Posing and Emoting Tips for Better Portraits – Sensual Vs Sexual

It never ceases to amaze me how instrumental posing and emoting are in an image. Hand placement and facial expressions can keep an image from being exploitive, even when the subject is barely clad. They can also be directed to create a sexually charged mood when the model is fully clothed. These subtle details swing the pendulum from sexual to sensual. Knowing how to direct these specifics has never been more relevant in today’s climate. Below are some posing and emoting tips for better portraits.

Sensual vs Sexual is a series where we teach you the difference between, well, both!

View this article with minimal banner ads in our app for iOS, iPad, and Android. Get no banner ads for $24.99/year.

Ultimately, it is how you choose to layer these elements that will shape the overall mood of an image. There are a lot of details to take into consideration, and it can be overwhelming. Below are a few ideas that can help.


A simple pose with arms crossed reads differently for men and women. Men are viewed as confident, whereas women are viewed as closed off and unapproachable. Photographers often go to the opposite end of the spectrum. They place the extremities as far away from the midline as possible. It can be exceptional if you pair it with the proper logistics.

The Power Pose is a tried and true go-to pose for men and women. The wider stance captured square on always works, whether it’s a standing or sitting power pose. I like to direct my clients to angle their chin up to accentuate this mood further. It’s simple, understated, and sexy without being exploitative.

Moving away from the basics is where things get a bit more complicated. Tilting the chin down with smize while staring into the camera can create a more playful and flirty mood. The hands paired with the expression will either push this towards sexy or reel it in and keep it sensual.

What About Their Hands?

Let’s paint the scene with the hands clasping a single button of a button-up shirt. We assume that men are getting dressed and that women are taking their clothes off.

The importance of hands and their placement is often overlooked and oversimplified. An entire article could be dedicated to hands and their placement alone. The role of the hands often stump both clients and photographers. Here are a few questions to consider. Will the hands be doing something? Where will they be placed? Are they soft or are they filled with tension? Keep in mind that the same set of parameters can translate differently between men and women. Hear me out.

Let’s paint the scene with the hands clasping a single button of a button-up shirt. We assume that men are getting dressed and that women are taking their clothes off. If the hands are on the buttons of jeans, it’s almost always assumed that they’re coming off. Both men and women can have their hands on the waistband or belt loop of the jeans. It brings a bit more attitude and confidence without objectification, even when pushing the waistline down further on the hips.

Now let’s shift to the hands placed overhead where the client is barely clothed. We assume men are softening and being a bit more vulnerable. With women, it is often and easily mistaken that it’s sexual, BDSM even. These are the conditioned gender roles society has assigned to our bodies over the years. This is what we are up against when conveying art. This same situation remains sensual when the model is fully clothed.

Hands around the chest, shoulders, neck, and thighs communicate very different moods for women. Soft hands bring about a mood that evokes the senses and results in sensuality. Tense hands often suggest sexual tension. Facial expressions and emoting are wild cards that finalize which direction the pendulum swings.

Facial Expressions and Their Role in Engagement

When creating images, one thing to consider is whether or not the model or subject is making eye contact. Eye contact creates a sense of active engagement. No eye contact can create a more intimate feeling with viewers. It’s paramount to keep the mood sensual to avoid oversexualizing our subjects to the best of our ability.

Let’s go back to our previous example of a woman in a power pose with her hands on a button of a white blouse. Remember that it’s already assumed she’s in a state of getting undressed. Directing her to tilt down her chin and bite her lip will create a more sexual image. Tilting the chin up with the mouth slightly parted evokes a sense of feminine power. Turning her head away from the camera and having her close her eyes will add sensuality. Eyes away keep the focus on the subject without objectifying them.

Now let’s add the element of running her fingers through her hair with her head angled down. The facial expression is smiling of the eyes with a playful smile that gently bites the tongue. If she is making eye contact, it’s assumed it’s meant to engage with the viewer and evoke their senses. Turning the head and gaze slightly away from the camera makes the playful mood more sensual. One pose invites the viewer to engage while the other keeps the viewer in observation mode.

If we direct the model to tilt her chin up and run her fingers through her hair, it instills a sense of confidence. This immediate sense of confidence builds more into sensuality as opposed to sexuality. Properly directed hands will reinforce the mood and create a beautiful image.

Final Thoughts

Many people want to feel sexy; they don’t want to be objectified. Numerous, minute details have immense power and a lasting impact on the image. How you decide to incorporate them will determine whether or not they are received as sensual or sexual. Sensuality usually translates as sexy. A sexual focus, however, is precisely just that. These can be built upon even further with your choice of camera angle, lighting, and the medium used to make the image.

Brittany Smith

Brittany is a commercial fashion and portrait photographer working in Montana and NYC. When not behind a camera she can usually be found at a local artisan coffeeshop, writing for photography education sites and publications, teaching fitness classes, or baking something fabulous.