7 Deadly Compositional Sins

Forget about adhering to the rules of composition and instead focus on staying clear of the pitfalls of a particular scene or situation

Simple, Clean View

Most of us have heard of the "rules" of composition, but how many of us have ever contemplated the "sins" of composition? Despite the fact that many photographers enjoy the technical aspects of the craft, at its roots, photography is no different than painting or drawing. The same fundamentals of art that apply to creating a work with a brush or a pencil also help determine the success of a photograph, and as artists, we all can learn something from a little trip through art history.

Throughout history, there have been many different versions of the "little box that collects light," and, today, without a doubt, we live in the golden age of these light-collecting boxes. With modern photo gear, photographers can produce work that was considered impossible even five years ago. But while our cameras have advanced to amazing heights, nothing has really changed in terms of what makes a successful image. Fundamentals of art that worked for Leonardo da Vinci while he was painting the "Mona Lisa" in the early 1500s are still very much alive today, even while shooting a camera at 10 frames a second.

When non-photographers look at a successful image, they say things like, "Wow, you must have a great camera!" But did people say, "You must have a great brush, Mr. da Vinci"? If the talent of the painter created the painting, why do people believe it's the camera and not the photographer that makes the photograph? Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston all worked during their lifetimes to push the public perception of photography from a skill of merely capturing reality to the craft of interpreting reality and creating "art."


Poor Camera Placement

1 Boring camera placement. Camera placement is the simplest way to change the overall feel of a photo. We're used to seeing the world from the human eye-level perspective. Thus, placing the camera at a different level or angle creates drama and the photos immediately capture our interest. Imagine how much bigger and more grand a fall aspen grove looks from the viewpoint of a mouse, or how much more dramatic a runner in a landscape looks if the photographer is standing on top of a truck. Putting the camera in an unexpected spot adds excitement to images and makes people stop and look.


Good Camera Placement

With this thought in mind and today's technology to play with, the obvious next step is drone photography, where, for less than the price of many lenses, you can strap a camera on a remote-controlled quadcopter and get shots from the bird's-eye perspective. The sky is literally the limit!

2 Overcomplicating the image. All too often, we see photos of amazing landscapes or wildlife, but there are objects in the frame that distract from the subjects. The most common example of this is something that doesn't belong in the background. Backgrounds should complement the subject and help set it apart from the rest of the scene. When there are distracting patterns, branches or bright spots, these complicate the image and draw the viewer's eye away from the subject.


Cluttered, Distracted View

Everything in the frame should be there for a reason and in some way help to tell the story of the subject rather than detract from it. If the image were a pencil sketch, would it include that branch, bright spot or power line? If not, then it shouldn't be in the photo, either. Remember, less is more. Keep it simple and clean. Of course, there are times when you can't move a tree or mountain, but if these things can't be incorporated into the image, it may be time to walk away and shoot something different.



Lacks Strong Leading Lines

 


Good Use Of Clean S-Curves

3 Lack of strong lines. Lines help move a viewer's eyes through the frame and create motion. Well-placed lines allow an artist to control the viewer's experience—what's seen, and most importantly, what's not seen. With conscious placement of leading lines, diagonals and S-curves, images take on a 3D feel and force the viewer to slow down to see where the image leads. Ideally, the good use of lines makes a viewer stop flipping through photos on the phone, tablet or magazine—and pause. When a viewer pauses long enough to have an emotional response, the photo is a success. In a world where images are undervalued and our brains are over-stimulated, this pause is a great indicator of a strong photograph.


Off-Balance Visual Weight

 


Good Rule Of Thirds Balance

4 Awkward visual weight. While a photo can't actually be put on a scale, "visual weight" is key to the success of an image. Visual weight is the term referring to the area that draws the eye within a composition. The majority of the time, this "weight" is also the photo's main subject. Depending on the positioning of the subject within the frame, the photo can seem off-balance or too "visually heavy" on one side. In order to balance this visual weight, often a sub-subject needs to be added to the frame so its weight can "pull against" the weight of the main subject. This works best when this sub-subject helps to tell the story of the main subject, and the most successful images often create this balance using leading lines to connect subjects that are strategically placed using the Rule of Thirds.



