From Novice to Pro: 10 Secrets of Powerful Portrait Composition

Understanding how to compose the elements of a scene is the difference between taking a snapshot and capturing an impressive photo. Artists have used composition techniques for centuries. They frame people in a balanced manner that appeals to the senses. Photographers who use composition for portrait photography can easily frame their subjects through the viewfinder to capture compelling images.

What is a Good Portrait?

A successful portrait goes beyond a well-focused and well-exposed image. It blends technical mastery with artistic vision. The subject’s expression, pose, lighting, and background evoke emotion in the viewer and leave a lasting impression.

What is Composition in Photography Portraiture?

Effective composition is about taking the eye on a visual journey, not just presenting a face. Composition techniques ensure that your subject is the star of a harmonious photo. By understanding composition, you can create appealing portraits whenever you press the shutter.

How to Use Composition to Create More Powerful Portraits

Below are the top ten composition tips that every portrait photographer should know.

The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a fundamental composition technique for photographers. Most cameras offer a built-in grid overlay within the viewfinder or screen to help you follow the guidelines. This grid divides the frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Placing your subject along these lines creates a more visually exciting composition than a centered subject. Position the subject’s face at any of the intersecting points to make a stronger image. In a close-up shot, keep the subject’s eyes on the line that marks the top third of the frame.

Depth and Focus

Blurring the background so the viewer can’t be distracted by elements behind the person is the easiest way to identify the main subject within a portrait photo. A wide aperture creates a shallow depth of field, which means that the area in focus narrows, and the background behind your subject becomes indistinct. A shallow depth of field draws attention to specific features, such as eyes or an enigmatic smile. This level of control allows for a more artistic and expressive approach to portraiture.

Frame Your Shots

Framing is a simple yet powerful technique in portrait photography that instantly draws the viewer’s eyes to your model. By incorporating elements from the environment, you can create a natural ‘frame’ around your subject, isolating them and making them the focal point. The possibilities for framing are endless. Look for tree branches, arches, or shadows that can create a beautiful enclosure around your subject. In a bustling scene, you can even use the backs of people walking by to frame the face of someone approaching you. Framing goes beyond simply highlighting the subject; it adds a layer of visual interest. By framing them, you block any unwanted empty space, directly drawing the viewer’s eye to the subject.

Negative Space

Including an empty area around your portrait model might seem counterintuitive, but it can make your subject stand out. The viewer is instantly drawn to the main subject with nowhere else to look.

Negative space needn’t be white or devoid of detail. Any color or subtle variations can work if they don’t compete for attention with your subject. For example, a blue sky works well as long as no dramatic storm clouds are on the horizon. The key is to create a clear contrast between your subject and their surroundings.

Provide Direction

When a portrait subject looks to the edge of the frame, it’s essential to leave room on that side of the photo. A person gazing into the distance seems more natural with some empty space in front of them instead of being framed tightly against the edge of the image.

When a person’s face is close to the frame, it appears cramped or confined. The lack of breathing room detracts from the overall composition and restricts the viewer’s connection with the subject. Leaving enough space in the frame, especially in the direction the subject is facing or moving, is essential for creating a sense of balance and natural flow within the image.

Balancing Act

Understanding visual weight is essential for creating balanced compositions. Visual weight refers to the perceived heaviness or prominence of objects within an image. Various factors influence it, including color, contrast, and placement. In particular, the size of objects significantly impacts how viewers perceive the composition. For instance, in a portrait that fills the frame with their presence, they appear powerful and confident. Conversely, when the subject is portrayed as smaller within the frame, surrounded by vast empty space, or overshadowed by larger objects, they may appear insignificant or isolated.

Use Leading Lines

In leading lines, portrait photographers direct a viewer’s eyes toward the subject. Our brains crave order, and leading lines provide a visual path that’s impossible to resist. Imagine a model leaning against a fence — the horizontal line subtly draws attention to the person. But leading lines aren’t just about direction; they can also evoke emotions.

A curved staircase, for instance, creates a gentle flow, inviting the viewer to connect with the subject on a more personal level. Diagonal lines are more energizing. Imagine a model holding a guitar, its diagonal line pointing toward the camera, creating a sense of engagement. Leading lines act as a visual invitation, guiding you toward the subject.

Different Angles / Perspective

To make an alluring portrait photograph, avoid the classic head-on shot. Imagine a slightly lower-angle photo, looking up at your subject to convey an air of power. Conversely, a high angle looking down can create a sense of intimacy or vulnerability. A side-angle portrait encourages the viewer to connect with the subject’s gaze and explore the details of their profile.

For a more dramatic effect, try tilting the camera slightly off-axis, creating unease or disorientation. Use it sparingly and with the intention of creating a truly unique portrait.

Get Creative With Color

Use vibrant colors to grab the viewer’s attention with a captivating portrait. Consider asking your subject to dress in a striking red, royal blue, or emerald green, especially if the background is more muted or neutral. This creates a sense of focus and ensures your subject becomes the center of visual interest. Incorporating contrasting colors makes compelling images; for example, picture a subject in a blue shirt against a warm yellow backdrop.

Get Closer

One of the best techniques in portrait photography is filling the frame with your subject. This goes beyond just capturing their likeness. By getting close, you create a sense of intimacy and eliminate distractions. To make a portrait photo even better, get closer. Instead of capturing the entire person, move in and focus solely on the top half of their body. Or fill the frame with your subject’s face to make the image more dynamic. It creates a powerful connection between the subject and the viewer.


In portrait photography, mastering composition is critical to creating images that captivate, resonate, and leave a lasting impression on viewers. When you pick up your camera, don’t just check the battery and clean the lens; take a moment to consider which of these composition techniques will help you craft a visually striking portrait. I guarantee that by incorporating some (or all) of these tips into your photography session, you’ll enhance the aesthetic appeal of your images and deepen the emotional impact, ensuring that your portraits stand out and leave a lasting impression on all who view them.