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Composing People

Great candids and portraits aren’t always as simple as getting the right expression
Composing People

If this photograph had been shot from a position more directly behind the woman taking a snapshot, the three people who are her subject would have been blocked or overlapped by her body. Shooting from a position more to the left caused the photographer (in the image) and her subjects to be horizontally more separated—especially important in a two-dimensional image.

People are photography’s ultimate content. Human beings are their own favorite subject, by orders of magnitude over anything else.

Yet even accomplished photographers tend to forget, when they photograph their fellow humans—large or small, candid or posed—that people pictures benefit as much as any landscape or street scene from careful composition. It’s as if, given our familiarity with our own kind and our preoccupation with human moments, photographic thinking flies out of our pretty little heads.

Even the simplest snapshot of friends or family, whether every day or on special occasions, can benefit from a moment of thought about composition and its visual corollaries. With that in mind, here are a few simple strategies to help create more effective pictures of people, whether formal or informal.

Frame, Don’t Aim

In the heat of a candid moment, it’s easy to use the viewfinder—whether a DSLR’s eye-level finder or a cellphone’s LCD screen—like a sort of gun site. Fixated on a face, you put the subject’s head smack in the middle of the frame. The result is half a frame of dead space above the head.

This is especially likely when you’re shooting a vertical, the traditional “portrait” format and the default for cellphone photography. It’s something you only may notice when you look at the picture later on, but even if you “chimp” it at the time, you’ve more than likely made a second-rate photograph of a great expression.

Unless there’s a compelling visual reason to do otherwise, always place the subject’s head toward the top of the frame. This is as simple as reminding yourself to lower your camera angle—think of it as aiming for the heart instead of the head!

While that habit is a great start to making more effective people photographs, it’s only part of the picture. The point may seem obvious to experienced photographers, but you should think of the viewfinder as a picture frame; you need to free your eye from what first caught your attention. You should continually scan the frame and its edges, and pay close attention to the distance between things in the scene and the edges of the frame. In particular—and this goes back to that unwanted emptiness above a subject’s head—if you notice a lot of space between your main subject and the edges of the frame, you probably can conclude that the subject is too small. Which brings us to our next trick…

Get Closer

Making your subject bigger in the frame is, in most cases, a ready-made way to create a more powerful image. Getting physically closer is a great, simple way to accomplish this.

Composing People
You don’t have to include a person’s full figure in your composition, but if you crop in, do it decisively—don’t accidentally cut her off at the ankles. And however tight you go in, keep the subject’s head at the top of the frame. Also remember that in some of the best people pictures, the subject is looking away from the camera.

The advice could be described more generally as “Fill the Frame,” though, because along with getting closer to your subject, another way to make it bigger is by zooming in. Zooming in has its pros and cons, just as getting closer does, and the predominance of cellphone photography has changed that equation. Let’s assume, though, that you’re shooting with a dedicated stand-alone camera that has a zoom lens.

Long before cellphones became the primary tool for taking people pictures, when point-and-shoot cameras ruled the photographic world, zooming in was the go-to method for filling the frame. Many photographers would spot their subject, stop in their tracks, zoom in and shoot. They composed by zooming, quick and easy.

It was rare that they actually thought to physically move in closer to the subject, using photography’s most important tool—two legs. They paid no attention to the very important effect that shooting distance has on the relationship between a subject and its background (and environment). Point-and-shoot cameras may be a dwindling breed, but the same thing applies to a zoom lens on a DSLR or mirrorless system camera: The closer you move in, rather than zooming in, the more of a subject’s background will end up in the frame. This assumes you keep the person the same size in the frame as you would if zooming.

If you stay more distant from the subject and zoom in, on the other hand, you’ll get less background relative to a given-sized figure.

That could be just what you want, artistically. The background will usually be less in focus as well, depending on f-stop and focal length. What’s more, there are times when zooming is the only way to get the picture; for example, when there’s a physical obstruction between you and the subject or when moving closer physically might cause you to lose the spontaneity of the moment.

Zooming is certainly a good way to fine-tune composition—to get those edges just perfect—once you’ve established the proper shooting distance. Generally, though, zooming, meaning the choice of a focal length, should be based on the kind of perspective you want to achieve in an image, rather than used as a compositional tool.

Cellphone cameras throw a wrench into this whole approach. They let you zoom a bit, not optically, of course, but by applying the two-finger spread to your touch-screen LCD. This can help you fill the frame on the fly, but it risks a loss of image quality because the phone achieves the magnification electronically, by enlarging the middle of its tiny image sensor and therefore using fewer pixels.

On the other hand, as many cellphone shooters have learned, if you get too close to someone in trying to fill the frame—for a tight facial shot or even a head-and-shoulders portrait—he or she ends up distorted, with a looming nose, bulging face and/or oversized head on a tapering, toothpick body.

Composing People
Filling the frame with your subject—even deliberately cropping out parts of her body—can give your photograph more drama, and greater intimacy as well. The effect is often compositionally more interesting if you achieve it by moving physically closer, but you can zoom if circumstances require it.

This happens because the phone’s all-purpose, relatively wide-angle lens forces you to get too close in order to fill the frame with a single person. In fact, the focal length of an iPhone lens is roughly the equivalent, in a 35mm or full-frame digital camera, of 29mm, and any photographer who’s shot with a 28mm wide-angle on those models knows well the level of subject distortion it produces at close distances.

Even zoomed in digitally, a cellphone camera usually falls well shy of the typical preferred full-frame portrait focal length of 85mm or 90mm.

Place The Subject Off-Center

Think of this as a corollary to “Frame, Don’t Aim.” The same lack of thought that leads to centering a person’s head in the frame also results in horizontally centered figures—a figure placed in the middle of what is more often than not (cellphones excepted) a horizontal image. The result, likewise, is empty space to either side of the subject, and more often than not a static composition.