Good Use Of Uneven Composition

5 Too much balance. While Sin No. 4 is all about unbalanced visual weight in a composition, too much balance can also be deadly to a photo. Understanding the nuances of this concept can be tricky, at first. A slightly uneven composition in a photo keeps the viewer's eye moving around the image and stops it from becoming bored. Having uneven numbers of subjects (typically three) helps create this visual motion and leads to more dynamic images.


Uninteresting Too Balanced Composition

This concept can be traced back to classical Greece and the idea of the Golden Mean. In the Renaissance, painters like da Vinci revived these ideas of uneven numbers in composition. Today, this rule still holds true of the strongest pieces of art. These works don't always have just three subjects, however, but sometimes the application of three unique visual elements such as light, atmosphere and subject.


Too Little Space For Runner

6 No space left for movement. In order for images to have visual motion, there needs to be space for a subject to move. The prime example of this is giving a runner a place to run onto the page rather than off the page. Before online news, when newspapers were king, much attention was paid to what direction runners were running and where on the actual page the photo was placed so the athletes didn't run off the newspaper. This concept still applies in both individual images and bigger projects such as books or PDFs.


Adequate Space For Runner To Move

Focus on giving your subject a place to move, even if it's a static subject rather than a runner. With landscape images, pay special attention to where a creek may be flowing and give it a place to go. It's often a perception of motion in context that creates movement rather than an actual subject in motion.



Good Placement Of Subject

7 Poor placement of subject. The final deadly sin of composition is poor layout within the frame. The Rule of Thirds was first penned by John Thomas Smith in 1797, but the concept can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and their idea that everything in nature is divided into unequal relationships. Using the concept referred to as the Golden Mean, everything from flowers to the human body can be divided into these relationships. Thus, to be visually appealing, the frame should never be divided equally, and our subjects should never be framed exactly in the middle. By dividing the frame into thirds (vertical and horizontal) and then placing the subject near one of the junction points of these thirds, we strengthen the image's connection to the rhythms of the natural world.

Extra Credit! Rules are meant to be broken. Once learned, these guidelines can be severely bent if the opportunity presents itself to create a fresh, new image. Just because a photo follows the rules and is technically correct, it's not necessarily engaging. Many by-the-book photographers hate to hear this, but slightly flawed images with emotional impact are often more powerful than those that are technically perfect and follow every rule.

The obvious historical example of engaging imperfection is the photo by Robert Capa of the landing on Omaha Beach during the D-Day offensive in 1944. The image is underexposed and blurred due to a darkroom error, yet it's one of the definitive photographs of the 20th century. That a photo with so many technical errors can carry such weight and capture so much emotion proves the point that while technical know-how is important, the "soul" of an image trumps all.

 

Josh Miller's images have been featured in publications throughout the world and his work is represented by Aurora Photos. To find out more about his work and his workshops, including Costa Rica in the summer of 2015, follow Josh on Instagram @joshmillerphotography or check out his website, www.joshmillerphotography.com.

Josh Miller is a photographer and writer based in Northern California. In his professional life, Josh has worn many hats, including naturalist, outdoor guide and environmental educator. His abilities as a naturalist and photographer are often called upon by nonprofit environmental organizations to promote public awareness for their causes. Josh teaches photographic workshops throughout the west, Alaska and Costa Rica. His award-winning photographs are in many private collections and regularly appear in publications throughout the world including National Geographic, Audubon, Microsoft, Sierra Club, Backpacker and Outdoor Photographer. His work is represented by Aurora Photos.

21 Comments

    I can’t say that I’m overly excited about the thought of drones in the air on hikes. I hope that hikers will use their feet and heads to get that unexpected view.

    I disgree about one thing: The ONLY reason Capra’s picture of the D-day landing is so well known is that only about 7 pictures survived the drying process in the darkroom (they overheated the film and the images literally slipped off the plastic backing). If more pictures had survived, we would never have seen that photo.

    not sure why it would matter if shots were taken with drones? Overall the viewer just wants to see a beautiful landscape regardless of how the composition was taken

    Convincing me that some of these “compositional sins” aren’t worthy of viewing, reminds me of somebody telling me not to drink Moscato while eating a corn dog. If somebody likes it, have at it. Who’s to say it not the right thing to do?

