Portrait composition rules, and when to break them

Or, how to fit ovals in rectangles

How to fit an oval into a rectangle might sound like unimportant gibberish but, to the photographer interested in photographing people, it is a cornerstone of many great portraits. If I were to substitute the word “face” for the word “oval” many could easily understand my meaning because faces are ovals in their most basic shape. So, how do you fit an oval (face) in a rectangle (photograph)?

A quick recap

I've previously talked about how a single person is a vertical subject (unless they’re laying down…remember?) and, should therefore be put into a vertical composition. OK, end of recap!

The single oval and the rule of thirds

But, even though we are going to put the single face into the vertical composition, where to place that single oval in the rectangle is a question that has intrigued artists for centuries. Artists (in this instance that includes photographers, and before them painters, and before them both, some person with a piece of paper and a lump of charcoal) have all faced this decision!

Probably the most accepted portrait composition uses the “rule of thirds”. This rule divides the rectangle into nine smaller rectangles by placing two lines across the larger rectangle horizontally and two lines across it vertically. Each set of lines divides the rectangle’s horizontal and vertical sides into three equal parts. Classical composition suggests that the primary subject should generally be placed at one of the intersections of the four lines (see sketch #1).


Interestingly, for many traditional portrait applications, you only need the two horizontal lines (see sketch #2). Using the “single person is a vertical rule” and this “simplified rule of thirds”, the subject’s eyes are placed on the higher of the two horizontal lines and centered between the left and right boundaries of the rectangle . While the resulting effort can be considered a “clean” portrait, it’s not very unique and certainly not daringly creative.


Taking it a step further…maybe even to art

Using the “single person is a vertical” rule and the “simplified rule of thirds” (only the two horizontal lines) will almost always result in an average viewer saying: “Whoa…now that’s a good pittcha!” The two rules are worth knowing because of that, but elevating a “good pittcha” to higher plane (maybe even art) is another story entirely! That requires breaking new ground and even, dare I type it, breaking the rules I’ve so carefully pointed out.

In addition to placing the oval within the rectangle, one school of thought suggests using the rest of the rectangle to reveal something more about the subject. Often referred to as an environmental portrait, revealing more information about the subject can also trump the “single person is a vertical” rule!

I’ve now spent the better part of my life trying to figure all this out, and, consistently, as I sit here clicking off thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of images in my mind, the most memorable are almost always more than just another pretty face. So, for the moment, in an effort to break new ground, lets throw out both the “single person is a vertical” rule and the “simplified rule of thirds”! While it’s certainly good to know (and remember) the rules breaking them can sometimes lead to a creative result. One might call it “boldly going where no man has gone before” if it weren’t for the fact that saying it in those words breaks no new ground at all!

Enough theory--start shooting

To help you in your search to break new ground, here are examples of the two rules being broken. But, remember the very fact that I am explaining them here means that they aren’t new ground at all. Instead, try using my rule-breaking as a springboard for your own ideas. Remember, the idea is “to boldly go where…etc.”!
Include more than just the face of the subject. Show something that reveals more information about the subject to increase the viewer’s understanding of the subject. If this means using a horizontal frame to include the extra information then so be it! But, importantly, realize you can still use the “simplified rule of thirds but with two vertical lines, as opposed to the two horizontal ones.

Once you are committed to a horizontal format throw away the “simplified rule of thirds” and break your rectangle into quarters (or even fifths if you care to). Then, while you are at it, throw away the idea that a portrait has to be a traditional size. 4X6’s, 5X7’s, 8X10’s, 11X14’s and other standard size photographs are nice because Adorama has those frame sizes in stock, but those standard sized frames are an awful reason to determine what size rectangle your subject must fit into!

Go for it!

This goal to create something more than “pittchas,”, and the search for how to get your portraits above the competent (but mundane), is not easy. Some will never understand it and, for others, the process is too painful. But take heart, oh noble photographer, the very fact that you are reading this column makes you a likely candidate to try! There are no promises that you will succeed but the effort, in and of itself, is a worthy goal.

If you want to see a roadmap for breaking rules I suggest you take a long serious look at a book entitled One Mind’s Eye, a collection of portraits by Arnold Newman. This book is out of print, and therefore difficult to find, but it too is worth the effort of searching for.