How to Tell a Story with Portraits by Using Creative Composition

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In this article, we will explore new ways of using composition and creative framing to tell a story in your portraits. We’ll do so by understanding the marvellous ways our brain (as viewers) construct a sense of story.

The common principle of the techniques I will describe here, is that they are all based on our mind’s ability to fill in missing gaps of information. A skill that helps us survive in a world of uncertainty.

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Two things to note about creativity before we start

Skill, is not just a talent: Just like working on the flexibility of a muscle, I believe we can work on our creativity, with the “muscle” being our vision.

Being creative for the purpose of being creative: Creative compositions should be a vehicle for a purpose – an emotion or a story you want to evoke in the image. If you choose to add creativity to your images, just to be more creative, it will be an empty gimmick.

Half close up portrait – a full story

By showing only half of a close-up portrait, you stimulate the viewer’s mind and almost force it to delve into the image. We do so by activating their mind’s need to fill in gaps of missing information. This ability is rooted in us since ancient times, from which we evolved to understand that the two blurry spots between the trees, could be the hidden face of a tiger.

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Good to know:

For best results, you can practice framing this kind of composition by using the crop tool in your editing software. Once you become comfortable with this technique (and framing); it will be easier to achieve a “half close-up portrait” in the field, without the need to crop it in the post-processing stage.

This kind of framing is like an exclamation mark, which one cannot ignore. Therefore, use it only on the most interesting faces, and not on every portrait.

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Environmental portrait – a person in context

For me, this the most challenging and rewarding portrait framing style, the environmental portrait. This shows not only the person, which is the hero of your image, but also his or her environment: home, work place, country, etc. By doing so, you use the mind’s ability to conclude and understand a situation by connecting pieces of information.

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Good to know:

The biggest challenge in this type of composition is the balance between the main figure (hero) and environment. Keep in mind that the main figure must be dominant, and not overtaken by the background. Use light, color, and sharpness to make your subject significant.

Using a wide lens (below 50mm) is recommended for the environmental portrait framing, as it will allow you to capture the environment of your hero, even in small spaces.

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Detail portrait – telling the story with small details

Like with the half portrait technique, in the detail framing we use the brain’s ability to fill in the gaps, by showing only a small fraction of the entire story. For a good detail shot, choose some with a connection to your subject. It can be a connection of similarity or difference. For example: take a close-up shot of his or her hands, shoes, the reading books on the shelf, the subject’s regular chair or smoking pipe, you name it! As long as this object, represent something which is bigger than the object itself.

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Good to know:

A good place to start is by examining your subject from head To toe. Looking for anything that other people might miss in that person. Did you spot anything special? Like a unique piece jewelry, a tattoo, or just a hole in their shoe.

Some of my best ideas came from my subjects. Ask your subject to show you an object to which he or she feel a strong connection. You do not even need to have any human presence in the detail shot, as long as the object represents or tell us something about its owner.

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Kuleshov effect – creating a meaning by interaction

In this technique, based on the groundbreaking experiment by the Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, we will use the brain’s ability to derive meaning from the interaction. Kuleshov demonstrated that the audience constructs the story not only by the content, but also by the order in which the images appear, and the connection between them.

In the experiment, Kuleshov used two different shots, which he put in sequence one after the other. The first shot, a close-up shot of the face of silent film actor Ivan Ilyich Mozzhukhin, remained the same throughout the experiment, while the second shot was replaced with every round of projection; a plate of soup, a dead young girl, a woman on a divan (sofa).

The audience praised the actor’s ability to express different feelings such as sadness and even hunger, using only his facial expressions, without knowing that they watched the same shot over and over, and the only thing that was changed was the second image.

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To use this effect in your work, just place two images side by side and try to evoke a connection between them. In the example, I combined between the portrait of Net, which I did with the half close-up composition, with an image of a swirling sea. Where does it take you?

Good to know:

You will be amazed by the power of creative composition. Challenge your audience. Don’t be afraid to create a connection which is too complicated to understand.

A good creative exercise which you can do is by collaborating with a different photographer. You will provide the first image, he or she will provide the second. In there you will have a connection, not only between the two side-by-side images but by two different points of view.

The author would like to thank Nicholas Orloff for his assistant in writing this article.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Oded Wagenstein is a cultures photojournalist and author. His work has been published in numerous international publications, such as the National Geographic.com, BBC.com, and Time Out. He is the author of three photography books. Visit his Facebook page and continue to discuss travel and people photography and get more fantastic tips!

  • Gro Wikheim Korsmoe

    Thans you for sharing! This makes me understand (and accept) more of my own hang to photograph not only the full object 😉
    Here is one I was reminded of as I read this article – which has been stored away since 2012. Now I’m happy I didn’t delete it – even if I haven’t showed it to anybody before 😉

  • Gro Wikheim Korsmoe

    Thank you for sharing! This makes me understand (and accept) more of my own hang to photograph not only the full object 😉
    Here is one I was reminded of as I read this article – which has been stored away since 2012. Now I’m happy I didn’t delete it – even if I haven’t showed it to anybody before 😉

  • avirup

    Excellent tips !!!

  • Thank you

  • Thank you. A great and emotional portrait. I do think it might need a bit of editing boost. Mainly contrast.

  • Gro Wikheim Korsmoe

    Thanks for the constructive input!

  • Lois Thurston

    An enlighting article — thanks for helping me think outside the box.

  • Adrian Lowe

    You expressed the concept quite well Oded. Being a pro 40 years ago, then a psych, then with retirement, into photography again and tutoring it, the hidden reasons of seeing and viewing the crucial elements are foremost in my talks, and images in my exhibitions. Attendees at these are blown away by seeing deeper elements of the subjects, not because of my supposed talent, but because the photographer is absent and the subject is so profound. It’s a big topic and one worth putting out there more, so thanks for doing so.

  • SDHarleyguy

    Thank you for an enlightening piece. You have given me inspiration through your examples to move forward with my own creativity…

  • Von Will

    This stadium is being utilized for the last time this 2016 CFL football season for the Saskatchewan Rough Riders http://www.riderville.com/. I thought the fog would give it that grown old and no longer useful feel. https://www.flickr.com/photos/phyguy/

  • Niels Jessen

    Hi Oded,

    When I saw this image it immediately gave the feeling of evening, silence, contemplation and memory and maybe even sadness – in the old hands of the woman. To me the light og low contrast powers these feelings.

    Cheers

    Niels Krarup Jessen

  • Thank you for your feedback and for a great and magical image

  • Thank you for that feedback. I was very happy to read it

  • Hi Adrian,
    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and story with me. I am happy you enjoyed the article

  • Thank you for the feedback Lois. That is very nice of you.

  • Sandy Smith
  • wheresaldo

    Hi, I made this Photo Extension Composition app for iPhone and iPad app to help you with your photograph composition, I hope you like it: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/photo-extension-composition/id1138153292?mt=8

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