A Posing Technique from A Girl With a Pearl Earring

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Posing subjects for portraits is something that there’s a lot of diverse opinion about (and a topic I get asked about a lot).

Girl_with_a_Pearl_Earring

I recently, at a trade show, I asked a Pro Photographer for a tip for those starting out in portrait photography. What he told me reminded me of the famous painting ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ by Vermeer (pictured right). I guess there’s nothing new under the sun – even posing techniques.

Keep in mind that every photographer’s workflow is different and there’s no real right way to take a portrait. I hope you find this insight into one photographer’s style helpful.

The key with portrait photography is to recognise your subject as an individual and to find a pose that works for them. There is no one pose that will work for everyone – but here’s the starting point that I use for most people.

  1. Sit people down in a chair or on a stool with their body facing to one side (not quite at right angles to you – but close to it).
  2. Set your camera up at or ever so slightly above eye level and start with a reasonably tight crop (I shoot with an 85mm lens)
  3. Get them to turn their head towards the camera – but not all the way
  4. Get them to turn their eyes the rest of the way to the camera
  5. Take the shot

Once I’ve got this type of shot set up I then begin to experiment with varying the shot in different ways (see below). It’s in this experimenting phase that I begin to see what type of shot will work for the individual.

Some of the variations to begin experimenting with include:

Posting-Technique
  • different facial expressions – serious, smiling, intense, laughing, sexy
  • changing the angle of the head – slightly changing the angle and position of their face can have a big impact
  • different framings – head shot, upper body shot and full length
  • different format – landscape/portrait
  • different shooting angle – raising the camera slightly and having them look up can add a feeling of vulnerability to a shot while lowering the camera can make the subject look more empowered and powerful
  • looking away from the camera – I prefer to take portraits with eye contact – but sometimes having the subject look away can dramatically impact the mood
  • light – I like to shoot with natural looking light but changing the direction and intensity of the light has a big impact (here are 6 lighting patterns to try)
  • new positions – as the subject relaxes and I begin to see what suits them I start to try new poses. Rotating them to directly face the camera, moving hands into shots, looking over the back of a chair etc.
  • props – I don’t use many props but it’s generally only towards the end of a shoot that I’ll bring them in unless I’m shooting on location and they really add something.

The reason I use this approach with my photography is that while the starting point pose might not be the most creative it gives reliable and usable shots. It also helps the subject to relax (as it isn’t too unnatural) and become comfortable with me before we start doing more creative shots that can feel a little ‘out there’.

Note from Darren – Once again I should emphasize that this is just one photographer’s method. It is probably sounds a little more rigid that it is in reality – but hopefully it gives a few hints for those just starting out in a more formal style of portrait photography.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • Narrinder

    Thanks, I am just a beginner. But your basic tips are real handy. Thank you.

  • Really like this. Most of my portraits so far have been candid — quick shutter releases at various apertures when I thought the moment was right — but I’ve been wanting to get into more planned portraits. This gives me an idea how to begin. Thanks!

  • I love the lighting in Vermeer’s painting. The dramatic back light accentuates the girl’s face, really drawing out her eyes, leaving the pearl earring mysteriously nestled in the shadows.

  • great tips, this is exactly what I needed since I am starting to take studio portraits and I can control all of these variables.

    BTW: there are some mistakes with spelling, mostly “i begin…” no biggie, just thought Id point it out

  • Most of my portraits tend to be candid things too, or super close ups of the eyes. I’ll be thinking about this next time I try to take picture for things, something I know I’ll have to do when school starts back up.

    Just a thought, but what’s up with the ads in the article? Did I miss something Darren, or did you suddenly decide to start putting ads in there without mentioning it?

  • I feel funny. I’ve been doing ‘lens for hire’ for quite sometime but realised that I haven’t sold any portraitures for a fee.

    I’ll be dead if one comes along, since you’ll need quite a number of variations.

  • Connie

    My preferred way for portraits is to sit the subject down in an area that’s theirs, be it their office, their home, their backyard or anything that makes them feel comfortable. I watch them through the lens and take multiple shots at various angles. If they don’t want to smile, that’s fine with me since I want to capture the dominant mood of the person. Studio portraits are so boring!

