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Here are three things to think about when you compose your photos.
1. What to include in the photo
2. What to leave out of the photo
3. Where to place the main subject
A good way to explore these ideas is to look at some photos I’ve created and see how they apply.
Backgrounds, framing and composition
The background is an important part of any portrait, especially if you are taking photos outdoors where you have a choice of settings for your model to use.
A common technique – one that I have used a lot of times myself – is to use a short telephoto lens with a wide aperture to blur the background. If your model is far enough from the background then you won’t be able to tell what it is.
This is something you might do if the background is messy or distracts attention from your model. It’s also a technique you can use to create a minimalist style portrait, where the viewer’s attention is completely on the model.
Here’s an example.
These types of portrait can be very powerful, but sometimes it’s interesting to take the opposite approach and include a sharper background. I’ve got some portraits that illustrate that perfectly.
The first is a portrait I made of model Ashley. It was a cold day, so I asked her to dress warmly and wear a coat. We went to a nearby beach where there was some graffiti painted on the side of an old concrete WWII bunker.
I used a short telephoto lens (85mm on a full-frame camera) and set the aperture to f2.8 which blurred the background, but not so much that it was unrecognizable.
The colors are an important part of the composition. The gray and red colors in the background match with the model’s dark coat and colored hair.
How to crop portraits
Another decision you need to make when photographing people is how much of the body to include in the frame. With this photo, if I had been further away (and included more of her body and the background) then the background would have been sharper (as that’s the way depth of field works) and messier as more of the bunker would appear in it.
If I had moved closer then the photo would include less of the model’s body and less of the background, which would also be more out of focus.
The crop I chose finds the right balance between these two extremes, and creates a composition that gives space around the model (you can read more about the concept of space in The Three S’s of Composition).
I positioned the model in the center of the frame because that seemed a natural place for her. The letters of the graffiti form shapes that seem to radiate out from behind her head and shoulders, giving the photo visual energy.
Framing to tell a story
The next portrait is an interesting contrast because it shows a documentary approach to portraiture. My friend had built herself a gypsy caravan to live in as a tiny home. I asked her if I could take some photos to document the project.
This is one of my favorites.
I used a wide-angle lens (18mm on an APS-C camera) and stepped back to include enough of the background to tell the story. You can see that my friend is playing her guitar, sitting on the step of her caravan, the open door behind her painted by a friend. These are all details that give a sense of place and contribute to the story.
Here’s another portrait where I stepped back further to include more of the caravan, so it’s more obvious what it is.
My friend is slightly off center in the first portrait. She’s placed in the center in the second (and towards the bottom of the frame in both images). In both cases I was looking for the balance between my model and the background, rather than consciously thinking I must place her on a third, or in the center of the frame.
You can read more about this approach to placement in Beyond the Rule of Thirds.
Framing a street photo
This next photo, a street photo that I took in China, is another interesting example of deciding what to include in the frame.
When you look at the photo you can see that I had choices. I could have moved in closer and concentrated on the game board. I could have stepped back and included more of the people playing the game.
But I didn’t want to do either of those things. I wanted to capture enough of the scene to tell the story – so the viewer can see that there are two men playing a game.
I also wanted to include clues to the story without revealing everything. You can’t see the face of the man on the right. The blue transparent socks of the man on the left are strangely interesting (to me at least). The sandled feet at the top of the frame belong to somebody watching the game.
This technique of including details, but not revealing everything, leaves something to the viewer’s imagination. It adds a little mystery to the photo. It makes people curious, wanting to see more. All this is a result of the decision about what to include and what to leave out of the photo.
More about placement
One of the reasons I have written this series of articles about composition is to help you understand the thought processes I go through when creating photos. It’s about moving away from the so called rules of composition, and starting to think about the scene in a different way.
Before you even start to think about placement (where to place your subject within the frame) it’s a good idea to think about what you want to include and exclude from the photo. That will tell you what focal length might be good for the photo (telephoto lenses are good for closing in on the subject and cropping out most of the background, and wide-angle lenses do the opposite). The ideal placement for the subject will often suggest itself once you have made those decisions.
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