Focus Editor Philip discusses five mistakes commonly made in photography composition using five examples from his portfolio

Beginner

First of all, before we delve into this, I just want to say that actually, I’m a real advocate of breaking the rules of photography and embracing mistakes, especially when it comes to composition.

"As much as I enjoy breaking the rules of composition, there are times when looking back at my images that I should have been following at least some of them."

My photography training initially came from a fine-art background, and really, the ‘rules’ were never something I thought of when creating images. And there were very few ‘mistakes’ that could be made. It’s only recently since focusing more on landscape photography, that I’ve become more aware of how vital good composition is, particularly within that genre.


As much as I enjoy breaking the rules of composition, there are times when looking back at my images that I should have been following at least some of them. Rules are there for a reason, even if just to be broken eventually.

"Calling the photos mistakes might be a strong word - I still like these shots, so I’m not writing them off completely - but I do feel they could have been better."

But when you start in photography they are particularly beneficial to follow - if only to master the fundamentals of composition before delving into more experimental areas.

Below are five images from my portfolio that I feel would have been much stronger had I paid more attention to composition. Calling the photos mistakes might be a strong word - I still like these shots, so I’m not writing them off completely - but I do feel they could have been better. I hope also that with the information below, it'll help you when you’re out in the field and will encourage you to be more mindful of how you set up your shots.

1 No foreground interest

I love nothing more than a moody Blue Hour coastal scene for landscape photography. I’d taken this image below at Amble in Northumberland by chance as I happened to be in the area for dusk, and the clear conditions brought some beautiful blue hues once the sun went down. Along with long exposure settings, the result was a beautiful, ethereal-looking silky smooth scene - juxtaposed with a striking pierhead.

"When composing your shots, don’t ever neglect the foreground - this can make or break your photo."

However, what this image lacks is foreground interest - it feels like there’s not enough to engage the eye when moving through the scene. Had there been something in the lower half or third of the image, I think it would have made the shot much more robust and helped the eye move through the scene better. I know this area, and at low tide, rocks are visible from this vantage point - having those in the foreground would have completed this shot, but equally, I could have tried a bit harder to bring in more foreground interest to the scene.

When composing your shots, don’t ever neglect the foreground - this can make or break your photo.

2 No discernible subject

Bracing the cold on a January afternoon at Alnmouth, Northumberland, I was rewarded with an absolute gem of a sunset (in my opinion, winter sunsets are far superior to summer sunsets). However, I was so distracted by the colours forming in the sky that I wasn’t paying attention to the scene around me - more trying to capture the colours as much as I could - which meant I ended up with a shot that didn't have a main focal point or subject to it.

"Start by identifying the subject and then build your scene around it, rather than the other way round..."

While I think the reflections in the photo work to a certain extent in some way, there’s nothing else in the image that the eye can be drawn towards. Basically, it’s all just colours and nothing to anchor it, and therefore this image isn’t as strong as it could be.

Always make sure you have a strong subject for your scene. Start by identifying the subject and then build your scene around it, rather than the other way round - starting with the scene and then trying to identify a subject afterwards.

3 Dead space

In landscape and seascape shots, it’s generally accepted that you should have a split ratio of something like one-third land, two-thirds sky or vice versa in your composition.

This will mean that one particular part of your image will be more prominent than the other, depending on what the subject is - however, this doesn’t always work. For the image below from Budle Bay, Northumberland, I think it’s certainly the case that I got that ratio wrong. I made the sky more prominent in the scene to try and achieve a sense of scale. Still, by doing this, I’ve incorporated a lot of dead space (areas of the image that have no discernible relation to the subject) that doesn’t do anything for the overall shot. It would have looked far better if I had incorporated less sky and more of the dunes.

Always be aware of the dead space around your subject. Having too much can detract from the overall scene and make the eye hard to move through your image.

4 Too much clutter

As well as times when there might not enough going on in a shot, it’s also very possible to have too much going on too.

"As well as times when there might not enough going on in a shot, it’s also very possible to have too much going on too."

Take this photo below from Holy Island, Northumberland; there are several elements that could serve as the focal point/ subject of the image; the castle, the wooden pillars, the seaweed and the rocks. But having it all together framed this way makes it hard to discern what the eye should be looking at. The scene is also tightly packed together - in a nutshell, it’s too cluttered.

Saying this, when you’re out on location, it’s very easy to get carried away with the scene in front of you and forget about what it is precisely you want to photograph - I’m guilty of this for sure. So the best advice I can give is to just step back and take some time to examine the scene in front of you. Find the focal point of your image (what you want your main subject to be) and make sure you’re giving it enough space to do it justice.

As well as times when there might not enough going on in a shot, it’s also very possible to have too much going on too.

5 Distracting elements

You could have the most stunning scenery in front of you, and through the viewfinder, the composition in-camera looks perfect, too; but only when you get home and look at the images in post-production you find there’s something about the shot that just isn’t quite right.

"...it pays to slow down and look at the scene in front of you."

This can often be due to distracting elements within the frame diverting the eye away from the main subject. Below is another example from my shoot at Budle Bay where the bush to the right of the frame, I feel, is distracting from the image's subject and makes the whole scene feel unbalanced. No matter how much I try to crop it out either - it just doesn’t work.

Distracting elements is another occasion where it pays to slow down and look at the scene in front of you. In particular, take a look at the edges of your frame - this is often where the most distracting elements occur. If something is diverting your attention to the edges of the scene, and it’s not supposed to be like that, try to remove it in-camera as much as possible. You can remove it from the scene with something as simple as shifting your setup slightly to the side or positioning your camera differently.

Further reading:

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