  • mjt

    the lighting, basically, is coming from the direction in front of her torso, slightly to her left and from above … most identifiable by the down-shadows from the nose, lips, neck, and left eye.

    this is a very classic, appealing, and simple pose. the pose works because it accentuates the person’s face (what we really are after, right?), because the torso is on its “thin side”.

    even if shooting a portrait where the torso is parallel to the camera’s film plane, the final photo will always be more appealing if the subject twists their shoulders at an angle to the film plane (even if slight) and turns their head appropriately to the camera.

    regards, michael

  • Richard

    Excellent information. As you point out, this is one photographers’ take on how to do a portrait, but practical examples of an approach that works are quite valuable. I’m going to have to try this and see how it goes.

    Thanks!

  • great tips on day-to-day portrait photography. this will help much the amateur and upcoming photographers. posing is a very difficult task. hands are the best props. then there is no limit to posing, lighting, where the eyes shd be and the hair. the people doing marriage photography shd have a good memory and it is my advice to have some prior shooted pictures of a friend to calculate your memory faster to make bride and couple shots. here is the place where a lot is expected from the photographer. a good experienced chap fulfil the needs but all are not so. so is my humble advice. thanks.

  • Not really taken any “posed” portraits to date… more into capturing the moment, but, with the above in mind I think I will give it more of a go. Thanks

  • Another excellent article.
    – Paul @ http://www.photographyvoter.com

  • Mojix

    That really help me.I am a beginer and your tips was really helpful.

    Really thanks

  • James Pizz

    The information given is very helpful and very clear. Well I think when taking posing photos it is important that the subject has nice and penetrating eyes. The eyes must be in a way that they can be seen all and do not missing any expressions shown by them.

    Keep it up!!

  • Good tip, I’m using a similar default to get people started when I shoot them.

    But as I’m usually out and about, it’s having them stood at a 45-degree angle to the camera and having them move their head and eyes to look straight into the lens.

  • Great article! I have been approached to photograph a friend for her modelling portfolio (portrait is one of the requirements) this will really help me!

  • Ali

    very nice tip.
    Do you have more sample for this pose ?
    Best regards

  • Mei-Ling

    Wow! Very interesting! Found this article while roaming though others… Very nice indeed! :o)

  • Under “Photography” / “Portraits”
    This was an assignment i had to do for school. My sister posed for the photo.
    End result was edited in photoshop to do some lightening of the skin.

  • Angie

    Thank you so much for all those tips! I love the tip from the photographer at the trade show. And thanks for the part about the different shooting angles. THANK YOU! Keep these great tips coming!

  • Allan Z.

    Many years ago while a wedding shooter I always tried, in a head shot, to keep the subject’s nose within the outer line of the opposite cheek. It de-accentuated the nose and didn’t create a bump in the linear continuity of the upper cheekbone.

  • Dan

    Useful information. Thanks for posting!

  • Photography Studies

    I recently have received an image inspired by this painting as an entry to my photography competition. Check it out in my gallery.

    http://www.photographystudies.com.au/competition

  • tasaha

    tasha in this aye

  • kycyana

    get!!!

  • KC

    It’s a beautiful and classic pose. It’s formal, yet casual. In the painting, the main light is coming from about 30 degrees behind and above, creating the classic triangle on the cheek, and the “z” line from the edge of the forehead. It’s great modeling and 3D. The lighting also separates the head from the background. The pose also elongates the neck and the head tilts naturally. The shoulders are not perpendicular but about 10 degrees off axis. It adds a bit of slimming effect, too.

    I have a thing about posing, lighting, and draping. The “old masters” used their lighting so beautifully. Painting the draping of fabric so that it looks soft and supple isn’t easy.

Some Older Comments

  • Allan Z. April 2, 2012 08:19 am

    Many years ago while a wedding shooter I always tried, in a head shot, to keep the subject's nose within the outer line of the opposite cheek. It de-accentuated the nose and didn't create a bump in the linear continuity of the upper cheekbone.

  • Angie November 18, 2009 01:17 am

    Thank you so much for all those tips! I love the tip from the photographer at the trade show. And thanks for the part about the different shooting angles. THANK YOU! Keep these great tips coming!

  • Nicole Dana September 2, 2009 04:20 am

    Under "Photography" / "Portraits"
    This was an assignment i had to do for school. My sister posed for the photo.
    End result was edited in photoshop to do some lightening of the skin.

