3 Portrait Composition Tips for Framing Your Subject Perfectly

Move beyond simple snapshots and learn how to capture more engaging, interesting portrait photos with these essential composition tips.

People are probably the most interesting photographic subject - they're infinitely varied, convey a unique personality and vibe, and as humans it's in our nature to find them fascinating. So it's hardly surprising that they make such a popular subject for professional and amateur photographers alike.

Finding a successful portrait composition is harder than it might seem. Anyone can point a camera at a person and grab a snapshot, but it takes more skill and technical knowledge to capture a photo which is truly engaging and full of character. Follow these tips to help take your portrait photography to the next level.

Don't Leave Too Much Headroom

Headroom is the amount of space between the top of your subject's head and the top of the frame. It might seem like a trivial matter, but it's important to get this distance just right. Fail to do so and you'll end up with a photo that has lots of space above the subject, or one where they appear "squashed" up to the top of the image - both of which can be highly distracting.

Portrait of a Malaysian man

Adjust the amount of space above your subject's head until it appears natural and doesn't draw the eye. Image by Trey Ratcliff.

The amount of headroom required depends on how closely you're photographing your subject - the more you zoom in, the less space you should leave. This might sound a bit vague, and that's because there really are no set rules for getting the "correct" headroom. Just be aware of it before you press the shutter, and recompose your shot until the headroom no longer draws your attention - that's when you know you've got it right.

If in doubt, set your lens to a slightly wider angle and capture more of the surroundings than you need. This gives you a bit of space to play with later on, allowing you to crop or recompose the photo once you've had a chance to examine it on your computer.

Pay Close Attention to Eye Position

Following on from the concept of headroom, you also need to be aware of where your subject's eyes are positioned. The eyes are likely to be the focal point of your portrait photo, and they're where most people will look first, so you need to position them properly within the composition.

Portrait of a baby girl

Position the subject's eyes about one third of the way from the top of the frame for a natural, balanced composition. Image by Abdus Samad.

Most experts agree that you should follow the rule of thirds and compose your portrait so that the subject's eyes are positioned roughly one third of the way down from the top edge of the frame. This gives your portrait's composition an inherent balance and a natural, pleasing feel.

Of course, there are situations where you might want to adjust the subject's eye position to show more or less of their body or the surroundings. This is absolutely fine, and you shouldn't be afraid to experiment with different portrait compositions - rules are there to be broken after all. However, the rule of thirds eye position works well in most cases and makes a great starting point to adjust and build on.

Fill the Frame with Your Subject

There's nothing worse than a portrait photo which lacks impact, and the most common cause of this is choosing a composition where the subject doesn't take up enough of the frame. It can be tempting to include as much of your subject as possible - their face, their hair, their body, their surroundings, and so on - but all this does is introduce distractions into the scene, reducing the effectiveness of the photo as a whole.

Close up portrait of a woman

Don't be afraid to zoom in close, cropping out all unnecessary detail. Image by Corrie Howell.

Rather than try to include as much detail as possible, do the complete opposite. Choose the most interesting thing about your subject and concentrate solely on that, cropping out everything else. Usually this means zooming in on the subject's face to capture their features and expression.

Don't be afraid to chop off parts of your subject such as the top or sides of their head; it all helps to reduce distractions and focus the viewer's attention even more intently on the important parts of the photo. It's usually not a good idea to crop out the subject's chin, as this can appear unnatural, but even this can work in certain circumstances so don't be afraid to give it a go.

These portrait composition tips may seem simple, and they are, but it's amazing how often they are overlooked, resulting in underwhelming photos which could have been avoided. Add them to your mental checklist and be sure to apply them next time you're photographing friends or family, and see how much difference they can make to your shots.

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