Just as a maestro for an orchestra keeps each section playing in tune and on tempo, a portrait photographer’s job is to make sure each element of the scene comes together harmoniously and sings the praises of the subject.
As such, the photographer can’t simply point and shoot, but must be a deliberate director of their subject. They must know how to elicit the best pose from the people they capture, with confidence. It won’t always be hard and fast, but it’s worth learning and practicing some basic tips. Here are our top 11 tips for perfecting the pose:
Proper composition is a foundational key to proper posing, as it helps determine where your subject falls in the scene. One good rule of thumb is to place your subject(s) on a “thirds” line. If you’re looking for a primer on this, and other composition tips, check out our last blog on cell phone photography–we discussed quite a bit about composition there. Once you’ve placed your subject(s) in the scene, it’s time to turn your attention to how their bodies occupy the space they’re in. Take a careful look, from the feet up, to make sure all is in order.
2. At an angle or straight on?
Placing female subject(s) at an angle helps establish a more flattering “pose”. Anything that helps hips look slimmer and silhouettes look smaller will have your subject thrilled. Men, on the other hand, prefer to appear more in command and powerful, even subconsciously. Feel free to pose a man straight on to the camera. Just make sure they put their weight on one foot, while the other is relaxed and slightly out. They’ll feel, and look, more natural; men stand like that all the time–watch/observe them when they’re not aware. If you leave equal weight on both feet, it can make them look stiff and uncomfortable.
3. Ladies, weight the back foot, bend the front
If the subject is standing, your efforts to pose should always start at the feet. Have your female subject(s) stand on their back foot, putting a slight bend in their front knee. Remember, whatever is closest to the camera looks the biggest! Putting your weight on your back foot naturally throws your hip away from the camera, creating a slimmer appearance.
4. Everything on Different levels
If you have two of them, whether it’s your feet, knees, hips, shoulders, eyes, ears, and so on, they should be on different levels from each other in the photo. Most of this will be achieved by shifting weight, as mentioned above, but play around and see what looks both interesting and natural. If it bends, bend it!
5. Arms out, hands angled
Lifting the arms away from the body, however slight, helps slim the subject. When resting your arms against the torso, the appearance of unwanted girth is added. By telling your subject to put their elbows slightly out from their body you help create a “window” between the arm and torso, which naturally creates a slimmer appearance. Consider the hands at this time as well. Women should generally angle their hands so that the side of the hand, as opposed to the back or palm of the hand, is facing the camera directly. The inverse can be suggested for men.
The shoulders, depending on their position, can help accentuate a person’s characteristic strength or svelteness. Generally, to enhance the perception of brawn or fortitude, the subject’s shoulders should face the camera head on, while leanness and grace can be conveyed by having the subject angle their shoulders from the camera.
7. Head angle
Head angle can be a highly variable consideration in portrait photography. Where does your subject look? Where do they angle their head? Are you shooting from above, eye level, or below? There’s no “right” answer here, but experimenting can help you learn the nuanced properties of head angle. For example, you’ll find that shooting from above can be flattering, eliminating double chins. Shoot from too high, though, and you can wind up diminishing the subject by looking down on them too dramatically. From below can make the subject look more powerful, but it’s a less favorable angle for flattery. Eye level tends to be the most neutral. In any case, having the subject stick their head forward and down slightly can help improve the neckline, keeping the appearance of a jowl out of the image. It won’t feel entirely natural for the subject, but the results speak for themselves.
8. Sitting pictures
Photographing a group? Most of these fundamentals still apply, but there are some additional considerations to make. Sitting portraits are my favorite way to photograph! Photos of groups, like families, seated together can come out intimate and personal, if done right. Let the man of the group sit down first, however they sit naturally. Stand in the direction that you want the man to face (like you’re photographing them from that direction) and ask him to sit down from there. Then, have the woman sit next to him with her knees away from the camera and her shoulder behind his. The will slim her and make him look powerful. With the adults set in place, you can begin posing the children and create the magic.
9. Heads together
Have your group keep their heads somewhat together. This helps create a cohesive focal point for the eye to follow. If heads are scattered about the image, it’s not only harder to get them all in focus, but it can make the image feel more jumbled.
10. Big people in the back, smaller in the front
You probably all remember this from class pictures at school, but it’s an important one. Putting the smallest people up front ensures that they make it into the shot. Plus, because they’re closer to the lens, they look larger in the frame. It helps to be sensitive and aware of the larger people in the group. As mentioned before, whatever is closest to the camera looks the biggest. By putting larger members of the group in the back, you help them look smaller–something they’ll appreciate greatly when they see the end product. Plus, this all comes together to create a more balanced image.
11. Keeping it interesting, create triangles
While keeping heads together can help bring a photograph together, having everyone at the same level can get boring. Try to get different people on different levels, with features like hands, shoulders, and feet appearing at different heights in the image. Photographers often achieve this by having some subjects in the groups sit, lay down, or even stand on objects. Your goal is to create triangles and diamonds. It’s the most flattering composition. Pose your groups so you see triangles everywhere instead of straight lines.
The well-trained photographer is able to take all of this, and more, into consideration when posing their subjects. Variables like personal style, goal of the photo shoot, and subject personality will ultimately come into consideration when posing as well. Understanding some fundamental rules can help set you on the path to making these complex decisions in your own photography. This is crucial because, at the end of the day, the portrait photographer isn’t a passive observer, but rather a keen director, of their subject.
We’ve given you a few examples, but it’s time for you to practice.
How many of these techniques can you identify below?