Having photographed portraits for a while, but still, something feels wrong in your capture? For example, bad quality is caused by several external factors like the overexposed sky, or on the other hand by conditions of low-light photography. But one thing that can be influenced by yourself is having the right portrait composition.
Composition for portrait photography isn’t anything difficult. There are tons of easy portrait composition tips and rules that will make a huge difference in your captures. It’s one of the most essential photography skills to master and after implementing these rules, you will have more engaging portraits. Let’s check out these 10 photography composition rules and ideas for beginners.
1. Rule of Thirds
It’s one of the most fundamental rules in any photography composition technique. It’s used in landscape, city, and also very common in portrait composition. The basic rule is that the main subjects that catch an eye are on the vertical grid lines, or at the intersection points of vertical and horizontal lines.
In portrait composition, the first thing is to make sure that your model eyes are in the top third of the photo. After paying attention to that simple rule you have different variations to place your subject either in the center or one of the sides.
When your photographed model is looking straight to the camera then the most common is that your subject is positioned with a dominant eye in the center of the image.
If the model is looking away in some direction, then the common rule is that you have to leave some space to look into. Also, keep in mind that the eyes are in the upper third and even better is to place a dominant eye at the intersection point.
The main rule: Make sure that your model’s eyes are in the upper third of the photo.
2. Shallow Depth of Field
That’s a pretty easy portrait composition technique to adapt. The main reason why it’s widely used is when the background has a lot of activity. For example people, a nice push, buildings, or anything else that attracts an eye. In portrait photography, you need to keep a focus on your model.
The best way to distract attention from the background is to use shallow depth of field. It’s easily adapted by making adjustments to the camera’s aperture. Shoot with a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to set your focus point only to your subject.
For that occasion, you need to have portrait lenses that allow you to shoot from an aperture like f/1.4 to somewhere f/3.5.
The main rule: Do distract attention from the background, use a wide aperture to have a shallow depth of field.
3. Leading Lines
Another composition rule is used in different forms of photography. With that, you use leading lines to draw attention to your model. A powerful tip to use because it will lead viewers’ eyes automatically to your focus point.
The leading lines can be simple as a shade pointing to the subject, standing in the middle of lavender fields or the alley of trees. There are so many variations to use and experiment with to upgrade your portrait composition techniques.
The main rule: Next time when you’re shooting, look around if you can use some objects as leading lines.
4. Filling the Frame
How to eliminate all the fuss from the back- and foreground? It’s simply by filling the whole frame with your subject. Starting with traditional mugshots from shoulders up to the top and finishing with close-up detailed shots.
Getting closer to your model brings out the details. With loads of texture, you will capture emotions with lines and wrinkles, sweat, and the depth of eyes.
How to fill the frame?
The most traditional portrait composition technique is a photo from shoulder to top of the head. Make sure you leave some space between the head and the upper frame. Also, experiment with landscape orientation shots, and leave some space on the sides (landscape capture).
A closer look photo with the head as the main subject is less traditional than the last option. These kinds of captures are more attractive because the subject takes full attention. From there you can see all the details with precise accuracy. Pay attention to one of the main portrait photography rules, which is to focus on the eyes.
From captured photos, it’s okay to leave out some parts of the head. For example, leaving out a forehead or closer shot of an eye. There are many portrait composition variations to experiment with.
5. Framing Model into a Frame
That portrait composition tip is almost similar to leading lines, but now you are drawing attention more precisely with actually framing the subject. Framing in photography is used in a variety of different forms, sometimes even accidentally without thinking of.
For example, when you have some kind of monotone frame around the subject, that draws attention to a subject. Like when you are shooting from a cave some kind of object, then cave borders work as a frame.
In portrait photography, it can be used the same way. For example, a person is standing in the door frame, looking out from the window, natural-made frames of pushes, or other man-made frames that can also be used to take outstanding portrait photos.
6. Leave Some Space at the Front of the Viewpoint
An essential portrait composition trick when shooting a cool photo of your model like “I didn’t notice that you photographed me”. In other words when the subject is looking away in some direction (not into the camera).
A tip for composition portrait photography is to leave some space at the front of the viewpoint. Together with that, you can also implement the rule of thirds. For example, set the subject in intersection points and leave some space for a subject to look into. Make sure the open space hasn’t too many attractive objects, colorful tones, or just use shallow depth of field to distract attention from the background.
