Many of us have already learned the basic composition rules; rule of thirds, leading lines, symmetry and patterns, depth of field, framing and the final rule is there are no rules. However, there are some things to avoid most of the time. If you avoid some of these rookie mistakes, below, it will give your photos a more professional feel, and make it look like you put a lot of thought into your composition.
1. Pay attention to the background.
There are all sorts of things in the world that can pop up in your photograph and look weird when behind your subject. Remember you are taking our 3-D world and turning it into a 2-D photograph so everything gets flattened out. When taking photos in a park or place with a lot of trees pay attention where the trees appear behind your subject. If the tree is completely hidden until it pops out right behind someone’s head then take a step to the right or left. If not, it looks like the subject has a tree growing out of their head. Make sure there is enough information in the frame so it doesn't look awkward. In the photo below, I took a photo of myself right when my dog ran behind me. In the photo the partial dog is distracting and awkward.
2. Watch the feet!
When you are shooting a wide angle photo, whether it be a portrait, candid moment, or event, make sure to include people's feet. This is only for wide shots; there is a whole different set of rules when cropping in on a person. Many times you will see a lot of room at the top of the image and no feet. This is one little detail that will make you stand out as a true, thoughtful professional. In the photo below I have one image with the feet and one without. You can see how one little thing can change so much.
3. Don't ever crop at a person's joints.
When you crop right at a person's joint it makes the viewer confused about if that person has a whole limb. You don’t need a full body shot all the time but you don't want the composition to be awkward or distracting either. By cropping just above or below a joint you ease the viewer’s eye into the photograph you want them to see. The most important joint to watch for is the neck. Never crop at the neck, it will look like you decapitated them and that never leads to a happy client. In the photo below I cropped it to be just of the little boy. In one I cropped right at the neck, in the other I didn't. Either way, if you make a crop and think it looks a little awkward it probably is.
4. Leave enough information to tell the story.
This may be the photojournalist in me but sometimes there is such a thing as too close. There are times the photos are happening right in front of you and by shooting with a wide angle lens you are capturing the feel and energy from an event. Wide angle gives the viewer the most information possible. Don't be afraid to jump right in the middle of the action and photograph everyone close up. Even if you are doing a business portrait for a magazine, leave enough information in the frame for the reader to immediately see what this person does. The photo below is an advertisement for a health education program. The man in front is the teacher, the rest are students. I shot this as wide as I could without warping the edges so there would be enough information in the shot.
These are just a few ideas to think about regarding composition before snapping your next photo. Again photography is an art and there are really no rules but if you are going to break the rules have a reason for it. Or if it's a happy accident just tell people you did it on purpose.