Portrait Composition Tips: using virtual lines and framing for eye contact
It’s certainly true to say that the line of sight of your subject 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 you’ve got two people looking at each other, as we have in the main shot on this page, the effect is multiplied to the extent that it dominates the whole structure of the photograph.
A good trick to learn the art of composition is to roughly trace some of your favourite shots by hand, and then draw in lines of movement flowing around the image as you perceive them. In portraits, 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 need to 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 dead centre.
This idea of the direction of gaze applies outside conventional portraiture. 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 apparently turn everyday scenes into 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, adds a whole new dimension when managed in the right way.
Like many aspects of 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: 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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People photography: composition tips for more diverse portrait styles