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3 Tips to Help You Compose Photos That Don’t Suck

Going through a list of article requests I get a common thread seems to be composition. Here are a few that have come in, can you relate to these issues:

  • I take fewer shots than I used to, but they're better. However, very few have a wow factor. Composition lets me down.
  • My composition sucks. I just can't seem to take interesting images.
  • I live in a very non-photogenic place.
  • Composition and creativity – creating the wow factor. Just ordinary photos…
  • Composition first, everything else second. I do not have an extremely creative “eye” (at least IMHO).
  • Composition and creativity. Looking at a scene and deciding (i) is this worth photographing, and (ii) if so, how to decide the best way to compose a photograph of the scene (e.g., what elements to include, what not to include, and the whys and why nots of both), and (iii) assuming I've gotten this far, how to actually take the picture in a manner that reflects what I'm envisioning in my head.

Sound familiar?

Composition is a huge topic, one that I could – and very well may – write dozens of articles about and still not cover it all. So in this article I'm going to keep it simple and give you three tips you can use to help you compose photos what don't suck more often!

Three tips for beating the “suck” syndrome

Clear subject composition 2

Have a clear subject in your image
Notice how the little boy in the image above is highlighted in the bright area? He immediately stands out as the subject.

I do a lot of image reviews in my classes and on my photo tours. A common mistake I see many newbie photographers make is not having a clear subject in the image. Does this sound way too familiar:

You found something really cool and took a photo of it. Maybe you were on a trip or vacation, or perhaps a local photo walk. Then you got home and looked at it on the computer, along with all your other millions of shots. But, you can't tell what you were taking a photo of, or remember what attracted you to take it in the first place. Worse yet many of your photos are just like that and you ask yourself “What was I thinking?”

Well, that's a good place to start actually, but back it up a step. Next time you're out doing photography or travelling and you're about to take a photo – NOW stop and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is my subject in this scene?
  • Is it clear and obvious that's the subject?
  • Is there a bunch of other stuff in the photo I don't need? (We'll get to that in the next tip).
  • Am I using the best camera angle and settings to feature the subject?

Just the simple act of pausing, and putting some thought into it, before you press the shutter will help you take better photos. Taking more than one shot of the subject is the next part. If that thing is so interesting, enough for you to take a photo of it, then it's worthy of a few more moments of your time to explore it thoroughly.

Another common cause of photos that lack a clear subject is the use of a wide angle lens. Now I'm not saying that wide angle lenses are bad and you should throw yours away – just that they work differently and unless you are really close to your subject they make everything look really small and far away. To use a wide angle effectively get super close to your subject to make it appear proportionally larger in the frame. I personally love using ultra-wide lenses for the distorted effect they have, and what I can do with that. But it takes practice. So if you find your scenes look too far away – either use a longer lens (zoom in), or use your feet and get closer to the subject.

Clear subject composition 3

I wanted to capture the lion statue and the church with a wide angle lens. The image above was my first shot. I wasn't crazy about it so I took a few more and ended up with the image below which is a much stronger image. This image also follows tip #2 below.

Clear subject composition 4

Note: Wide angle on an APS-C sensor is anything 35mm and wider (8-35mm), and on a full frame anything 50mm and wider.
Get closer and include less stuff
Closely related to tip #1 is this one to get closer. Just like the wide angle lens which is inclusive and includes too much stuff, so it is often with beginner's photos. That fantastic vista you see with your eyes, doesn't translate the same way in an image. You may have a tendency to want to put more stuff in your photo, but what that does it just makes them overly busy with no obvious and clear subject – right back to issue #1 above.

To solve this one it's really simple. Get physically closer to your subject. Move your feet. Move your butt. You could also use your zoom lens and get closer that way as well but usually actually walking right up to the thing you're photographing will help more. The distance between you and subject important for showing the viewers of your image what is important in your scene. By being closer to the thing you're saying, “Hey look at this, I'm right next to it!”

