Common Camera Problems: Questions and Answers


As a full time travel photographer and blogger who also runs a travel photography course, I am often asked photography questions.

These questions cover a wide range of photography topics, and come from students on my course, as well as from friends and family.

I am always more than happy to help people out with their photography queries. Based on all the questions I get, I wanted to put some of the most common questions I am asked together into one place.

Hopefully this will help out others looking for the answers to common camera problems and questions! If you have a question that I’ve not answered, do pop it in the comments, and I’d be happy to add it to the list.

My Camera Has Difficulty Focusing or Won’t Focus

There are a number of reasons that a camera will struggle to focus, or won’t focus at all.

The first of these is due to the light. Most camera focusing systems require a certain amount of light to work properly, and if it is too dark they won’t be able to focus.

If you find the camera is not focusing and you are in a dark environment, you can try turning the flash on, or using something like your smartphone’s light or a flashlight to illuminate your subject so the camera can focus on it.

Havasupai Falls
Illuminating falls with flashlight to aid in focus

If your camera has a night mode, like many smartphones and compact cameras do, enabling this may also help.

Another option if the camera won’t focus in a dark environment is to switch to manual focus. Most mirrorless and DSLR cameras support manual focus, as do some compact cameras and smartphones. If your camera has manual focus, you can enable it either as a menu option in your camera’s settings, or via a switch on the lens.

Darkness is not the only time that a camera might struggle to focus.

For example, there are certain scenes that a camera will always struggle to focus on. This is usually when you try to focus on something that is of a uniform color with no edges or points of contrast. For example, if you try to focus on a plain blue sky with no clouds, or a featureless surface, the camera will usually fail. This is because the focus mechanism needs something to focus on.

Grand Mondial Est hot Air Balloon Show
Shot out of focus due to trying to focus on area of sky rather than balloon

To solve this problem, try to focus on something like a cloud in the sky, or some bit of texture in the scene. You can always focus on something a similar distance to your subject, and then recompose. This is easier to do if you are able to take advantage of back button focus.

Again, if your camera is struggling to focus and you can’t find a feature that it will focus on in your scene, don’t forget you might be able to switch to manual focus.

One last tip related to focus. Sometimes I’ve found myself flummoxed because the camera won’t even try to focus, even when there is plenty of light and there is something to focus on. This usually ends up happening because I’ve accidentally toggled the camera from automatic to manual focus.

So, if you find your camera isn’t focusing, always check to be sure you haven’t accidentally enabled manual focus!

 

Images are Blurry

One of the more common photography issues is around images being blurry. Images can be blurry for two main reasons. The first of these is that the focus wasn’t right, so the image ends up out of focus. You can see the previous tip for how to resolve common focus issues.

Another common reason for images to be blurry is that the shutter speed of the camera is set too low.

As explained in more detail in my guide to the exposure triangle, all cameras have a shutter which opens and closes when you press the shutter button to take a photo. As a general rule, when there is less light available, the shutter will open for a longer period of time, and when there is more light available, the shutter will open for a shorter period of time.

Common Camera Problems: Questions and Answers
Image shot at 1/6th of a second shutter speed, blurry as a result

In particularly dark situations, such as in the evening, at night or indoors, your camera might adjust the shutter speed to a relatively slow value. Slow in this situation means anything slower than around 1/60th of a second.

Whilst 1/60th of a second might sound quite fast, in photography terms it is not. The reason for this is that when you hold your camera in your hands, you are not able to hold it perfectly still. Your hands will always be moving – if only fractionally.

At shutter speeds of 1/60th of a second and slower, these small movements will translate into blurry images. The slower the shutter speed gets, the more your hand movements will be picked up, and the blurrier the images will be!

The good news is that you can do something about this. As explained in my guide to the exposure triangle, shutter speed is not the only means of controlling your camera – you can also change the aperture setting or the ISO setting. If you widen the aperture, or increase the ISO, this will allow you to increase the shutter speed.

If you’re not sure how to do that for your camera, a search online should help. I can also recommend reading my guide to how to use a DSLR which should help if you have either a DSLR or mirrorless camera, or even an advanced compact camera.

Finally, if there is so little light available that you can’t adjust the camera’s setting to compensate, you still have two options. First, if you are somewhere where you can use a flash, you can try that. Unfortunately, most built-in camera flashes do not produce amazing results, but it will likely be better than a dark and blurry image.

