6 Tips for Perfect Composition in Portrait Photography

6 Tips for Perfect Composition in Portrait Photography

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Every on-location portraitist is faced with the challenge of paying attention to the details regarding his or her subject, such as posing, lighting, composition etc. Perhaps the greatest mistake made by amateur on-location portrait photographers is the lack of emphasis placed on a portrait’s background surroundings.

Photographers who do not closely examine the surroundings within the frame of their image are those who come away with images that have great distractions. No high school senior or bride will purchase a portrait in which a tree limb is sticking out of her head. Such distracting elements take emphasis off the subject, and are detrimental to the portraitist’s sales. There is nothing more painful for a portraitist than taking a portrait that is beautifully posed, gorgeously lit, and absolutely unusable … simply because no attention was given to background composition!

Posing and lighting both play enormous roles in the creation of a dynamic portrait. However, background composition is a forgotten component that requires an equal amount of time and thought.

Some things to consider when creating a perfectly composed portrait:

1. Fill the frame with your subject

A portrait is about the person, so don’t be afraid to zoom in close! Remember that zooming in does not mean capturing only face shots. You can also capture “tight”, close up shots of your subject sitting on a stool or leaning into a tree.

portrait photography composition 1

2. Keep eyes in the upper third

This is the most natural spacing for a portrait. Try not to divert from this rule unless you are deliberately creating tension. Another exception of this rule is when a subject is full-bodied in the bottom third of the frame.

3. Use framing to concentrate all attention on your subject

Rather than eliminate the environment, use it! Doorways, arches, windows, gazebos are all creative solutions that allow for maximum subject focus and heightened visual interest.

portrait photography composition 2

4. Create texture

Once again, if you can’t eliminate a distracting background, use it to your advantage! By pulling the subject away from the background and shooting on Aperture priority (f4.0), you will create a small depth of field to blur the backdrop and allow for artistic texture. Your subject will stand out of the background without completely removing all creative interest in the shot.

portrait photography composition 3

5. Use lines

Brick is the perfect background for a portrait! The lines add creative interest, but they also draw attention to your subject. Keep in mind that any “line” used in a portrait is strongest when it comes outside the frame and leads to the subject.

6. Change your angles

Sometimes eliminating a distraction is simply a matter of moving the camera to another position. To make the best use of perspective, work to change your camera-to-subject angle. Often by moving a little to the right or left, or getting higher or lower, you can completely abolish that distracting tree branch or telephone pole.

You will be guaranteed to sell your portrait creations when you concentrate on background details, make your subject stand out, and invest creative interest in the portrait’s composition.

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography www.BrideInspired.com and leadership with www.RevMediaBlog.com.

Some Older Comments

  • Joy April 30, 2013 07:07 pm

    Thank you! That was very helpful!

  • Garry November 12, 2011 07:13 am

    Hi there, I just want to say thanks for the great information on family portrait photography. I will be back soon for more help.


  • Carl November 7, 2011 05:39 am

    Communication is the key. Does your subject have angles they have liked in the past? Do they like to smile big? Are they shy? Talk out the expectations on both sides and make it fun to smile for the camera.

  • Brian November 7, 2011 04:01 am

    @ Christine,
    Find out where your point of focus was it could be his ear and not his eye. His face is closer to the camera than the rest of his body (DoF is greater behind the focal point). When using a tripod he could have moved his face just enough. However one can only speculate about your problem without specific information ie., ISO, Shutter speed, DoF, even camera and lens but specialy the focal point. Most cameras have the option to view where the camera focused if you use auto focus which could also be the problem. Even the diopter (if you look through the camera and not on a screen) could be out of whack just enough to give you a false focus.

  • Brian November 7, 2011 04:01 am

    @ Christine,
    Find out where your point of focus was it could be his ear and not his eye. His face is cloer to the camera than the rest of his body (DoF is greater behind the focal point). When using a tripod he could have moved his face just enough. However one can only speculate about your problem without specific information ie., ISO, Shutter speed, DoF, even camera and lens but specialy the focal point. Most cameras have the option to view where the camera focused if you use auto focus which could also be the problem. Even the diopter (if you look through the camera and not a screen) could be out of whack just enough to give you a false focus.