Also, that portrait composition technique is widely used when you are shooting a model from the movement. For example, a sided photo of a walking subject. It feels right and logical to leave some space in front to see where the person is heading.
7. Mostly Shoot at the Same Height as Model
Again an easy portrait composition technique to pay attention while shooting. The golden rule for most occasions is to incline yourself at the same height as model eyes. It’s the most traditional way to have a natural-looking composition.
The benefits of shooting at the same height come visible when you are taking a close-up capture. To put it into perspective. When taking a portrait from above then the model’s forehead looks enormous. Also captures from below might relieve a double chin or something from the subject’s nose. For most of the days, it’s better to incline yourself with a subject.
But it’s not a written lawn to shoot exactly in that way. Even a slight height adjustment can have an amazing effect on your photos and have something different from monotonously shooting at the same height. Leave some room for experimenting as well.
Reminder: Most of the time when shooting close-up photos stay at the same height, even if it means using a ladder.
8. Focus on the Eyes
What would be the first detail in the photo that catches attention? Probably you would be looking for “eye contact”. Having sharp and focused eyes in the photo is absolutely a fundamental photography skill to master in portrait composition.
First thing is to check if the focus point is in the eyes. It happens mistakenly when you have a larger aperture with a shallow depth of field. Most of the new cameras have autofocus systems with eye detectors. It’s avoided with the right camera settings.
For portrait compositions, there are a variety of options to focus on the eyes. Firstly, you can bring out these with a frame. For example, simply framing with natural objects, like sneaking from the bush.
Also, keep in mind the golden rule to position the eyes to the upper side of the photo (the rule of thirds).
Another great portrait composition idea is to point the dominant eye at the center of the image. On that occasion, your model head is slightly sided with one eye being dominant. With that technique, you will draw focus straight to the point – to the eye.
9. Contrast Between a Model and Background
An effective way to point attention to the main subject is to play with the lighting and different tones.
One tip is to find a spot with a darker background and position your model to a place where it’s a bit lighter foreground. With that, you avoid that the background blends in with a subject.
Another thing to keep in mind while finding a sweet contrast between the person and background is just choosing an opposite tone. A golden portrait composition tip would be to avoid skin tones as a background. Simply because then it’s easier to stand out from the background.
Also when you are shooting intending to showcase a clothing brand, then it’s utmost essential to have some contrast between your subject and background.
10. Don’t leave Too Much Dead Space
At first, what is dead space? It’s an area in a composed portrait that is behind the subject, in short, a background. You will get more dead space when you shoot portraits in landscape rather than in portrait orientation.
For example, taking into account previous portrait composition rules like positioning your model at the intersection points of grid lines and leaving some space in front of your image. Still, it’s essential to leave some view area, but don’t go too far with that. Use space moderately.
Another common mistake in portrait photography composition is when leaving too much headroom. It’s again a dead space without a proper reason. Capture would be a thousand times better if cropping out unnecessary dead spaces.
BONUS: Experiment with Different Angles and Heights and movement
With all the golden rules of portrait photography mentioned above, it always feels sweet when breaking rules for a while. In the end, do you want to be a standard photographer with keeping up with all rules or you want to be a creative-minded photographer with a bit of experimenting? Here are some options to try something different.
Firstly about positioning your subject with different angles and heights. You don’t always need to shoot aligned with your model eyes. For example, it would be a great idea to shoot some photos from above and below. That portrait composition technique might have an amazing effect on your image, but it needs some practice.
Also, another tip when shooting full-body portraits of for example a woman, then you can visually have longer legs just by taking a photo below the eye level.
It’s a bit more advanced technique but also experiments with different movements, like walk away pose. It would be a great addition to your photography portrait composition portfolio to shooting sharp movements without motion blur.
Portrait Composition Tips to Keep in Mind
- The rule of thirds – Most of the time place the eyes on the upper third.
- Shallow Depth of Field – Set focus on your subject with a wide aperture.
- Leading lines – Draw attention to your subjects with visual lines.
- Fill the Frame – Eliminate dead space with close-up captures.
- Model in the frame – Use different kinds of frames to draw attention to your subject.
- Leave some space in front of the viewpoint – Let the viewer know where a subject is looking at.
- Mostly shoot at the same height as the model’s eyes – It looks more natural.
- Focus on the eyes – The most prestigious element in the photo.
- Have a contrast between background and model – Make sure that your subject stands out.
- Use dead space well – Don’t have too much monotone space, try to balance it.
What to read next? Summer photography ideas to try out.