Subject placement in portrait close-ups

SWFF-0201-DressRehearsal-018I’m currently reading the 1995 reprint of John Alton’s 1949 book Painting with Light.

One of the passages that struck me was how he described the placement of the subject in his chapter on The Hollywood Close-Up.

“Generally, leave more room at the side of the picture toward which the subject is looking.  This allows the imagination to travel.  Behind the head is yesterday, uninteresting.  We cannot change it.  Ahead of it is tomorrow, full of expectations.  We can still mold it.”

I really like that description. It’s putting into words a kind of gut-level intuition about subject placement, but also elaborating on that such that it’s not a “rule”, but “why” it works.  Which also leads to the next sentence (when you might want to break with it)…


Miho performing at 3rd Coast Tribal 2014 in Fort Worth, Tx.

“A head can be against the side line of the picture when, for example, there is the suggestion of fear or menace behind.”

In my second image, I’d tend to say the possible implication of fear or awe is probably more in the gesture than the negative space behind the figure in the frame. However, I didn’t even click to that possible interpretation until after reading that passage and looking at some of my archives to see if it held up in practice, and when.

It’s always a joy to get a new “take” on compositional techniques.

About vstrick

I’m a photographer who loves photographing renaissance festivals and dance. They are great communities and I enjoy capturing some of those moments and being able to share them with the community. My day job is in IT at The University of Texas at Austin, wrangling the virtual infrastructure – working with VMware vSphere, vCenter Operations, SRM, Cisco Nexus 1000v, and consuming as many SAN resources as I can get. :-)
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