4 of the Most Common Composition Mistakes In Photography

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Common composition mistakes in photography

I’ve seen photographers make lots of mistakes when it comes to composition. That’s not a criticism – we all get things wrong from time to time. But recognizing mistakes and putting them right is a key part of improving your composition skills. In that spirit then, here are the most common composition mistakes and errors that I’ve seen photographers make.

Mistake #1: Learning the rule of thirds – and nothing else

The rule of thirds is basic composition theory and it’s important to understand it. But the mistake some photographers make is never trying to learn anything else about composition.

For example, take a look at the photo below. The tree is located on an intersection created by dividing the frame into three, according to the rule of thirds.

Common composition mistakes in photography

But is the rule of thirds the only principle of composition used in this photo? No, it isn’t. Let’s look at the other factors.

  • There is negative space around the tree. It gives the subject room to breathe and creates a sense of space.
  • The tree is the main focal point and there is nothing to compete with it.
  • The hills in the background are faded due to the weather conditions (it was raining when I made the photo), adding a sense of depth.
  • I used a long exposure (125 seconds) to blur the water and the leaves of the tree, adding a sense of motion or time passing to the photo.
  • I converted the photo to black and white to create drama.

As you can see there’s much more happening in this photo, from the point of view of composition, than simply placing the tree on a third. Once you understand how these ideas work you can use them in other photos and improve your composition skills at the same time.

Mistake #2: Not including foreground interest

This is a common mistake in landscape photography and some documentary photography. That’s because photographers in these genres often use wide-angle lenses, which usually include lots of foreground detail in the composition.

The idea of foreground interest can be a hard concept to grasp at first but it makes sense when you start to think about it.

For example, I made the following photo with a 14mm lens (a wide-angle on my APS-C camera). I wanted to tell a story about the couple in the market. Using a wide-angle lens helped me include context – the piles of vegetables in the foreground that the couple was selling. The vegetables provide foreground interest and support the story.

Common composition mistakes in photography

The same idea also applies to landscapes made with wide-angle lenses. In the photo below the ruins is the main subject. The flowers in the foreground add interest in the bottom half of the frame.

Common composition mistakes in photography

Mistake #3: Not paying enough attention to the background

Sharp backgrounds are common in documentary styles of photography and can help tell a story about the main subject. For example, in the photo below the main subject is the three men in the photo – the barber, his customer, and the man looking directly at the camera.

Common composition mistakes in photography

The detail in the background supports the main subject and helps tell its story. We can see every detail, from the wall behind the men to the barber’s tools and products. These details are an interesting and important part of the photo.

Sometimes the opposite approach is required and you need to blur the background out to remove distractions. Part of the skill of being a photographer is knowing when to blur the background and when to keep it sharp. In some portraits (like the one below, made with an aperture of f/1.8) you can use a wide aperture to blur the background and remove details that might distract from the model.

Common composition mistakes in photography

The mistake I see photographers make is not thinking about these things and taking enough care to make sure the background suits the subject.

Mistake #4: Not working the subject

The final common composition mistake I see photographers make is failing to work the subject. This means that you take as many photos as you can until you’ve exhausted all the creative possibilities. Sometimes you only need to take three or four photos for this to happen. At other times you may take 20 or 30. Either way, the idea is to explore different viewpoints and compositional possibilities.

The reason this works is that the first point of view you use is not necessarily the best one. If you have the opportunity, it’s a good idea to try different points of view, different focal lengths, and maybe even different aperture and shutter speed settings.

This is where you can think through some of the concepts discussed earlier in the article. A good question to ask yourself is, “How can I make the photo more interesting?”

Perhaps you need to pay more attention to the background. Maybe you need to include some interesting foreground detail. Perhaps the photo would benefit from including some negative space or using a slower shutter speed to blur parts of it. The answers depend on the subject and how much time you have to explore it.

Example of working the scene

Here’s an example. Below you can see four photos I made of an interesting building, each one utilizing a different point of view and composition. They were part of a sequence of 25 photos I made before I felt there was nothing else I could do.

Common composition mistakes in photography

Common composition mistakes in photography

Common composition mistakes in photography

Common composition mistakes in photography

Conclusion

There are many mistakes that it’s possible to make when it comes to the composition in photography, but these are the most common that I’ve seen. What composition mistakes have you seen people make, or are you guilty of making yourself? Please let us know in the comments below.


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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. He's written over 25 popular photography ebooks (use the code DPS20 for a 20% discount on your first order). Download his Composition PhotoTips Cards now for free!

  • Cutout X

    great post, thanks.

  • Iancross

    Lanhydrock! Nice

  • John Sole

    Nice photos. But the title is Compositional Mistakes and there wern’t any as examples.

  • oldclimber

    I looked just at the first example, and tried to think about where my eye was drawn – first to the strongest, sharpest obvious focal point, the tree; then, it circled to the larger hill mass on the right; then, down, across the water back left, passing the tree again, to the fainter distant island shape on the left; then, back slower around the tree details, back right, noticing the faint lighter cloud form above the hill; back down slower, again, noticing the tree shadows in the water, as my eye tracked leftward again; studying the tree textures on the small island, I noticed for the first time, a very faint hint of an even vaguer distant shape between the left island and the tree, which barely was discernable; last, in the sky, I noticed the lower left and right sky areas were darker than the mid-upper sky, but so subtle that only by keeping the eye moving could I perceive the distinctions. Ten or eleven elements in such a simple composition, all balancing together harmoniously. A crude “rule of thirds” might start the conversation, but instinct has to make the final nuanced adjustments that bring all the things together, that you may not even consciously realize until looking at the image later.

  • anne kelley

    I’m not a photographer but loved these insights into how to make a picture pop due to these principles and perspectives thank you for this…loved it because it opens ones mind to how we can see even more of life with or without photo…

  • pete guaron

    Thank you so much for writing this article, Andrew. It’s the most sensible discussion of the “rule of thirds” I’ve read, since I first discovered the concept of “composition” in photography as a teenager photo enthusiast, over 60 years ago. I hope everyone in the world of photography takes careful note of your comments.

    And the development going on from there is also valuable.

    Looking backwards, I think the turning point for me was when I learned to “see”. See properly. It was an epiphany for me, and changed forever the way I view what is there, in front of me. Another lable for this is developing – or getting – “the eye”.

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