I had no desire to be a portrait photographer when I started learning photography in college. The amount of work it takes to connect with people, pose them, and take a powerful image felt daunting. A few years later, I realized being an empathic human was an optimal job skill for portraits. Connecting with people came very easy once I leaned in and felt the energy in the room. The challenge was knowing how to direct them into a natural-looking pose once we developed a rapport. An even more significant obstacle was learning how to pose hands in a way that makes sense.
As it turns out, hands are a challenge for people on both sides of the camera. Everything can be going right in a portrait image. However, if the hands are stressed or don’t make sense, that’s the only thing viewers will see. An easy solution is to have the hands at the sides or hide them in pockets. This quick fix can also leave a lot on the table. Knowing how to work with hands in ways that make sense can elevate your portrait work.
More often than not, hands will be soft regardless of where they’re positioned. Any stress in the hands will translate as tension. Below are a few tips that to make posing hands easier.
Sitting In a Chair
Have your clients get comfortable when they’re in a seated position. Notice where they naturally place their arms. Do they lean against the armrest on one side and place the other hand in their lap? Is one arm draped along with the backrest, or are both of their hands in their pockets? Paying attention to these details will often reveal the starting point of your first pose. It usually requires minor softening of the hands in the lap or placing them along with the back/armrests. If the hands aren’t cooperating, have them curl the fingers in and make a gentle fist.
From here, it’s straightforward to have them bring the hand up by the forehead. Choose what looks natural and is the most comfortable for your subject. Direct hands to be soft with the fingers slightly extended. It always looks great. If their hands aren’t cooperating, have them tuck their fingers into a gentle fist and angle the palm towards the camera.
I like to have men put their thumb on their chin to accentuate their jawline. I will usually have most women put a hand underneath their chin or to the side. A personal favorite direction is extending their index finger towards their mouth. This works for both men and women and adds a bit of intimacy to the viewer.
If the client has a killer watch or incredible details in the clothing, have them angle their hand up towards the ceiling. The hands can be soft with fingers extended, a gentle fist, or a combination of the two. Direct the angle of their palm to coincide best with the camera angle. If you are photographing straight, the pinky will face closest to the camera. You will want to direct the back of the hand if you are photographing them from the side for an over-the-shoulder pose.
You can also have them lean forward with their elbows on their thighs. Think GQ-type images for men when directing them. Often you can ask them to make a fist with one hand and clasp the other hand around it or make the letter A.
On Steps, a Stool, or Apple Box
Most of these cues will work seamlessly if your client sits on a set of stairs. You can play up the element of relaxation or add to the mood. Have them put one hand in their pocket. Ask them to put the other hand in their lap or on the step above them.
Hand placement and directions will be simplified when your client sits on either a stool or an apple box. There are only a few directions that you can give them. You can get them comfortable with one leg extended and the other tucked in slightly. You can direct both hands in pockets, both hands on the thighs, or one of each. You can also have them lean forward with either hands or forearms on their thighs.
Standing poses can be as simple as having a client put one hand in their pocket and the other at their side. For women, ask them to put one hand on their hip. Keep in mind that it’s easy to cross their arms, although it translates differently. We’re conditioned to think that men are exuding more confidence and approachability. With women, society communicates she is being closed off or unapproachable. Therefore it’s essential to direct softer hands with women in this case.
You can cue them to bring both hands by their face and laugh. Once they’re comfortable moving, you can also have your subject bring their hands on top of their head or closer to their forehead.
Utilize Surroundings When Standing
Utilize your surroundings as much as possible when your client is standing. Have them lean against the wall with one arm in the pocket and the other hand by their forehead or chin. Choose a soft hand with fingers extended or a gentle fist with the palm towards the camera. You can also place one forearm over the forehead with the palm facing forward. Another option is to have their hand closest to the wall cradle the side of their neck. This will add a feeling of sensuality to the overall mood.
If there is a window that tilts in, use it. Have your client lean against it gently with their arm extended for a relaxed feel. Or have them bring their hand up by their forehead or chin for a different mood.
Have Them Doing Something
Adding a bit of action or movement can bring fresh energy into an otherwise stale image by having their hands doing something. It can be as simple as placing both hands together and having them rub their fingertips together. Interaction always livens up the mood and brings a bit of their personality.
Ask the client to tip or adjust their hat. Direct men to adjust their watch, adjust their tie or collar, button their shirt or even roll up the cuff of their sleeve. Cue women to run their fingers through their hair or act like they’re applying lip gloss with the middle finger while playfully looking away. Let them have fun and play with their clothing, especially if wearing a dress.
Hands are instrumental in beauty work for both men and women. Whether it’s one hand or two, you’ll notice the hands are almost always soft. Stressed hands only work when there is a lot of intensity in the facial expression and styling to match the mood. Otherwise, it doesn’t make much sense.
A good rule of thumb is to practice asymmetry when posing hands. Cue your client to have one hand up by the forehead and the other gently cradling the neck. Have them angle their head if you want both hands up by the face for a smiling image that would make toothpaste commercials proud. You can also practice asymmetry by using both the front and the back of the hand for a more intimate beauty image.
Single hand directions include placing their hand by the forehead, on the neck, and under their jawline with the index finger up. Emphasize the gentle touch so that their hand does not create a squished face. This is a great time to use your client’s hands to accentuate their jawline. I will direct men to gently rub their thumbs on their chin and have women pretend they’re applying lip gloss.
Knowing how to pose hands in an image and adequately direct them will improve your portraits. Take the time to be cognizant of when they’re comfortable and use it to your advantage. Playing up their comfort level will make the process much easier. Also, keep the poses and direction natural for an organic experience. It is normal for people to hold tension in their hands when first directing them. Sometimes they tense up when repeating a pose. If this happens, just have them shake out their hands and start again.
I will often go through all of these categories in sequence as a progression during a portrait session. It helps paint the overall mood and expression for your clients that you are trying to achieve. Describe the mood and emotion for the pose you are trying to achieve. Ask them to hit it all at once and count them down. It might take a few tries to hit it, and it’s worth it when it all comes together.
Keep practicing with your clients to improve your communication with clients. This will eventually become second nature and help you become a successful director. Having this skillset in your back pocket will help you create better portraits.