

To prevent, keep your sensor and lenses clean and dust free – and try composing the shot to remove unwanted elements.


Then there are the problems that just don’t have answers. We call these learning opportunities. We’ll save most of these for the next article, but there is one fatal fail that belongs in this discussion.

Over processed image

While a lot of the solutions offered above can fix the problem listed, they can also result in images that appear unnatural when the underlying issue is too severe. In this case the cure is worse than the problem. Use the images to learn how not to repeat – and keep shooting!

So there is an introduction into how to turn a failure into a success – or at least learn in the process. The next edition will focus on the more difficult problems with some work arounds and their lessons.

Photo credits: Alphaspirit, Vaeenma.

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