Looking through photo-enthusiast's portrait photographs on the Internet I notice that nearly everyone goes for a very tightly framed shot with prominent head and shoulders or face.
If there is any space in the frame the photographer often gets a comment along the lines, I would have cropped the top or side or whatever.
The purpose of this blog post is to suggest that while Robert Capa's maxim, "if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough," is definitely worth keeping in mind, you can really enrich a portrait by using the environment to help tell the story.
I'm not saying anything new here and anyone who studies the work of the "father of the environmental portrait", Arnold Newman, will immediately see that his sitter's face is often quite small in the composition - stuck in the bottom right corner or off to one side of the frame. Arnold intelligently and creatively used the whole context to enhance the image.
Editorial photographers and photojournalists use the environment around their subject to tell the story. Magazines and newspapers would be dead boring if all we ever saw were head and shoulder portraits.
So next time you want to shoot a portrait, don't be afraid to leave some space, no actually make that a lot of space, around your subject. And when that guy comments on your picture on flickr and says you should have cropped it tighter, smile and think of the great masters of photography like Arnold Newman.
I'll leave with a quote from the master himself...
"There are no rules and regulations for perfect composition. If there were we would be able to put all the information into a computer and would come out with a masterpiece. We know that's impossible. You have to compose by the seat of your pants."
- Arnold Newman (1918 - 2006)