Bad composition ruins good photos

The Creative Camera > Do's & Dont's > Bad composition ruins good photos

The big problem with documentary photography is not so much catching the moment, it’s catching the right moment. I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen a great photo and simply missed the moment because I acted too quickly. Counter intuitive? Yes, in some ways, but with documentary shots i.e. street and candid you often feel like you have just a split second to act when in reality, your subjects aren’t going anywhere soon. Take this young couple sat on a wall enjoying the sunshine. They were so engrossed in their mobile phones that I could have danced naked in front of them and they probably wouldn’t have noticed. I literally had all the time in the world to compose the shot and fire off a few images. Stepping left and right to change my perspective and point of view would have undoubtadly paid dividends here. Fortunately, I didn’t screw things up completely and one of the three shots I took was marginly acceptable, see a little lower in the page, but the other two, dreadful.

So, what exactly went wrong? Well, in the example image shown above, I inadvertently placed my subjects exactly in front of two of the liners anchored in the bay.  All that space and I muddied an image I really wanted by not taking a few moments to look up, move left or right, and capture the perfect shot. This error is not alone though, another big boo-boo is that I was using the wrong focal length. The reason, I’d just taken a couple of close up shots where I wanted the subjects sharp against a blurry background. For these shots I’d set the 35mm lens to f1.4. That’s great for street portraiture but a real no-no for general street shots where typically you need to have a reasonable DOF for your images. For this reason I might choose anything between f2.8 and f8 depending on the light, shutter speed and what’s going on around me. Typically I settle on f4 as I feel it’s a good compromise but often I will walk around with the camera on f2.8 as I feel that if this was good enough for street photographers 40 – 50 years ago, Vivian Maier for example, it’s probably good enough for me today.

Sadly. I don’t have a good alternative to this shot as I didn’t check the image before walking on, at least not closely enough to spot my compositiona error. The only shot of the three that I felt was usable was the one below, which although at a different angle, kinda works for what I was trying to capture. Personally though, it’s not on par with the one I lost!

Finally, I just want to highlight, excuse the pun, the problem with shadows. Many a good shot has been ruined because we don’t check carefully enough for shadows encrouching on the image. This is especially true of our own shadows as we are often so engrossed in taking the photo that we forget to check on exactly how we are impacting on the image!! The golden rule of sun over the shoulder introduces a lot of shadow if you aren’t careful. Now, sometimes shadows can be awesome, even our own shadows but in many cases they are a distraction and they spoil an otherwise interesting image. Here’s an example of one such ruined shot through carelessness and poor composition as a lesson to us all!!

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