photography composition

5 Photography Composition Mistakes to Avoid

When it comes to taking an ordinary photo and transforming it into an extraordinary photo—nothing will transform your image quite like photography composition. While photography composition is one of the most important elements of setting up a photo, it is also one of the most difficult concepts for new photographers to grasp.

It is so easy to see something interesting in front of you and immediately want to snap a photo of it. But, if you don’t take the time to focus on composition, that image can just look boring and amateur. The good news is, if you know some of the most common composition mistakes to avoid you can start enjoying better composition with all of your photos.

white sands sunset photography

Photo From White Sands National Park Shortly after Sunset. Shot using a canon 5dmk4 at 100mm f14 at 2 seconds

Step One: Know The Rule of Thirds

Before we go through some of the most common composition mistakes that can impact the quality of your photos—it is important to know about the Rule of Thirds. This is your guide of what to do when setting up the composition of your image.

What is the Rule of Thirds? The basic principle of this image is that you break down your image into 9 equal squares by breaking it up into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Think of it as a tic-tac-toe board. You can do this in your mind, in the viewfinder or in the LCD display.

Once you have your grid in mind, you will notice four intersection points around the four corners of the center square. These are the most important elements of the rule of thirds and where you should place the main subjects or point of interest for your scene. This helps give your photo a more natural focal point instead of having your subject perfectly framed right in the middle of the image.

The Rule of Thirds is great, but sometimes it is hard to apply this rule when in the moment, which is why understanding these common mistakes first is so important.

Bishop fall colors

Capturing and pulling natural color is essential when shooting landscape photography.

Mistake 1: Keeping Your Subject Front and Center

This is the most common mistake that beginners make when it comes to photography composition. It’s a common beginner’s mistake, but one that anyone can make.

When you have a single subject, say a dog, and you want to take a photo of that dog, it is easy to have him sit and look directly at the camera, and then move the camera so he is right in the middle of the frame.

This can lead to a very boring image. Instead, by slightly moving your subject (a cute sitting puppy) all the way to the left of your photo, your image will suddenly pop.

Hawaii Sunset Photography

A Hawaiian Sunset with a focus on the sun setting — Often times you can underexpose your shot to get more detail in the sun and bring out the colors of the foreground in post production

Mistake 2: Tilted Horizon

This is another mistake that can happen to anyone and that is a really common problem for novice photographers. The good news is, you can fix this in post, but it also means you may accidentally crop out important details.

A tilted horizon is when the background of an image has a slight slant or tilt. All you need to do is keep an eye on the horizon. Another way you can avoid this is to use the level tool on the inside of the camera. This is particularly helpful with horizons that aren’t horizontal.

winter wildlife photography

Always plan for the cold and bring extra batteries — like this guy

Mistake 3: Your Subject is Too Close or Too Far Away

So many beginners all make the same mistake when it comes to shooting a subject—they stand too far away! Many people assume they can just crop later on, but you will lose some detail when you crop in. You need to get close enough to the image you are shooting so you can capture all of the detail, and make sure that you are setting the scene not setting your subject up to get lost in the scene.

On the same hand, you want to avoid getting too close to the subject. If you get too close, without the right intention, you can end up chopping off a limb or important part of your subject (known as a limb chop).

Imagine our dog subject from earlier, if you zoom in on everything in your puppy expect for a single paw, it can look sloppy and distracting.

rock creek fall colors

Here’s a shot from my iphone of the Fall Colors from the campground

Mistake 4: No Variety

If you are taking multiple photos of one subject, and are focused on photography composition—it can easy to get stuck in a “rule of thirds rut.” If you put your sitting dog in the left third of every photo you take, you camera roll (and your portfolio) is going to look very boring.

Switch it up, add in framing, lines, different perspectives, or anything else that can make the same subject, and even the same pose, look entirely different.

arches national park photography

Photo Courtesy of:

Mistake 5: Leaving Distractions In

Attention to detail is important when it comes to crafting the composition of your photo. You can put your subject in the perfect position, pay attention to the rule of thirds, but if you have something distracting in the background, then it can ruin your entire composition.

A piece of trash blowing in the wind, a shoe in the background of the shot of your baby, anything small at all that isn’t supposed to be there can really draw the eye away from the subject and towards this misplaced item in the foreground or background.

Pay attention to the details and you are going to be much happier with the final result of your image.

white sands desert photography

This was captured atop a sand dune using a 400mm lens


Composition can be complicated. It is all about having the right artistic eye in order to really master the art of photography composition. The best thing you can do is to practice, and to look at photographs you like and see how they handle composition.

There is so much more that goes in to setting up a photo besides just lighting and a great subject—photography composition can make all of the difference. Just keep these common mistakes in mind and do your best to avoid them and you can truly take your images to the next level.

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