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Portrait Photography FuelTip: Composing a Portrait

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In this excerpt from Composition for Portraiture: Creating Compelling Headshots, Group Shots, and Senior Pictures, Dan Ablan looks at portraits that go beyond the headshot.

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From the book

Composition in portraits is similar to headshots, yet you have much more flexibility. A headshot needs to conform to certain standards, most of which are less creative in nature. A portrait on the other hand can be incredibly expressive, sad, funny, serious, and much more. Figure 15 shows a high school senior portrait that goes beyond a headshot, incorporating the same techniques of placing one leg up and leaning on a piece of furniture. Taking it further, an off-color joke and the right timing for clicking the shutter captures the shot.


If you are working on senior pictures, be sure to find out the high school’s specifics on yearbook shots. For example, they may accept only headshots, facing the camera, with both eyes visible and no props. They may go so far as to specify the head size within the photo. You can shoot all the options the family wants for senior pictures, but don’t forget that all-important yearbook shot.

Figure 15 Even with portraits, it’s important to have subjects relaxed, and using furniture to lean on helps their posture.

In terms of the triangle rule, keep in mind the triangle can be to the side or upside-down. Figure 15 employs a visual triangle: Each boy’s face represents a point on the triangle with the space between them creating the final triangle point.

Let’s go a step further for a more creative portrait. In many ways, it can be difficult to create portraits that look different from the next. But you can use a few tricks to help make each portrait unique. Lighting and backgrounds are part of it, but we’ll discuss that in the next section. Posturing individuals for portraits first requires you to put your camera down. That’s right! Next, talk to your subjects. Get to know them, find out what they’re about, and gain a sense of their personality. Not only will the subjects feel more comfortable and relaxed, but you’ll now have a better instinct of when to press the shutter button. As you photograph subjects for portraits, continue talking to them. Make jokes, mention silly anecdotes, and find common ground—all while looking through the camera lens. At the right moment, when you feel it, get that shot.

Figure 16 shows a shot using these techniques, which were even more important for this subject because of his youth. Often, kids can be difficult to photograph as they can be shy, scared, or reserved. A little conversation, a little talk about school, friends, and video games, and soon your subject responds and you can capture the portrait.

Figure 16 Making your subjects comfortable helps them relax and allows you to easily posture them for better portraits.

Another way you can relax and posture your subjects is to have them walk slowly towards the camera. If you don’t like having them sit, or a particular subject is uncomfortable, walking is a great way to get a natural look for a balanced body composition. Add to that the rule of thirds, a little angle, and you have a different type of portrait as in Figure 17.

Figure 17 If posturing in a chair or just standing is awkward, simply have the subject walk towards the camera to relax his or her posture.

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