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How to Build a Composition

Now, that I’ve chosen a location that provides the best lighting and background and I’ve sent my white balance, ISO, shutter speed, and my focus points appropriately, I can focus more on my composition. All the technical considerations have been made, so I don’t have to be distracted by them. The only time I need to reconsider the technical details is if the lighting changes or I move my subject into a different area. Otherwise, I can just focus on the subtle differences in my subject’s expression or body language, which can give me that special something that results in a great portrait.

Though most of our portraits may simply involve a composition where the subject is put in the very center of the frame, we actually have a lot of choices. You can put the subject in the center of the frame, off-center, or sometimes even at the extreme edges of the frame. The placement of your subject within the frame and the perspective from which you shoot your subject can make or break an image. For example, when I want to make the environment as important as my subject, I’ll position the subject off-center to include more of the background in the composition (Figure 4.8).

Figure 4.8

Figure 4.8 I wanted to create a composition that provided a sense of place for this portrait of my friend Paul. By orienting the camera vertically and including the vineyard and sky, I produced a sense of where we were during this great day of shooting.

Here are a few tips to help you create some amazing portrait compositions.

The Rule of Thirds

One of the most basic rules of composition, the “rule of thirds,” is a very good principle to work with when photographing people. Imagine a tic-tac-toe board, with two lines spaced evenly down the center of the frame both horizontally and vertically. Your goal is to place the subject, or part of your subject, on one of the intersecting lines. You’re basically trying to keep the person off-center without pushing him or her too close to the edge of the frame.

This same rule can be used quite effectively when making a tightly framed photograph of the face, where you place each eye at one of those intersecting points in order to help create a balanced composition, as I did for this portrait of master photographer Joel Meyerowitz (Figure 4.9).

Figure 4.9

Figure 4.9 For my photograph of master photographer Joel Meyerowitz, I used the rule of thirds to build the composition and placed his eyes in the top third of the frame.

The great thing about the 5D Mark III is that you can add a grid overlay to your viewfinder and LCD (when shooting in Live View) to help you with composition. You’ll need to set up the appearance of the grid lines for the viewfinder and the LCD monitor separately. The latter is enabled when you’re using the camera in Live View mode (in which you’re using the LCD monitor to compose your photograph).

To Set Up the Grid Display in Your Viewfinder, Follow these Steps:

  1. Press the Menu button and turn the Main Dial to access the Set-up 2 menu screen.
  2. Use the Quick Control Dial to scroll down to VF grid display. Press the Setting button.
  3. Use the Quick Control Dial to enable the VF grid display. Press the Setting button.

To Set Up the Grid Display for Live View, Follow these Steps:

  1. Press the Menu button and turn the Main Dial to access the Shoot 4: LV menu screen.
  2. Use the Quick Control Dial to scroll down to Grid Display. Press the Setting button.
  3. Use the Quick Control Dial to select the 3×3 or other grid pattern. Press the Setting button.

Perspective

Perspective, the position from which the photographer chooses to make a photograph, is important for any image, but especially when making a portrait. The point of view from which you choose to make the photograph is the very point of view that will impact the way the viewer experiences the photograph and the subject.

Photographers often make photographs from their own eye level, but it’s important when making a portrait to consider the eye level of the subject, especially when you’re photographing children (Figure 4.10). Try photographing the subject at his or her own eye level. This creates a sense of equality between the viewer and the subject, which can help create a sense of intimacy. If you want to give the subject a sense of power and authority, position the camera below the subject’s eye level and shoot up slightly.

Figure 4.10

Figure 4.10 Getting down to the child’s eye level allowed me to create a photograph that was more intimate than what would have been created by looking down on him.

Camera Orientation

Camera orientation is another consideration to make when making a portrait. It can dramatically change how the viewer experiences the photograph and the environment the subject is in. A horizontal orientation can be good if you want to include a good amount of the environment in the scene, even if the background is thrown out of focus. It not only can provide a sense of place, but also can help to draw the viewers’ attention to the subject.

A vertical composition can help emphasize the subject more by eliminating areas of the background. This can help emphasize the face and the expression, while eliminating distracting elements in the background that might pull the viewers’ attention away from the person.

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