  • Christine November 5, 2011 11:09 am

    I have a question about portrait photography. I recently photographed my grandson 's senior environmental pictures. Everything, background, body, hands etc are fantastic.\, but his face blurred slightly in almost all shoots. I have never had this happen before. I used the tripod. Any ideas?

  • rich August 8, 2011 03:04 pm

    nice infos... i really wanted to learn more about portrait photography....

  • lisa April 8, 2010 04:34 am

    the first 2 pictures look larger than normal, are those taken with certain formate camera? thanks

  • Andy February 20, 2010 10:43 pm

    Love your guides. Love exprimenting with photography and i'm very new to it. People like you help a lot, thanks for your effort!

  • hamid reza September 26, 2009 07:29 pm

    Good tips for me.its been a big help to me as guider.

  • jev September 26, 2009 03:21 pm

    hi ms. christina, can you comments on these sample of outdoor portrait please so i can improve my craft. thanks.

  • Michelle September 25, 2009 10:46 pm

    hfng: (RedDot).....Love your lighting. For your outdoors shots, do you use supplemental lighting? I am still learning and a novice, but find that getting the lighting perfect is not easy - even outside, and if its not right, the picture are not "crisp". Many great photos I've taken are ruined by the fuzzy look. Please, share your tips! mish@photographsbymish.com

  • Andrea September 25, 2009 07:32 pm

    I will remember these tips - thanks!

  • julie September 25, 2009 04:09 pm

    Thanks for sharing :) And for the photography snobs, seriously, go elsewhere. Since you are flawless, why aren't you out there shooting since you have clients lined up out the door instead of putting down other photographers just trying to help others out?

  • Robin Ryan September 25, 2009 01:21 pm

    @creative: it's a matter of white balance, specifically the kelvin temperature. Shoot in raw, then play around with your kelvin temps in your editing program to find out what temperature your lights are... studios are often around the 4700-4800 range to exposure Caucasians properly, but this changes when shooting other skin colours. The benefit of RAW is that it doesnt set a temperature, and you can decide later

    A few tips I would add to this article:

    1) Let the post-production match the subject. Take these two shots, for instance:

    In the first, I used a black and white with a strong filter to bring out the wrinkles and accentuate that mood. If I had gone for, perhaps, a red filter it would have made him look angelic (contrasting with his stern expression) and ruined the shot.

    Second shot, I desaturated a lot but left that vivid blue eye in their to make sure you look right at it.

    2) Context can do a lot. In this photo of shoe-shining kids in Quito, I kept a lot of the town square in the background because that is their lives... it tells us more about the subjects: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/3812480341/in/set-72157601769220969/

    3) While eyes up high are often helpful, it's a pretty flimsy rule and one that shouldnt be followed too religiously. Other forms in the frame can be used to draw attention to the subject or to even enhance him, as I did in the studio with this enormous shadow: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/3459337201/in/set-72157601769220969/

    Here's my studio portraiture set for anybody interested: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/sets/72157616184538095/

  • brian September 24, 2009 11:34 pm

    How red is red that is of course your white balance should be set to flash or try it on auto first and see what happens.lots of question to figure it out.
    1. Are you shooting in raw?
    1a.if so does the red show up in the preview?
    2. What camera?
    3. What lights?
    4. white balance have you custom set white balance by shooting towards the light using something like an expodisc?
    5. in the color settings for your camera is the hue set toward magenta side? typically there would be negative number for that.
    6.Even for the white balance setting there should be an adjustment for hue using numbers is that off?

    I've got loads more questions but later i have to go to work

  • Creative1tm September 24, 2009 04:15 pm

    I am a sports/ news photographer who has been taking shots of the crowd and friends as well as of the players on the floor for several years with my Canon 30D. I get lots of comments that I am good. Due to many requests I am setting up a litle studio without any knowledge about working with lights. It is challenging me. Thanks so much for this post. I am just starting to work with the lights my husband set up and I can't figure out why the pictures are coming out red. I thought it was bouncing from the nearby walls, but bounced of the ceilng in a home with a baby and he was red. I have changed every setting including to tungsten, AWB and did a custom white balance with not much change. I got umbrellas but don't really know how to use them. When do you go through them or put light into them to bounce back? My husband refused to spend a mint on lights until we see if (in this economy) it will work to set up a studio. He found an article on how to set up a studio cheaply. We are very rural but I feel like the country bumpkin photographer with heat lamps from the farm store clipped on tripods. Yikes! Maybe it is a reflection of the red in my face? *smile* I see a rainbow of colors on the inside of the lamps too. Are my "lights" the problem? :o(

  • Rares September 24, 2009 04:57 am

    What do you say about these two examples of mine?