Common Camera Problems: Questions and Answers
Camera with flash, 1/30th of a second shutter speed, image is now sharp

Second, if you are somewhere you can use a tripod, then this will solve the problem of blur caused by your hand movements. Putting the camera on a tripod will stabilise it, and let you shoot at shutter speeds as slow as you want without fear of your hand movements causing motion blur.

There are lots of other reasons to travel with a tripod, see our guide to why you need a tripod for more information and some suggested tripods across a range of budgets.

 

Images are too Dark or too Bright

I was chatting with a friend recently, and they told me that their new camera had a serious problem. It was that all the images they took were far too bright, basically making the camera unusable.

I took a look at the camera settings, and it turned out that my friend had accidentally enabled a feature called exposure compensation.

This is a really useful feature that can help you quickly control how dark or bright your image is. However, if you accidentally enable it, or forget to turn it off after use, it will impact all your images going forward.

Exposure compensation is a feature that is found on pretty much every camera, from smartphones and point and shoot cameras through to mirrorless and DSLR cameras.

Normally when you compose a photo, the camera for the most part will calculate the amount of light in the scene, and will then set appropriate values for the various settings so the image is correctly exposed – not too bright, and not too dark.

Sometimes though, the camera doesn’t get it quite right. Rather than manually change the various settings, you can just use the exposure compensation feature to quickly tell the camera to make the image brighter or darker.

On most cameras, this feature is accessed via a button that looks like “-/+”. Essentially this is just a positive and a negative sign next to each other. When you press this button, you should be able to then increase or decrease the exposure compensation. The end result is that the image your camera takes will be brighter or darker.

Some cameras even have exposure compensation as a dedicated dial, making it even easier to quickly adjust.

Unfortunately, if you forget you have changed the exposure compensation, your camera usually won’t reset it to the default for you. Even worse, if you accidentally change the exposure compensation, you might find yourself taking photos that are far too bright or far too dark, and not have any idea why this is.

Loch too bright
Image too bright due to use of +2 exposure compensation

Luckily, this is an easy fix. All you have to do is find the exposure compensation feature, and adjust it.

The exposure compensation should generally be set to 0. If it is set to overexpose (brighten) the image, it will have a positive value, like +1 or +2. If it is set to underexpose, it will have a negative value, like -1 or -2.

Each positive number represents a doubling in brightness, and each negative number represents a halving in brightness. So you can see how quickly you can make an image far too bright or far too dark!

There is another bit of good news. If you shoot in RAW, you can often recover an image that is too bright or too dark by editing it. For example, this is exactly the same image as shared above, I’ve just edited it by reducing the exposure a bit. I think you’ll agree it looks a bit better.

Loch too bright
Image fixed in post processing to reduce over-exposure

 

Parts of the image are too dark or too bright compared to the rest of it

This is definitely a challenging photography situation to fix, but one that you will come across very regularly.

This usually happens with a scenario such as a bright sky against a darker foreground, like city streets. It can also happen on overcast days, where the sky might not seem overly bright to our eyes, but when we take a picture the sky is very bright and the rest of the shot ends up being too dark to be usable.

Robert the Bruce
Subject (horse statue) too dark due to bright sky

The reason that this happens is down to something called dynamic range.

Dynamic range refers to the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of a scene. A wider dynamic range means that a camera can capture a wider range of bright and dark areas, whilst a lower dynamic range means the camera is more limited.

The majority of cameras have a much lower dynamic range than the human eye. This is why when we take a picture, the image the camera captures might not look the same as how our eyes see it. Our brains are capable of processing a wider dynamic range, so a bright sky and a dark foreground are still distinguishable to our eyes. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of our cameras.

So, what can you do about this? Well, you have a number of options.

The first option you have as a quick fix is the exposure compensation feature of you camera or phone, which we covered in the tip above about images generally being too dark or too bright. This will at least let you adjust the shot so that your subject is correctly exposed, although it will still leave other parts of the image too dark or too bright.

Another option you have is to fix the problem in post-processing. This is one great reason to shoot in RAW, as you can darken and brighten the problem areas quite easily by adjusting either the highlights or shadows. As an example with our Robert the Bruce image from above:

Robert the Bruce
Subject and landscape brightened in post processing

Of course, not everyone wants to shoot in RAW. But you still have options. Many cameras and phones these days have what is known as an HDR mode. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range.

HDR mode works by quickly taking multiple images of the same scene when you press the shutter button. These images are shot at different exposures, to give an overall wider dynamic range. They are then combined in software to create an image that should be closer to what your eye sees.

