Posing people for powerful portrait photography is tricky, especially when you want that natural look. If you have photographed people before, you will know that some tend to lock up when a camera is pointed at them.
They become stiff, their expressions change and they are unsure where to look. Their hands show their nervousness, and they often become fidgety and uncomfortable. It is your job as a photographer to make them feel at ease.
You need to gently guide them in a clear and concise manner. There is no magic pose, setting or scenario that will make your image perfect. It takes time, practice, communication and perseverance to capture those powerful shots.
But a list of people posing tips is never amiss. This is why we’ve put together this quick guide, to help you achieve that great photo.
Directing people is a talent, but it can also be learned. Many portrait photographers have different ways to make their subjects feel at ease. Richard Avedon famously used a story about a dog to get a particular expression from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Ok, that example goes against the ‘ease’ aspect, but the variations of this idea is perfect. The idea is that communication is key.
Speaking clearly and confidently about what you want to achieve ensures that your subjects know what they are doing. Confusion will only lead to frustration.
Asking them to follow directions that make sense will help them feel comfortable. Having them point their nose towards something works easier than saying turn your head 10 degrees left. My left or your left?
Use the direction of their eyes to start, and their face should follow.
Be specific in what you want to capture. If you are photographing a dancer, maybe a dance pose makes sense. A CEO of a company might look better with their arms crossed, or sitting behind a desk.
The style should fit their persona, their position, passion or job.
This can also work for the opposite effect. For example, showing the world’s strongest man having a tea party with his daughter.
It all depends on the purpose of the photograph. Knowing this will allow you to set the limitations of the shoot and how creative you can be.
How to Photograph the Head
Always start with the head. This will be the first place the viewer will look. The eyes are a priority, and they will capture the viewers’ attention if they are looking directly at the camera.
If they aren’t looking directly at the camera, you need to know about the lead room concept, allowing space between the eyes and the frame.
Use the model’s nose in directing the head to where you want it to be. Never shoot up the nose. Make sure the nose is tilted down until that doesn’t become the focus.
Shooting upwards rarely has the effect you want to achieve, and it is a big no-no in people posing and photographing women.
This angle adds weight and creates something unflattering. Shoot from eye level, or slightly higher.
A typical headshot will have the nose slightly off centre, either pointing slightly to the left or the right. This gives it shape and definition without making it the focus.
When it comes to portrait photography, find and use shapes. They are your friend. Triangles are the best as they show power and strength. They also give a neverending flow for the viewer’s eyes to follow.
These can also be implied without actually being present. Use negative space and other objects in the image.
It is best to use a small number of shapes rather than a mixture of them all. This will steal attention as the image will look chaotic.
Think of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’. His arms are forming a triangle, and so are the position of his legs. It shows stability and structure, giving a certain mood to the sculpture.
There is a very specific idea on how to crop the body when it comes to portrait photography. Not following these guidelines can create some interesting images, such as the ‘guillotine effect’.
You need to be careful. Not paying attention could mean that a limb looks like it continues off-the-frame forever.
The basic guidelines are, in ascending order:
- head and shoulders
- half body
- three-quarters body
- full body
A simple rule would be not to photograph anything that bends. Cutting off at the knee is a bad idea.
Limbs are a problem for the models. They become loose objects that have no place and feel strange in every position.
You, as the photographer, need to place them in the best possible ways. Use scenarios to take the attention away from weird looking shapes.
If the model is standing, ask them to place their weight on one leg. This will naturally force the other leg to bend slightly. If they move their leg, which they are now free to do, the idea becomes emphasized.
Arms can be folded at the front of their body, folded behind their body, and hands are often placed into pockets or onto hips. Cowboys and western themes use thumbs in the belt loops of jeans and trousers.
All of these create bends in the elbows.
A seated model opens the doors for more bending possibilities. You can now use knees and legs too. Even having the model rest their ankles on each other shows a relaxed yet confident pose.
Different poses work better with different people, so don’t be afraid to try.
When it comes to cropping your model into the best pose or even placing their body for a full-body shot, composition is here to help. When you crop an image, try and follow the rule of thirds.
This will help in knowing how to position the crop for maximum interest.
A strange crop will ruin the whole image. It will feel strange and unnatural, and the viewers will focus on this first. Use negative space for the leadroom principle, to allow for the model’s gaze to freely leave the frame.
The negative space can also help draw attention to the person’s expressions and posture.