One solution, of course, is to switch to vertical composition—remembering to keep the subject’s head at the top of the frame!

But a more interesting approach is often to place the subject off-center in the frame. This can produce a much more dynamic composition. You don’t want to do it arbitrarily, however. Consider what else is in the scene, to either side of the figure, and use it in an effective visual, graphic way, even as a form of commentary on the subject or environment. If there’s important detail in the background, you may want it to be sharp, in which case you want to set a relatively small lens aperture, depending on focal length and format. But even when a subject is off-center, an out-of-focus background can be effective, adding meaning but still keeping the emphasis on the main figure.

The degree to which you place the subject off-center depends on what else is in the frame, of course—whether it’s useful visually or helps you say something about the subject. It’s also a function of how tightly you’ve framed the subject. A subject shown from the waist up, for example, will fill more horizontal width than a subject shown full-figure. An important thing to keep in mind with off-center composition is the option of shifting your position sideways. See the next section for more about this.

Remember, if you use off-center composition, that you need to maintain focus on the main subject. Though modern, wide-area autofocus systems are better than ever at snagging subjects when they’re not in the middle of the frame, they’re not perfect. It’s a good idea to lock the focus on the main subject before recomposing to place it on the side of the frame.

Composing People
When you place a subject off-center in your composition, try to take your cues from the situation itself. Here, the boxer’s opponent was off-camera to the right, and he is looking attentively in that direction. It made sense to place him on the left side of the frame, using the space on the right to suggest the presence of his sparring partner.

The customary way to do this is by pressing the shutter button halfway, holding it there, then recomposing and pressing it all the way down to take the picture. The only problem with this approach is that you have to keep repeating it for each additional shot—and, as you know by now, you need to take more than a few pictures to capture the best expression in a subject.

You can prevent the need for this by turning off the autofocus after it’s initially locked in, or you can focus manually. An easier method, though, is to reprogram your camera (using the menu system) so that autofocus is always activated, and locked, by one of the buttons on the upper right of the camera back. You press that back button once to focus on the (centered) main subject, then recompose—shooting as many frames as you like without the camera’s autofocus system always trying to refocus. This way, you won’t risk the focus falling on the background, causing the main figure to be unsharp.

Shifting Sideways

The most obvious argument for taking a step to the side before shooting a photo of a person is to avoid the classic faux pas of having something in the background appear to “grow” out of his or her head—a telephone pole or the branches of a tree, for example. Again, in concentrating on a person’s expression or the moment at hand, it’s easy to miss such things, but they are glaringly apparent after the fact. The remedy, as before, is in being mindful and in using your own two legs as a compositional tool.

Large-scale lateral moves, say, a few feet, can totally change a subject’s background, making it more interesting or simplifying it. This allows you to create a better visual connection to the main subject. Smaller moves, even of a few inches, can prevent objects at different distances from overlapping in confusing and unattractive ways in the frame. Remember that objects that appear well-separated to the human eye, which adjusts focus on the fly and is guided by a big brain, can end up flat and undifferentiated in a 2D image.

Stepping sideways, as simple as it sounds, is one of the fundamental techniques of great photographers. They understand that such a move can prevent confusing overlaps among elements of the scene that are at different distances. A smaller figure in the distance, for example, may be half-blocked by the main figure, seeming to stick out from one side or the other of it; a quick step sideways, toward the side of the main figure from which the distant figure is emerging, will prevent the two figures from merging in the frame.

As great photographers know, that’s only part of what legs can do for you when you’re shooting people or any other subject. Along with moving back and forth and sideways at eye level, legs also let you lower your point of view by crouching. Legs let you scramble up a step or to another, higher position to get more elevation on a subject.

Is composing good people pictures like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time? Perhaps. You have to keep your eye on the subject’s expression and gesture while framing him or her effectively, mostly with changes in your physical position. It isn’t like composing trees and mountains that stay put while you make your decisions and adjustments; it takes practice. Practice is what photography is all about, though, and practice makes perfect.

Composing People

Photographing Groups

As tough as it may seem to get a flattering, meaningful photograph of just one person, shooting a group of people increases that difficulty exponentially. Even if nine out of 10 people look great, it invariably seems as if the 10th looks like he or she just smelled something bad.

There are several things you can do to improve your chance of getting a group shot that everyone involved will be happy with.

The first of these is, simply, to take lots of pictures. Never take just one, but don’t even take a few. Take dozens, and take them fast. The more you take, the better the chance that at least one frame will nail a decent expression on everyone. Digital photography makes this easy and, unlike film photography, inexpensive. If you want to make sure you’ve got the shot covered, you can review your pictures on the camera’s LCD screen. (Remember to enlarge the image and scroll around the faces using the camera’s back buttons.) It’s better, though, not to pause in the middle of shooting, which only gives your subjects time to get uncomfortable. Just shoot, then shoot some more, and see what you’ve got later on.

Second, don’t expend too much effort trying to manage your group—you’ll be wasting valuable time that you could be shooting. Let them organize themselves, and shoot like crazy while they’re doing it. You’ll get informal, relaxed shots of people interacting with one another as they jockey for position. Some may be taking the task of imposing order seriously; others will be smiling and laughing. The resulting photographs will have a busy, decisive-moment quality that makes them more fun to look at than a bunch of people staring down your camera.

Sure, you’ll take pictures of the group once it’s posed, with everyone looking at you. Take lots of pictures then, too. And when you’re finished with those formal, official shots, keep on shooting as the group disperses—just as you did when it was coming into formation. You’ll get even more great interactive shots. And these will often be better than the initial, organizational shots because the pressure of the official, formal picture is off the group.

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