Understanding composition is an essential skill for any photographer. It has a powerful impact on how the viewer perceives the photo.
A well-composed photograph draws the viewer’s attention to the intended subject and evokes a feeling of balance and harmony.
On the other hand, a poorly-composed photo can be confusing and aesthetically unappealing.
In this article, I will provide eight composition tips for portrait photography.
Let’s explore each one in detail.
8 Practical Composition Tips for Better Portrait Photography
#1. Understand The Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is the most popular and commonly used composition technique. It is based on the idea that a photo should be divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines.
According to the rule of thirds, the main subject should be placed at one of the four points where the lines intersect. When taking a portrait photo I recommend positioning your subject so that the subject’s eyes will be in the upper third of the frame.
However, if you take full-body portraits, simply position your subject on the left or right vertical line of the rule of thirds as shown in the photo below.
Please note that just by placing your subject in one of the intersecting lines won’t necessarily mean you’ll have a good composition in your photo.
There could be too much empty space on the other side of your frame. Also, you need to remember that tones, colors, and contrast also have weight in the balance of your photo.
For example, a small but colorful object can carry more weight than your main subject even if it occupies most of the space in the frame.
To illustrate this, have a look at the diagram below.
Where did your attention go first?
There’s a good chance that you looked at the small orange circle first even though it is 7 times smaller compared to the light gray circle.
PRO TIP: When composing your shot using the rule of thirds, make sure to pay attention to contrast areas in your shot. Consider how your photo looks as a whole. Does it feel like it is tipping too much to the left or to the right side? If so, take your time to adjust your composition to create a balanced photo.
My Lightroom Editing Process
A step-by-step video tutorial (25 minutes) showing how I edit my photos in Lightroom
#2. Use Negative Space for a Minimalistic Look
Negative space is the area in a photo that doesn’t contain the main subject or any other visual elements. It can add an interesting effect to a portrait photo and make your composition look more balanced.
Negative space is especially useful if your goal is to create a minimalistic and creative portrait.
To create a portrait composition with negative space you need to find eliminate unwanted distractions and frame your subject so that there would be a lot of empty space around your subject.
By leaving a lot of empty space in the frame, the attention of the viewer will be automatically drawn to the main subject in the photo, making your subject pop out of the photo.
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PRO TIP: When shooting portraits with negative space, try to avoid using shallow depth of field. The main idea of shooting with negative space is to show that there’s a negative space, so it is recommended to keep both your subject and the background in focus.
I highly recommend taking a look at Max Wanger’s work for some inspiration on how to use negative space in photography.
QUICK HACK: You can easily turn an existing photo into a creative and minimalistic photo with a lot of negative space by extending the background in Photoshop.
Here’s how to do it:
- Pick a photo with a simple background or a sky above the subject in the photo.
- Open your photo in Photoshop and select “Crop Tool”.
- Navigate to the “Ratio” setting in the top right side of the screen and select the “4:5 (8:10)” option from the dropdown.
- Use the “Crop Tool” to extend the photo.
- Select the blank area and hit “Shit + Delete” on a Mac or “Shift + Backspace” on a PC to open the “Fill” window. Alternatively, press “Edit > Fill”.
- Select the “Content Aware” option from the dropdown and hit “OK”.
That’s it. Photoshop will analyze the existing background in your photo and extend automatically fill the extended empty space resulting in a creative photo with a lot of negative space.
Please note: The “Content Aware Fill” tool isn’t perfect and in some cases, Photoshop may not be able to fill in the empty space in your photo perfectly.
#3. Try Unconventional Angles & Perspectives
Don’t always default to shooting portraits at eye level. It’s how we see the world every day, and although there’s nothing wrong with it, it may not be the best angle for every portrait scenario.
Instead, try experimenting with different angles by kneeling and shooting portraits from a more unusual perspective.
You can also experiment with different lenses when shooting portrait photography.
