Many photographers often settle for basic compositions and then find themselves wondering how professionals capture captivating portraits. The secret often lies in the composition itself. Although several factors contribute to a great photograph, mastering composition is an excellent first step to instantly elevate your natural light portraits.  In this article, we’ll provide you with over 10 portrait composition tips for better photos.

Simplify Your Background

A busy background in a photo can be quite distracting. Instead, we want to find simple backgrounds that help emphasize our subject. A common way to do this is with a shallow depth of field, but we don’t want to always rely on a shallow depth of field to achieve a better portrait composition. Instead, a better way to approach this is by looking for color, lighting, and patterns.

portrait composition side by side
Walk Up Shot (left) vs Final Shot (right)

The image on the left is a boring “walk up” shot.  You can see how it lacks interest and artistry.  But by placing the subject in the hedges to the left of the scene, not only do we get great depth, but we get great lighting on her face. The primary light comes from the opening above. Meanwhile, the sides of the hedge act as negative fills and create great shadows.

portrait composition technique
Shot at 1/1000 sec, f/0.95, ISO 50 edited with the  VF Presets > Mood Pack > Soft Light

What we end up with is a portrait composition that pulls the focus right onto Kiara. Notice the dark green of the hedge creates a natural vignette. The pattern doesn’t distract and helps Kiara’s orange outfit pop in the center of the image. Watch the entire process in the video below.

Frame Your Backlit Subjects Over the Shadows

photography composition subjects over shadows David Suh backlit

The next portrait composition tip that I want to discuss is framing your subjects over the shadows, particularly in a backlit scene. In the image above, notice how this entire scene is backlit, yet David’s head is tilted to the left, just over this darker fountain object. Half of David’s head is positioned in front of a dark object while the other half is in front of the brighter sky.

Close up backlight with subject over shadows photography composition

Often, when photographers have their subjects backlit, they wonder why the backlights are not showing up. It’s because the backgrounds are often too bright. By zooming in on David’s head, one can see how the hair light stands out on one side, while the other side blends in with the sky.

Try a Lower Perspective

use perspective photography composition tips 01

Using a lower perspective is one of the most effective compositional techniques because it can transform an ordinary scene into something extraordinary. For example, a photo of Shivani appears to be taken in a fancy studio, but the behind-the-scenes shot reveals that it was actually taken in the back of a studio parking lot in a warehouse area. The difference between a great shot and a boring one in this instance is simply the photographer getting down on the ground and shooting up towards Shivani.

A 16-35mm wide-angle lens set to 16mm on a Sony a7R IV was used for this shot, but any wide-angle camera and lens combination would work.  Below is another example of the same concept.

use perspective photography composition tips 02

What makes this image on the right unique, aside from changing the pose, is the lowered camera angle. This adjustment allows David to tower over the frame, creating a stronger presence in the subject-to-camera interaction. Perspective is a powerful tool, and its effectiveness is such that many photographers specialize solely in this one compositional technique.

Don’t Be Afraid of Negative Space

negative space photography composition tip 01

Negative space is powerful because it draws the viewer’s eyes to the subject. This technique is highly effective in advertising and other media, such as website design, where there is ample room for text overlay. Images utilizing negative space also look striking in print.

salt flats negative space photography composition tip

Find & Use Natural Framing

natural framing photography composition tips 01

Natural framing involves finding an element or shape in the background to naturally frame the subject. In the image above (from Lighting 4), Kylie was photographed using a small light. The intriguing aspect of this shot and angle was the light coming in from the window in the background. The window served as a natural framing element for Kylie’s face, so she was positioned right in front of it. This setup provided balanced light on each side of her face and balanced the frame for the portrait composition. Additionally, a bit of light was directed onto her face from an off-camera flash, but it is the central window frame that draws and holds the viewer’s gaze.

This is one of those instances where it is highly encouraged to take your time. When framing subjects, it is important to incorporate the background into the composition.

Take Advantage of Leading Lines

Leading lines are present in almost any scene. Utilizing railings, stairs, rows of objects, or other physical elements in your portrait composition to guide the viewer’s eyes toward the subject creates a natural emphasis. These lines not only direct attention but also seamlessly draw the viewer’s gaze to the focal point.

leading lines photography composition tips 02

See the full demonstration of these five concepts in the video below.

Shift Your Angle For an Even Background Exposure

In the walk-up shot on the left, the background is considerably brighter than the model. Instead, move around until you find a background that’s around the same brightness as your subject. An immediate improvement, right?

natural light portraits background camera angle

Add a Foreground

Foreground elements are great for further isolating your subject or adding more interest to your portrait compositions. By incorporating elements such as foliage, architectural features, or even simple props, to your portrait composition photographers can create a sense of depth and dimension in their images. Additionally, these elements can provide a context or narrative, enhancing the overall storytelling aspect of the portrait.

Angle Your Subject Toward the Highlights

natural light portraits turning to the highlights

To help accentuate the highlights, turn your subject toward that light.  This simple tweak can add refinement to a portrait.

natural light portraits composition steps

natural light portraits
Edited with Visual Flow > Mood Presets

For a full demonstration of this concept, see this video below.

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial! If you’d like to go even deeper into how to improve your photography, check out SLR Lounge Premium. There, you’ll find tons of in-depth courses such as Flash Photography, Building a Photography Business and more. You can also visit Visual Flow for a ton of intuitive Lightroom presets and retouching tools for your own editing workflow.