Joey L is a top portrait photographer that's photographed the likes of Fifty cent, Panic at the Disco and the Jonas Brothers. Here is an extract from his book, 'Photographing Shadow and Light', in which he tells us about exposure and composition in his shots.
As I’ve said earlier, I underexpose the background to emphasize the subject and provide the dark, moody look that has become my signature. For commercial shoots, I’ll often underexpose the background but keep the subject in proper exposure by illuminating him or her with multiple-light setups. The background goes darker while the subject is in perfect light.
For my one-light fine art portraits, I often use a combination of underexposing the background, applying a neutral density filter to a correctly exposed subject, and adding a single light on the subject. I discuss this technique in more detail in “The Cradle of Mankind” chapter, but the basics of the method involve metering my subject correctly, then metering for my lights, then applying a 2-stop neutral density filter on my camera lens, and finally turning my lights 2 f-stops higher to compensate for the filter.
My subject remains properly exposed because of the higher-power artificial light, while the background, which has no artificial light, exposes 2 f-stops lower, giving a darker, more dramatic look. The technique also lets me shoot at a wider aperture, like f/2.8 or f/3.5, which keeps the background in soft focus for a creamy, painterly appearance.
I had photographed all these young Ethiopian women of the Daasanach tribe individually, before we set up this group shot, so they understood the basic process prior to the creation of this more advanced composition. They put themselves in an interesting arrangement, and then I moved them a little to optimize the composition. The idea was not to make everything symmetrical or regimented
but to create a natural flow that the viewer’s eye could follow across the image. The man in the bottom right corner, in the boat, was just sitting there watching the scene. He had no idea he was also in the picture. 1/100 at f/5, ISO 100
A lot of photographers like to emphasize certain facial features by cropping their images to conceal part of the head or face. I don’t like this approach, though I use it now and then when the situation is right. I prefer compositions used by the old master portrait painters, which almost always kept the entire head in view. I arrange my single subjects centrally or to one side, often using the “rule of thirds” (composing the image with a 3 x 3 grid), and I balance the background elements to avoid distraction.
Group shots have a more complex composition since there needs to be a balance between the different people in the frame, as well as the background elements. The key is to consider all of the pieces of the image—the people, the natural elements in the frame, the light, the sky, anything that affects how the viewer’s eye moves through the picture. All of these elements need to work in harmony so the image has a smooth flow. They don’t need to be lined up evenly, or even neatly. There can be some variability in the composition. But the viewer’s eye needs to proceed from one element to another without getting stuck or distracted by parts of the image that aren’t the intended focus.
Take a look at our review of Photographing Shadow and Light