People photography: composition tips for shooting any portrait style

People photography: composition tips for the versatile portrait photographer

Direction of gaze


People photography composition tip: give your subjects space in the direction of their gaze

In the previous section, we mentioned that your subject’s line of sight has a strong compositional impact, and it’s just as powerful as real lines.

We tend to relate to other people using eye contact, and in a portrait shot, it’s the first thing we look for. If the sitter is not looking at us but at something else, we follow the line of their gaze as if it was a giant neon arrow.

These virtual lines are so strong that if someone’s looking at something outside the frame, as we have in the main shot above, the effect is multiplied to the extent that it dominates the whole structure of the photograph.

In Module eight, we suggest roughly tracing some of your favourite shots by hand, and then drawing in the lines of movement flowing in and around the image as you perceive them. In people photography, you can reserve the biggest, straightest line for the subject’s gaze.

You need to allow for this when positioning your subjects in the frame. In order to achieve a visual balance, you should make space for them to look into.

The Rule of Thirds seems to have particular relevance here too, in that portraits seem to look more interesting and dynamic if the subject’s eyes are located on a third, rather than being dead centre.

This idea of the direction of gaze applies outside conventional people photography. Even if the person in your photograph is actually looking away from the camera rather than at it, your natural reaction is to follow their eyes to see what it is they’re looking at.

Take a look at the work of photojournalist Cartier-Bresson to see how subtly he uses this in his photography to turn everyday scenes into apparently perplexing, surreal and utterly absorbing images.

Eyes have a mesmerising effect. When they’re looking at you, you can’t help but look at them. When they’re looking at something else, you want to see what they’re looking at.

And when the thing they’re looking at is outside of the frame, it creates tensions that, far from spoiling the shot, add a whole new dimension to it, when managed in the right way.

Like many rules of photo composition, this isn’t something you can achieve with planning – by looking at printed photos and how they work, you will slowly absorb the ideas and use them without thinking.

PAGE 1: How to hold the camera
PAGE 2: Set up a home studio for people photography
PAGE 3: Direction of gaze
PAGE 4: What are you looking at?
PAGE 5: Find the right background for your people photography
PAGE 6: Using the sky as a background
PAGE 7: Composing light and dark elements


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