There are certain composition mistakes that nearly every photographer makes at some stage on their journey. Moving past them is part of the learning process and becoming a better photographer.
How many of these simple composition mistakes are you making? Let’s dive in and find out.
Composition mistake #1: Using the rule of thirds – all the time
There’s nothing wrong with the rule of thirds as long as you understand that it’s only a guideline (it shouldn’t be called a rule). There are times when the rule of thirds works, and times when you need to move beyond it and look for different ways to compose your photos.
The rule of thirds is effective because it encourages you to avoid placing the main subject in the center of the frame, or too close to the edge. Most of the time, this helps you make a better composition. It forces you to think about what you’re doing rather than point and shoot.
You can see that at work in photos like this one. I placed the glowing glass on a third, and filled the frame with the glassblower’s tools in the background.
But as your understanding of photographic composition evolves, you start to realize deeper concepts are involved. These include balance, use of negative space, tonal contrast, line and framing. You might find yourself thinking in terms of telling stories, or looking for ways to add layers of interest to your photos.
When you make progress on this journey you’ll find that you think about the rule of thirds less, and these other ideas more.
For example, the greenhouse is the main focal point in the photo below. Yet I placed it near the center of the frame because I wanted to show its environment, from the red flowers at the bottom of the frame to the autumnal trees in the distance. This was more important than placing it on a third.
Composition mistake #2: Not learning from other photographers
There are no absolutes in composition. There are always different approaches and new ways of seeing. One respected photographer says that about composition, another says this. There are always contradictions and contrasts because we’re talking about a subjective art form.
Once you understand this it follows that one of the worse things you could do is think that there’s nothing new to learn, or that there are no composition mistakes left to be made.
I’ve been making photos for over 20 years and I’ve written four books and countless articles about composition. And I’m still learning.
The moment you stop being open minded about composition you switch from a growth mindset to a fixed mindset. This how you get stuck in a rut or experience the photographer’s equivalent of writer’s block.
So how do you break out of a fixed mindset, if that’s where you find yourself?
One way is to go and study the work of other photographers. How do they compose their photos? How do they balance subject, light and composition? Which lenses do they use? What aperture settings? Analyze it all and then apply what you learn to your own photos.
Step it up a level by looking at the work of photographers that work in a different genre or style to you. What can you learn from photographers who see the world differently?
I’ve been following the work of photographer Anne Belmont who specializes in photographing flowers and plants. Her series of photos of plants in winter caught my eye. There are elements of the composition I like, such as the blurred backgrounds and muted color palettes. Her photos have inspired me to make photos like this one.
This composition mistake is related to the first one. If you think that the only thing you need to know about photographic composition is the rule of thirds then you’ll never evolve as a photographer.
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Composition mistake #3: Using a zoom lens without thinking
Zoom lenses are convenient and versatile. However, they don’t teach you much about the effect of focal length on composition.
Even the humble 18-55mm kit lens is a moderate wide-angle at 18mm, a normal lens at around 30mm and a short telephoto at 55mm. As you can see from the two photos below, you get completely different perspectives at 18mm and 50mm.
If you move around between these settings without thinking, you’ll never learn how your choice of focal length affects perspective and composition.
That’s one of the reasons I like prime lenses. When you use a prime lens you really learn how to get the best from that focal length. You’ll learn what happens to line and perspective when you move closer to your subject, or further away. You’ll learn the strengths of that focal length – and its weaknesses. Creativity loves constraints, and you will find ways to use that focal length creatively that would never have occurred to you otherwise.
If you have a zoom lens, try this exercise. Pick a focal length and stick with it for a day, a week or a month. Apply masking tape to the zoom ring to keep it in place if you have to. Then go and learn how that focal length works.
If you don’t have a prime lens, then use a smartphone camera. The lens on my iPhone has a similar field of view to a 28mm lens on a full-frame camera. To make the photo below I moved in close to the bottom of a statue and framed it to include the cliffs in the background.
Composition mistake #4: Not getting close enough to your subject
Robert Capa is often quoted as saying “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough.”
Here are a couple of things to think about.
Are you physically close enough to your subject? Sometimes you need to get closer to your subject and fill the frame, especially with wide-angle lenses. The photo loses impact if you’re too far away.
Are you emotionally close enough to your subject? For example, if you are photographing a landscape that means something to you personally, that you have connected with or identified with on a deeper level than just thinking it’s pretty, then you will take deeper, more intimate photos of it.
It’s the same with people. You’ll make better portraits if you identify with and relate to people on a personal level, and are genuinely interested in learning more about their lives.
This idea of getting close to your subject is an important one in a photographer’s journey. It’s one of the reasons that photographers choose to specialize in certain subjects as their sense of self develops.
It’s also why setting yourself photography projects is an important part of your photography journey. Projects encourage you to get close to your subject and explore it in depth.