Let’s be honest. Mistakes are a part of every photographer’s journey. The quicker we can learn from our mistakes, the faster we’ll improve.
Learning the art of composition is no different. And if there’s one thing beginners to the craft have in common, it’s the mistakes they typically make.
The more you know what mistakes are most common, the better you can work to catch yourself. Here are 10 of the most common composition mistakes I’ve observed, with a quick solution to each.
#1. Point and Shoot
This one is probably the most common of them all. You see a subject that looks pleasing to the eye, point your camera at it, and shoot.
When you return home to look at the result, however, all you see is a bland, boring picture.
The reason is easy to pinpoint: lack of time spent fine-tuning your vision. When you fire your camera at anything and everything that catches your eye, you likely put little or no time into the composition process.
Harness your power of observation. Take time to really see what’s in front of your camera. Find what really drew your eye to the subject or scene. When you know that answer, then you can take composition steps towards refining that vision.
#2. Mergers and Random Objects
For some reason this technique always reminds me of my Photo 101 teacher in high school. Photo mergers are when you take a photo of a subject or person only to find a big random object in the background or foreground.
A common example is a telephoto pole or street light popping out of a model’s head in the background.
The background is just as important as the other parts to your composition. A quick glance at background objects, colors, and light can save you from the heartache of this mistake. These background composition tips can help too.
#3. One and Done
This type of composition mistake is hard to see from selected photos. Look at their entire photo session output and it’ll be easy to spot.
A photographer stumbles upon a great sunrise with light rays flowing through a dense tree canopy. They snap three shots and then move on to the next scene.
It’s very likely that these three photographers are just the start to a great composition – a sketchpad to a great idea. But all drafts are just that, great ideas not yet completed. And those three photos are likely almost great, but not quite there.
Iteration is a vital part to photography. After snapping a few photographs, take a step back. Refine your composition. The more you try, the more likely you’ll come home with something you’re really happy with.
#4. Including Too Much
When I first got started with DSLR photography, I obsessed with wide angle lenses. The distortion and expanded vistas was perfect for my nature and landscape photography obsession.
As with any diet, over-reliance on any particular food group can cause trouble. Excess use of wide-angle lenses led me to include an excess of detail, obscuring the visual experience for viewers.
This type of mistake can occur with more than wide-angle lenses.
When you know what subject or scene you want to capture, isolate.
You can do this numerous ways, including:
- Moving in closer to your subject
- Using a longer lens to get a closer composition
- Adjusting your height to remove background details
Know what you’re capturing, and remove all else that isn’t important. What you want is to capture what’s important to you and nothing else more. If a critic asked why you left a background detail, what’s your answer?
#5. Relying on Shallow Depth of Field
For many beginners, shallow depth of field is the answer to photo troubles. It isolates the subject, leaves a beautiful bokeh background of colors and light, and just makes everything look prettier.
For the more skilled eye, bokeh obsession is easy to pinpoint. A composition lacking unity and purpose, relying solely on the bokeh effect is a common symptom.
Shallow depth of field is a great thing to use – when it serves the purpose of your image. Using it as a crutch to get simple images with clean backgrounds is to be avoided.
Know when shallow depth of field is best to use, and then compose around that. Don’t expect a shallow depth or large aperture lens to do the work for you.
#6. Forgetting the Frame
Looking through the viewfinder, it’s easy to treat it like our own vision. We see the center area and ignore the periphery areas.
Photograph, however, is everything comprised within that frame. This includes the corners, sides, top, bottom, and everything in between!
Pay close attention to the photo frame. Understand how each area of the frame influences perception and the viewer’s experience.
#7. Relying Solely on Trial and Error
I’ve heard this one more than a few times. ‘I just like to shoot what looks good. Forget formulas or rules. They stifle creativity.’
Many great artists say these same things. But they also studied their craft for decades before saying these things. And their unconscious mind has picked up and uses hundreds of tried-and-true composition rules and formulas.
When you reach that level, feel free to make those kind of statements. Before then, consider composition rules and formulas as highly useful guidelines for your craft. They can help speed up learning and show you things that would take years to learn on your own from trial and error.
Learn the rules and formulas to composition, then decide whether you want to follow them. It’s a win-win situation.
#8. Lack of Balance
Ever watch Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel? Nearly every single shot is oozing with strong symmetrical balance – both from the framing and set design. It makes for a very visually pleasing film.
With that said, most newbies pay little or no attention to the visual balance within their images. Visual balance gives structure and unity to a composition.
Pay attention to the balance within frame, both symmetrically and asymmetrically. How does the left and right of frame unify? Top and bottom? Left diagonal and right diagonal? Seeing and finding ways to connect these areas of the frame unifies and guides the viewer.
#9. Forcing Composition Rules
A common mistake with composition rules and formulas is to force certain techniques upon a scene. Using rule of thirds, leading lines or the number of other composition rules on a scene in a forcible way.
The end result shows the rules clear, but fails to bring out the essence of the scene. It’s a disconnect.
Use composition rules and techniques that fit with the scene. Observe and understand what’s in front of you. If a rock placed at the bottom of the frame naturally balances with the background mountain range, frame it and capture it! If you’re just adding that rock to force a balance that isn’t very captivating, maybe keep looking around.
#10. The ‘One-Hat’ Trick
This is one I’ve found myself falling for all the time. You find success with a few key composition techniques or ways of framing and so, naturally, do them again. After several sessions, however, all of your best shots use the same structure!
Solution: Observe your patterns of composition and framing. Know what you typically do and work to challenge this from time to time. Immerse yourself with other art and inspirations that can bring new ideas to experiment with.
This is by no means a complete list of the composition mistakes that can happen. With that said, the more composition mistakes you know about, the quicker you’ll catch yourself and take the steps needed to avoid them.
What types of composition mistakes do you find yourself falling for time and time again?