For example, using a wide angle lens, such as a 24mm for a portrait can create interesting and creative portrait composition with distorted features of your subject.
You just need to be careful not to get too close to the subject as this can distort their facial features way too much.
#4. Natural Framing in Portrait Photography
Natural framing in photography is the technique of using various elements within the image to draw attention to the main subject and create a more visually appealing and engaging photo composition.
To apply a framing technique to your photo, simply search for elements within the scene that you can use to frame the portrait, such as trees, windows, doors, etc.
You can use the framing technique in the foreground (in front of the subject in a photo) and the background.
When I use the framing technique in my portrait photos, I prefer to use the foreground for framing my subjects.
For example, in the photo below, I decided to use my friend’s arm and shoulder to frame my wife in a photo. This added additional depth and interest to an otherwise very standard and uninteresting photo.
You can use the following types of framing in your photos:
- Architectural – using building or building elements for photo framing
- Natural – using elements from the natural environment, such as flowers, branches of trees, mountains or hills, rocks, etc.
- Light/shadow – you can also use light and shadow for framing your subject in a photo.
- Colorful elements – you can use color as a framing element in your photo.
#5. Use Leading Lines for Better Portrait Composition
Leading lines are a compositional technique where you are using different lines to direct viewers’ attention to the main subject in your photo.
These lines can be actual lines, such as a road, or lines on the brick wall, or they can be implied lines created by the placement of objects that lead to the main subject in a photo.
How to Find Leading Lines for Portrait Photography?
Leading lines are literally everywhere. Here are a few examples of the leading lines you can use for portrait photography:
- paint on the ground
How to Use Leading Lines for Portrait Photography?
There are two main things that you need to keep in mind when using leading lines for portrait photography:
- Pointing to the subject
Let’s start with depth. Instead of simply placing your subject next to a background with lines and taking a standard photo at 90° between you, the subject, and the background, angle yourself slightly differently.
Position yourself at around 45° between yourself, the subject, and the background so that leading lines from the background point toward the subject and that both foreground and background are visible.
Notice the difference between both of these photos. The first photo has a lot more depth, and dynamics and looks much more interesting than the second one.
PRO TIP: Make sure that the background is not too busy and that it doesn’t overpower your portrait subject.
The second tip is obvious, but it’s worth noting—make sure that the lines lead to your subject. This way, your portrait will have greater focus and viewers’ eyes will be naturally attracted to the portrait subject.
#6. Importance of Balance
I’ve touched on the concept of balance briefly in my first composition tip, but it bears repeating because it is a very important concept in portrait photography composition.
Balance in portrait photography is about how visual weight is distributed in the composition of the photo.
This includes considering where the subject is placed in the frame, their pose, and the overall composition of the image.
A well-balanced portrait will have an even distribution of visual weight throughout the frame.
If you’re just starting out in photography, one way to get balanced portrait photos is to place your subject in the middle of the frame.
This will create a symmetrical balance in the photo—both sides will have an even distribution of weight.
However, I highly encourage you to experiment with asymmetric balance too because in most cases, it leads to more interesting and dynamic portraits.
When using asymmetric balance, try to mentally split your photo in half and take a look at each side of the photo to see if they are equally balanced.
Below is a good example of an asymmetrically balanced photo. Notice how I have positioned my wife on the right side of the frame while keeping that colorful glass of wine on the left.
In the photo below, I decided to position my wife on the right side of the frame along the vertical line of the rule of thirds. Overall, the photo looks ok, however, in my personal opinion, the left side of the frame has a little bit more weight compared to the right side of the frame.
This is primarily because of the vibrant color of the wine glass on the well. To improve the balance in this photo I decided to slightly decrease the contrast of the wine glass so that it would not drag the viewer’s attention so much.
PRO TIP: The larger, brighter, more colorful, and more visually interesting an element in a photo is, the more attention it draws to itself. Also, objects near the edge of the frame also draw more attention compared to those that are closer to the center of the frame.
