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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Photography Techniques  >  Why Prints Can Look Bad

Why Prints Can Look Bad

Table of Contents

Chapter Word Count: 3752
1 Introduction  (279)
2 Setting Expectations  (425)
3 The Camera's Fault?  (177)
       3.1 The Point-n-Shoot Technique  (533)
       3.2 Evaluating Light  (260)
       3.3 Using a Flash  (302)
              3.3.1 Using a Flash on People  (211)
4 Film  (206)
5 Printing Pictures  (733)
6 Making Your Own Prints  (548)
7 Digital Cameras (78)

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1 Introduction

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Yellowstone Bison
(Yellowstone, Wyoming, USA)
america, animals, bison, north america, snow, united states, vertical, winter, wyoming, yellowstone, photograph
Many people start taking pictures with a new camera and think, "why are my pictures so bad?" The first reaction is that there's something wrong with the camera. (Of course!) Well, not so fast. There could be many reasons why pictures look bad, and yes, perhaps something's wrong with the camera. But, let's try to rule everything else out first. If you're really new to photography, you may first want to look at Introduction to Photography Technique. But, since you're here, you might as well stay and read.

There are three main technical elements to having a picture come out well: the proper exposure, the media capturing the light (film or digital camera), and the way the photo is printed. You may have taken a picture well, but if you don't use good film, or if it was printed poorly, then you may still end up with a bad photo. If you have good equipment and the technical printing is good, but you're still not satisfied, this could be due two other reasons. On one hand, your expectations may be way too high. Photos you see in books are often edited in such a way that make them look far better than they would if the photographer had merely snapped a picture and instantly printed it. Top photos rarely look that good right out of the camera, which we'll discuss shortly. On the other extreme, if you don't like your photos, perhaps it's simply that you don't take pictures well. But, let's not assume that just yet; it could be anything at this point, so let's go over all of the reasons.

Rolls Wine and Cheesecake (1)
(Alto Adige, Italy)
alto adige, cheesecake, dolomites, europe, foods, horizontal, italy, rolls, wines, photograph
I know how you feel. You just want your photos to come out like those you see in a book, or on some professional photographer's website. The two main reasons for people's dissatisfaction with their pictures are creative and technical. On the creative side, there are issues such as composition (choosing how to frame the picture well), or even on what to shoot in the first place. But most people who complain about their photos usually do so because they feel there is a technical problem. Is it the camera's fault? Or, the lab that printed the pictures? Or—<gasp>—could it be the photographer's fault?

The thing to realize is that most professional photos you see in books or postcards don't just pop out of the camera like that. More often than not, post-processing is done to an image after it was shot. This isn't necessarily cheating—it's simply how professional photography is done. The reason is that data gathered by a camera is not necessarily the best form to reproduce it in print form, so to make a photo look really good, one has to know those minute idiosyncrasies of both sides of the process ahead of time. For example, some films or digital cameras gather data in darker areas better than lighter areas, which may call for slight exposure compensation when the picture is being shot. Similarly, when the picture is printed, it helps to know what kind of paper and printing process is used, so that the image can be optmized with those materials in mind. If a picture that was shot with only one side of the equasion, it might look pretty bad. Thus, knowing your equipment and how you are going to make prints counts for a lot.

But, let's face it, most people don't know that stuff, nor do they want to. They just want to take good pictures with fairly automated cameras, and get good results. In order to do that, more and more automated cameras and printing devices are produced that meet the "typical" needs of most consumers, so that most pictures come out pretty well. But, at the higher end, a lot of those processes end up "watering down" the features found in professional level processing that makes really good pictures shine. Hence, the double-edged sword of using automated consumer-level products. No problem with that—you just need to understand that you're not going to take those really great pictures you see in books and postcards, unless you're really lucky.

Ok, let's say you're realistic in your expectations, and you're still complaining that your prints don't look good. So, let's get to the question that's really on your mind. It's an automated, fairly expensive digital camera and you're still getting some bad pictures—it must be the camera's fault, right? It's easy to blame the camera when your photos are over- or under-exposed, washed out, unsharp (out of focus), or too bright from an overly zealous flash. All of these are common complaints from people who feel they're doing a simple task: pointing the camera at what they want and clicking the shutter. If it were the camera's fault, few people would ever take good pictures for this simple reason: almost all cameras do the same sort of thing. They measure light and capture it on film (or a digital sensor). This isn't rocket science. If something is wrong with the camera, no pictures would ever come out well, so if you're complaining about only a portion of your pictures, chances are the camera's fine.

