Humans don’t absorb all the detail in a scene or image instantly, but instead we selectively scan it. Our eyes are first drawn to eyes and faces, certain colours and areas of high contrast. To test which area of an image is the main focal point, turn it upside down and note which area your eye is pulled towards. This trick turns the photograph into an abstract, making it easier to be objective.
There are compositional rules and techniques that you can use to keep a viewer’s eye within a photograph for longer, or to bring attention to a certain area of the image. There are also ways to make an image more pleasing and harmonious or – conversely, more unstable and unbalanced – the effect you are aiming for depends on your intentions for each shot.
A successful composition – like a successful exposure – is one that creates the effect intended by the photographer; whether that’s a sense of space, pleasing aesthetics and visual harmony or claustrophobic framing, disruptive aesthetics and visual tension. Consider how the portrait will be used and seen: Will the image be displayed as a large print on a wall, or as a tiny shot on a website page? Where do you want the viewer’s eye to go to first? What path do you want their eye to take within the frame?
While there are many guidelines and ‘rules’ for this area of photography, these are generally intended to create attractive compositions. Depending on your desired intentions, you may want to achieve something else entirely. In addition, relentless applying the Rule of Thirds or The Golden Ratio to every shoot will inhibit your creativity and result in images that look repetitive and uninspiring.
Developing your own compositional style will help set you apart from other photographers, so learn the rules but also experiment with breaking them.