The next time you take a portrait photo, stop and take a moment to analyze the visual weight of each half of the photo and how they compare to each other.
If you will notice that one-half of the photo has more elements and draws more attention, look for ways to compensate for this inequality in the composition. This can be done by repositioning your main subject or other elements in the frame.
#7. Color and Contrast in Composition
In portrait photography, color and contrast allow photographers to translate certain emotions and feelings and draw attention to the main subject in the frame.
There’s a dedicated science called color psychology that studies how colors impact people’s emotions, behavior, and attitudes.
For example, blue and gray colors can be used to translate sadness and loneliness while warmer colors like yellow, orange, and red can be used to evoke feelings of joy and happiness in a photo.
That is why I really like to add warm color grading to most of the photos that I take during my family vacations.
It is also important to understand the concept of complementary colors. This is when two colors are placed opposite each other on the color wheel and they oppose each other in terms of hue and saturation.
You probably heard of the “orange and teal look”. The orange and teal color combination is often used by filmmakers because they are complementary colors (opposite each other on the color wheel), and they look good together and contrast well.
Understanding color psychology and how certain colors complement each other will help you compose better and more interesting photos.
RECOMMENDATION: If you are interested to learn more about color and color psychology in photography, I highly recommend you check out one of my recent articles about color grading in portrait photography.
Examples of a Good Composition in Portrait Photography
Now, let’s look at some of the portrait photos from my personal archive that I am pleased with in terms of photo composition.
In 2018, during our honeymoon vacation in Italy, I took this photo of my wife.
The composition of this portrait photo is quite straightforward – I simply arranged the shot so that the eyes (in this case, sunglasses) would be at the upper right intersection between vertical and horizontal lines.
This intended focal point draws the viewer’s eyes and attention to the subject’s face.
The above photo was also taken in 2018, during our honeymoon vacation in Italy. I like the composition in this photo because again it follows the rule of thirds, plus the leading lines draw attention to me.
I really like both of the above photos that I took of my son, Nikita. In both of these examples, I’ve utilized leading lines to draw viewers’ attention to the main subject in the photo.
A friend of mine and a great photographer, Mark Litvyakov took this portrait photo of me on the day of our wedding. I like how this photo is composed because it follows the rule of thirds, plus the horizontal leading lines from the book library point toward me in this photo.
Recommended Videos About Photography Composition Techniques
Recommended Books About Photography Composition Techniques
Photographic Composition provides 250 striking monochrome images to teach fundamental concepts that will enhance your visual skills and help you create the perfect shot.
The Photo Composition Playbook is a compact toolkit of photography composition strategies, designed to push boundaries and help photographers break out of their comfort zones.
It’s perfect for new street photographers or any photographer looking to hone their visual language, understand classic composition techniques, and uncover the secret to taking better photographs.
Read This if You Want to Take Great Photographs is perfect for the modern generation of photographers who use DSLR, compact, and bridge cameras. It doesn’t contain any graphs, diagrams, or camera-club terminology. Instead, it motivates readers through iconic images and useful advice, accompanied by practical hints.
To Sum Up
I’ve included 8 composition techniques and suggestions for stunning portrait photos in this article to assist you in taking better pictures.
In addition, I included a selection of books and videos that can aid in your comprehension of portrait photography composition and the numerous methods you may use to enhance your pictures.
I hope you will put these suggestions into practice and it will allow you to capture excellent portraits.
Now, go and take some stunning portrait photos!
- From Good to Great: Lightroom Color Grading for Portrait Photos
- Embrace the Shadow: How to Take Portraits in Harsh Sunlight
- From Sunrise to Sunset: Natural Light Portrait Photography Guide
- The Essential Guide to Understanding ISO in Photography
- A Simple Portrait Photography Exercise (Boost Your Skills Fast)
- Understanding Depth of Field and Its Creative Possibilities
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