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

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

Portrait Composition Tips: how to avoid background clutter

Portrait Composition Tips: how to avoid background clutter

This historical tableau just begged to be photographed, but it was finding the right background that took the time

Identifying the subject for your portrait 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 so that you barely notice it.

This is simply human nature, but as a photographer you need to see things much 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 in the case of the tableau in the main shot on this page, we had no such luxury.

Don’t go for the first shot you see. In this instance, it was this trio of figures gathered around a table with a bright window in the background and a host of other exhibits.

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 line of rifles against the far wall fitted in quite nicely.

And by moving round so that the window wasn’t in the frame, it made the exposure much simpler.

You may need to experiment with your vertical position too. Standing normally, these figures would have looked rather  ordinary but by getting down to the table height, we’ve made them larger and more imposing.

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

The other way to control the background is to experiment with the zoom position. Portrait shots are more flattering when shot 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.

In the shot above, though, we were able to use a wide-angle lens, which produced a stronger, more dramatic perspective.

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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