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A Posing Technique from A Girl With a Pearl Earring

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


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:

  • 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
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+.

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