Tips + Techniques

Traditional Portrait Photography Rules and How to Break Them

August 19, 2021

By Jyo Bhamidipati

Portrait photography rules are good. They keep us portrait photographers on track. Rules in general help us stay organized and give us that comforting feeling of familiarity. They give us routine and structure. They have been developed over centuries, and they are here to stay.

[Read: Tips to Shooting Creative Indoor Portraits Using Only Window Light]

But what if we bent traditional portrait photography rules, even just a bit? How could we do that to have an even greater impact on our photographs? What if we deviated to create an image that focused on emotion rather than how technically perfect it is?

Let’s explore.

Understand Portrait Photography Rules Before You Break Them

Because artistic rules help viewers make sense of a visual piece, there are some do’s and don’ts that we all come to understand when we first become photographers:

  1. Don’t shoot in harsh light with unwanted shadows on your subject’s face.
  2. Use a center composition or the rule of thirds so that your viewer stays engaged with the visual.
  3. Don’t shoot up through your subject’s nose.
  4. Shoot at eye level with your subject.
  5. Don’t chop a subject’s limbs at awkward points with your framing and composition.

[Read: The Rule of Thirds—How to Use It and When to Break It]

These portrait photography rules are super important, but as a creative artist, we should take liberty in creating original artwork that challenges these guidelines while still respecting them. Creative experimentation, after all, is an extension of conventional photography that allows the artist to try something new.

break traditional portrait photography rules with interesting framing
Rule: A portrait composed in the center of the frame with the subject’s eyes in focus. Creative experimentation: The organic framing makes the image go beyond just a simple portrait.
how to use blur, light flare and double exposure to break traditional portrait photography rules
Rule: A subject in silhouette with center composition. Creative experimentation: Use of blur, light flare and a double exposure with lace curtains creates a softer perspective in the image, while giving the viewer multiple perspectives to take in and get fully immersed in the image.

How to Know Which Portrait Photography Rules to Break

One of easiest ways to embrace imperfection while breaking tradition is to start with something familiar. Rather than a blank canvas, start with an outline.

Start with a rule that you are familiar with. Challenge yourself to write down this rule and see how you can deviate from it.

[Read: Aperture and Depth-of-Field—How to Understand (and Break) the Rules]

Now friend, the resulting image does not have to be a masterpiece. It doesn’t even have to make visual sense; you just need to have created it knowing that it came from a place of discomfort. It can be your creative experiment, a path to learning more about yourself. But I guarantee you one thing: The more you push yourself to create with no boundaries, with no pressure to be perfect from anyone, the more you will fall in love with your work again! Aha!

portrait shot from below up the nose in harsh light
A portrait photographed high up the nose from down below in harsh light.
Embracing blur during golden hour
Embracing blur during golden hour.
A multiple exposure shot with strawberries
A multiple exposure shot with strawberries.

Observe to Find Fresh Perspectives Around You

Observing really helps unleash the full potential of our minds and thoughts, and it opens up the possibilities of endless creativity. You could draw from TV shows, music, paintings, nature—even your own life experiences. There is beauty everywhere we go, including the places we are used to seeing every single day.

Play with your composition. This is where it’s at if you want to explore storytelling. Go beyond the rule of thirds or leading lines and challenge yourself to “see” more.

[Read: How to Find Creative Photography Inspiration in 7 Steps]

Play and replay the “what if?” question in your mind on repeat and see what you get. Most of your attempts may be unsuccessful, but you will thank yourself for trying. You will get that one shot that was successful by simply observing, taking in the scene and changing your perspective. And maybe that one shot is enough to shake things up for you in a bigger way.

Photography is simply your medium, and rules only exist to give you a starting point. The decision to create a story with your work from the basic premise of a traditional portrait photography rule is entirely up to you as an artist.

Jyo Bhamidipati is an electrical engineer and an award-winning published fine-art lifestyle photographer, as well as a mentor and educator, based in Sacramento, California. She is a lover of light and shadows and seeks to capture the everyday perfectly imperfect beauty around her. She strives to be experimental in her vision and constantly works on pushing the boundaries in her photography. Jyo is the instructor of the highly popular workshop with Click Photo School called The Imperfectionist, where she encourages everyone to embrace imperfections in their everyday lives and practice creative artistry.