How to Use Composition to Create More Powerful Portraits

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As part of my series on portrait photography, in this article, I will discuss composition, one of the most important aspects of creating a good portrait image.

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  • Are there any laws regarding framing a portrait?
  • Can I leave hands, fingers, or part of the head out of the frame?
  • Does a portrait have to include a face?

I will answer these questions that my students often ask. It is important to keep in mind that as in all aspects of art, there are no “rules” or “must dos” here, because you can do anything as long as it works for you. So, I will describe techniques that work for me and I hope that they will work for you, resulting in much stronger portrait photography portfolio.

What is a good portrait?

A good portrait is an image of a person that manages to tell a story. A good portrait evokes emotion. A good portrait tells us something about the person in the image, and composition is a key element that helps us create a storytelling portrait.

How can I create a storytelling portrait with the help of composition?

I think good composition is a combination of the scene on the ground and the scene within your head. It combines the available with the desirable.

Here are a few examples of portraits I made recently (using natural light only) with explanations of the thinking process and goals in terms of composition. As Ansel Adams said, don’t forget that every image has two people behind it. the photographer and the viewer. So you might not feel the same emotions as I do with the images I created. But that’s okay, because photography is both an art and a science.

Choosing how much background to include

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Focal length 24mm

I met this boy cutting Paprika in rural Cambodia. It was summer vacation and he was there with his family and other villagers. What’s my visual narrative in one line? “Small boy, big work.”

I immediately knew two things: one, the background is a significant element and two; I wanted to capture the boy working alone. So, I started with the background and decided on a high angle in order to capture this “mountain” of Paprika. It was important for me to show the boy’s entire body with some space above his head so that the viewer could compare (remember my one line story?) the size of the boy to the size of the work.

I even included that basket in the composition to add balance to the entire frame. After I set up my composition, I waited about 20 minutes to capture the boy looking up. I knew that if he was working with his head and eyes down, the whole story would fall apart. I think the wait was worth it.

For me, this is one of the most complex decisions in photography: to identify visual storytelling potential and decide how much time you’re willing to wait until the story materializes.

Story 56 the kid 1

Focal length: 17mm

I used the same technique here in Kyrgyzstan, for this shot of six year old Aytinger, which I made for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Visual narrative in one line, “Small boy, big world”.

Here, I made the background much more dominant compared to the previous image. Here the boy is very small compared to the land. Imagine if I framed this image with only his face? I would lose the entire story, because his face alone doesn’t tell the story I want to portray. It was important for me to “include” the path and the big cloud in the horizon, to add sense of an “epic” feel to the image.

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Focal length: 70mm

Here, you can see a different kind of portrait framing. Visual narrative in one line – “Quiet, peaceful, youth”.

I wanted to evoke peace and harmony. So I focused only on the face of this young monk, and included almost no background, in order to avoid interference from the environment. Also, note how the central composition (the subject is in the center of the frame) is balanced with the two orange frames on the sides.

I used soft natural light (coming from the right side of the frame) in order to create a sense of something religious and pure.

Cropping in tight

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Focal length: 70mm

This is the type of framing that I’m asked many questions about by my students: whether it is allowed to cut off part of the head like this. Sure, as long as it helps the visual story you want to tell. Visual narrative in one line, “A sad reflection”.

Apollo’s wife died not long before I met him in the hills of northern Laos. In the image, Apollo’s face and the feeling of something tilting or shifting in his world is the only important thing. By framing his face on the right, while he was looking down and to the right, I wanted to create a feeling of an “unbalanced world”. Compare the very low key, dim lighting (with negative exposure compensation) in this image to the previous one of the monk. I was using the dark part of his house to evoke this story.

TheAccess 4photography people

Focal length: 85mm

This framing is even more radical than the previous one. Please note that this is the composition I did on the ground (no cropping) for a story I did for National Geographic Traveler magazine on Western China. Visual narrative in one line, “Strong and wise”.

Leaving space

When I saw the eyes of this man, the oldest man sitting in the back of a teahouse in remote western China, I knew I didn’t need anything else but his blue eyes. So I made it the dominant factor of my composition.

Story 35 alone 1

Focal length: 24mm

Now you might ask, is this a portrait too? Well, yes, for two reasons: one, do you see a person, and two, do you feel a sense of story?

What’s my visual narrative? It was a particularly hot afternoon. Dozens of worshipers left the mosque. I paused for a moment, trying to change lenses, as I noticed this guy. It seems that he was not affected by the hustle passing him by. He remained alone, continuing to read the prayer book. At first, my initial thought was “wow, what loneliness”. But then I thought, ”wow, what strength”.

I used the empty spaces of the place to enhance the sense of loneliness, but the balanced; “by the rules” composition (rule of thirds) should give the sense of power I was aiming for. The reason I chose to use negative exposure compensation and thus create a silhouette was to not compete with red color in the background and give it a sense of harmony.

Put it all together

You may be asking – “Okay, I understand the thought process. But honestly, do you really think about it before the creation of the frame or only afterwards?”.

Well, I do believe that good portrait photography is an outcome of a thinking process. Should I add the background or not? Should I crop the head or leave it full? Sometimes by over-thinking, the subject might lose patience. It has happened to me more than once. But for me, having the time to think, to plan, and to achieve the story I wanted is part of the fun.

