4 Composition Mistakes You Need to Stop Making
When you look at the images created by the world’s best photographers, it’s hard not to think, “Wow, that’s a perfect shot.”
The thing is, there was a lot of time and effort put in for that photographer to get that image to look that good.
And, in the end, if you ask that photographer about their image, I doubt they’d say it was perfect anyway.
The point is that we all make mistakes as photographers. The trick is minimizing those mistakes.
Here’s a few common mistakes beginner photographers make and what you need to do to fix them.
Mistake #1: Cut Off Body Parts
Look at a beginner photographer’s photos, like the one above, and often you’ll see a person’s body parts awkwardly cut off (like the man’s leg).
The same thing happens with other subjects too – the corner of a building is missing or the top of a tree appears to be chopped off.
It’s not a good look…
Usually, this mistake is a result of just not having trained one’s eye to check the edges of the frame. Other times, it’s a matter of simply rushing the process of composing the shot.
Instead of having people and things look chopped off in your photos, take an extra few seconds to check your edges.
If you find that grandpa’s hand is cut off or the mountain peak extends beyond the top of the frame, recompose the shot to include those features.
If you’re in a situation in which you have to cut something out, be deliberate about it.
For example, if you’re taking a portrait and you don’t want to include the person’s feet, crop the image at mid-thigh, as seen above.
If you want just their upper body in the shot, crop above the waist.
When framing the shot, avoid having the cutoff points where joints are. That helps avoid awkward-looking framing as though a body part or feature is missing.
Mistake #2: Not Checking the Background
Years ago I took a photo of my family when we were on vacation in Alberta, and on first glance, it looked like a winner.
Upon closer review, however, there was a tree directly behind my dad, so it appeared that the tree was growing out of his head.
That happened because I was focused solely on the subjects – my family – and didn’t take a moment to see what else was happening in the shot.
This is an easy mistake to make because, in the moment, you’re trying to make your portrait subject look as good as possible.
Naturally, if they have a tree coming out of their head (or out of their neck, as in the image above), they won’t look great…
The easiest way to overcome this mistake is to slow down for a moment, frame the shot, and then inspect the background, much like you need to inspect the edges of the frame.
If you find that there’s something strange going on behind your subject, all you need to do is take one or two steps to the left or right, or perhaps move your camera higher or lower to change the perspective.
It’s about as easy a fix as you’ll find!
Learn more about finding pleasing backgrounds for your portraits in the video above from Matt Granger.
Mistake #3: Always Shooting in Horizontal Format
I’m most comfortable shooting with my camera in the horizontal position, and I’d be willing to bet you are too.
But just because it’s comfortable doesn’t mean that we should always shoot with the camera parallel to the ground.
Portraits, in particular, often benefit from a vertical orientation. This is especially true of half, three-quarter, and full body portraits.
But you can use vertical format for any other type of photo – a tall building, a landscape, a macro scene – you name it.
Get in the habit of taking at least one vertical shot and at least one horizontal shot each time.
Doing so will get you thinking about shooting vertically, and you might just find that the vertical shot is a more pleasing look!
Mistake #4: Putting the Subject in the Middle of the Frame
I will be the first to say that there are times when having the subject in the middle of the frame actually works really well.
However, if you’re looking through your photos and notice a pattern in which the subject – be it your wife or kids, a mountain or an animal – is always smack in the middle of the frame, we’ve got a problem.
One thing you don’t want to do is get into a rut by always having your subjects in the same spot in the frame.
As a result, think about where you can place the subject to give the shot a little more interest.
Using the Rule of Thirds helps in this endeavor because it forces you to shift the subject to the left or right of center (or above or below center). See how it works in the video above by Mike Browne.
Something else to be wary of is taking photos from the same eye level every time.
By kneeling down, standing on your tippy-toes, or moving to the left or right, you can give viewers a little more of a unique look at your subject. That’s because we’re familiar with things from our own eye level, so by changing that up, you create an unexpected shot.
Bonus Mistake: Forgetting to Check the Camera Settings
Ok, so this isn’t a compositional mistake, but it’s still extremely common…
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fiddled with my camera settings, only to pick up my camera a few hours or a few days later and start shooting away to find that my images are wildly underexposed, overexposed, or suffering from some other issue.
This isn’t an issue if you shoot in full auto mode (which, you’ll need to get out of at some point…).
But if you’re made the leap to aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode, program, or manual, you’ll want to get into the habit of taking a peek at your settings before you start shooting.
It will save you frustration later on when you’re wondering why your first few photos don’t look right.
It might also help prevent a missed shot due to the wrong settings!