Despite the name point-n-shoot, the act of indiscriminantly "pointing and shooting" does not always produce good photos. When pictures look bad, it's often because people think that what they see will simply come out that way in a photo. If it were only that easy. Aside from composition problems, this technique often produces technical errors, such as something throwing off the focus or the light (meter) measurements. There may be a very bright object off to the side, or the middle may be very dark, or it could be that the range of light (from bright to dark) exceeds what the film or digital sensor can reproduce. Other times, the issue is of a different technical nature; the person they are photographing is out of focus, while some object in the background is perfectly sharp. This is especially problematic when photographing two people standing together, or if you put your subject on the side of the frame.

Presidential Palace (2)
(Hanoi, Vietnam)
asia, hanoi, horizontal, palace, presidential, presidential palace, vietnam, photograph
The correct procedure for addressing all these problems is to understand the way cameras take pictures. They all go through three distinct steps: 1) focus on the subject, 2) measure the light, 3) take the picture. While professionals know to do these steps separately with their SLR cameras, the typical "point-and-shoot" camera appears to do do all them at once to make the process simpler for the average consumer. In fact, you know that annoying delay between the time you press the button and when the picture actually snaps? That's the camera doing the first two steps before it can perform the third. While it is clearly a simple process that will produce many good photos, you will still get a lot of bad pictures (probably those you're complaining about) because this simple process is a little too simple for many scenarios, which we'll address.

The good news is that correct procedure is almost as simple. Almost all point-n-shoot cameras have a little green light that illuminates when you press the shutter button half way. Yes, the shutter button has a "half-way" point that most people don't know about. When you do this, the camera focuses on whatever is in the middle of the frame. This is also where it measures the light for proper exposure. Regardless of how you want to frame the picture in the end, it's important that you focus and meter directly on the subject before actually taking the photo. (If there are two people, focus on just one of them.) When you've focused on that point, the green light will go on. Now hold that focus point (by keeping your finger pressing lightly on the shutter button, thereby keeping the little green light lit), then re-frame the photo as you want it before completing the button press. This will improve 90% of your bad pictures. Even better, that long time lag goes away. Once you have the green-light and are ready to shoot, the instant you press the shutter button the remaining half-way, the picture will shoot. You'll find you're not just getting technically better pictures, but you're getting better compositions as well. (Catching the kid just before plunging into the pool, for example.)

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Monument Valley
(Monument Valley, Arizona, USA)
america, arizona, desert southwest, horizontal, monument, monument valley, north america, united states, valley, western usa, photograph
The other aspect to using this shooting technique is that you're also assuring that the camera is measuring the proper light for the photo you want (composition), not necessarily the one that happens to be in view at the time you press the button. Therefore, this technique will eliminate most over- or under-exposure problems, especially for those situations where the subject and the background have very strong light differences.

Speaking of ranges of light, this brings up another important point: People expect that what they see through the camera is exactly what they're going to get in print. (Worse, they expect this from other photographers!) While this may be the case for simple, outdoor daylight pictures at times, there are other scenes that are more difficult for one simple reason: your eye can see more light at one time than the camera can. Put another way, let's rate the darkest light you can see as "1", and the brightest light you could see as "16". Well, cameras can only see 5 to 7 of those segments in a single picture. That is, it can capture the entire range of light, just not at the same time. This is called, dynamic range. Digital camera sensors (as well as different film types) all vary in their dynamic range, but a general rule of thumb is that less expensive digital cameras have a smaller dynamic range. This makes for another data point in determining what is wrong with those pictures that you don't like.

The first thing people think of when they think of photography lighting is the flash. But, people often expect too much from what it can do. They don't use it when they should (like in a very bright sunny day), but they expect light to be perfect when shooting at night, which is often the wrong assumption. So, let's review a few things about flashes:

Flashes only light up about 10 feet in front of the camera.

Shooting at a dinner table or in a big room, the light from the flash will "fall off" as the distance increases. Don't expect much from taking a photo down a long table, or any sitaution where you want to balance the background and the foreground.

Flashes do nothing for night landscape photography.

Don't try taking pictures of your friends in front of the Golden Gate Bridge at night and expect a balanced exposure. The flash will burst the people fine, but the bridge will hardly be visible at all. At night, a proper exposure of the bridge is about 15-30 seconds. Your snapshot at 1/60 of a second won't even touch it.

Don't shoot in front of glass display cases, or through windows.