    It was my first attempt with portraits , after reading some tips from DPS . I used them , and this is what I managed to get . I would love to hear some opinions of yours .

  • milkfactory September 22, 2009 10:30 pm

    Thumb up!!! Thanks for the note, its been a big help to me as started into potraiture lately.

  • Joel September 22, 2009 12:39 am

    Thanks for the tips. I love taking portraits. Even more so since I got my first prime lens. Posted some portraits on my block recently:



  • @tri5tan September 21, 2009 11:11 pm

    great tips hopefully used to some effect for me

  • hfng September 21, 2009 07:13 am

    Cool tips! Thanks!

    Check out my portraits!

  • Life with Kaishon September 21, 2009 04:41 am

    Love the tip about coming away from the brick a little bit. Really great. Thanks!

  • Ste_95 September 21, 2009 04:10 am

    Here are my portraits, even if sometimes they aren't properly portraits...

  • brian September 21, 2009 03:42 am

    Heres how i see it and used it I have a Nikkor 1.8 85mm lens. It is considered a "soft" lens perfect for portrait work. Not having the f-stop at 1.8 is advisable, more like 2.8 to 4 is better gets the whole face more in focus. A 50mm for portrait work means being closer to the subject. In my opinion too close. I prefer the 85mm and standing back a bit further.
    Now this also could depend on how much of the body you want shown. A portrait is about the person and an environmental portrait is about the person and their world. If you want an environmental portrait then the 50 will do just fine but judge your distance and get only what is necessary in the photo for the portrait. Don't let the surrounding overwhelm the subject.

  • david September 21, 2009 01:58 am

    @David I was told 1.8 was the best for portraits and that I should consider my nifty fifty as a portrait lens (which is what I have been using it for). Have I got this wrong ?

  • Norm Levin April 24, 2009 03:09 am

    Every rule is made to be broken.
    1, 3. The "subject" doesn't mean just the person(s). It should mean the entire composition of the person and where s/he is located. The entire frame must work together to form a coherent composition. There are infinite variations, so my advice is to experiment until you find that perfect balance between your human subject and the background. Ditto for contrived geometric rules such as "the upper third". If you want to create your own style, again, test and try different combinations.

    4. My view on "texture" is that a little goes a long way. The author's website posts several highly textural environmental portraits that in my opinion are too distracting from the person. Again, the whole composition must work together to tell a story.

    5. Use lines - yes. But brick the "perfect background"? Am I missing something? Unless your subject is an urban urchin, or high fashion model, brick walls don't do much to enhance your photo except to say "brick wall".

    Here's my portrait portfolio so you can see examples of what I'm talking about:

  • Carl January 21, 2009 04:16 pm

    Lighting is so important but rarely paid attention to with early stage photographers. The background tips are great to add awareness since anyone with the tendency to want to venture into photography will quickly internalize "lighting and background" and jump to new levels!

  • Brian December 25, 2008 04:03 am

    Good things for the amateurs to learn.
    However if you go to the website you'll see that with a lot of the photos shown the background is more in focus than the subject. #1 rule always keep the eyes in focus.
    I will say however that she does have a way with the seniors that she is photographing. None one them look stressed or uncomfortable. And that should be a major point in the perfect portrait tips.

    #1 is a great point
    #2 should really be "keep the eyes focused" and never have them level with the horizon.
    #3 yes use framing but....The framed door photo above is more of an environmental photograph that's gone bad, too much environment not enough subject unless the subject is the door. She used a 24mm lens on this which if you don't shoot level you will get not so good results. She should have shot this landscaped orientation and stood on a ladder. she would still have a frame but no light and no plastic garbage bag.
    #4 Aperture priority? not for portraits even outside. 4.0 is fine for lenses above 85mm and the subject is at least that many feet from the background. something should have been mentioned about the longer the lens the shorter the dof. IE., 1.8 on a 50 has a deeper dof that 1.8 on a 85mm.
    #5 yes! but not to many lines.
    #6 Not just to eliminate background junk but to enhance subject matter. find the correct angle to enhance the subject then if there is junk distracting keep the angle but move the camera position.