If your camera or phone does not have a built in HDR mode, then you can achieve this effect yourself by taking the same shot a number of times at different exposures (darker, correctly exposed, and brighter), and then merging the images yourself using one of our recommended photo editing apps. Obviously this will take more time, but it does give you more control over the final image.

 

Why does my smartphone take better pictures than my camera?

When I was travelling in Arizona, I visited the beautiful Antelope Canyon. This is a very popular destination for photographers, with incredible colours and rock formations to photograph.

It’s also a very challenging photography location, as the canyons themselves are quite dark, whilst the light from the overhead sky is very bright. This means images can easily end up under or over exposed.

Speaking to the guides here who lead the photography tours, here they said that it was quite common for photographers to struggle to get great photos, whilst folks with iPhones or other smartphone cameras often ended up with good shots just by pressing the button.

Obviously it can be frustrating when your expensive dedicated camera doesn’t give you the same results as a smartphone! But why is this?

Well, it comes down to computational photography. When a smartphone takes an image, it tries to do most of the work for you. It analyses the scene based on the light, and applies a variety of edits and processing techniques to the image before saving it.

Very often, smartphones today automatically apply HDR techniques to your images as well – taking multiple shots of the same scene and then merging them together to create the final result.

This can mean that in many situations, the image that you get out of your smartphone is instantly going to look a lot better, and require a lot less effort, than the image you see after pressing the button on your camera.

Let’s take a look at a couple of images, neither of which I have edited. One was taken with a Google Pixel 3 smartphone, and one was taken with a Canon DSLR.

Painted Ladies San Francisco
Taken with a Google Pixel 3

 

Common Camera Problems: Questions and Answers
Taken with a Canon DSLR camera, houses are a little dark

Comparing these images straight out of camera, we can see straight away that the version taken with the smartphone is a lot more evenly lit, whilst the DSLR has struggled with the bright sky and the darker foreground.

However, the issue with this is that while it will produce great photos in many situations, you don’t have that much control over the final output. So if the phone gets it wrong, there’s not a lot you can do. With a DSLR or other camera, you have a lot more control over what the camera does, plus you have much more control when it comes to editing the images.

For example, editing the DSLR image from above I was able to achieve this image.

Painted ladies San Francisco
Edited Canon DSLR image, houses brightened up.

My suggestion, if you want to take better pictures with your camera than your smartphone, is to work on mastering your camera.

A DSLR, mirrorless, or even advanced compact camera is more than capable of producing images that are of far higher quality than a smartphone, it’s just a question of understanding how to use it properly, and also learning how to get the most out of your photos with editing. You’ll want to shoot in RAW to get the most out of your edits – see our guide to RAW in photography for more on that.

This is a topic that is a bit beyond the scope of this guide, but if you do want some help in improving your photos, I’d recommend first reading through some of the photography tips on this blog, or taking a photography course like the one I run.

 

How do I make the horizon level?

Ok, so this is a bit of a personal one. I find great photos can easily be ruined by a horizon that isn’t quite level.

The thing is, getting a level horizon isn’t that hard, and doing so means that your viewers won’t be distracted by a wonky horizon when they should be focusing on your great image.

Wonky Horizon
Horizon is not level

You have two options for getting a level horizon – getting it right when you shoot the image, or fixing it afterwards when you edit the photo.

The first option is definitely preferable if possible, as rotating an image in software can lead to slight degradation in image quality.

If you find yourself struggling to get a level horizon when you take a picture, you will likely find that your camera has some aids to help you. Many modern cameras these days come with a feature that overlays a level indicator on the camera screen, so you can tell straight away if the horizon in level.

If your camera doesn’t have this feature, don’t despair. See if it has the option to overlay a rule of thirds grid, or anything else that you can use as a reference point when composing your image. When you take you picture, just be sure that the rule of thirds grid and the horizon are level, and your final photo should also be level.

Of course, it’s not always possible to get your horizon level in camera, and you definitely don’t want to miss a shot because you are worried about it. If the horizon is wonky, pretty much every photo editing application on the market will let you rotate the image so it is level. See the tip below on our favourite photo editing software for more on the options out there.

 

My images don’t look as good as I imagine they should

You know this situation – we’ve all been there. You see some amazing photos online, and you go to the same location. Yet your photos somehow don’t look quite as good as the image you imagine taking in your head. Something just isn’t quite right.

