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.

rules of portrait composition tutorial by Georgia Nelson

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.

Related: Beyond the rule of thirds

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!

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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.”

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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.

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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!

Related: 10 photography rules I broke and how I got away with them

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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!

rules of portrait composition tutorial by Georgia Nelson