Today's post comes from the book Portrait Photographers Handook, 3rd Edition by Bill Hurter. It is available from and other retailers.

Composition in portraiture is no more than proper subject placement within the frame. There are several schools of thought on proper subject placement, and no one school is the only answer. Several formulas are given here to help you best determine where to place the subject in the picture area.

Many photographers don’t know where to place the subject within the frame. As a result, they usually opt for putting the person in the center of the picture. Unfortunately, this is actually the most static type of portrait composition you can produce. The easiest way to improve your compositions is to use the rule of thirds. Examine the diagram shown below (left). The rectangular viewing area is cut into nine separate squares by four lines. Where any two lines intersect is an area of dynamic visual interest. The intersecting points are ideal spots to position your main point of interest. The main point of interest in your portrait can also be effectively placed anywhere along one of the dividing lines. In head-and-shoulders portraits, the eyes are the center of interest. Therefore, it is a good idea if they rest on a dividing line or at an intersection of two lines. In a three quarter-or full-length portrait, the face is the center of interest. Thus, the face should be positioned to fall on an intersection or on a dividing line. In most vertical portraits, the head or eyes are twothirds from the bottom of the print. This is also true in most horizontal compositions, unless the subject is seated or reclining. In that case, they may be at the bottom onethird line.

The rule of thirds (left) and the golden mean (right) are two ways of achieving dynamic compositions in portrait photography. In each case, the center of interest, the face or eyes, should be placed on or near an intersection of two lines within the picture rectangle.

A compositional principle similar to the rule of thirds is the golden mean, a concept first expressed by the ancient Greeks. Simply, the golden mean represents the point where the main center of interest should lie and it is an ideal compositional type for portraits. The golden mean is found by drawing a diagonal from one corner of the frame to the other. Then, draw a line from one or both of the remaining corners so that it intersects the first line perpendicularly. By doing this you can determine the proportions of the golden mean for both horizontal and vertical photographs.

Sometimes you will find that if you place the main point of interest on a dividing line or at an intersecting point, there is too much space on one side of the subject and not enough on the other. Obviously, you would then frame the subject so that he or she is closer to the center of the frame. It is important, however, that the person not be placed dead center, but to one side of the center line. Whatever direction the subject is facing in the photograph, there should be slightly more room in front of the person (on the side of the frame toward which he is facing). For instance, if the person is looking to the right as you look at the scene through the viewfinder, then there should be more space to the right side of the subject than to the left of the subject in the frame. This gives the image a sense of visual direction. Even if the composition is such that you want to position the person close to the center of the frame, there should still be slightly more space on the side toward which the subject is turned. This also applies when the subject is looking directly at the camera. He should not be centered in the frame; there should be slightly more room on one side to enhance the composition.

To effectively master the fundamentals of composition, the photographer must be able to recognize real and implied lines within the photograph. A real line is one that is obvious—a horizon, for example. An implied line is one that is not as obvious; the curve of the wrist or the bend of an arm is an implied line. Real lines should not intersect the photograph in halves. This actually splits the composition into two halves. It is better to locate real lines at a point one-third into the photograph. This weights the photo in a way that is more appealing to the eye. Lines, real or implied, that meet the edge of the photograph should lead the eye into the scene and not out of it—and they should lead toward the subject. A good example of this is the country road that is widest in the foreground and narrows to a point where the subject is walking. These lines lead the eye straight to the subject. Implied lines, such as those of the arms and legs of the subject, should not contradict the direction or emphasis of the composition, but should modify it. These lines should present gentle, not dramatic, changes in direction. Again, they should also lead to the main point of interest—either the eyes or the face.

Excerpted from the book "Portrait Photographer's Handook, 3rd Edition" by Bill Hurter.

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