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The question I hear most during any portrait photography session is about hand poses. And it’s usually accompanied by a nervous laugh.

Where do I put my hands?

Hand poses can make or break what’s otherwise a great portrait. Getting those hand poses right can be tricky to do and tough to communicate.

These 11 essential techniques will help you find the best hand poses in any situation.

A male sports player posing for a portrait, hands relaxed between his legs holding sportsgear

Give the Hands Something to Do or Touch

The fastest way to get the subject comfortable is to give them something to do with those hands.

Something simple like placing their hands in their pockets. Or ask them to fold the arms in the front. This can help both put the subject at ease and get the hands in a flattering position.

Giving the hands something to do isn’t the only option here — give them something to touch instead.

Ask the subject to place their hands against something specific. This is an easy starting point to posing the hands.

Use Hand Poses to Flatter the Rest of the Body

Sure, this article is about where to put the hands. But where the subject places the hands can change the body shape.

In general, use the hand placement to create space between the torso and the arms. The subject will look wider if you don’t. Try placing the hands on the hips, for example.

That’s not a hard and fast rule though. Crossing the hands in an X at the front can exaggerate curves (often used with women).

Crossing the hands with the elbows out can make the shoulders look broad (often used with men).

Avoid Foreshortening

Foreshortening is a posing error that applies to any limb, including, yes, the fingers.

Posing the torso parallel to the camera makes the subject look wider. So does posing any limb pointed straight towards the camera makes that limb look shorter.

Watch out if your subject places their fingers so that they are pointing directly at the camera. The perspective will make those fingers look short and stubby. 

If the fingers are placed straight at the camera, they take up less space in the image. They appear to be shorter than hands that are angled.

The same concept applies to arms, legs, and feet.

If you see hands pointed directly into the camera, adjust the pose. Make sure the fingers and arms aren’t headed straight towards the lens.

Diptych photo of a young man standing outdoors with relaxed hand poses

Don’t Hide (or Crop) the Entire Hand

Hands can add beauty and personality to the image — why leave them out of the photo? While obscuring part of the hands is fine, avoid hiding everything from the wrist down.

If you ask a subject to put his hands in his pockets, you want him to look relaxed, not nervous. Don’t put the hand all the way into the pocket or the hand will be hidden. This could even make the subject’s hips look a little larger than they are. (Even Hollywood agrees.)

The same applies with determining where to crop the photo. Don’t crop at the joints, wrists and finger joints included. Cropping at a limb feels incomplete. If you’re going to shoot a pose that’s not full body, crop mid-way between joints for a more natural look.

A female model posing outdoors

Don’t Place the Hands (Much) Closer to the Camera

Cameras should come with a warning almost identical to the one in the corner of the mirrors on your car. Objects are larger than they appear. If something is closer to the camera, it’s going to look larger than anything that’s farther from the camera.

The effect is exaggerated with wide-angle lenses and lessened by telephoto lenses.

Avoid placing the hands closer to the camera than the rest of the body, or the hands will look larger than they are.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. I sometimes ask engaged couples to hold the ring out towards the camera while they kiss in the background.

In general, though, avoid placing the hands closer to the camera than the rest of the body. In a seated position, don’t place the hands beyond the knee.

And in a standing position, don’t move the hand more than a few inches closer than the face.

Diptych photo of a couple posing outdoors -how to pose hands for photos

The first photo above isn’t wrong. But in the second image, the eye goes straight to the faces. The hand is no longer competing with the faces.

Photograph the Hands at an Angle to Make Them Look Smaller

Where the hands are will make them look larger than normal — but so will how they are placed. A hand straight on to the camera will look larger. If instead, you can only see the side of the hand, the hand will look smaller.

Hands should be at least at a slight angle away from the camera, or photographed from the side.

This is most important when the pose keeps the entire hand visible. It’s less essential when it’s only fingers or a portion of the hand in the shot.

