Portrait Photography Tips: How to Pose the Arms (And What Not to Do)

Avoid awkwardly placed hands and arms in your shots with these quick portrait photography tips.

Among the things both portrait photographers and models commonly overlook when they’re starting out is the placement of the arms in poses. Can you just place them on the sides? Should the model place a hand behind their head? Or both hands? How about one hand touching their hair or twirling it in their fingers a bit? Should the arms be bent? There are actually many ways you can work with the hands and arms to avoid awkwardly posed portraits. We’ve put together a bunch of tips if this is something you’re yet to master.

Avoid Awkward Framing and Cropping

The first thing to note is to avoid framing or cropping your shots in such a way that the limbs are cut by the joints. So, whatever pose your subject assumes, make sure you’re not cutting their arms, hands, and legs in such an awkward way when composing your shot. If the framing or composition you want keeps making that awkward cut, either change the pose or adjust the composition. Find out more about this topic on this dedicated photography cheat sheet.

Use Movement and Props

As we mentioned in an earlier portrait photography tutorial, unless you’re shooting with experienced models, most portrait subjects typically aren’t sure what to do with their arms and hands when posing. Part of a photographer’s job, therefore, is to guide them. Arms placed stiffly at the sides or tightly crossed don’t make great portraits: the subjects look awkward and uncomfortable. The quickest fix to this is making them hold a prop or photographing them while making some movements with their arms and hands. Tucking hair behind the ears, holding a mug, or adjusting the watch are some of the most commonly recommended tricks for this.

Classic Arms Up Pose

Screenshot image from the video by WeeklyImogen

Another trick worth trying is the so-called classic arms up pose. As nicely explained to us by Imogen of the WeeklyImogen YouTube channel, this tried-and-tested pose works very well because it makes the arms serve as a framing device to draw attention to the subject’s face. When position up around the head, the arms also neatly create a leading line effect that brings the viewers’ eyes straight to the eyes or face. Models with long hair can also use this trick to keep hair from being blown all over the place during a windy outdoor shoot. Ask your subject to look down and slightly to the side to add dramatic mood to the shot.

Create Angles and Emphasize Body Shape

Placing the hands on the hips or in pockets is another “classic” portrait pose, which works because of three things: it creates angles that bring attention to the subject, it makes the arms appear slimmer, and it emphasizes the shape or silhouette of the body. It’s no wonder that this is one of the most popular poses for fashion portrait photography. Feel free to make variations of this pose: sometimes, even exaggerations can add emotions and make a shot extra interesting.

Experiment with Unique Arm and Hand Placements

Screenshot image from the video by Mango Street

Lastly, don’t be afraid to come up with your own poses and play with angles that involve interesting and unique hand and arm placements. A couple of years ago, Mango Street shared a bunch of great examples for this in their quick video on unique poses (initially for male models, but will work great with females as well). Whether for a fashion shoot or a creative portrait session, these striking poses have a fair bit of eye-catching arm and hand placements in them. The poses also suggest that if your shoot has a theme or mood, find a way to incorporate the hands and arms into the poses to communicate it better.