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Avoid These 7 Portrait Photography Composition Mistakes

Portrait of a young male looking to the left side of the frame.

In 2018 I purchased a Sony A7III mirrorless camera and decided to get serious about photography. I began my journey by learning the basics of photography, including aperture, ISO, and shutter speed.

After approximately three weeks, I felt confident in using manual settings on my camera to set the correct exposure. However, despite this, most of my photos still looked unprofessional.

So, I submitted some of them to Reddit for constructive feedback from more experienced photographers. It turned out the common theme was bad photography composition!

In this article, I’d like to help people who are just starting out in photography by sharing eight commonly made composition mistakes in portrait photography, as well as tips on how to avoid them.

8 Most Common Composition Mistakes in Portrait Photography

#1. Always Positioning Your Subject In The Center

Most beginner photographers have one thing in common – they tend to position their subjects in the center of the frame.

Although this is not inherently wrong, the same composition in all of your portrait photos can make them look similar and dull, especially when placed side-by-side in an album or a photo book.

To make your photos more interesting, try experimenting with different composition techniques like the rule of thirds to create more dynamic and interesting photo compositions.

For example, in the photo below I’ve utilized the rule of thirds by positioning my wife’s eyes in the upper right intersection point of the grid. This simple composition rule can help you create much more interesting and engaging portrait photos.

Portrait of a young woman in Lightroom showing on a Rule of Thirds grid

#2. Using Distracting Backgrounds

When composing your shot, take a moment to review the surroundings and see if there are any bright objects or something that takes away the attention from the main subject in the frame.

For example, take a look at the photo below. I took this portrait photo of my wife in 2018, a few months after I purchased my Sony mirrorless camera.

Portrait photography composition mistake cluttered background

Overall, the photo looks ok. However, notice how that blue boat takes away the focus from the main subject in the frame. I could have easily avoided this composition mistake by changing my position relative to the subject in the frame.

The good thing, however, is that with the latest Photoshop capabilities, it is possible to remove these distractions from a photo. Have a look at the photo below and compare it to the original photo above.

Portrait photo of a young woman with removed background distractions

PRO TIP: In case you absolutely need to take a portrait photo in a busy environment with a lot of background distractions, set your Aperture settings to the lowest possible number, such as f/1.4 or f/2.0 (depending on your lens). A small aperture creates lots of bokeh in a photo that can help to reduce background distractions.

My Lightroom Editing Process

A step-by-step video tutorial (25 minutes) showing how I edit my photos in Lightroom

#3. Subject Leaving The Frame

Another common composition mistake many photographers make is positioning their subject so that it looks like they are leaving or looking out of the frame.

Portrait of a young male looking to the left side of the frame.

This composition mistake creates a sense of incompleteness in the photo as the subject appears to be walking away from the frame and not toward it.

It can also lead to an unbalanced photo composition where one side of the frame receives more weight and attention than the other.

The solution is simple – always position your subject in the frame in a way that it looks like they are entering the frame and not leaving it like in the photo shown above.

Portrait photo of a young woman walking

In the first photo above, the subject is positioned correctly in the frame creating a balanced image. It looks natural and balanced.

#4. Chopping off Subjects’ Limbs in a Photo

I think everyone who starts learning photography has made this mistake – chopping off limbs in a portrait photo.

A bad example of a portrait photo with subject's hand chopped in a photo

The solution to this common photo composition mistake is to simply pay extra attention to make sure that nothing is chopped off in the frame.

To do this, you can use the Rule of Thirds to position your subject and make sure that all parts of their body are visible in the frame. You can also zoom out or move further away from your subject to get a better composition.

Below is a better example of a portrait photo taken in the same location and time as the one above, but from a slightly further distance.

Portrait photo of a young woman with a wine glass drawn on the wall next to her

As you can see, in this example, my wife’s hands aren’t chopped off and the photo overall looks fine.

It could be even better if there would be a little more space between the bottom edge of the photo and her hand.

