Portrait "how-to" part 2: advanced composition, use of depth of field

Welcome back ! Last time we saw how to set up your camera in order to expose correctly for portrait, and introduced some basic rules for composition.
Today we'll simply see some example pictures, and explain why those are interesting. This is in no way exhaustive, or properly academic; my point is to trigger your creativity, by having you noticing different techniques and ideas that have been used by other photographers. Then you're on your own, just go out and shoot to find your way.
We'll conclude by a little "how to" on depth of field", really basic.

  • Different types of composition & framing.

Photo by Maree

If your model is looking straight ahead, you can center the subject, but make sure the eyes are high up in the first third of the picture. Don't hesitate to cut the top of the head, it gets the viewer closer to the face, the eyes, and creates proximity. Having the eyes in the middle and empty space on top of it, unless the subject looks up, can look cheap.

Photo by Tanel Varek.

If you shoot a full body portrait, and even if it feel like your shooting it centered, the rule of thirds apply. Look at how the horizon on the top third line, and how, overal, space around the subject is split in thirds. For a very academic portrait like this one, it guarantees the adequate balance. Also notice, in line with part 1, that exposure was done on the model, not the entire image. If the sky was correctly exposed, i.e we could see the details, clouds etc, the model would be too dark.

Photo by Dave Tata.

Here the photographer cares mostly about the scene, rather than the face, hence taking a little distance but yet cropping the legs. Once again the rule of thirds, and free space where needed, face is top right, looking down left.
Finally an important part of that picture: the light. It was necessary here to capture it in order to restore the mood of the actual scene. By using techniques explained in part 1, i.e. spot metering, the photographer was able to maintain a correct exposure on the face, and get that halo of light, even though shooting against the sun. So yes you can shoot against the sun, just meter on the subject.

It's important, when you see a scene you want to capture, to think about what part of the scene makes it interesting. If it's someone's reaction to a situation, you might want that situation to somehow appear too, it it's an intense facial trait, you'll want to be has close has possible to remove any disturbing element. Try to remove everything that is not necessary to tell your story, all useless subject will be distracting. If your framing does not seem to work, move, turn around the subject, don't be lazy :)

Photo by me.

Look at this on as an illustration. On that photo the baby's eyes are top right corner (rule of...ok ok I said it enough), leaving room from his mum on the foreground. We can see her back and she's blurry, which allows the viewer to understand enough yet have room to imagine. The rest is blur since it is not relevant. Keep reading for the blur part.
Position yourself in line with the 2 subjects, don't think "I have to step back to get the entire scene". Again, baby's head is cropped, because we don't need it all on the image.

  • Using depth of field.
I explained in my lens guide what DOF is about. It is of the highest interest for portraits as it allows you to extract your subject from it's environment. See for yourselves (also consider the baby above):

Photo by me, 85mmF1.8.

Photo by me 110mmf2.8 (medium format)

How to minimize DOF (i.e. subject sharp, everything else very blurry)? It's fairly simple:
- maximizer the aperture (low "f" numbers, below f2.8 and down to f1.4 to get such results)
- Increase the distance from your subject
- Use a long enough focal length (from 85mm and up it gets really good)

Long story short, set your camera to aperture mode, fix the aperture under f2.8 if your lens allows it (once again, the importance of buying the right lenses can't be highlighted enough).
Speed will adjust automatically, usually it'll be very high so you can shoot fast moving subjects.
Pay attention to one thing though: since the focus is going to be on very narrow depth, if you are focusing on the wrong area, you might totally miss the shot, by having for example the nose sharp and the eyes blurry !

All of it being said, keep a last thing in mind : fuck the rules. Look at other photographers' work for inspiration (check those links), painters, and try for yourself. Use the rules in a vicious way, do the exact opposite, there are no rules, it is art. Just keep those in mind since, appart from rare cases of pure talent, you often need to start with rules to deconstruct them with creativity.

Now stop reading this blog and go shoot !


  1. Nice tutorial! A lot of great tips.

    I love your portraits!

  2. I started with "f**k the rules" and it's finally good to stick with them a bit. Great blog!