Portrait Composition: how to compose a portrait that is classic and timeless

Portrait Composition: how to compose a portrait that is classic and timeless

Want to know how to apply the rules of photo composition to real-life subjects? Some have more relevance than others when it comes to portrait composition, depending on who you’re photographing. We’ll start by looking at how to compose a portrait in both formal and informal styles , then explain how a little visual savvy can make a big difference to your results.

Portrait Composition: how to compose a portrait that is classic and timeless

Portrait Composition Tips: where should your subject look?

Traditionally, portrait photography is shot with the camera held vertically or, reflecting how standardised this has become, in the so-called portrait format.

We tend to do this instinctively. The vertical format suits the proportions of the human face and allows a little extra space for the hair and the neckline.

Portrait Composition Tips: where should your subject look?

This shot has much more character than a formally staged portrait, and the composition is actually improved by the horizontal format

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Shooting in horizontal (landscape) format can produce equally interesting portrait shots, and although we naturally try not to crop off any of our subject’s faces, it doesn’t really matter if you do miss a bit of the chin, or the ears or the hairline.

In fact, by cropping in close you often improve the shot because you’re squeezing out a potentially cluttered background.

Your subject will still remain instantly recognisable and the result can look a lot more spontaneous and interesting.

Formal vertically shot portraits adorn a million mantelpieces, but they can look a bit staged and many of us like to have characterful snaps as well.

That’s not to say that your photographic technique should look rushed, but that it’s nice to have people actively doing something (the horizontal format allows extra space for the surroundings), or caught apparently off-guard and wearing a natural expression.

Whether you’re shooting formal or candid portraits, try varying your position. It’s better to have your subject looking slightly upwards at the camera, which emphasises their eyes.

Don’t shoot below, unless your subject is particularly proud of the contents of their nostrils…

Portrait composition tips: using a home photo studio

Using a home photo studio
It’s not difficult to set up a mini-studio in your own home, and it doesn’t need to be a permanent installation, either.

All you need is a selection of backdrops you can hang behind your sitters (curtains are easier and cheaper than proper studio backdrops) and a single lamp.

This can be a tungsten lamp or a flash. Two lamps are better still, but they need a little more experience to set up. Then just use a reflector to shine light into the shadowed side of your subject’s face.

Specially designed reflective discs are easier, but a big sheet of white card is just as effective.

In controlled conditions like these, you can now fully explore different compositional arrangements, and in particular how lines (arms, lines of sight, etc) affect the results.

PAGE 1: Portrait Composition Tips – where should your subject look?
PAGE 2: Portrait Composition Tips – using virtual lines and framing for eye contact
PAGE 3: Portrait Composition Tips – how to compose people and objects
PAGE 4: Portrait Composition Tips – how to avoid background clutter
PAGE 5: Portrait Composition Tips: using the sky as a background
PAGE 6: Portrait Composition Tips – how and when to use contrast in your people photography


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