Portrait photography

In portrait photography, beware of lines that cross your subject’s head

We’ve all heard of the classic rule of thirds, leading lines, and other compositional techniques. But following the most common rules can get a bit boring at times.

We don’t often talk about certain rules, but every photographer has internalized them. In this article, we’ll discuss one of those rules so you can start taking great portraits quickly and easily!

Headlines won’t make headlines

It’s one of those difficult topics to talk about that’s better explained visually than with text alone. We usually never talk about this rule because we always assume that people know not to put lines in people’s heads without having a clear goal for them – and usually there is no goal for them.

Avoiding lines through the head means it’s best not to have background elements that create lines that originate from or cross the head. This could mean streetlights or telephone wires or tree branches, etc. Often we don’t notice these things until it’s too late, and I’ll show some examples in a moment.

It is imperative to look at the framing in all its aspects before clicking on the shutter button. Once you leave the place, you may not have that opportunity and you will kick your ass because of it. Remember, what’s inside the frame is just as important as what’s outside, so being aware of your framing before hitting the shutter button is essential!

An example of a photoshoot

For this session, I am working with my Nikon Z6II and Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 G2. This combination is perfect for portraits as the constant f/2.8 produces beautiful bokeh on subjects, and the Z6 II’s Eye-AF is outstanding for people who don’t move very quickly.

Earlier last month, I photographed a college graduate named Hannah alongside her boyfriend, John (who you’ll meet in a minute!). The environment has posed some natural issues (pun intended) that we will need to navigate.

You’ll probably notice that the portrait is correct, except that a tree branch comes from her head, making her look like a puppet attached to a string. This effect is not what I was looking for, and I think we can make it much better! I’m going to move a bit to the left of the camera and try to recompose the shot to fix it. My goal is to make the branch not so distracting in the frame.

Ha, fine ! Now this branch and the railing act as guidelines to her face. This photo could still use some tweaking, but it shows just how much of a difference a little movement can make.

I composed this photo using the golden ratio and edited the crop to suit my tastes in Lightroom Classic. I chose the golden ratio over the rule of thirds for this photo because of how the railing and trees helped form those leading lines that would lead us to his face anyway, so the rule of third seemed like a redundant technique that didn’t do much more to help the picture. However, the golden ratio uses math to help create a more pleasing appearance.

Let’s look at another shot to see the same principle in action. Everyone, I would like you to meet John. John is Hannah’s boyfriend. John, meet everyone.

It’s perhaps a lot easier to see in this image than the previous one: there’s a prominent line across Hannah’s head, which doesn’t look too flattering. I bet you noticed it but didn’t pay too much attention to it at first glance. Now that I’ve pointed it out, though, it must bother you immensely. Of course it bothers me!

Good positioning is key

There are all sorts of issues with positioning here, but small split-second fixes can make all the difference when shooting on location. A very simple solution to this is to move slightly to the side so that the line does not protrude from his head. Instead, let’s try to get the line between them to make it look more natural – and using Photoshop we can remove it later if we don’t want it here!

Examples like this are why I always tell my clients to do multiple takes of the same pose so we have safety plans. In tricky situations like this, I’d rather have more images to sort than reject them all because of some issue on my part capturing their session.
Luckily, I did just that!

Wow! What an incredible difference! But now we also have a line in John’s head! We can certainly do better than that. Let’s try a different angle from a bit higher and see what we can accomplish. If we shoot at eye level, we don’t make them weaker. It’s a bit closer to what our eyes would naturally see. We also need to make sure that we don’t accidentally put another line in John’s head, so knowing the frame is important, as mentioned earlier.

So what if we tried to get rid of the lines across the head by moving up? In theory, this technique should push the head lower, allowing this limb to frame the subject better than just a standard shot. This natural architecture could create a beautiful composition if we look at it in the right way. Let’s see what it looks like!

Oh, that worked perfectly! I moved two steps to the right to get rid of that pole in the background, and now we’ve gotten rid of the branch distraction.

This image is one of my favorites from the shoot. I love how we captured their smiles and their presence in the moment with each other. Apart from the emotions, we ruled out any lines that might negatively impinge on their photo. The tree on the left side helps fill in what would otherwise have been negative space, making the setting feel more cohesive and intentional.

Remember: what’s inside the frame is just as important as what’s outside. This simple rule has greatly helped my composition and I highly recommend it to all photographers.

About the Author: Zain Bhatti is a portrait and event photographer based in New Jersey, USA. He is also the owner of ZN Media, a media company that produces photographic and film works for clients in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. You can find more of Zain’s work at his website and instagram.