Learning with experts

5 Composition Mistakes You Might Be Making Without Realising It

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.

composition, mistakes, Bad, poor, rules,

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.

Geoff Harris

I am a photography journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill, Steve McCurry and the late Mary Ellen Mark. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time.

As recommended by