    I agree with you Scott. The only flawed photo I saw in these examples is the eagle with branches in the frame. To me that would be a successful photo. The subject is sharp and well captured. With some processing and cropping, the photo would be a gem to me. Nature is always changing and how can anyone be critical of a photo that contains such minimal defects. I’m disappointed in this article. There’s nothing in it that will help me be a better photographer. Just how to criticize composition. Like you said, who’s to say it’s wrong to drink Dom Perignon with a Big Mac.

    I agree with the author. The second photograph is too busy and cluttered. The first photograph is the last photograph without the distractions of the limbs. If you want a photograph with impact you must keep it simple and uncluttered.

    The ultimate irony of being an art director, is that my eye is attracted to the more pleasing compositions but my clients want space to place their copy, product or logo within the frame. So professional photographers need to capture stand alone images AND those with space for designers to work with…

    I would also caution people against using drones. I work for the National Park System and drones are not allowed in many National parks. Last summer someone flew a drone into the Grand Prismatic thermal feature. The damage to the site is still unclear because the drone hasn’t been recovered. So, always check the legality of using drones in the area you wish to photograph. Please.

    I have trouble seeing the problem in the photos identified as lacking strong lines. I would like Ito see examples of how to improve the photo when faced with this type of scene.

    I rather like the image of the runner running out of the frame. It gives an entirely different emotional message than the rather ordinary ???correct?۝ version. What is she running away from?

    I agree with Stratocaster, the image with runner leaving the frame is more interesting. The real center of the image is that wonderful wall with gate and the autumn atmosphere all around. The runner is just enliving it a bit.

    hen you comment on a picture it would be helpful to have a right and wrong so that we can see the improvement not just read about it.
    but keeping in mind “Art is in the eye of the beholder” or something like that.

    Can someone help explain why photo #4 is considered “off-balance visual weight”? The dog seems to be in a strong position in the composition (rule of thirds). Whether the author is right or not, I’m trying to understand his comment on this photo.

    Actually, I liked image 1 of the prairie grass and the mountains in the distance. Compositionally, it could probably be better, but it showed the contrast of the geography and I rather liked it.

    Mario – I think the “problem” with photo #4 is the area of brown vegetation in the upper left: It creates an image that is actually too balanced and is a distraction from the wolf. In a similar way the image with the runner on the right and the gate on the left is equally too balanced. Of the two runner photos, I too prefer the one where she’s running out of the frame. A better composition might have been to have the runner on the right, running into the frame, but with the gate on the right too, with a large expanse of wall to the left – than would have created a degree of off-balance tension (similar to the image of the runner in front of the mountains).

    The people who are saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “looks good to me- just crop it” and similar are precisely the people who “don’t get it” and never will. Their line of thinking represents the difference between an artist and joe-blow who doesn’t appreciate or understand what makes an image that anyone can make – and an image only a true artist would ever dare to make. Many artists are successful because they dare to break these rules. Many others break these rules because they are ignorant to them and then, to save face, or claim greatness, say they “did it on purpose”. What has happened in our society is the what I call the “expertise of average” everyone is an expert but they eschew doing the work required to be excellent also.

    I agree with Judi. What would have been better in the photo identified as lacking strong lines is if our “expert” either cropped it or suggested a realistic change in viewpoint such that this beautiful setting would have been captured better in his/her opinion.

    I had to think about the strong leading lines also. I think the author is referring to the water from two sources heading into the picture but then the view of the water is blocked by the boulder. He would have rather seen the water continuing on it’s journey into the picture than the boulder which has the unintended effect of blocking the movement of the eye into the pic.

    The only way the eagle photo with the brushy branches would work is if branches were a nicer darker color AND it was an interesting limb or limbs preferably with a nest in it…..the way it is adds nothing visually and is distracting…

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