Basic Portrait Composition

We have been discussing photo composition the last few sessions. I have a request to discuss portrait techniques, so I will be doing several sessions on portrait composition, portrait lighting, and flash photography techniques.

Note that there are an infinite number of ways to group portraits, but I want to focus on three general portrait types as a grouping appropriate for learning techniques in general. Specialization can come later…

The three groups I want to discuss are:

  1. Facial portraits (closeups), normally with very little background included;
  2. Torso or full body shots, which may or may not include background imagery; and
  3. Photos in which the person(s) are only a part of the photo image (usually 1/2 of the photo or less).

Each of these broad groups have associated techniques and purposes. We need to learn to shoot all three groups in order to be able to get a relatively good portrait during any people situation we expect to run into in our everyday relationships.

Note that a point and shoot camera (especially one with a zoom feature), a patio door or large window for light, and a white poster board or sheet of white styrofoam for a reflector are all that is required for many photos similar to the ones we will look at today.

The first group of portrait types is usually used to focus the viewers attention solely on the person. It is used extensively for formal portraits and glamour shots.

An excellent method of getting good closeup portraits is to position the subject in front of a plain or uninteresting background.

Having the subject completely or nearly fill the frame helps focus the viewers attention on the face.

A key thing to remember in photography of people is that you don’t *usually* want anything else in the photo that is more interesting or eye-catching than the people!

However, some portraits can be made more interesting by including background or foreground objects or images that compliment or add to the character of the person.

Mastering this aspect of closeup portraits is very important to your development as a portrait photographer. You need to practice this technique frequently.

You can also develop this skill by looking for portraits that use this approach in magazines or other print materials.

Now, on to torso shots. These are an even better opportunity to select background or foreground objects that enhance the portrait.

However, you need to be very careful that the added images do not distract the viewers attention too much or in a negative way. Experience, both good and bad is the best teacher of this technique.

The lower left photo on the page we just looked at is a good example of a background that adds to the character of the subject by supporting the theme of the portrait.

Note how your attention keeps being drawn back to the face, even though there are other tones and textures for you to examine.


9X12 VOIGTLANDER AVUS, 135/4.5 SKOPAR (HAZE, DEPOSITS), SHUTTER ISSUE/194701 picture
9X12 VOIGTLANDER AVUS, 135/4.5 SKOPAR (HAZE, DEPOSITS), SHUTTER ISSUE/194701
VOIGTLANDER VITO IIa 50/3.5 COLOR-SKOPAR (DUST, DEBRIS), REWIND ISSUE/197621 picture
VOIGTLANDER VITO IIa 50/3.5 COLOR-SKOPAR (DUST, DEBRIS), REWIND ISSUE/197621
VOIGTLANDER VITOMATIC II, 50/2.8 COLOR-SKOPAR, SOME ISSUES/172449 picture
VOIGTLANDER VITOMATIC II, 50/2.8 COLOR-SKOPAR, SOME ISSUES/172449
Voigtlander Bessamatic Color-Skopar 50mm-f2-8 Everything Works but Needs CLA picture
Voigtlander Bessamatic Color-Skopar 50mm-f2-8 Everything Works but Needs CLA
Voigtlander Avus 9x12 cm folding plate Camera, Skopar 4.5 135mm, Compur shutter picture
Voigtlander Avus 9x12 cm folding plate Camera, Skopar 4.5 135mm, Compur shutter