Basic Portrait Composition and Tips

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.

Here is a good example of this technique:

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

Here is a page with 3 good examples of this technique:

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.

The 4th photo (lower left) on the previous page is a good example of a closeup portrait with a background or foreground that adds interest while not distracting from 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.

Here is another good example of this technique:

The textured tree bark adds to the photo, but is not distracting in this setting.

And another good example:

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

Here is an example that, while "artsey", is an example of a distractive background and foreground:

Note how your eye examines the gauges, piping, and building wall almost as much as it looks at the person?

Here is a site with a good example of this technique (the top photo):

Note how the background adds to the impression of the man, without distracting excessively.

One of the sites we looked at earlier has another good example of a background that adds to the character of the subject:

Here is another site with examples of the two groups of portraits we have discussed so far. Several of these could be done with point and shoot cameras:


Third type of portraits

This group of portraits (where the person is only part of the photo) is very effective at telling your story when done right.

However, many of the photos that the average photographer takes that are in this group would have been more effective if the photographer had moved closer to the subject and thereby converted the photo to one of the first two groups we discussed today.

Here is a good example of a studio shot with a painted background:

Here is a good example of the background adding to the portrait (look at the second photo, about halfway down the page):

Note that the photographer, Christian Gurney, is the CEO of CE Software, publisher of QuickMail and QuickKeys.

Here is a site with several excellent examples of this group of portraits. Look halfway down the page:

Here is another example of a background that adds to the story:


And now some general portrait tips:

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

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

And here is a poor example (the top photo on the right):

Notice how the busy background on the left side of the photo distracts you from the person.

Here is a site with both good and bad examples of this technique:

And here is a site with several good examples:

Here is another site with examples of this technique:

Several of these photos could be done with point and shoot cameras.

Here is a site with two good examples, using two different backgrounds:

Here is an example where the photographer found a camera position that allowed the subject's body to block the view of the background:

This technique can be used with many different subjects and with any type of camera.

Here is an example where the photographer used a shallow depth-of-field to make the background less distractive (this requires a camera with an adjustable aperature such as a 35 mm SLR):

This technique is primarily used with full-featured 35 mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras.


Having your subject in bright light with a shadow in the background will make the subject seem to leap out at you. This is a very effective technique. There have been examples of this on some of the pages we have looked at today.

Here are two examples (one of which is mine):

Here is a method for doing this type of portrait yourself:

Position the person close to the camera, as far as possible from the background, with the camera at a slight angle to the background (to reduce reflections).

Take the picture, using a flash for lighting. The large distance to the background will make the background much darker that the person's face.

The contrast between the flash highlights on the face and the dark background will make the person's image seem to leap out from the background.


A general portrait tip for you:

Sometimes you will see an otherwise great picture that has a tree, light post, or other distracting object right behind the people, seeming to grow from their heads! How do you prevent this?

When you get ready to take your picture, prepare to take the picture in two steps:

1. Position the people and frame them in the viewfinder.

2. Then, ignore the people and carefully examine everything in the background, looking for anything that would seem out of place or intrusive.

Reposition the camera or the people until the background is perfect. Then take your picture.


And finally, for those of you who want a good site to review composition try:

And for a site with a short tutorial about simplifying photo composition visit:

Copyright 1998, 1999 David E. Price