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Ten Composition Mistakes to Watch Out For

Somewhere along the path of gaining experience, a photographer transitions from simply taking pictures of things to an increasing attention to how those things are portrayed in the resulting images. But while learning composition can sometimes seem difficult and fraught with peril, avoiding just these ten common mistakes will make the way a lot easier.

#1: Forgetting that the camera sees differently than we do
When we look at a scene, we tend to take in impressions from our surroundings, but the camera sees only what falls within the frame. By changing shooting position, it is possible to accentuate some things while decreasing the visual weight of others. Try to give your viewers a way to get into that frame with leading lines or other cues. Remember, too, that shooting position includes shooting height. And zoom lenses are not the same thing as moving your feet. Study this until you know the difference, and when to employ each method of getting closer.

#2: Not paying attention to both foreground and background
If you're taking a picture of a tree or a mountain goat, it's tempting to focus solely on that and let the background fall where it may. By the same token, in a picture of a mountain, it may seem as if the background is everything and the ground in front of your feet is of lesser importance. But once the four walls of the camera frame are placed where they fall, everything inside becomes equal. A photograph is a flat, rectangular space within which everything should matter. Although you will probably start with an idea for a foreground or a background, try to find the best option you can for the other. If you don't, not only will the space and the opportunity be lost, whatever ends up there may actually distract from what wanted people to see.

#3: Ignoring the horizon
When we stand upright, the horizon is always level thanks to gravity. When we tilt our head to one side, the horizon understandably tilts along with our line of sight, just as it should. But a photograph with a tilted horizon will never seem quite right regardless of how it was shot. Unless your intention is to convey a sense of something being off kilter, it's best to make sure you keep things level. It's not always easy to tell visually either when some shots force you to bend over or place your head at an awkward angle just to compose. Make a habit of using a bubble level or the artificial horizon in your camera if it has one. It's up to you, too, how high in the frame you place that horizon line or whether you crop it out completely. Just because it doesn't show though doesn't mean you can't tell which end should be up. Trees grow up, and water falls down.

#4: Ignoring the edges
Since you can crop the frame as you so choose, make sure you do so purposefully. Anything cut in half will seem problematic and block the movement of a viewer's eyes scanning the resulting image. To the extent possible, everything should be either clearly inside the frame, or cut out so the camera doesn't see it. And what the camera can't see may as well not exist for purposes of the photograph. A bit of creative framing can let you create good images while sitting beside a parking lot or picnic table, so long as you crop them out from the camera's view. The interesting thing about having edges is that they cut both ways. They can be your enemy, but they can also be a friend.

#5: Paying too much attention to the center
I remember when I first started learning photography I had a Kodak pocket guide that suggested placing the subject in the center of the frame to lessen the chance of cutting any of it off when the shutter release got pressed. Thankfully, there are better sources of information today. If you want to avoid cutting anything off, use a tripod to afford yourself the time and stability to check your framing before pressing the button. Images with the subject bulls-eye in the center will tend to look static and uninteresting. It doesn't matter if you guide you framing by the rule of thirds or simply shift the camera to one side or the other for variety, you'll still be better off that sticking everything in the center. And so long as you are thinking about where to position your subject, make the choice count.

#6: Ignoring time
A photograph is a static image, frozen in time, but that doesn't mean that time doesn't matter. The old rule is that you can safely hand hold a camera at shutter speeds up to one over the focal length. That's just a guideline of course, but it can serve as a starting point for a discussion of motion in photography. Given enough time, not only can the camera shift in your hands, but what you are pointing that camera to can also move in the wind or under other sufficient impetus. Understanding this is the secret to both sharp images and to silky waterfalls.

#7: Not having a subject
Whether it's a thing or a place or a feeling or color, try to be specific about what you are photographing. There really is no way to compose a shot without having a subject to compose around. Be succinct, but try to be precise. Whatever attributes you include in your description should be the ones you strive to accentuate in your composition.

#8: Settling for your first sight of your subject
Stand next to the "scenic overlook" sign and take the picture. You may not even need to turn the ignition off in the car if you hurry. But following this approach could only net you images that show the most common view of each subject. Even without that sign, it can be tempting to shoot as soon as you find something of interest before moving on to other conquests. Sign or no sign though, it's rare for such first sights to truly be best sights. Once you find something of interest, take the time to get acquainted before to commit your subject to posterity. If your subject seems truly promising, spend a lot of time. Shoot what you come up with along the way as you see fit, but don't stop until you truly exhaust the possibilities. Only then can you know you did your best.

#9: Not letting your subject be something else
While sizing up your subject, don't limit yourself to what that subject actually is. Squint a little, or use your imagination to look for whatever else it may remind you of. What you find may look like wizards and enchanted vistas, or perhaps old friends sitting side by side on a bench, or may be just an interesting arrangement of geometric shapes and lines. Whatever. I said to use your imagination. Including a touch of something more than the literal will make your images seem more alluring and compelling, even if the viewer can't quite put their finger on exactly why without engaging their imagination too. No matter, at least you got them looking, and that's half the battle won. Now they're hooked. That's the power of a good composition.

#10: Not forgetting about the rules once you've learned them
There are countless rules for good composition advocated by those who teach photography. I freely admit to doing so myself here and elsewhere. But all these rules should ultimately serve as nothing more than jumping off points for discovering your own rules and getting in tough with your own sense of what looks good. Learn enough rules to get you started, but don't get stuck in them. An expert guitarist no doubt had to learn the scales and fingering patterns, but that likely isn't what he is thinking about when playing a performance. Ultimately, the goal is to develop a feel for it and let yourself go.

There are innumerably more than ten mistakes possible of course. And while I'm certain I haven't made them all, I have made my share over the years, believe me. I don't think its necessary for all of us to bang our forehead against every wall possible in order to get pointed in the right direction though. If anything in these ten pointers helps you avoid at least a few bruises, my job here is done.

Date posted: January 27, 2019


Copyright © 2019 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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