It’s often said that there’s no such thing as a bad model, only a bad photographer. Whether you believe that’s true or not, knowing how to pose people is undoubtedly a key element of shooting portraiture. Our job is to make anyone who steps in front of the camera feel like they belong there, and to send them home with images that flatter their best attributes. No one likes rigid body language; it’s awkward and ungainly. Posing someone properly not only flatters them, but also builds rapport and trust between the two of you. No one signs up for another session with a photographer who doesn’t make them feel comfortable. It also does wonders for increasing the efficiency of your workflow. Once you get into a rhythm, you’ll find the rest of the shoot moves almost effortlessly. There really aren’t any steadfast rules in modern photography anymore, but these classic pointers are worth knowing. You can always play around with the alternatives, but they make helpful tricks to keep in mind when you’re just starting out, or worse, stuck.
Shift the Weight
People generally don’t stand at attention in their everyday lives. So when they do it for a portrait, it can come across looking way too stiff. Think about the way people normally stand at rest, and try to mimic that candid feel. Having them casually shift their weight from one foot to the other will dramatically transform their posture into a more relaxed, natural stance. Try not to let them slouch, or to let the shoulders sag too far forward. If they need a little guidance, ask them to slowly walk toward you as if out for a casual stroll. Once they loosen up, they’ll feel more at ease in front of the camera, and you’ll get better shots as a result.
Shoot from Above
Shooting from above is one of those classic old rules that’s never gone out of style. It’s often considered to be the most flattering and complimentary angle with portraiture. It’s not a hard rule, but it can certainly help hide any double chin (or the illusion of one) and avoid the dreaded up-the-nose view. It’s also an effective trick for really bringing out someone’s eyes, whether they’re looking right at you or off into the distance. Since the eyes are always your focal point, especially up close, this is important. You certainly don’t need to tower over your subject for this to work. Even two or three inches of extra height can yield beautiful results. If you have nothing in the environment you can use for a boost, think about bringing a small step stool with you on your next shoot.
Models may have it easier, but most people don’t know what to do with their face for any look besides the standard toothy smile. Sometimes we’re after a softer, more candid expression that’s harder to achieve than it seems. If you’re not careful, you can easily end up with a series of stone-faced or deer-in-the-headlights portraits that no one enjoys. A good way to capture a relaxed, tranquil facial expression is to have your subject let out a gentle, open-mouthed breath. This does several key things. First, a contented sigh relaxes them, putting them more at ease, physically and mentally, for the session. Second, it avoids the need for them to hold their face a certain way, something that never translates well and feels uncomfortable to do. And lastly, it avoids the issue of lips looking either too pursed or too open. It’s the perfect happy medium for a thoughtful expression.
Angle the Shoulders
In photos, squared shoulders can translate as wide and confrontational. Sometimes it actually makes an effective portrait, so if you’re playing around with different creative ideas, it’s fun to see what moods you can convey. But for a softer, more candid or demure feel, it’s worth altering the angle for variety in posture. Try turning your subject, or have them alternately drop and roll their shoulders away from you. The difference in posture can add interesting dimension and lines to the final image, which will in turn help lead the viewer’s eye around the frame. Shoulder positioning is a subtle detail that can entirely dictate the feel of a portrait. In a simple movement, the mood can change from soft and delicate to rugged and confident. It all depends on your intent.
Movement in the Hands and Arms
Left to their own devices, people generally aren’t sure what to do with their arms or hands in photos. As a photographer, your job is to help guide them. Rigid arms almost always look awkward. When they’re held down straight at the sides or tightly crossed, it can come off as tense, uncomfortable, and worst of all, unflattering. Any time someone poses with their arms held tight to their side, they press against the body and give the illusion of being much wider than they actually are. Always be mindful to have them “float” their arms away from their torso to create some negative space and maintain a flattering line. Hands should always be somewhat relaxed, never clenched. If you find yourself stuck, think about trying to work with capturing movement. This could mean asking your model to tuck a strand of hair behind their ear or adjust their watch. The natural act of doing something will give the shot dynamism and life. Another option is to bring a prop. Some people relax instantly when they have something to hold.
Watch your Crop
Learning to crop in-camera is an important part of any kind of photography. While you can always tweak shots in post, the goal should be to preserve the quality of your images; especially if they’re for a client. With human subjects, regardless of their positioning, try to avoid cropping at the joints. Portraits that cut off right at the knees, elbows, wrists, etc. can feel a little off and unnatural. Instead, aim for a few inches above or below these points on the body.