The flash is only going to bounce off the glass and give you a huge white light in the photo. Chances are you'll see absolutely nothing on the other side. Once you know this, it's hilarious to watch people by the hundreds go to the observations decks of really high buildings, and take a photo of the gorgeous skyline through a window, flashes bursting, and knowing that none of those photos will come out. Again, it requires about 15-30 second exposures to get photos like that to come out, and the flash has nothing to do with it.

No flash—Harsh Shadows
hat, kqed, tech, noflash, hat, kqed, tech, noflash, photograph
People often complain that the flash washes out people's faces, or that the photo seems overexposed. The problem is that people expect to use a flash as the main light source, which is not a good idea in the first place. (It's unnatural looking and comes from an unnatural direction; so it's always going to look bad.) But, camera manufacturers know that people expect this anyway, so they boost up the power on the flash. The problem, however, is that it's often too bright for the subject.

Fill flash—Face is Bright
hat, kqed, tech, flash, hat, kqed, tech, flash, photograph
Many (but not all) point-n-shoot cameras have a way to reduce the flash output when taking pictures. The reason for this is to give a more accurate balance between the foreground (subject) and the background.

Oddly enough, the best time to use a flash is during the day, to reduce the harsh shadows that you often see under eyes, under hat visors, or in the shade under umbrellas. Use the flash during the day to make more balanced photos. Even at night, a reduced flash power will give better looking pictures.

For a more comprehensive discussion on photographing people and the use of a flash, see Photographing Native Peoples in Foreign Countries.

Prints Save Memories
(California, USA)
animals, color composite, color/bw composite, dogs, framed, horizontal, sammy, photograph
Most film companies actively promote 200 speed film to consumers, although you can buy films that range from 100 to 800 speed at most places that sell film. The higher the number, the "faster" the film, which is means that a picture can be taken with very fast shutter speeds. This allows you to take pictures in lower light, or not worry about hand-shake or people's movements blurring your photos. Sadly, the side effect of higher speed films like this is that they tend to appear washed out, grainy, unsharp (although not necessarily out of focus), and very muted/unrealistic colors. The main advantage to to these films is taking pictures in lower light, but that's it. Why focus on that? Because most consumers complain about blurry pictures, and faster films solve this problem easily. Never mind that it often makes for less attractive pictures—the greasy wheel gets the grease. (In other words, "only fix the problems consumers complain about.") So, avoid faster-speed films, and try to use films rated ISO 100 (or, 100 ASA) or less. (Yes, you may get a few blurry pictures now and then, but in the end, you'll get a higher percentage of pictures that look good.)

Chichén Itzá
Typical Bad Consumer Photo
(Yucatan, Mexico)
horizontal, latin america, mexico, temples, yucatan, photograph
Another problem that could result in bad photos might be the photo lab that's making the prints. Often, people go to one-hour labs in the local drug store or in malls. Whatever the case, the hitch is that while film can be processed in an hour, the only way to get good prints is for the lab technician to actually print them well. This requires looking at each one individually and making appropriate color corrections. (Remember, not every photo is the same, so they cannot be printed in an assembly line process and expect them all to turn out perfectly. This requires time and the willingness (on the lab's part) to throw away the bad prints and redo them with color or brightness corrections.

While many photo labs are perfectly reasonable at making prints from negatives for the consumer, it is not unusual to find labs that skimp on the process (unintentionally, of course) because (let's be honest), consumer film processing is a time and materials business. The less time and fewer materials you spend, the more cost-effective it is to have the business in the first place. Yes, photo labs will usually reprint photos you're not happy with, but it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get a good result for certain complicated photos (such as night shots, or oddly lit sunset pictures with broad dynamic range). To make matters worse, even if they did examine individual photos, it requires good judgment to determine a bad print from a good one. It is less likely that one-hour photo lab personnel can do this, even if they had the time or inclination to. Often, the way they print the entire roll is by printing the first one or two photos to see what the general color balance is from there, and then run the rest roll the same way.

Today, and 50 Years ago
(Havana, Cuba)
caribbean, cuba, havana, island nation, islands, latin america, now, people, south america, then, vertical, womens, photograph
Surprisingly, many professional photo labs often have the same problem, mostly because professionals don't use print film; they shoot slide film. Accordingly, pro photo lab technicians often don't deal with making prints.

