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Portrait composition is an essential skill that all portrait photographers need to learn. But many struggle to move beyond the rule of thirds in their understanding of where to place the model in the frame.
There are so many principles of composition that it can all get quite complex. I explored an idea in my article Framing, Placement and Composition that is helpful to look at in relation to portrait photography.
The idea is simply that there are three key composition related decisions to make when you take a photo.
1. What to include in the photo
2. What to leave out of the photo
3. Where to place the main subject
The best way to learn about this is to look at several portraits and explore how these principles apply.
Decision #1 – What to include in the photo
I made this portrait of a friend outside. She was standing in the doorway of a concrete bunker, and lit by natural light.
I knew what I wanted to include in the composition: the model herself (she is the main subject of the photo and should take front stage in the composition) plus a hint of the background.
I achieved this by using a short telephoto lens (85mm on a full-frame camera). Telephotos are lenses of exclusion – their narrow field-of-view means they don’t include as much of the background as wide-angle lenses.
I blurred the background using an aperture of f1.8 and focusing on the model’s eyes. This is another form of exclusion. The background doesn’t pull the eye as much as it would if it were in sharp focus. This helps direct attention to the model.
I placed her face centrally in the frame (horizontally). The distance to the edge of the frame on either side of her head is equal. Central compositions work well when the subject is quite prominent in the frame. There is only focal point, the person in the portrait, so she doesn’t have to be on a third.
Decision #2 – What to leave out of the photo
The following portrait is composed differently. I was further away from the model, and included more of the background. I still shot at a wide aperture (f1.2 with a 56mm lens on an APS-C camera) but you can see how the junk in the background has become a more important part of the composition.
In this portrait the model is off-center because there is something interesting to fill the background. The background plays a more important role in the photo than in the first example.
Here’s another photo of the model in the first portrait, taken in a different location.
In the first portrait I minimized the amount of background that appeared in the photo, but in this one I included a lot more. The environment is part of the portrait. The textures of the stones on the beach, and the cliff and concrete structure behind the model are important elements of the composition.
The idea is for the viewer’s eye is to move between the woman in the foreground (the main subject of the portrait) to the houses to the background, taking in the detail along the way.
To achieve this I used a wider lens (40mm on a full-frame camera). I was standing quite close to my model, yet this lens still included much more of the background. I used an aperture of f2.8 to make the background go slightly out of focus.
As you can imagine, it's hard to illustrate the idea of leaving things out of the composition because I don't have photos that show the wider environment. But in all the portraits in this article you can see that I have decided not only what to include in the photo, but what to exclude from it. It's a careful balancing act between including enough of the background to add interest, but not so much that it becomes a distraction from the model.
Decision #3 – Where to place the main subject
I’ve already touched on this in the previous portraits as placement (the question of where to place the subject in the frame) is influenced by what you have decided to include or exclude from the background.
An element that often gets lost in discussions about the rule of thirds is that you are simply deciding where to place the main subject. Asking whether the subject should be on a third is the wrong question.
Better questions are how big should the subject be in the frame, and how does the background affect its placement?
For example, in the second portrait I placed the model on a third because I needed space to show the interesting background to her left.
But the third portrait works with the model placed in the center of the frame. If she were on a third, the background probably wouldn’t be interesting enough to justify the amount of empty space it takes up in the frame.
You can read more of my thoughts on the rule of thirds in these articles.
Let’s look at the question of placement in relation to two more portraits.
In this portrait I placed the model in the lower half of the frame in order to include the buildings and lights in the background.
We were shooting at dusk, and the light was moody and evocative. The street light and the lights in the windows of the buildings in the background added to that mood.
You can see that the placement of the model in the frame was much more dependent on the background than any consideration of whether to place her on a third.
In the next portrait the model is placed away from the center, toward the left of the frame.
There are two factors that helped me make this decision.
The first is that the wall on the left needed a large amount of empty space on the right of the frame to balance it out.
The second is that the model is looking to the right side of the frame, so it is natural to include some space to for her to look into.
As you can see, the question of placement depends on many factors. In this case achieving balance between the different elements of the photo was the prime consideration.
It is a good habit to do as I have done here, and analyze your own portraits and the portraits of other photographers to identify the factors that influenced the composition. It’s a lot easier to do this afterwards than it is during the portrait shoot, because you have time to think and reflect.
But the more you do so, the more these ideas about composition become internalized. You will find yourself applying them instinctively in future portrait shoots. Most importantly of all, your portraits will get much better!
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