5 Typical Composition Mistakes That Crush The Effectiveness of Your Images


Composition – your photos are merely snapshots without them. As good as the technical abilities of our cameras are, they are just tools. It is the creative mind behind that tool that makes the image. And that creative mind has to work as hard as the camera’s processors to ensure that the image looks great. 

Let’s not beat around the bush, good composition can be hard. For a select few, it might be instinctive, but for the majority of us mere mortals, it is often a challenge. Of course, we have a few rules to guide us, but often it’s our mistakes that teach us more. With that in mind, let’s look at 5 typical compositional mistakes that crush the effectiveness of your images.

The Distracting Background

The key to good composition is to lead the viewer’s eye through the image and to the subject. With a distracting background, the viewer's eye will veer off of i’s course through that image. It will linger longer in the background, taking longer to reach the subject. It might only be milliseconds longer, but it will jar with the viewer, signaling to them that there is something wrong.

So what are some of the classics of the distracting background? One is, of course, the pole, tree, or antenna emerging from your subject's head. Nothing screams bad image more than seeing your model's visage visually pierced by part of the background.

compositional mistake portrait
A nice portrait ruined by the line through the subject's head. By Etty Fidele on Unsplash

Another classic is litter. A particular bane of the landscape, cityscape, or architectural photographer, litter is everywhere. One of the worst offenders is the ubiquitous red coke can. Often difficult to see in real life, they stand out like a sore thumb in the actual image. 

The same can be true of people. Very often, we concentrate on our subject so much that we miss the people walking through the background.

When shooting, always think subject – background. Compose the image for your subject, then do a visual scan of the background. You should do this through the viewfinder and directly to confirm your background has no distractions. 

photo bombers
Look out for photo bombers. By Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

Your Subject

The subject of a photograph is the element that holds the composition together. There are three typical mistakes when considering your subject. The first is shooting the subject too centrally. The second is not having a well-defined subject, and the third is the relationship of the subject to the background. We will look at the latter in the next section

One very typical mistake beginners make is to position the subject too centrally. Whilst balance is often a good thing in composition, a centrally placed subject looks staid and boring. It does not give the viewer's eye a clear path through the picture.

Usually, the only time a centrally placed subject works is if they are placed on a symmetrical background, where they become the focus of the shot. Most other times, it is much better to offset your subject. 

black and white portrait of an old person
A subject placed too centrally can diminish a composition. By Bill Harmway on Unsplash

The second subject, faux pas, is not to have a well-defined subject.

Again, often newcomers to photography will try to cram as much subject matter into a shot. This means the viewer has no real direction as to what the true subject and intent of the photo are.

Before you raise your camera, isolate the exact subject in your mind. Then look for ways to position it, either by moving the subject or moving yourself. This leads us nicely to the next mistake, perspective. 

image without well-defined subject
This image lacks a well-defined subject. It's too busy. By Clay Banks on Unsplash

Image Perspective

A typical compositional mistake that many photographers can make is to shoot solely from eye level. Whilst there are plenty of shots that work well from eye level, there are many that don’t. The reason that a lot of eye-level shots don’t work well compositionally is simple. We see at eye level. 

When you take a shot of a famous location at eye level, you simply show exactly what many people have seen in real life.

eye-level street shot
Taken at eye level, this image lacks drama. By Weston Owen on Unsplash

Drop down low or get up high, however, and that view changes completely. We now have a view that is not naturally seen, and we can use our creativity to make it stand out. 

In the previous section, we mentioned a third subject mistake. That is the relationship between the subject and the background. A typical mistake is to make that subject far too small in the frame, effectively merging the subject with the background.

This leads us to move to another important aspect of perspective. If your subject is too far away, move closer. Alternatively, use a longer focal length. This will not only make the subject larger in the frame but also help separate them from the background.

Mistakes With Motion

Motion is one of the most powerful tools we have in photography. How we convey it in an image defines that image. There are a couple of very typical mistakes made when shooting motion.

The first is to have the subject exiting the frame rather than entering it. 

For example, a shot of a speeding race car should be positioned so that it has space to move into. If that car is going from left to right, the car should be on the left side of the frame so that it has the whole of the right to move in to visually. 

If the car is moving out of the frame, it suggests to the viewer that the shot was mistimed and makes the composition look totally unbalanced.

movement wrong composition
movement proper composition
It's clear to see which works best. By Pietro de Grande on Unsplash

The other common mistake is not matching the shutter speed to the motion of the subject. Freezing a racing car at full speed might make the car look sharp, but it also makes it look parked. Choosing a slower shutter speed and panning with the car will give that sense of motion that the shot deserves. If your shot contains motion, think carefully about how you wish to convey that motion and set a shutter speed accordingly.

Sticking To The Rules

The last of the typical compositional mistakes might seem a little left field. That is actually sticking to the rules. By this, I mean photographers will often get fixated on creating an image that fits within the defined rules of composition. However, there are plenty of shots that work well when they break those rules. 

You do, of course, need to understand the rules before you break them. Not every subject is going to fit exactly on a third, sometimes, the horizon is just perfect if it’s dead center; there are many ways to push and break the compositional rules. If you know and understand the rules, you will also know when a composition works well despite breaking them. 

A simple compositional mistake can turn a great image into a mediocre one. The ones we have listed above are some of the most common. Look out for them and eliminate them from your shooting workflow, and you will find you are getting a much higher rate of keepers. 

Further Reading:

  1. Using Leading Lines For Captivating Composition
  2. 25 Great Shots That Use Roads And Paths To Enhance The Composition
  3. Use These 5 Elements To Compose Great Photographs
  4. How To Use The Elements Of Composition
  5. Landscape Photography Composition Techniques | The S Curve
  6. The 5 Biggest Composition Mistakes That Hinder Your Work

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

“Composition – your photos are merely snapshots without it.”
– totally agree here.

“When you take a shot of a famous location at eye level, you are simply showing exactly what many people have seen in real life.”
– I get that logic.

and lastly – know the rules before breaking them, yeah that’s correct. That way a Photographer can have a lot of fun 🙂 For example the Photograph from Clay Banks on Unsplash, that is probably not the best way to compose a Photograph, but to be honest, I kinda like it 🙂

Have a Good Day Mate!

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