Practice this on an ongoing basis. Take a minimum of four photos as follows:

  1. Your initial reaction shot.
  2. Get a bit closer with your feet until the subject is larger in the frame.
  3. Zoom in as well.
  4. Get as close as you can and still be able to focus on the subject. Your lens will have a minimum focusing distance. This last shot should be at that limit so you can't go any closer and keep it sharp.

Get closer composition tip2a

This is pretty close up on an old typewriter, but is it close enough? Does it have too much included in the frame to be effective. That's what you want to ask yourself as you shoot.

Get closer composition tip2

This even closer, almost macro shot, of the same typewriter is more graphically interesting. You don't need to see the entire thing to know what it is, and sometimes a hint of something can add a bit of mystery to your image.

Do this for any stationary subject. Then review your images and see which of the series you consistently are drawn to. Which has more WOW and less suckiness? I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess you've picked very few of the #1 shots, and more of the 3s and 4s. Am I close?

This works for photos of people too. Try not to get little ants in your photos, make the person more prominent. Get closer to them, exclude stuff you don't need in the shot, and make them the clear subject. In the two images below, do you need to see the entire scene to understand where this is and what it's about? (I'm assuming you're familiar with the song!) No, subtlety is best and allows the viewer to be more drawn in to the image and read the story.

Get closer composition 4

Get closer composition 3

Avoid distractions in the background
So assuming you've read and are already applying the first two tips you have a clearly defined subject, with no extra stuff in the photo, nice and close. But have you considered the background? What is behind your subject can make or break your photo. There are four things that draw your eye naturally in an image. They are:

  • Areas of high contrast.
  • Vibrant colors.
  • The brightest area in an image.
  • The sharpest area in an image.

So can you imagine what happens if that's what is in your background? Let's say you find a really interesting rusty old tin can and it's sitting in the shade. You nail the exposure on the can but in behind it is a red flower in the sun, and because you shot at f/16 the flower is also in sharp focus. Starting to see the problem? Let's look at an example:

Hawaii2012 01915 blog1100

In this image the tiny little green leaves and buds which are supposed to be the subject are lost on a bright, overly colourful, contrasty, and busy background.

Hawaii2012 01922 blog1100

Simply walking around the tree to choose a different angle and this is the result (above). See how the same little yellow flowers buds are actually noticeable now?

Write these four things on a note card and put it in your camera bag. When you're taking a photo review them and then look at your background. Does your image have any of those things in the background that draw the eye? If so how can you solve that problem? Often just shifting your position (there's that moving your feet thing again) slightly to the left or right can get rid of a busy background. Perhaps even a higher or lower angle might do the trick as well. But move around and see if you can't find a better angle and background.

The sharpness issue can be solved by watching what aperture you choose. One of the biggest mistakes I see beginners make is to use a small aperture to get lots of depth of field and get everything in the photo sharp. What that usually does is one of two things, both bad. Either the photo is blurry due to the slow shutter speed required to compensate for the small, teeny tiny aperture opening. Or, the whole photo IS in sharp focus, including the background – which as we just discussed isn't necessarily a good thing. Don't be afraid of using a large aperture like f/5.6 or even f/2.8 if your lens has that.

This is one of the reasons I highly recommend picking up the 50mm f/1.8 (or 35mm f/1.8 for APS-C sensors) as your first lens upgrade. You can read more about what lens to get next here.

Here's another example putting all the tips into play:

Clear subject composition

Hawaii2012 01916 blog1100

Hawaii2012 01917 blog1100

Hawaii2012 01918 blog1100

Hawaii2012 01919 blog1100

Action plan

If you've read this site for a while, or picked up my free ebook, you probably know I'm all about putting things into practice and taking action. It's all well and good to read everything you can but the quickest way to taking better photos is by – taking photos more often.

Feel free to print this article and take it with you if you want, but get out there and practice and share your images with us here. If you have any other quick tips for composing better photos I'd love to hear them.


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