"So," you're thinking, "it can't be that hard to make good prints. Someone must be able to do this well." A good option is to look for pro labs that make prints for wedding or portrait photographers, because they use print (negative) film, and the lab must make good prints for them as part of their normal business function. Be forewarned, however: these photo labs are going to charge a lot more than your average drug store and probably take a few days longer. yet, if you're shooting really well with a good camera (and lenses), the difference may just be worth it.

Note: Some people think if they send their film to Kodak or Fuji, they'll get the best prints because they are the film companies themselves. Of all people, one might think, they should know how to make good prints. Unfortunately, this rarely turns out to be the case. The only time you should send your film elsewhere for printing is if you have exhausted all options for local labs, and you got a very good recommmendation for an outside lab. Then it becomes a matter of doing research on the internet (which you're already doing if you're reading this). Try going to photo newsgroups or discussion forums, such as http://www.photo.net.

Tiny Polaroid Prints
(Havana, Cuba)
caribbean, cuba, havana, horizontal, island nation, islands, latin america, people, polaroid, south america, womens, photograph
On the positive side, I don't want to imply that all photo labs or their technicians are inadequate. Remember, I'm only addressing one possible explanation (of many) that can account for why your bad prints look bad: It's the person who operates the machine. The contrary may also be true, that the operator at a one-hour photo lab is stellar. I once knew a photographer that worked at a drug store's photo lab, and she made the best prints from negative film I'd ever had made for me, even from pro labs. (Too bad she doesn't work there anymore.) If you're really out of ideas, then get really shmoozy with the lab's technician, go out to lunch, talk shop, and see if you can get that extra special service that should be, frankly, what they all should do. (Be careful, you might get to know a real scary guy, like the one Robin Williams played in the movie, One Hour Photo.)

There are alternatives, albeit potentially costly and/or time-consuming, but well worth the effort if you have a little technical expertise. Consider buying a scanner and scanning your film and printing them digitally. Scanners aren't that expensive, and the technical skills in making good prints aren't that difficult, but it does require not having a fear of computers, and you must have a willingness to go through the short, but very steep learning curve. The result is that you can shoot any kind of film, scan your images, and either print them on photo-quality home inkjet printers, or you can give the digital images to any photo lab that can print digital files. That's right any photo lab will do just fine, so long as they have the equipment (and it's likely they do nowadays if you live in a reasonably modern part of the country).

With the proliferation of digital cameras these days, most labs can make prints from digital images, and they'll come out exactly the same every time. Whether any given print turns out "good" depends on the nature of the digital file. For consumer-brand digital cameras, there is usually only two things to consider: the resolution setting for the pictures you shot, and the color balance on the digital sensor. For a discussion on this, see What Camera Should I Buy? (Part 2) and Editing, sorting, scanning and archiving slides for a photography business. If you get your digital images from a digital camera, skip this section. If you're scanning your own images, quality will depend on the quality of your scanner and your digital editing skills. This approach requires three things:

A Film Scanner
business, lark, business, lark, photograph

  1. You have a good scanner (or have the lab do it for you, provided they have a good scanner)
  2. Your monitor is calibrated correctly so that the colors you see on the screen will approximate properly to the final print
  3. Your image editing software and skills are up to par.

Photos Last a Lifetime
(Havana, Cuba)
black and white, caribbean, cuba, havana, island nation, islands, latin america, people, richard, self-portrait, south america, vertical, womens, photograph
These may seem like a lot of barriers, I admit. That's why I don't recommend it for those wary of computers. If you feel you're reasonably proficient with computer software, then none of these issues should be a problem.

As for the expense, a good scanner should run about $1000, and the software ranges from free to $700 or so (if you choose Photoshop, and the printer (about $150 or less for those that give really nice results), but the benefits are worthwhile. That is, a bad print is wasted money, whereas a good print is a good investment. Over time, you'll get more "good prints" that you like that it'll feel worthwhile. What's more, you can put them online, email them to friends, and do lots of other things with them, like do digital art, digital composites, greeting cards, invitations, and the list goes on and on.

I am avoiding making specific recommendations for products because there are many good options to choose from, and it's the process of learning about them which will make you good at using them later. You could use what I use, but that may be overkill for many people. For a discussion on what I have and how I use it, see Photography Equipment.

Digital: Fun and Inexpensive for Snapshots
tech, tech, photograph
Since I whet your appetite with a discussion of using digital images, why not discuss digital cameras? After all, you can avoid film and processing, and just go right to print. Yes, that's true, and you generally get much better, more consistent consumer-level prints from digital cameras than you do from consumer-brand film. However, the subject is too broad to discuss here. (See What Camera Should I Buy? (Part 2).)

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