Beginner's Guide to Portrait Composition

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These days, everyone has a camera. With smartphones, we all take photos of our friends, our pets, and ourselves. Portraiture comes naturally for a lot of younger people. Even with this innate skill, what if I told you that by taking the time to learn a few techniques, you could drastically improve the quality of your photos?

Whether you’ve received a camera as a gift, are looking for tips on how to pursue portrait photography, or are just trying to upgrade your selfie game, we have seven tips that will help you step up your game.

Most photo-editing software will apply a grid when cropping images. Shown here is the Photoshop crop overlay.
Most photo-editing software will apply a grid when cropping images. Shown here is the Photoshop crop overlay.

Rule of Thirds

If you’ve read any other photo guide, you already know about the Rule of Thirds. That just reinforces how powerful this simple technique can be. Put simply, the Rule of Thirds involves framing the shot to have your subject fall along the lines of a 3 x 3 grid. Doing so, especially by placing points of focus on the intersections of these lines, will help create a stronger photograph. The reason it works is because it plays on how your eyes and mind naturally “read” the image. We aren’t going to get too into this here, but Jill Waterman has produced a brilliant article that goes very in depth on the Rule of Thirds.

This rule is one of the essential techniques a photographer can use and is always a good place to start. Committing to the structure of the Rule of Thirds composition will lead to better, more aesthetically pleasing photos. Many cameras, such as the Canon EOS 6D Mark II, even have settings to overlay these grid lines on your LCD screen.

The forest is beautiful, but distracting. Here we have used an aperture of f/1.4 to soften and blur the background and keep the model in focus.
The forest is beautiful, but distracting. Here we have used an aperture of f/1.4 to soften and blur the background and keep the model in focus.

Depth and Focus

The lower number your aperture, or f/stop, the shallower the depth of field will be in the image. Lenses like the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens and Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G Lens with large apertures will allow you to selectively focus on your subject, while allowing the background to blur into that creamy bokeh that portrait photographers crave. On the other side of the coin, if you have an especially dynamic model, it’s a good idea to stop down the aperture because it will give you more depth of field to make sure everything you want in focus is in focus. Better to have your subject be in focus than to reach for maximum bokeh.

In-shot frames don’t have to be rigid structures. Shown here, they can be splashes of color around your subject.
In-shot frames don’t have to be rigid structures. Shown here, they can be splashes of color around your subject.

Frame Your Shots (Twice!)

Known as frame within a frame, amateur and professional photographers alike can get a kick out of this compositional technique. Simply put, frame within a frame is the technique of positioning your subject so that they are enclosed in a frame-like area or structure in the image. This can be done with doorways, windows, tree branches, and anything that creates a strong shape in the image. Having this double-framing can anchor your subject in the scene and create a stronger composition as a result.

Beautiful bokeh! Larger apertures will create a wonderful out-of-focus effect in the background.
Beautiful bokeh! Larger apertures will create a wonderful out-of-focus effect in the background.

Negative Space (Breathing Room)

It doesn’t matter if you have the most beautiful model in the world, no one needs to have their face fill the whole frame—although you are welcome to try that look, too! You should try framing your photo so that your subject is off to one side, leaving some “empty” space to fill the rest of the frame. Doing so can help anchor them in the frame, and even draw more attention due to the negative weight of the rest of the image. Combining rules, say using the Rule of Thirds as well, can build a stronger photo.

What this tree lacks in visual weight, it makes up for in providing a nice color balance to the image.
What this tree lacks in visual weight, it makes up for in providing a nice color balance to the image.

Balancing Act (Juxtaposition)

I’m less of a fan of this concept in my own work, but it can be a clever tool for telling a story, or otherwise filling the negative space in an image. By having a second object in a lesser (smaller, out-of-focus, etc.) role, a portrait can balance their main subject’s weight in the image. If nothing else, practicing this technique will enable you to have a better sense of the composition within your shot. Secondary objects can be buildings, pets, other people, or even a reflection of the photographer.

Strike a pose! Including more of your model and environment in a shot will provide a larger emphasis on their body positioning.
Strike a pose! Including more of your model and environment in a shot will provide a larger emphasis on their body positioning.

Take a Step Back (Environmental Portraits)

Everyone wants to get the quintessential “portrait” medium-close shot, but it’s easy to get caught up in the shoot and have that be all you capture. Sometimes it helps to back up a bit and shoot not only your subject, but also their surroundings. A great reason is that you can sometimes learn a bit about someone’s character by showing their environment. Also, how else is your model going to show off their cool shoes?

Additionally, it’s important to move around as you engage with your subject. Stepping a few feet to your left or right can open up new angles, and keep your model engaged! Bringing a mobile attitude to a shoot can help keep you and your model engaged. And who could complain about adding a few extra steps to their daily count?

Centering your subject breaks the rule of thirds but can be very effective. For more examples of curating visual strength through a disregard of the rules, look at almost any shot in Mr. Robot.
Centering your subject breaks the rule of thirds but can be very effective. For more examples of curating visual strength through a disregard of the rules, look at almost any shot in Mr. Robot.

Break All the Rules

It’s important to know the basics of portrait photography so that when you do disregard them, you can do so with intention. The true masters of visual tableaux are able to distinguish from when the structure of their imagery helps build their narrative, and when the absence of such can further promote it. Knowing these rules is essential. But it’s even more important to experiment. The more you shoot, the better you’ll know your equipment and yourself.

It’s easy to stress out over a photo shoot. Remember why you picked up a camera and shoot what you love!
It’s easy to stress out over a photo shoot. Remember why you picked up a camera and shoot what you love!

Bonus: Detail Shots

This last tip isn't strictly about composition, but I’ve found it invaluable if I’m struggling with a tough shoot. Simply put: If something catches your eye, shoot it. Looking away from your subject, even for a second, can help reframe and refocus your attention on your primary target. And a well-placed detail or two can really help fill out the narrative of a shoot. At worst, you’ve wasted a few seconds. At best, you’ve captured an excellent photo that can be used in your portfolio, or to accent your shoot.

Just the Tips

There you have it. Portrait photography isn’t about rigidly following rules, or consistently breaking them. Everyone has their own style, and the more you shoot, the more your own voice will start to shine. Do you have any questions about portrait composition? What advice would you give to other aspiring photographers? What’s the next shoot you plan on doing? Leave a comment below, and never stop looking for that next perfect shot!

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