frame a portrait

How to frame a portrait

Portrait photography is one of the hardest types of photography. People are not just objects that can be moved around. They have a history, a story, behind every millimeter of skin. They have thoughts and emotions. They also have expectations and feelings. It is very hard to put all these in a frame. Albert Watson, who did portraits of Alfred Hitchcock, Steve Jobs, Clint Eastwood, and many others, insists on knowing the environment and your subject. He talks about putting the subject in a comfortable situation and in a good light. Everything you put in a portrait is about the subject. But let start with the basics. Here are some composition tips for portrait photography.

Fill the frame with your subject

Portrait photography is all about people. It doesn’t matter if the subject is standing, sitting or if you just photograph the face. You have to fill the picture with your subject. Consider the light and the subject’s features, and choose the best perspective. Think about what you want your picture to say about the subject. Photographing from above or from below can give different interpretations. Have a vision first and then do the shooting.


Choose to include the entire body of the subject when it says something important about your character. It might be about clothing, social statute, physical features or anything that adds value to your picture. To frame your entire subject move yourself farther or closer as needed. You can also stay in one position and use the zoom of your lens, but this might distort the person in from of you. Explore all options and choose what is flattering for your subject. For example, if you are much taller than your subject and you shoot from your eye level, the subject’s head can be too big comparing with the legs. Geometry is important when you photograph in full-length.

Head and Shoulders

This is probably the most used framing in portrait photography. It gives you the chance to focus on the face and eyes. The rule of thirds says you have to place the eyes is the upper third of the picture, to maximize their value. This kind of portrait is all about expression. Blur the background as much as possible and let your character’s face fill the frame. If your subject is not comfortable with shooting from a small distance, use zooming and give space. Also, you can try more relaxed perspectives and allow your subject to not look directly into the camera.

American shot or ¾ length

American shot received its name from the western movies of the 1930s and 1940s. It means photographing your subject from the knees up. In a western this is really important, because this way the public can see the weapons. In photography, this framing gives you the possibility to include some background and to catch your subject in a more active position. American shot still focus on facial expression, but it also include some body language. Rule of thirds also applies.

Try to get to know your character before the photo session. This doesn’t mean you cannot do snapshots with unknown people, but even then an a priori observation will help you compose your vision and tell a catchy story. People are fascinating subjects.

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