People photography: composition tips for shooting any portrait style

People photography: composition tips for the versatile portrait photographer

Composing light and dark elements


People photography: composing light and dark elements

The word ‘photography’ comes from the Greek ‘phos’ (light) and ‘graphis’ (paintbrush). The literal meaning is ‘painting with light’.

It doesn’t say anything about softboxes, reflectors or the other paraphernalia of professional portrait photography.

So don’t approach portraiture with preconceived notions of how it must be done; the best photographs are often those that you discover rather than those that you construct.

People photography: composing for dark areas of the frame

The dramatic lighting in the image above came thanks to the bathroom mirror. A camera-mounted flash would have created a flat-lit face with little variety between the shadows and highlights.

By using available light that’s being cast from an angle, the resulting contrast in light and shade helps bring out the contours of the subject’s face much more effectively.

It’s true that harsh lighting doesn’t necessarily work for female portraiture, but that may be because we look for different things in a female portrait (softness, subtlety) to those we want in a male one (strength, drama).

However, if you’re after a film noir Femme Fatale-style portrait, then harsh lighting can produce exciting results.

Our main image illustrates how you can use the principles of light and dark in portraiture as readily as you can in other kinds of shots.

Dark or black parts of a photo aren’t simply dead spaces; they help define the shape of the lighter tones and the structure of the whole photograph.

Dark areas act as a counterpoint for the lighter areas and it’s the balance between the two that produces the composition.

In many respects, the advent of colour photography has dulled our sense of light and dark and how they can work compositionally.

Classic black and white portraiture of the type produced by Yousuf Karsh, for example, is a world apart from today’s commercial photography, displaying a complete mastery of shadow and tone.

You see the same contrast in films, between contemporary, soft-lit colour sets and the dramatically staged lighting of black and white film noir movies. Which do you prefer?

You may find it easier to explore the possibilities of light and shade by shooting in black and white. It’s tempting to take colour photos and convert them, but if you shoot in mono mode, your camera will display black and white on its LCD, an advantage old-time photographers never had.

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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