6 rules of portrait composition

by Georgia Nelson

Rules! Yay! Wait, why should I care?

So what exactly is composition? To put it simply, it is all of the elements of your photograph that make it stand out, that draw the viewer in, and engages them emotionally in your work. Positioning, framing, lighting, the background, movement, and more all help tell your story. With portraits, there are some very basic rules that should not be broken, because it can confuse the viewer. Portraits are a whole ‘nother animal that require special handling.

Now you might be thinking, “but why should I care?” Oh you rebel, you! You should care, because if your viewers, in many cases your clients, cannot connect with the picture, they will feel alienated from your work. Something will ultimately feel funky when they view it, such as “Why is that child missing a foot?” or “Is the baby’s forehead supposed to look like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?”

Rule #1: Obey the Rule of Thirds

One of the most basic rules of any art medium whether it be photography, motion pictures, or traditional paintings is the Rule of Thirds. The premise is that the two-dimensional canvas is split into thirds forming 9 distinct areas and four intersections.

6 rules of portrait composition photo

The goal of your composition is to have the primary subject situated along one of the intersections or lines of these areas as it will draw the user to focus on those regions much more-so than placing the subject dead-center. In the case of portraits, the eyes should be the primary focal point for the viewer. A common mistake is to place the subject in the center just like a really bad school picture. The forehead would then be the focal point. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I don’t want my forehead to be the belle of the ball in any of my portraits.

Rule #2: Don’t Chop Limbs

Limb chopping is sometimes necessary for close-up portraits. This rule isn’t necessarily targeting those kinds of “chops” but more to those limb chops that happen on joints. Limb chops can be very distracting to the viewer. Just look at the pain I’m in without my hand!

6 rules of portrait composition photo

Rule #3: Avoid Franken-Forehead

Avoid cropping and framing your subject in such a way that the hairline at the top doesn’t indicate the end of the forehead. This can make your subject look like he or she has a much larger forehead, otherwise known as “franken-forehead.”

6 rules of portrait composition photo

Rule #4: Don’t Behead the Subject With the Horizon

Crouch down to your subject’s level or stand just above them to ensure that the horizon doesn’t cut right through her head or neck. If you must, aim to put the horizon just above the head or just below the shoulders. You also want to avoid putting the horizon dead-center, as that would also be a violation of Rule #1.

6 rules of portrait composition photo

Rule #5: No Impaling the Subject

If at all possible, please try to avoid impaling your subject with a tree, light pole, traffic signal, or fence. As much as the limb chopping could distract, this would be even more trouble for your viewers!

6 rules of portrait composition photo

Rule #6: Keep Both Eyes Focused

You should always try to keep both eyes in focus for a proper portrait. This is particularly important for headshots when the subject is angled toward the camera. It can be so tempting to open up and focus on the one eye, but without both in focus, you’ll lose that connection between the viewer and the portrait’s subject — not to mention you make your subject look like a pirate. Yarr, y’all!

6 rules of portrait composition photo

6 rules of portrait composition photoGeorgia Nelson, Texas
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Georgia Nelson is a photographer specializing in child and family photography. Her goofball personality lets her connect with clients on a humorous level and capture natural laughter and fun. She is also a fan of Japanese animation and cosplay. Her portrait photography talents allow her to capture the hard work and dedication of cosplayers. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, two daughters, and two ginormous cats.


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32 Responses to “6 rules of portrait composition”

  1. Monica
    Jan 30 2014 at 12:09 pm #

    You are too funny! I love the examples. :)

  2. Kristin Dokoza
    Jan 30 2014 at 12:35 pm #

    Oh my gosh – Love your examples – ha, too funny! Seriously, very clever

  3. Jan 30 2014 at 1:05 pm #

    Such a fun tutorial, Georgia!! Well done!! LOL!

  4. Jan 30 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    OMG!! Totally hysterical but you make your points direct and understandable. Loved this article!! Thanks Georgia!! I’ll be looking out for more.

  5. Jan 30 2014 at 2:42 pm #

    I love the example. LOL

  6. Kim Peterson
    Jan 30 2014 at 2:43 pm #

    This is the cutest ever presentation of the rules!!!!

  7. Jan 30 2014 at 2:53 pm #

    Too funny! You hit all the bad ones, great job! It is hard to keep all these in mind when you are out in the middle of things, hopefully your funny imagery will prompt me. Thank you!

  8. Jan 30 2014 at 2:55 pm #

    Um, I thought that photo would be my ‘profile pic,’ not in the body of the comment! Well, at least my husband managed to get our eyes focused, even though my son is missing his hand. HA

  9. Linda
    Jan 30 2014 at 4:00 pm #

    Thanks so much! I had posted a question about this and didn’t get a full answer and this completely answered it for me. Thanks for posting!

  10. Jan 30 2014 at 4:03 pm #

    This might be my favorite post ever! Wonderful mix of great tips and humor :)

  11. Adele Humphries
    Jan 30 2014 at 4:08 pm #

    Such a fun and informative tutorial :)

  12. Kelly R
    Jan 30 2014 at 4:12 pm #

    Ah! Love this!!! Awesome post! :D

  13. Jan 30 2014 at 5:25 pm #

    So cute! Love this, Georgia!

  14. Lisa Harrison
    Jan 30 2014 at 5:28 pm #

    Hysterical, Georgia! Thanks for sharing!

  15. Kristy
    Jan 30 2014 at 7:16 pm #

    Georgia!! This is awesome! :)

  16. Phyllis
    Jan 30 2014 at 7:26 pm #

    I can’t stop laughing! I had to go back and re-read this post. Love the approach on your rules. You need to write more posts. A little humor in learning actually helps this information to sink in this brain.

  17. Jan 30 2014 at 10:45 pm #

    Love this!

  18. Jan 31 2014 at 9:40 am #

    Haha Georgia you crack me up!!! This is fabulous :)

  19. Jan 31 2014 at 9:48 am #

    This is an awesome, Georgia! Hilarious!

  20. Jan 31 2014 at 9:49 am #

    Oops – ipad wins again…I meant an awesome tutorial :)

  21. Jan 31 2014 at 10:37 am #

    I giggled all the way through, Georgia. Thanks for explaining these rules in such a fun and clever way. Ha! Awesome job!

  22. Jan 31 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    of all people to talk about rules, lol. Great job Georgia! <3

  23. Kristie
    Jan 31 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    I finally understand some of the “why’s” to these rules now! Thank you!

  24. Feb 01 2014 at 12:23 am #

    Seriously – awesome!

  25. Emilia
    Feb 01 2014 at 9:46 pm #

    Nice post! I do the pirate thing all-the-time! :)

  26. Jill
    Feb 02 2014 at 1:35 pm #

    I am a novice to photography and I did enjoy this article. Thanks. I just wish i could see real-life photos of what not to do and what to do photos.

  27. Kira
    Feb 03 2014 at 10:54 pm #

    Hilarious and helpful. Loved it!

  28. Feb 04 2014 at 9:57 am #

    Thanks all!

  29. Feb 05 2014 at 10:02 am #

    Best guide to rule of thirds. Ever.

  30. Nov 13 2014 at 9:36 pm #

    YOUR SHIRT!!!!!!! Oh, and pretty nice article too. :) Kidding, I actually love it as much as I love your shirt.


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