    Wait! there is something missing that's all important...Lighting.... can't have perfect portrait without proper lighting......

  • Richard Schulz May 24, 2008 10:27 am

    Shot #3: great doorway and great subject, cut them in half and market each separately.

  • chaz May 13, 2008 02:03 am

    Perhaps Jennifer would be gracious enough to do a duplicate article for comparison. It's easy to criticize (just ask my mother-in-law).

  • Jennifer March 13, 2008 02:44 pm

    While these might be insightful tips for a complete novice, this article is rather presumptuous. Only the second of all three of those photos is even above mediocre from a professional standpoint, and can hardly be called a portrait since there's so much excess environment that it's hard to even focus on the woman pictured. None of this necessarily qualifies for "perfect composition" for a portrait.

  • sazzy March 13, 2008 04:46 am

    Thanks for the tips, will try some shots soon :)

  • Winn March 12, 2008 11:24 pm

    Great site Christina ,... very encouraging. Thank you for the great tips too

    all the best


  • San Sebastian March 12, 2008 09:43 pm

    nice tips. Thanks for your work

  • JB March 12, 2008 02:51 pm

    Very practical insights, really helpful. I look into her webpage and was able to picked up some good ideas on portrait.

  • Mike March 12, 2008 07:53 am

    These are good tips and ideas to remember or rather train to consider without thinking. A softer focus is often times what is needed to be "photogenic". Acne we all know is or can be an issue for teens. Makeup can hide a lot, but then at times you need to hide the make up. Alternatively spend hours on the computer to touch up the portrait.

    I guess that your ears might fade to the background if you are trying to use a macro lens for the portrait. In this case... backup. Some backgrounds are much cluttered and need to be diffused greatly, while others work well with the shot. But then I guess that is why Canon or Nikon or whoever, made that aperture thingy adjustable.

    I did look at her site and enjoyed seeing her images. She does nice work with angles and perspective. If you look at her pictures she appears to be about 3 to 6 meters away from her subject in most cases. Any closer and aberrations would start to develop. Faces would lose the fullness of seeing around the sides for depth.

    If that works for her then that is wonderful. Other artists have different techniques and if it works for them, just as wonderful.

    Thanks Christina


  • Kim S. March 12, 2008 04:21 am

    Thanks for the great tips. i always lent towards shooting the head of my subject in the upper third, but didn't know to keep the eyes up there as well. nice.

  • gopalshroti March 12, 2008 01:22 am

    christina's depiction of simple rules to make great photographs is worth commendable. i liked her idea of leading lines and rule of thirds. thanks.

  • Jani Peternelj March 11, 2008 09:43 pm

    i took a peek at her site and she seems to have huge problems with focusing, how come i wonder that she teaches photography.

  • david March 11, 2008 03:38 pm

    i like your 'how to' today ...

    i agree that shooting on aperture priority is not ideal here. shoot on manual. however, f1.8? for a portrait? i think that's too shallow, where the nose and eyes may be in focus, but the ears and rest of the head will be soft.

    thanks, though, for some nice ideas.



  • Klaidas March 11, 2008 09:08 am

    "and shooting on Aperture priority (f4.0)" Aghem.
    Well, you might as well shoot on MANUAL, and the f number depends on the situation. I myself usually prefer the fastest aperture my lens can provide (thank you, f/1.8 nifty fifty! :])

  • Stephen March 11, 2008 07:37 am

    Short and sweet!

    I'd love to have more in depth information about portrait photography; keep these articles coming!

  • Daniel Bento March 11, 2008 06:06 am

    Cool Tips! I have some portrait photos, but they aren't anything especial... because of my lack of knowledge! Thank you for the tips :)

  • Jill March 11, 2008 04:34 am

    These are some really great tips and I do try to use them many of them when I photograph my daughter:

    my example: http://www.amatterofmemories.com/2007/12/our-christmas-princess.html
    The third picture in this post is my favorite and I three of these techniques are used – I changed the typical angle by shooting her from above, which allowed me to fill the frame with her dress and texture is created by the pattern on her dress.

  • Luke March 11, 2008 12:44 am

    Great Tips! Things we all need to be reminded of!