Regardless of what kinds of photography you specialize in, if it involves people, it involves posing. And while the various styles and situations you might be shooting – boudoir, wedding, newborn, portaiture, seniors – all call for different varieties of poses and moods, there are some basic posing tips, best practices, and basic posing mistakes to be aware of.
Some of the biggest posing issues photographers have aren’t really even the fault of your subject or a matter of miscommunication – they’re the result of a shot that doesn’t allow for flattering posing. Before you even begin digging into posing, be sure to set your shot properly by deciding what you’re trying to capture – and, as a result, where you’ll shoot from.
“Camera angle is the biggest mistake I see photographers make when it comes to flattering new mothers,” says newborn and maternity photographer Julia Kelleher. “I’m always up on a stool…Anything close to the camera looks larger.”
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Set your subject up for a flattering, beautiful shot that gives them a lot of room to experiment with poses by getting the best possible camera angle before you even begin directing them. Then, you can play around with better positioning of limbs and other elements of the photo.
With her camera in place for maximum flattery, Julia demonstrates another common posing mistake – foreshortening. Whatever is pointed directly at the camera (like an arm or leg) will be shortened, whereas something tilted away is able to be seen in its full size and glory. When it comes to full-body shots, this can be really important to be aware of.
But of course, it’s not iron-clad. Julia admits that “I violate this rule a lot.” The goal, says Julia, is to get to know which poses work best in which situations, and learn to default to your more “right brain” feelings about the image. Look for asymmetry (good!), relaxation with your model (good!), and poses that should look good but still feel off.
“Posing does not have to be perfection,” she explains. “Posing has to elicit connection and it has to not be distracting.”
A light, playful self-touch might exude confidence, but in someone who’s genuinely nervous, it’s going to look awkward or otherwise unflattering. Similarly, clenched hands, which Julia also addresses in her posing guide.
Male portraiture photographer Jeff Rojas cautions that one of the easiest ways to end up with uncomfortable or unflattering poses is to ignore body language. The way that the body looks is important, but the message it sends matters, too.
“Why do guys put their hands in their pockets?” asks Jeff, citing a common pose for men. “Because they don’t know what to do. That’s the honest truth. They’re uncertain about the situation.”
That pose then, which can look high fashion if it’s coupled with other elements, like a confident facial expression or strong shoulders, can easily just look nervous, distracting, or uncomfortable.
“Go-to poses are usually clenched hands…but what does that actually mean?” Jeff asks. Consider what the implicit undertones of your poses might be – sometimes, something just looks off, and it’s because you’re picking up on the body language and not so much the pose itself.
The same is true with the “self-hug” in women’s portraiture. Many women (actually, many people of all genders) feel uncomfortable or exposed in front of the camera. As a result, they tend to fold in on themselves and do a lot of self-touching. In the above image, from Lindsay Adler, you can see the difference between a tense self-touch and a relaxed, fashionable self-touch.
Another major posing mistake is taking too long, which often occurs when the photographer is too timid to direct their model and, as a result, ends up with a lot of not-great shots.
“You want to keep your shoots as fast as you can,” explains Sue Bryce. As soon as your model is tired or hungry, the shoot will drag in energy. You want to, says Sue, “get in and out quickly. I want to deliver every time I’m taking a shot.”
The best way to do that, she says, is to be very direct and confident in telling your client what to do.
“I rarely get a woman who can pose on her own,” says Sue. “Maybe one in a 1,000. So I find that most people are very awkward in front of the camera…that’s why I do not leave it up to them. I don’t want to shoot 300 images to get 10 good ones.”
Remember: You’re the professional. The biggest posing mistake you can make is forgetting that very important fact; for most people, having their photo taken is a rarity. For you, taking photos is what you do. Stay in control of the shoot, make the subject feel at ease (more tips on how to do that here) and look for the angles and areas of focus that will flatter every person, every time. And if you’re really not sure where to begin, or you just want some basic go-to poses that work on a number of subjects, Digital Photography School has a pretty airtight posing guide to give you a jumping off point.
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