Five Fatal Flaws that Kill Photo Compositions

A cornerstone of what we do at oopoomoo is to teach the art and craft of photography through our eBooks, talks and workshops. In the last year  we were fortunate enough to speak at over 18 events and visit interesting and diverse places, from Antarctica to Saskatchewan. We learned a few things in this past year’s journey…. First and foremost, Canada’s natural areas are world-class and rival any so-called ‘exotic’ destination (and deserve our unswerving protection) and second, Canadians are awesome in their outlook on photography and life! Lest this article descend into a back-thumping, self-congratulatory affair on how cool Canada is, we do need to raise a point of concern. After speaking at all these events in one year, well, you’re bound to spot common patterns emerging as your students learn how to be better photographers. What we found is that, no matter where you call home, there are five mis-steps most photographers make that keep their images from being great. We’ve distilled down a year’s worth of teaching into five fatal flaws that keep your photographs ho-hum rather than huzzah! So read on to learn how to avoid these five mis-steps so you can get your own, unique ‘photography groove’ on.

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

Pokies

Yes, this is an official photography term. (In fact, we’re thinking of trademarking the idea because it appears to be so ‘popular’ in so many photographers’ images!) What on earth is a pokie, you ask? Think of those teeny little bits that jut just barely into your image frame. They commonly take earthly form as twigs, stones or even small, bright or dark blobs. You clearly didn’t see them at the time you made the shot because they are just as clearly detracting from your image. Pokies always appear accidental. Sure, you can crop a pokie out…except when a crop will ruin the balance of your composition. In the end, we tell our students that it’s always best to catch and kill a pokie in the field by recomposing your image rather than opt for surgery to remove the foreign growth in post-processing.

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Can you spot the pokie in this image?

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Can you spot the pokie in this image?

©DarwinWiggett - We think the pokie is pretty obvious here, how did Darwin miss it in the field?

©DarwinWiggett – We think the pokie is pretty obvious here – how did Darwin miss it in the field?

©Darwin Wiggett - Find yur pokies in the field and recompose to eliminate them!

©Darwin Wiggett – Find those pokies in the field and recompose in-camera to eliminate them!

Mergies

Mergies are pokies’ evil twin. Except mergies are much harder to get rid of – and this is why we don’t recommend the ‘easy out’ of cropping away your mistakes later on at the computer. Mergies exist where two visual elements connect or meet by touching or overlapping in some way. Humans are wired to find and perceive connections where visual elements like shapes or lines meet. Note we’re not talking about when you deliberately overlap objects, for example to establish perspective, but an accidental joining of two separate visual elements. Mergies are perceived by your viewer as a mistake and, just like pokies, they call attention to themselves when they really aren’t worth looking at. So keep them out of your images!

©Samantha Chrysanthou - a classic merger!

©Samantha Chrysanthou – a classic merger!

©Darwin Wiggett - The foreground branch merges with the background branch... another yech!

©Darwin Wiggett – The foreground branch merges with the background branch… another yech!

©Darwin Wiggett - Learn to see and correct mergers in the field by altering your composition.

©Darwin Wiggett – Learn to see and correct mergers in the field by altering your composition.

©Darwin Wiggett - Foreground rock and background reflection do not merge together.

©Darwin Wiggett – Foreground rock and background reflection do not merge together.

Colour over Content

How many of you have somewhat recklessly swung the hue and saturation sliders in Photoshop or Lightroom, or upped the grunge factor in an HDR program? Five months later, are you still as impressed with yourself? If not, you may be suffering the problem of relying on colour saturation over compositional prowess. Images with bold colour are beautiful, but they should still have coherent compositions. Does your image ‘Stand the Test of Time’? Of course, ‘art’ can be very subjective – if you like it, keep on doing it! But if you like to share your images with others, the photograph should have a sound compositional basis; while humans are physiologically wired to respond to vibrant colour, a great image is still free of compositional flaws. If you’re guilty of a heavy trigger finger on ‘ornamental’ tricks that are more about the processing technique than the actual subject matter of the image, consider giving everyone’s eyes a break and learn a little restraint. You will be forced to compose better if you do.