  • Mei-Ling May 12, 2009 11:47 am

    Wow! Very interesting! Found this article while roaming though others... Very nice indeed! :o)

  • Ali January 25, 2009 01:05 am

    very nice tip.
    Do you have more sample for this pose ?
    Best regards

  • Mashka Cordwell June 18, 2007 08:38 pm

    Great article! I have been approached to photograph a friend for her modelling portfolio (portrait is one of the requirements) this will really help me!

  • eyeflare June 3, 2007 04:00 am

    Good tip, I'm using a similar default to get people started when I shoot them.

    But as I'm usually out and about, it's having them stood at a 45-degree angle to the camera and having them move their head and eyes to look straight into the lens.

  • James Pizz May 30, 2007 10:16 pm

    The information given is very helpful and very clear. Well I think when taking posing photos it is important that the subject has nice and penetrating eyes. The eyes must be in a way that they can be seen all and do not missing any expressions shown by them.

    Keep it up!!

  • Mojix May 30, 2007 08:30 pm

    That really help me.I am a beginer and your tips was really helpful.

    Really thanks

  • Paul May 28, 2007 06:32 pm

    Another excellent article.
    - Paul @ www.photographyvoter.com

  • Sime May 28, 2007 08:04 am

    Not really taken any "posed" portraits to date... more into capturing the moment, but, with the above in mind I think I will give it more of a go. Thanks

  • shroticg May 27, 2007 05:43 am

    great tips on day-to-day portrait photography. this will help much the amateur and upcoming photographers. posing is a very difficult task. hands are the best props. then there is no limit to posing, lighting, where the eyes shd be and the hair. the people doing marriage photography shd have a good memory and it is my advice to have some prior shooted pictures of a friend to calculate your memory faster to make bride and couple shots. here is the place where a lot is expected from the photographer. a good experienced chap fulfil the needs but all are not so. so is my humble advice. thanks.

  • Richard May 27, 2007 01:49 am

    Excellent information. As you point out, this is one photographers' take on how to do a portrait, but practical examples of an approach that works are quite valuable. I'm going to have to try this and see how it goes.

    Thanks!

  • mjt May 27, 2007 12:39 am

    the lighting, basically, is coming from the direction in front of her torso, slightly to her left and from above ... most identifiable by the down-shadows from the nose, lips, neck, and left eye.

    this is a very classic, appealing, and simple pose. the pose works because it accentuates the person's face (what we really are after, right?), because the torso is on its "thin side".

    even if shooting a portrait where the torso is parallel to the camera's film plane, the final photo will always be more appealing if the subject twists their shoulders at an angle to the film plane (even if slight) and turns their head appropriately to the camera.

    regards, michael

  • Connie May 26, 2007 11:15 pm

    My preferred way for portraits is to sit the subject down in an area that's theirs, be it their office, their home, their backyard or anything that makes them feel comfortable. I watch them through the lens and take multiple shots at various angles. If they don't want to smile, that's fine with me since I want to capture the dominant mood of the person. Studio portraits are so boring!

  • Dr. Tan May 26, 2007 08:30 pm

    I feel funny. I've been doing 'lens for hire' for quite sometime but realised that I haven't sold any portraitures for a fee.

    I'll be dead if one comes along, since you'll need quite a number of variations.

  • Chris Osborne May 26, 2007 02:12 pm

    Most of my portraits tend to be candid things too, or super close ups of the eyes. I'll be thinking about this next time I try to take picture for things, something I know I'll have to do when school starts back up.

    Just a thought, but what's up with the ads in the article? Did I miss something Darren, or did you suddenly decide to start putting ads in there without mentioning it?

  • mike May 26, 2007 06:09 am

    great tips, this is exactly what I needed since I am starting to take studio portraits and I can control all of these variables.

    BTW: there are some mistakes with spelling, mostly "i begin..." no biggie, just thought Id point it out

  • Christopher Brown May 26, 2007 04:37 am

    I love the lighting in Vermeer's painting. The dramatic back light accentuates the girl's face, really drawing out her eyes, leaving the pearl earring mysteriously nestled in the shadows.

  • Raoul May 26, 2007 03:18 am

    Really like this. Most of my portraits so far have been candid -- quick shutter releases at various apertures when I thought the moment was right -- but I've been wanting to get into more planned portraits. This gives me an idea how to begin. Thanks!

  • Narrinder May 26, 2007 02:46 am

    Thanks, I am just a beginner. But your basic tips are real handy. Thank you.

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