Portrait Blocks & Stabilisers

Why you need wider shots to help you sell wall portraits, and how to place elements in your composition so they are either visual blocks or stabilisers.

This kind of portrait works well on the wall. My subject, Emma, isn’t so close up that the picture would feel overwhelming at a larger scale. The mood of the picture is calm and relaxing, and the environment surrounding Emma is beautiful in itself.

If you’re selling prints then bigger is better, so look for opportunities to include wider shots like this one in your portrait sets.

Blocks and stabilisers

Art theory states that the placement of objects in an image can act as either a block or a stabiliser. In cultures where people read text from left to right, elements placed on the left edge of the frame (such as a tree, wall or streetlight) act as a block. They slow the eye’s progress across the image, making it feel less harmonious or aesthetically pleasing. The same element placed on the right hand side of the frame, however, acts as a stabiliser. This means it keeps the eye from leaving the image, encouraging it to return instead to your subject. The opposite is true in cultures where people read text from right to left.

In this case, the tree is on the right hand side, so I get a compositional tick from the art theorists. I’ve also used the trunk and branches of the tree as a framing device. They add subtle background interest to the shot (and a sense of place) while drawing your eye back to Emma, who is the lightest part of the picture.

A slice of sunlight

I’ve matched the darker top edge of the image by darkening the foreground. This places Emma in a slice of sunlight in the middle of the frame. It’s golden hour, so the sun is gentle enough that Emma can look directly towards it without squinting.

When your subject is looking away from the camera, you don’t need to worry so much about flattering light patterns. It’s enough that the directional afternoon sun has given Emma’s face and body a sense of shape through the highlights on the right side of her skin, and shadows on the left.

Posing and timing

To achieve Emma’s pose, I simply asked her to sit down in a way that felt comfortable, while facing towards the light. Then, all I needed to do was tidy up her pose slightly, by asking her to place her left arm on her left knee, and softening the fall of her hand.

Then I waited. Just as the wind lifted her hair from her shoulders, I took the shot. This gives a little bit of movement to the image and helps viewers of the image to imagine the scene: warm, golden sunlight and a refreshing breeze. Bliss.


Camera Settings

  • Focal length: 82mm
  • Aperture: f/6.3
  • Shutter speed: 1/400 sec
  • ISO: 800