Why? Larger hands will compete with the face. Of course, if there’s no face in the image, getting the hands angled is less important.

A female model posing her hand under chin pose

Avoid Poses Where the Hands Push Against the Body

I learnt one of my first hand posing tips when I was in front of the camera for a professional portrait, and not behind it.

Touch lightly with the hands, don’t push.

The photographer was referring to a classic hands-on-the-face pose. But the same applies to hands placed anywhere on the body. On an arm, for example, the hand can push skin out to the side and make the arm look wider.

When posing with the arm touching any part of the body, ask the subject to touch lightly.

The last thing you want is to squish the face while trying what’s actually a lovely traditional pose with the hand on the face.

Use Hands to Draw Attention to Specific Parts of the Body

The arms and legs create natural lines in portrait photography. Anything the hands are touching is going to draw the eye in the photo.

The hands can draw attention to the waist. Or create the illusion of a smaller waist by placing them in a bit from the actual waist.

That traditional hands-on-the-face pose became a favourite. This is because the hands draw the eye up to the face.

In couples photography, the light placement of a hand on a cheek can draw the eye to both faces.

Along the same lines though, avoid placing the hands on areas that you don’t want to draw attention to. Sometimes when I ask a groom to wrap his arms around the bride, his hands end up resting on her stomach.

Re-directing his hands to the waist draws less attention to the gut. 

A perfect time to break this guideline is in maternity photography. You actually want the eye to be drawn towards the belly.

Placing one hand on top of the belly and one below can also help make that baby bump pop. Especially in a stance that’s straight on to the camera.

Avoid Hands Crossed in Front

For some reason, 90 percent of the groomsmen in the weddings I photograph automatically stand with their arms crossed in front.

It makes a great joke (for the right crowd) that they look like someone walked in on them in the shower. But it draws attention to the wrong area (see above).

Watch Out for Tense Hand Poses

How do you spot tense hands? They’re flat and tight, or curled up into fists. Avoid both.

For tense flat hands, ask the subject to relax their hands and curve the hand a bit. For the fists, ask the subject to place his or her hands softly instead.

Like any photography rule, there are always exceptions. This includes intentionally looking to capture tension.

For most poses avoid those tense hands.

A young man in sports gear posing outdoors -

Symmetrical Hand Poses Can Be Boring

When posing, it’s easy to group the hands together. You’ll actually get a more dynamic pose if the hands are in different positions, or in other words, if the pose isn’t perfectly symmetrical.

Instead of both hands in the pocket, for example, leave one out resting on the thigh or waist. Or when placing hands on the hips, place one slightly higher than the other.

A symmetrical pose isn’t wrong, but asking the subject to do something different with the other hand can create a stronger image. When photographing groups in a short time frame such as family formals after a wedding, symmetrical poses makes it possible to take so many images in a short time frame.

But when you have the time to work, using a pose that’s not symmetrical can help create a more creative image.

A close up couple pose of linking arms

Conclusion

Hand placement is one of the first questions photographers face when working with posing — and where the hands are can make or break a photograph.

Start by asking the subject to do or touch something with the hands, using the placement to flatter the rest of the body. Remember, placing the two hands separately can also create a stronger, non-symmetrical shot.

Then, perfect the hand poses by checking for each of these potential problems:

  • Foreshortening (or fingers placed straight towards the camera)
  • Hidden or cropped out hands
  • “Large” hands with the largest sides flat to the camera
  • “Large” hands because the hand is closer to the camera
  • Hands drawing attention to the wrong part of the body (like hands crossed straight down in front)
  • Tense hands

Ward off that dreaded where do I put my hands question before it even starts by working the hand placement into your posing instructions from the start. You’ll have more confident clients — and better photos — as a result.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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Hillary Grigonis

Hillary K. Grigonis is a photojournalist turned lifestyle photographer. When she's not taking pictures, she's writing photography tips and gear reviews. She lives in the Great Lakes state with her husband and two young children.

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