Again, this isn’t an easy fix. The reality is that photography is complex skill that requires time and effort to master. Whilst modern smartphones and cameras have simplified some of that process, the reality is that to take great photos, you need to learn some key photography skills.

There are unfortunately no easy shortcuts when it comes to mastering photography. It’s a questions of learning the skills, and practicing as often as possible.

The three things you need to master as a photographer are how your camera works (see our guide to how to use a DSLR camera as a starting point), how to compose a great photo, and how to use photo editing software to get the most from your shots.

The good news is that anyone can improve their photography. Photography after all is a skill like any other, and it is definitely one that you can improve with practice.

Different approaches for improving your photography will work for different people of course. Some might find an online course helps, others might just like to research specific topics online. There are also in-person workshops, photowalks, and tours you can take.

Essentially though, if you really want to take better photos, the resources are out there to help you do just that.

 

What is good software to edit photos with?

I’ve already mentioned a few times in this post the importance of photo editing software. As you might imagine, a common question I am asked is which is the best photo editing software.

I actually wrote a complete guide to the best photo editing software, which includes paid and free options, as well as options for both computers and smartphones.

In summary though, our favourite photo editing software is Adobe Lightroom. This is a very powerful tool that lets you both manage your photo library, as well as make edits to your photos. It’s available on Mac, PC and smartphone, and you can find out more and buy that from Adobe here.

Lightroom
Adobe Lightroom Interface

The only downside of Lightroom is that it is only available as a subscription, so you have to pay every month to keep it active. Personally I think the value is worth it, but I appreciate that not everyone wants to subscribe to photo editing software.

In that case, our next favourite photo editing software which is available for a very reasonable one-off price is Skylum Luminar. Like Lightroom, this also lets you both manage and edit your photos, and it has a number of really nifty tools to quickly improve a photo with one-click.

There are also some free options, although in our experience these can have a steeper learning curve and may not be as intuitive. The best option of the free photo editing software in our opinion is Darktable, which is available for both Mac and PC.

Finally, by far the best photo editing app on smartphones is Snapseed. This is a fantastic photo editor which has all the features you might need from a mobile photo editor, and best of all, it’s entirely free! Get it for Android here and iOS here.

 

I don’t know how to take pictures of myself

We travel a lot, and like most people, we like to have photos of ourselves when we travel – either together, on on our own.

Self portraits are a fairly challenging type of photo to take. Most folks opt for using the front facing camera on their smartphone, which means you are likely to get quite a close up image of yourself. Sometimes this can work well, and other times, depending on what else you want to get into the shot, it might not look great.

So what to do?

Well, you have a number of options. As mentioned in a number of other tips in this post, one great option is to travel with a tripod. This will give you a lot more flexibility when it comes to composing great photos of yourself.

Common Camera Problems: Questions and Answers
Photo of Jess and Laurence taken on a tripod

Another option is to ask a friend or a stranger to get a photo of you. Of course, this might not always work out so great depending on their photography skills, but can be an option.

There are a number of other techniques you can use for getting great photos of yourself beyond a tripod and asking a stranger. We’ve put together two posts on this topic – one to help you get better photos of yourself, and one to help you get better photos as a couple.

Between those two posts we think you should be able to easily improve the photos you take of yourself when travelling!

 

My camera struggles indoors or at night

Situations where there is limited light available are the most challenging for cameras to deal with. Whilst in many situations upgrading a camera or lens isn’t the answer to getting better results, low light situations can definitely benefit from improved hardware.

The reason for this is simple. A camera is essentially a device which is used to turn available light into recorded information. When there isn’t much light available, many cameras will struggle to capture enough light information to make a usable image.

This can result in images that are too dark, too blurry as a result of hand movement, or too noisy because the camera tries to amplify the available light, which introduces digital noise into the image.

A more expensive camera is likely to have a larger sensor or more advanced image stabilization capabilities, which can help with this. A speciality lens might have a larger aperture, which will let more light into the camera.

Common Camera Problems: Questions and Answers
Low light shot of Venus setting, taken on a tripod

Of course, as with our tip above on images being blurry, a more expensive camera isn’t your only option when it comes to low light photography.

You can also consider investing into a tripod, which will let you take longer exposure images. Some modern smartphones also include night mode settings which produce very impressive results.

 

How do I capture motion in my photos?

Motion photography is a tricky subject, but with a bit of practice you can definitely get great photos of subjects in motion. These might include your kids playing sports or running, fast moving vehicles, or animals.

