Common Composition Errors

Peggy Farren 2013-03-03

It's our busy season here in Southwest Florida, so the camera clubs are brimming with activity! We frequently judge competitions for our camera clubs and art centers.

I so often wish I knew who the artists were so I could tell them why they didn't win an award or make the cut to get into a juried art show! Many times tiny composition errors keep a nice picture from becoming a competition picture!

1. No room in front. If someone is facing or heading in a certain direction, leave a little room so they have somewhere to go. This is probably the most common mistake I see. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE a perfectly centered picture! But if the bird is heading west, I want to see a little room for the bird to move into!


No room in front of bird.

bird photography room in frony
Put a little room in front of the bird for a more pleasing composition.

2. Too cluttered or confusing. If I can't figure out what the picture is or my eyes jump all over the picture, trying to figure out what the point is, it's not a good composition. Simplify your picture so that the subject is really clear. Even busy pictures can be pleasing to the eye if we see patterns, nice lines or good color combinations.

Busy street scene
Busy street scene


Busy street scene cropped

3. Eyes too close to the top of the picture. Everyone THINKS they understand the Rule of Thirds but I'm starting to believe the no one does! For people and animals, the eyes should be on the top rule of thirds line - in most cases. It's okay to cut off the top of someone's head if their eyes stay on that top line. For full shots, there should be room above the subject's head.

Eyes too close to the top.
Eyes too close to the top.


Model moved onto the left line and eyes near the power point (intersection).

What about the horizon? If your subject is the bird or human, they are your primary subject and the horizon line becomes secondary.

4. Limbs chopped off in small chunks. Nothing drives me crazier than people or birds chopped off at the ankles. If you need to crop, which often you will, crop a big hunk off so it looks intentional. Try to avoid cropping right at or below a limb. Remember, you are the artist and can always do a custom crop.


Cropped at toes

Cropped more.
Cropped more.

We offer a fabulous class on Composition by instructor extraordinaire Joe Fitzpatrick. The next time it's offered is March 27: http://www.meetup.com/UnderstandPhotography/events/102782172/

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With over 17 years as a full-time professional photographer, Peggy offers photography training through her training center, “Understand Photography”.

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