Dry Island Buffalo Jump, Alberta, Canada

©Darwin Wiggett – Although this image appears attractive and appealing, it relies on big colour and contrast for its success. In terms of composition, the image is rather weak with a big blocky foreground, a muddled mid ground and a sky that is unbalanced with most of the visual weight on the left side.

Muddled Midgrounds

So far, so good right? You’ve graduated beyond pokies, have navigated your composition successfully around mergies, and passed through the adolescent phase of psychedelic colours over sound compositions. You are a master! But wait… what is that? A viewer, lost, wandering without hope or GPS in your image’s midground! Oh no!

All too often – and this mostly applies to wide angle landscapes – we invite our viewers into our image with a big, fat WELCOME mat of a foreground and entice them to move toward a pretty mountain or looming canyon in the distance. But we forget to pack a map, and they end up lost in a jumbled pile of rock or fall through a watery hole in our image’s midground. A finely composed image takes into account fore, back and mid ground and ties the three together using elements of visual design such as line, pattern and shape. This is what we tell our students: “Every single speck of dirt in your photo, every grain of sand, should belong there – and not one particle more.” Reach for this in your compositions.

(© Samantha Chrysanthou) - Watch out for watery ‘holes’ or gaps in pattern in your midgrounds such as we have here with the small bit of open water at the left edge of the image frame.

© Samantha Chrysanthou – Watch out for watery ‘holes’ or gaps in pattern in your midgrounds such as we have here with the small bit of open water at the left edge of the image frame.

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Trying a portrait orientation with the camera tightens up our composition and eliminates the open patch of water at the left edge of the frame.

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Trying a portrait orientation with the camera tightens up our composition and eliminates the open patch of water at the left edge of the frame.

©Darwin Wiggett - We flow from foreground to background through the gate in the mid-ground. The whole image is tied together.

©Darwin Wiggett – We flow from foreground to background through the gate in the mid-ground. The whole image is tied together.

Mixed Messages

And finally, the Big One. You clicked the shutter because you saw something (literally and figuratively). But that photograph will have a life of its own: it’s going to leave home and grow up to be a big, Grownup Image. Ideally, it should be able to stand on its own two feet without you there, hovering at its shoulder, explaining what the image is supposed to be about. We’ve felt the pain of workshop participants who can’t help but jump in to explain their shot after a puzzled silence during class critiques. But whether viewers find what you hoped they would (and part of letting go is allowing people to find their own meaning in your images), they do have to find something. The ‘story’ or idea can be simple – the delicate curve of a rosebud can be a complete idea – or quite layered and complicated. But having the message of your image fail is another common conundrum as we learn how to convey complete ideas with only the rough tools we have at hand – plastic, glass, light… and our creative force. You don’t want your child to be the misfit that no one understands! Listen to feedback from others. Often, we’re trying to tell too many things in one image and the viewer ends up confused or, worse, bored. Simplify. Keep throwing things out of your image until only one, clear message comes across. Never underestimate the power of one grain of sand.

©Darwin Wiggett - This photograph is a classic ‘mixed message’ image. Obviously, the colour and the content is attractive but what is this photo about? Is it about the reflections of the clouds, the patterns of the ice, or the contrast of the boulders? The viewer is not sure of the point of the image.

©Darwin Wiggett – This photograph is a classic ‘mixed message’ image. Obviously, the colour and the content is attractive but what is this photo about? Is it about the reflections of the clouds, the patterns of the ice, or the contrast of the boulders? The viewer is not sure of the point of the image.

Conclusion

So there you have it! If you eliminate these five, common mis-steps along the path of creative development, you can focus more on honing your skill at telling truly unique and memorable stories or ideas in your images. Eliminate these five fatal flaws and you’ll be well on your way to artful compositions with meaning!

©Samantha Chrysanthou

©Samantha Chrysanthou

About the Author

Photographing the incredible beauty of natural things, filming quirky videos, trying new foods with unpronounceable names, curling up with a good book, sharing ideas on how to live lighter on the Earth...these are a few of my favourite things!

