People photography: composition tips for shooting any portrait style

People photography: composition tips for the versatile portrait photographer

Find the right background for your people photography


People photography composition tips: finding the right background for your subject

Identifying the subject for your people photography – and choosing what it is about them that you want to capture – is the easy part. Well, easier anyway.

The trouble is that while you’re doing this, your attention is distracted away from the background to the extent that you barely notice it.

This is simply human nature, but as a photographer you need to see things more literally, and a photographic print ruthlessly portrays the mess and muddle in the background that your selective vision overlooked at the time.

The first step, then, is to look at your subject. The second is to look at its background. You might already have an idea of the angle and the lighting needed to make the best of the subject, but if the background is wrong, all that will be a waste of time.

You may be able to persuade the subject to move, but if you’re documenting a public event, such as the World War I era re-enactors in the main shot on this page, then you may have no such luxury.

Don’t go for the first shot you see. In this instance, our vintage soldiers were performing against a backdrop of spectators in modern dress.

It took only a couple of moments to find a position where the background was much simpler and yet still gave a sense of place – the trees could suit any World War I battlefield. And by moving round so that the sun wasn’t in the frame, it made the exposure much simpler.

You may need to experiment with your vertical position too. Standing normally, our soldiers would have looked rather ordinary, but by crouching down we’ve made them larger and more imposing.

You may also need to change your viewpoint vertically to determine what’s visible in the background of your shot, too.

The other way to control the background is to experiment with the zoom position. People photography is more flattering when you shoot at longer focal lengths, and this has the advantage of effectively magnifying the background.

This is useful if there’s only a small clutter-free area behind your subject. With wide-angle shots it’s far harder to control what’s visible in the background.

Here, though, we were able to use a wide-angle lens, which produced a stronger, more dramatic perspective.

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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