Composition Flaws, Part 1

Dwarf Dogwood
Canon 180mm macro, 1/50 sec. at f/14, ISO 200

No one likes airing their dirty laundry, or in the case of photographers, showing their photographs which have failed.  But recognizing mistakes and correcting them is a good way to learn and progress in any endeavor.  Starting with this and future blogs, I will discuss composition flaws which can prove fatal to your photographic endeavors, whether it’s acceptance of your image in a juried contest or by a magazine editor, or print or stock sales. In keeping with the normal brevity of my blogs, I will limit the discussions to two or three flaws.

Border Intrusions

The Dwarf Dogwood Wildflower in the leading photo immediately caught my attention for its simplicity and starkness.  Growing adjacent to a boulder spoke to me about how life adapts to its surroundings and can survive in less than ideal conditions.  The composition choice was easy – place the wildflower in the center framed by the boulder in the upper left corner and the pine needles in the lower right corner.  The aperture was f/14 to give enough depth of field using a macro lens so that the flower and leaves were in focus.   But intruding into the bottom right corner was a twig.  How did I miss that?   Because most lenses don’t stop down to the chosen aperture until the photo is taken, I was viewing the image at the lens’ maximum aperture of f/3.5.  At that shallow depth of field the twig would have been blurred and quite diffuse making it more difficult to spot.  Had I stopped down the lens using the depth of field preview button, or more closely examined the photo on the LCD screen, I probably would have caught the intruder and moved it away from the corner.  With enough time, and using a combination of Photoshop retouching tools like the spot healing brush and content aware technology, I could probably remove the offending twig.

Crested Dwarf Iris
Slide film, camera settings – who knows?

This second photo of a Crested Dwarf Iris was taken in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park seventeen years ago on slide film.  This time the intruder appears in the upper left.  Its effect is less noticeable because it is a leaf from another iris and would naturally belong there unlike the twig in the previous photo.  However, it is on the same plane as the iris flower and because it is in focus it competes for our attention.  Bending the leaf so it was below the plane of the flower and rendered out of focus would have solved this. Or, using Photoshop’s Gaussian Blur and a layer mask the leaf could be blurred to the same extent as the other leaves helping it to recede to the background.

To avoid unwanted border intrusions in your photos put into practice what some photographers refer to as “border patrol.”  Inspect all edges and corners for objects that do not belong in your composition.  Remove them or in the case of branches pin them back (the Wimberley Plamp works well as a third hand).


Balance refers to how well the elements in your composition fit within the frame.  For landscapes, using a wide angle lens to convey expansiveness and depth, what proportion of foreground, middle ground, and background produces a pleasing composition? Unlike border intrusions, balance is subjective.  What feels unbalanced by one may be considered an artistic statement by another.

Alpine meadow of fruit of Leatherleaf Saxifrage
Canon 16-35mm at 16 mm, 1/15 sec. at f/20, ISO 200

One year in mid-August at Archangel Valley in Hatcher Pass I saw a field of brilliant red Leatherleaf Saxifrage that had gone to seed.  The red contrasted nicely with a brilliant blue sky and wispy clouds.  There was even fresh snow on the mountain top!  It was a reminder that the transition to winter in this alpine area was soon coming.  When presented with such a beautiful scene I often shoot both portrait (vertical) and landscape (horizontal) orientations.  The vertical orientation lends itself nicely for magazine covers.  But the vertical shots I took emphasized too much of the foreground Saxifrage, yet ironically did not convey the expansiveness of the field of wildflowers.  It was heavily weighted to the foreground with too little middle ground and too much sky. The composition felt unbalanced and lost some impact.

Alpine meadow of fruit of Leatherleaf Saxifrage
Canon 16-35 mm at 18 mm, 1/15 sec. at f/20, ISO 200

In contrast to the vertical orientation, the horizontal orientation has a nice proportion of foreground to middle ground to background.  Despite the foreground wildflowers having the least amount of frame area, the expansiveness of the field is captured better in this orientation.  The sky includes just enough of the wispy clouds which by this time had become elongated horizontally. The composition feels balanced and is more pleasing.

Lastly, as good as Photoshop is, it’s better to recognize these flaws in the field rather than rely on post-processing to correct mistakes.  In some cases, Photoshop may not be able to help you, particularly with balance and orientation.

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