19 Comments

  1. Eve Hannah
    June 2, 2015

    great info
    Reading it over and over!! Thank you!!

    Reply
  2. Janet Greenhalgh
    June 2, 2015

    I really love what you guys do. Keep up the great work!

    Reply
  3. Guy Kerr
    June 2, 2015

    Now…. I need to remember it all in the moment. Maybe I need to enjoy the moment and then think about it more after I have enjoyed it.

    Reply
  4. Gerry Hiebert
    June 2, 2015

    I’m the editor of the APAC (Abbotsford Photo Arts Club) Seminar Newsletter. Would you mind if I highlighted and created a link to this article in a future newsletter?
    Thanks for considering this, and for all you do to encourage and inform photographers,
    Gerry

    Reply
  5. Kat Tippe
    June 2, 2015

    Fabulous information, and I truly found the technical jargon refreshing! All of it made sense and I definitely found myself saying, oh yes that was why I liked, but didn’t LOVE that photo, it had a muddled middle and that one has megies. I find the mergies the toughest to be critical about. I was taught to ensure the front of the photo has grabbed the viewer s they want to explore more of the picture. I guess, hence your logs in the water at the shore. So if the 3rd log that intercepts the reflection it would be a GREAT phot correct?
    Thanks From Kat Prints

    Reply
    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      June 3, 2015

      Hi Kat,

      The image would be improved but, frankly, it’s not a very good image. This shot with the foreground logs and backlit mountain is all about tonal contrast, but I should have exposed in such a way to make this idea stronger. For example, there’s not much of interest in the background mountain and treed shoreline…do I really need detail there? Or should the entire scene just be a silhouette? Darwin and I have a name for images that we keep but are weak…they’re our (ahem) ‘teaching slides.’

  6. Connie Quinton
    June 2, 2015

    Thank you sooo much for sharing and teaching us! I will also be rereading. Boy do I have lots to learn. Onward ho to better pictures! 🙂

    Reply
  7. Henrik
    June 3, 2015

    It was a joy to read … it completely resonates with my own experience to take things away from a picture, until all unnecessary elements are taken away to convey some message or at least an impression.
    Speaking of your country, you’re blessed with great landscapes and nature … in my point of view, mankind already takes too much of an influence on the planet we’re supposed to preserve for generations to come (just think about Oil Shale/Tar Sands Industry … )

    Reply
    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      June 3, 2015

      The resource industry is a touchy topic in Alberta, but I think it is safe to say that we love our landscapes but also take them a little for granted. What did Joni Mitchell sing? “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Thanks for the comment.

  8. Ron Talley
    June 3, 2015

    My good friend, Sandy Martinelli Sullivan, pointed me to your fine article. I thoroughly enjoyed the piece and it is very good advice. I’ve been a photographer a long time now but one never stops learning does one? Thank you so much. I’ve signed up for the newsletter too.

    Ron

    Reply
  9. Ian Parr
    June 5, 2015

    This is a brilliant article. Thank you so much for explaining these ideas in such a straightforward and entertaining way.

    “Pokies” and “Mergies” have got to be included in the next edition of the OED.
    🙂

    Reply
  10. janina
    June 6, 2015

    Great advice, guys! Thanks! As a long-time photographer, I still like to keep learning.
    PS: Darwin — I still think there is a huge Pokie in your second image of the tree-trunks — the two white blots in very top-right corner of the image…hit my eye immediately! Cloning is good. Cheers! :O)

    Reply
  11. Gary Tozer
    June 7, 2015

    Interesting, informative and very well done. Thanks,

    Reply
  12. peter ensrud
    June 9, 2015

    Good article. Easy read and some useful information for myself to remember when out there chasing compositions. Pokies, merges, muddled mid grounds… :/ Must improve. 😀

    Reply
  13. Reta
    June 12, 2015

    Entonces tenemos lo correcto para.

    Reply
  14. Curso Fotografia Bruno
    August 18, 2015

    Very well illustrated article. Thanks

    Reply

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