The secret to motion photography is mastering the shutter speed of your camera. Longer shutter speeds will result in motion blur, whilst very fast shutter speeds can freeze motion. Here are two examples to show what I mean.

hummingbirds
Hummingbirds shot at fast shutter speed (1/2000th of a second)

 

Common Camera Problems: Questions and Answers
Train in motion shot at low shutter speed (1/15th of a second)

As you can see from the above two photos, motion plays a key part in the image, but I have chosen in one of the images to freeze the motion (the hummingbirds), and in the other image I have used a slow shutter speed to make the motion apparent.

If your camera has manual controls for shutter speed, usually available via the mode dial, you can put it into shutter priority mode (usually marked as S, T or Tv on the dial) and experiment with different shutter speeds.

If your camera doesn’t have manual control of the shutter speed, then you can usually pick a sports mode. This will put it into a higher shutter speed by default. Many smartphones will let you control the shutter speed, but you might have to download a specific app to do so.

Catching motion with lower shutter speeds is usually harder than the high shutter speed shots. For example, if you want a photo where your subject is sharp, but the background is blurry, you need to practice panning the camera at the same speed your subject is moving.

You will want the camera to be set to a relatively low shutter speed whilst you do this. The exact shutter speed will vary depending on the speed the subject is moving, and the available light, but between 1/10th of a second and 1/60th of a second will usually do.

Note, this is quite a tricky technique to get right. A good subject to practice on are moving cars as they drive past you. Try to track the car with your camera and get the car sharp, and the background blurry from motion. Good luck!

 

What kind of camera should I buy?

This is a very popular question that we get. Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple, as everyone’s needs and budget are different.

There’s a massive range of cameras out there across a wide range of budgets, from simple point-and-shoot cameras through to mirrorless cameras, DSLR cameras and smartphone cameras.

The most important questions you have to ask yourself when buying a device for photography are what your budget is, and how big of a camera you are willing to carry with you.

There is really no point spending a lot of money on a camera that you are going to be unwilling to carry with you all day. You would be much better off buying a high end smartphone that will get great shots in most situations, because at least you will have it on you all the time.

Common Camera Problems: Questions and Answers
Canon EOS 6D camera on tripod

Other things to consider include what you will be taking pictures of. If you want to focus on wildlife photography or low light photography for example, then you are going to need a camera that will be capable of these kind of shots – most likely a higher end mirrorless or DSLR camera with a capable lens.

Deciding which camera to buy is a big decision, and it can also be a big investment. To help you out, we’ve put together some comprehensive posts across a range of camera types and budget, as well as for different situations. Take a look at the following to help you decide:

Hopefully between those posts you will be able to find the right camera for you, as well as know what to look for.

 

Further Reading

That’s pretty much it for this post on common camera questions and problems that we’re often asked about. Before we leave you though, I did want to share some of our other photography content we’ve put together to help you improve your own travel photos.

  • We have a beginner’s guide to photography to help you get started. We also have a guide to the exposure triangle, which is a key photography concept to master early on.
  • Knowing how to compose a great photo is an important photography skill. See our guide to composition in photography for lots of tips on this subject
  • We are big fans of getting the most out of your digital photo files, and do to that you will need to shoot in RAW. See our guide to RAW in photography to understand what RAW is, and why you should switch to RAW as soon as you can.
  • You’re going to need some way of editing your photos. See our guide to the best photo editing software, as well our our guide to the best laptops for photo editing
  • We have a guide to improving Adobe Lightroom Classic CC performance. It’s our favourite editing software, but can be a bit slow if not properly configured!
  • If you’re looking for advice on specific tips for different scenes, we also have you covered. See our guide to Northern Lights photography, long exposure photography, fireworks photography, tips for taking photos of stars, and cold weather photography.
  • If you’re looking for a great gift for a photography loving friend or family member (or yourself!), take a look at our photography gift guide for some inspiration
  • We have a detailed guide to how to use a DSLR camera
  • We have a guide to why you need a tripod, and a guide to choosing a travel tripod
  • If you’d like a book to help you understand all this, check out this guide to mastering shutter speed, aperture and ISO
  • Finally, if you want to improve your photography overall, you can join over 1,000 students on my travel photography course. I’ve been running this since 2016, and  it has helped lots of people take their photography to the next level.

And that’s it! If you’ve got a problem or issue with your camera, do let us know about about it by commenting below, and we’ll do our best to get back to you as soon as we can!

This post covers a wide range of common photography problems and their solutions, from blurry images to problems with dark or bright images - and more!

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