Feel free to leave questions and comments below.

Note: the author would like to thank Nicholas Orloff for his help of 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!

  • Yes, why not?
    Oded

  • Thank you Daniel. Glad you enjoyed it!
    Oded

  • Raja S

    It is so beautiful. I couldnt take my eyes off.. 🙂

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    excellent photos and articles..

  • Subro Sengupta

    Its an interesting article, Oded. Though its over-whelming for a beginner like me. However, I’ll try to keep these points in mind.

    Also, I like the way you’ve captioned the images. I struggle with that. But I think I might get a little better now.

    Thank you.

  • Loved this shot. So original !!

  • Michael Owens

    Oded, another indepth and interesting article.
    Thank you for taking the time to write it.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    I don’t know whether the 2nd photo brakes the common rule of third. But i think for beginners, one advice is that “To break the rules, first you must master them”. lol

  • Nancy G.

    Wow, great shots and a fabulous article! Thank you so much. I loved your comments on the visual narrative. That gets me thinking and I’m sure it will help me.

  • ?????? Pippen

    A little try from me.

  • Aditya Biswas

    Hello Wagenstein, your article was very helpful, it reaffirmed my own POV regarding portraits. Here’s one from my travel to westsikkim India, He was visibly very upset wih hoards of cameras pointing toward him, as he worked on a mattress. one would think that he should have gotten used to that as he lived beside a bridge which was a very popular tourist destination. But he was clearly not enjoying the attention, after a while he just went and sat on the bricks behind him, I instantly knew that i had to make a tough call, Because before this shot every article i read about good portraits had one thing in common they always stressed on the clearly visible eyes. But i did not want to do that as i wanted to show his disgust and anger by using the shadow and his face alone.

    I would really like to know your point of view regarding the image

  • Aditya Biswas

    Hello Wagenstein, your article was very helpful, it reaffirmed my own POV regarding portraits. Here’s one from my travel to westsikkim India, He was visibly very upset wih hoards of cameras pointing toward him, as he worked on a mattress. one would think that he should have gotten used to that as he lived beside a bridge which was a very popular tourist destination. But he was clearly not enjoying the attention, after a while he just went and sat on the bricks behind him, I instantly knew that i had to make a tough call, Because before this shot every article i read about good portraits had one thing in common they always stressed on the clearly visible eyes. But i did not want to do that as i wanted to show his disgust and anger by using the shadow and his face alone.

    I would really like to know your point of view regarding the image.

  • Hello Aditya.
    Thanks for the feedback, glad to hear you liked the article. Thanks for the pictures. I loved them. I usually do not like pictures in black and white but here it fits.

  • Aditya Biswas

    Hello Wagenstein, your article was very helpful, it reaffirmed my own POV regarding portraits. Here’s one from my travel to westsikkim India, He was visibly very upset wih hoards of cameras pointing toward him, as he worked on a mattress. one would think that he should have gotten used to that as he lived beside a bridge which was a very popular tourist destination. But he was clearly not enjoying the attention, after a while he just went and sat on the bricks behind him, I instantly knew that i had to make a tough call, Because before this shot every article i read about good portraits had one thing in common they always stressed on the clearly visible eyes. But i did not want to do that as i wanted to show his disgust and anger by using the shadow and his face alone.

    I would really like to know your point of view regarding the image….

  • Aditya Biswas

    This is the image i wanted to share, but don’t know why i can’t get it posted

  • Thank you Nancy. with joy

  • Thank you. WIth joy

  • Thank you

  • With great joy

  • Jason N photography

    Great article. I have learned many technical aspects of photography and have recently focused on composition. This article validated something I tried composition wise when we took our two little ones to the Illinois Train Museum. I wanted to show them (with their friend) playing in relation to the big trains. Came up with this…

  • Jason N photography

    This was my favorite shot of the day. Taken with my pancake lens.

  • I love your points about how it’s okay to crop part of a person out of a portrait if it helps the narrative.

    http://www.camerastupid.com

  • Guest

    He is wondering about the surrounding lights

  • asimkv

    He is wondering about the surrounding lights !

  • me

    Self portrait – I whittle fish, I also like fishing….

  • me

    If he had been on the right side of the frame looking in I would have found the image much more appealing. That or cropped for portrait orientation as a fix

  • suhail rizwan

    My Nephew… feel free to comment 🙂

  • Julie Cook

    I stumbled across your page the other day. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and photos. I love photography and yearn to learn much about it and look forward to following. You are generous and very talented…as you know! Happy New Year Oded!! Cheers 🙂

  • HSC

    Thank you for such an informative article!

  • zo taylor

    Thank you! finally i understood what it is all about.

  • One of my shot which i liked the most. But i’m not sure about what visual narrative in one line which is going to match this portrait 🙂

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/bantakal/13793565523/

  • gyroids

    Nice image! May I give you a personal tip? Next time, make sure the eye is in focus [as well as the lips]. The eyes are always a highlight of a photo as they are very emotional and deep, and tell a story in themselves.

  • Gabriele Cripezzi

    Sick of this “tell a story”. One image by itself can not and will never tell a story. It may represent a moment, an event… it may provoke a sensation, an emotions… but it can’t tell a STORY. Get over it! You will never find a picture that tells a story all by itself, unless you know what was going on in that very moment.

  • Karen Booth
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