#5. Head Obstructions

There’s a good chance that at least one of your portrait photos has been ruined because of an object sticking out of your subject’s head.

Here are a few photos showing this common composition mistake:

Two portraits of a young woman in sunglasses. Example of a common composition mistake - objects sticking out of the subject's head

To avoid this composition mistake take your time to ensure that there aren’t any distracting objects behind your subject that could stick out of your subject’s head in a photo.

However, if you’ve noticed this flaw in one of your photos, don’t rush to delete it. It can be easily fixed using a Spot Healing Brush Tool or Content-Aware Fill in Adobe Photoshop.

Here’s a very quick video showing how to quickly and easily remove background elements from a photo using Photoshop:

Play Video about YouTube thumbnail for a video on how to remove distracting elements from a photo using Photoshop

#6. Tilted Horizon

I don’t really understand why, but every time I ask some of my friends to take a photo of me, they always take a photo with a sloping horizon.

Two examples of a tilted horizon composition mistake

I personally very rarely encounter this composition issue because it feels natural to me to adjust the level of the camera to avoid sloping horizons in my photos.

However, there’s no doubt that many beginner portrait photographers experience this common composition mistake.

To avoid this issue, I recommend having a look at your camera settings and switching on the built-in Electronic Level. This feature will help you see when your camera isn’t level and will help you adjust it accordingly.

Photo of FUJIFILM x100v with Electronic Level Switched on

Alternatively, you can use the Rule of Thirds to create a better composition for your photo by having the horizon line at the bottom or upper horizontal line.

Don’t forget that if you’ve already taken a photo with a sloping horizon, it is very easy to fix it using Lightroom or any other post-processing software.

Here’s how to fix a sloping horizon in Lightroom:

  • Open a photo with a tilted horizon in Lightroom
    Click the “Develop” tab on the upper right side of the screen
  • On the right side of the screen scroll open or scroll down to the “Transform” panel
  • Click the button “Auto” or one of the other available options (Level, Vertical, Full). The preferred option depends on the photo that you are trying to fix.
  • Alternatively, you use the “Rotate” setting below the predefined buttons
How to level a photo in Lightroom

#7. No Obvious Focal Point

In photography, a focal point is the main area of interest in an image.

If your photo lacks an obvious focal point, it can make it look and feel unbalanced and incredibly distracting.

Below is an example of a photo without an obvious focal point. Notice how your eyes are jumping from one subject to another when you are viewing this photo.

Example of a portrait photo without an obvious focal point

The photo would be a lot better if I have moved the subject to a slightly different place without any background distractions and other people standing near the subject.

Below are two photos. The image on the left lacks a clear focal point, as your eyes may jump from the person to part of the Duomo in Milan.

The image on the right, on the other hand, has a clear focal point in the center of the frame. In my opinion, the photo on the right is much better in terms of photo composition.

Two portraits showing the importance of having a clear focal point in a photo

To create a strong focal point in your portrait photos position your subject so that when you look at your camera’s live view or display, your eyes would be automatically drawn to the subject.

If there are any secondary objects or other people who get into the frame, try to reposition your subject. Unless of course, you have a specific idea about how this photo should look like and you are sure that it won’t affect your composition.

Creative use of focal point in portrait photography

The same goes for large groups of people. In such cases, try to position the group in a way that when someone looks at your photo their eyes will immediately focus on one or two people from your group as a main focal point

To Wrap Things Up

In this article, I have discussed 8 common portrait photography composition mistakes every beginner photographer makes.

I hope this article was helpful and you can now avoid these composition mistakes in your portrait photos and take them to the next level.

Remember that a good photo isn’t about the most expensive photo equipment. It is much more about your photography knowledge and the effort that you put into each photo!

P.S. Don’t forget to sign up for OHMYCAMERA email list for photography tips, product reviews, tutorials, and more!


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Aleksandrs Karevs

Aleksandrs Karevs

Hi, my name is Aleksandrs and I am a full-stack digital marketer passionate about digital photography. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

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