Headroom Shot Composition Assignment

Once in awhile, we all need to step back and take stock of where we are and where we’re going.  As readers of DPS, you probably do this periodically in pursuit of better photographic skills.  Photography should be a fun, creative outlet and way to express yourself.  Unfortunately it’s easy to get lost in the details or the vastness of it all. 

As with most talents, there are some foundations and rules on which you should build. Once you have mastered these rules, you can start breaking them to expand your creative repertoire, venturing beyond your old stomping grounds.  After all, breaking rules can be the best part of art; this is where you find your unique style as an artist. 

So if you’re just starting out, or you want a refresher on some important foundational guidelines, follow along and see what I think are four basic tips of digital photography to master before heading out into the great unknown.

(Too much headroom)

(closer crop)

Rule #1: Composition

Composition carries a lot of baggage.  I’m going to make it simple and narrow it down to a few aspects I consider important.

Portraits and headroom: One of the most common mistakes I see photographers make is the misuse of headroom. 

The bottom line is, don’t leave a lot of space between the top of the subject’s head and the top of the frame.  Avoid the tendency to put faces square in the middle of your viewfinder where your focus brackets may be. 

In order to capture the emotions of the face, start by getting in as close as you can.  At times you may even chop off the tops of a few heads.  Unless the sky is particularly amazing or the trees more fantastic than your average set of trees, don’t try and force getting the surroundings into your image.  Generally the background should not be more prominent than the subject. 

Right are two family portraits I shot.  The image I gave the client has minimal dead space above the head and is cropped in so you can really see the emotions in their face.  The other has too much background.

Candids and framing: If you’re a wedding photographer or photo-journalist, you’ll find yourself trying to get balanced pictures that seem polished, but in fact were taken quickly. In these situations, you can’t pause the action to create nice compositions.  Not being in control of the environment, you must always scan your surroundings and move your feet in order to frame your images in interesting ways. 

Try to find lines that will draw the eye to the subject.  Use windows and doorframes, pews, people and even occasionally swords.  Not too long ago I helped shoot a military wedding and was able to get some nice compositions using these techniques.  As the couple left the chapel I noticed their silhouette nicely framed by the door and fired off a few shots.  Adding some contrast and a B&W filter, exaggerated the effect.  The other image with the traditional military arch set itself up for a nice composition.  I just made sure I was behind and inside the doorway to get the right framing.

Through the distorting glass: Use your lens to distort relative sizes and perspectives.  Most commonly, I use my wide-angle lens to essentially blow-up the things closest to me as the photographer.    

A typical shot shown below is with the larger-than-life bride’s bouquet.  I usually crouch low below the bride and have her point her flowers right into the lens.  Don’t be afraid to tuck the subject away in the corner of the frame and even have them out of focus. 

There will be plenty of other standard shots; these are the creative fun ones.  The other example shown here uses the wide angle to exaggerate the length of the couple’s vintage ride.  It’s often a pain to constantly switch lenses.  Try keeping your wide glass mounted on a second camera or with a second photographer.

Note: It doesn’t all have to be done at the time of shooting.  In post-production, start experimenting with the crop and straighten tools.  Most image editing packages are non-destructive so try a few versions of an image and then get a second opinion.

For more tips on composition check out this DPS article.

Rule #2: Learn about your Camera

(Automatic Settings)

(Dragging the shutter)

What are all those buttons and dials anyways?  Those buttons and dials can manipulate your photos drastically in ways you may not realize.  Try to wean yourself off shooting in auto-mode.  Start by playing with aperture or shutter priority and pay attention to how the camera balances the exposure.  When you feel like you have a handle on things, have a go at manual. 

Like I said above, you have to know the rules, not so you can follow them but so you can know when to break them. 

For example, I frequently use a technique called “dragging the shutter”.  This effect requires some manual tweaking and is best achieved outside of your automatic modes.  Dragging the shutter allows you to control how much ambient light you let in while still using your flash to pop and freeze the subject.  

Below are two otherwise identical photos.  One used the camera’s automatic flash settings, the other was a manual drag.  Note the ambient hues the sensor soaked in.  Look for an upcoming article to more fully explain this technique.  If you have a photo you took with unique manual settings, share it in the comments.

Here is a good primer on some basic settings and what they can do for you.

