5 Composition Mistakes You Might Be Making Without Realising It


Geoff Harris (Editor)
23rd April 2014

Good composition is crucial to good photography and it’s one of the areas that even quite experienced photographers can struggle with. Unlike, say, exposure compensation, there isn’t a handy button you can press to give you nicely framed pictures. While it’s true that some photographers seem to have more of a natural eye for composition than others, it is a skill like any other, and one that can be improved through intelligent practice. With this is mind, here are are some common composition pitfalls to try and avoid.

composition, mistakes, Bad, poor, rules,

1. Don’t let the rules stifle your creativity

Most enthusiast photographers know at least some basic composition rules, for example rule of thirds or using foreground interest in landscapes, but you shouldn’t let these become a straightjacket. Landscape photography in particular suffers from a ‘by the numbers’ approach, so don’t ALWAYS place a big boulder in the foreground to lead in the eye. Your picture my be technically competent but it lacks individuality.

composition, mistakes, Bad, poor, rules,

2. Be careful with clutter

Background distractions are the bane of any serious photographer and is a particular issue in travel and documentary/street photography, as clutter is often beyond your control. The point of avoiding clutter is not to get ‘perfect’ shots, but to make sure your viewer’s attention is focussed on your main subject. Cloning out stray heads and beer bottles in Photoshop can be a pain, and it’s even harder in Lightroom, so take an extra couple of seconds to check for distractions before you take the shot. With more static subjects, you can lock autofocus by half-pressing the shutter button, then recompose for a cleaner background. Another good tip is to use a wider aperture (or long telephoto lens) to reduce depth of field and blur out distractions.

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3. Give moving objects space

Panning is hard to get right, so don’t lessen the impact of a great pan with too tight a crop. Panning shots work best when the moving object has some space to move into (an exception is maybe a motorcyclist cranked over for a very tight bend). Crop in too close on a typical panning shot and it just feels too ‘tight’.

composition, mistakes, Bad, poor, rules,

4. Don’t overuse vignetting

A classic technique in portraiture is to deliberately darken the corners to focus attention on the main subject. It’s a great technique, and takes literally seconds in Lightroom. Use it sparingly though; as with the dreaded foreground boulder in landscapes, if all your portraits are vignette in the same heavy-handed way, your work looks very formulaic.

composition, mistakes, Bad, poor, rules,

5. Try to keep lines straight

Wonky horizons and ‘converging verticals’ on buildings – where the edges lean in or converge towards the roof or sky – are giveaway rookie errors. Fixing wonky horizons or lines takes seconds in software (Lightroom’s crop tool is much easier to use than Photoshop CS). The best way to avoid converging verticals is to use a tilt and shift lens, but these are very expensive. Again you can fix it in software, or try using a prime lens, such as a 50mm, for your building shots; there tends to be less distortion than with zooms.


Would i be right in saying that the top photo is meant to be like this going against the laws of thirds. As the lines assist the eye.
The second , need cropping clutter out on the right.
The third, The bike and space in front look fine. one could give more space to lead it into the frame or even show the bike going out, Im un sure about that.
The Old cart in black and white is over done vegetating.
The with , Well Seems spot on, Am I wrong ?

Gary on 03rd August 2014

is this showing what Not to do? it seems like it, . Show how it should be not against,

Gary on 14th May 2014

    Hi Gary. Thx for the feed back which is always appreciated. We try and mix-up the way we write blogs, to provide a bit of variety. By writing about what mistakes people make, they may then recognise what they are doing and change their habit.

    Duncan Heather (MyPhotoSchool Admin) on 10th June 2014

      Hi again, puzzled As to see where this is pointing, Again, Are these photos showing what not to do, or showing how to? the bottom 3 look fine to me, the upper land scape I would say, the leading lines are good, but the cutting of the frame in 1/2 is not.
      Im trying hard, my self to work out how other photographer get the edge on me, When submitting to competitions. it would be nice to win one again, after 30 years. I have studied photography and the art of. however , feel I still lack that special something. less All the photoshopping I wish would take another road, Away from creative photography that we se through the lens.

      Gary on 03rd August 2014

        I complete empathise with you Gary. So may books tell us to follow these so-called rules blindly and never deviate.

        But rules are meant to be broken. No one said you should never have a central horizon. Infact when you have reflections in water, or there is equal interest in be foreground and sky, a central horizon can be preferable.

        If all photography were about rules, it would be a very boring artform. The trick is use the rules as a guide and know when to break them. This can mean difference between an average photo and a competition winner.

        You should consider doing Tony’s course on Composition, so he can explain in person why the first photograph works. You can download the first lesson’s notes from his course page here : http://www.my-photo-school.com/course/composition-how-to-compose-a-photograph/

        We also have a brand new course starting in September with international photographer Michael Freeman (you may well have some of his books) Michael is all for breaking rules and is teaching a 8 week foundation course in composition based on his best selling book ‘The Photographers Eye’ and again you can download his notes from his course page here:-


        I hope you might consider giving us a try. You not only get weekly assignment from your tutor, but you get to ask them questions and here their opinions as well. each week you get an video tutorial in the classroom and then a week complete and upload your homework for feedback.

        Duncan Heather (MyPhotoSchool Admin) on 09th August 2014