Rule #3: Follow the Light

As photographers, we rely completely on light.  I loved this DPS article “Photograph the light, not the land.”  You could insert any word for land, and it would still hold true.  

Creating your own artificial light, or getting good results with available light is a critical skill.  Lighting can drastically change the outcome of otherwise similar images.  Light at 12 noon can be perfect for landscape photography but too harsh for a portrait.  If you aren’t thinking about the light and it’s effect to your image, you’re only doing half your job as photographer.

For portrait work, I try to plan for late afternoon before sunset.  If possible, I avoid portraits on sunny, cloudless days.  They result in lots of blinking and the shadows exaggerate the subject’s features.  Flash photography is a must for some types shooting.  My general rule is, use it only when you have to.  Others may use it in almost all situations.  Share your thoughts below.

(Natural light with a little fill flash)

For a good primer on shooting with available light check out this great article.

Rule #4: Explore the Industry

If you’re reading this post then you’re already doing this, so hats off to you.  Study the photography of others and compare it to your own. 

Do your pictures grab you like their images do?  Is your contrast high enough? Are your colors vivid enough?  Are you focusing in the right places and using proper depth of field? 

Flipping through photography and travel magazines can be a good reference.  Never stop searching and trying to mimic the positive things you see in other’s photography. Here are some of my favorite sites: Strobist, Lens Culture, DP Challenge, Pology, and of course my own photography blog.


Any one of these tips alone (or together) won’t be the key to great photography.  It’s not just about following all the rules or breaking them here and there.  It’s about developing a style.  You can’t please everyone all the time.  Strive to satisfy your desire to be creative; there are enough personalities out there looking for what you’ve got.

What would you Add?

  1. Focus
  2. Beware the Digital Zoom!
  3. What Is Composition?
  4. The Rule of Thirds
  5. Head Room
  6. Lead Room
  7. Exposure
  8. Using Available Light


1. Focus

To capture your point of interest in the frame, properly focus with your camera. Many smartphones and tablet cameras have a feature in which you can tap the point of interest on your screen and the camera will automatically focus on that one section. On other phones and tablets, you can take photos with a clear image by aiming the camera at your subject and wait until the camera auto adjusts the focus.



2. Beware the Digital Zoom!

Get close to your subject and avoid using the digital zoom feature. Taking the time to move closer to your subject will always pay off. When you use the digital zoom rather than moving closer, the photograph will lose resolution and look pixelated.


3. What Is Composition?

Composition is a term that applies to many art forms including writing, painting, choreography, and photography. In photography, composition refers to the artful placement of subjects, backgrounds and other visual elements within the picture. Successful composition directs the viewer’s eye toward the most important parts of the photograph. Composition is not just about what is pleasing to the eye. It is a tool for the photographer to use in communicating ideas, moods, and narratives.

When composing a photograph, ask yourself:

  • What are my points of interest?
  • Where should they be placed in the frame?


4. The Rule of Thirds

Imagine breaking an image into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you have nine parts. This is the basic principle behind the rule of thirds. Placing points of interest in the intersections or along the lines creates a more balanced composition.  

Learn how to enable the grid on your mobile phone here:


5. Head Room

Headroom is the space between the subject and top of frame.


6. Lead Room

Lead room, also referred to as “Nose Room,” is the space in front of a stationary or moving subject. A well composed image is one in which there is more space in front of the subject and less behind.


7. Exposure

When an image is exposed to too much or too little light, the subject will not show detail in the highlights or shadows. On professional cameras, there are usually options to adjust the exposure. But, with tablets and smartphones, you may need to move the camera or subject to avoid extreme lighting situations. TIP: Many smartphone and tablet cameras will adjust the exposure to the area of the frame that is tapped. If you notice a lack of detail in the highlights or shadows, try tapping the screen in the area where you would like to see more detail.      


8. Using Available Light

Here are a few tips on using available light to capture your subject well.

  • Be aware of the available light and plan for the best lighting situations.
  • Shoot outside or turn on lights indoors.
  • Shoot during the Blue Hour (period of twilight each morning and evening when the sun is a significant distance below the horizon) and the Magic Hour (period shortly after sunrise or before sunset during which daylight is redder and softer).

  • Using an LED flash can make your subject look washed out.
  • Side-lighting from a window creates shadows and depth.
  • Photographing your subject in front of a window creates a silhouette. Adding flash highlights facial features and creates a backlight.




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