How to Pose People for Headshots

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Editor’s note: this week we will be featuring a series of articles on posing for portraits. Look for a new one each day. If you miss any make sure you subscribe to our newsletter and you’ll get a reminder of all our articles once a week.

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Headshots today are not what they used to be. Gone are the days of marbled backdrops in an indoor studio! Saturated markets filling up with fresh entrepreneurs, means that headshots are more important than ever these days. While location and wardrobe play a major role, knowing how to pose your subject is also vital in creating a successful headshot image that will stand out from the crowd. Let’s take a look at several examples of poses to keep in mind for your next shoot.

Basics

Before we go through some photos, let’s go over the basics of any pose. The fact that it’s for business use means that your subject should always be aware of their posture in a headshot. I simply tell people to put their shoulders back and their chest out. Once they adjust their posture, you can suggest gentle shifts if needed.

Another key point to mention to your subject is that they should lead with the forehead. This one can be a subtle, but powerful, shift in their pose. To lead with the forehead simply means that, depending on the overall pose/activity, they should always aim to have their forehead lean ever-so-slightly toward the lens, while pushing their face slightly forward. Below are two photos to compare – the left photo is with the model looking more or less straight ahead, while the photo on the right is when she followed my instructions about leaning the forehead slightly toward the lens. Note that I almost always have to slightly adjust the subject, because most people will tend to either lean in too far or lower their chin too much, so have them make slight adjustments until you find that ideal angle for them!

HeadTilt

Left photo shows subject looking straight at camera. Right photo shows subject leading with the forehead.

Now let’s get into several options for poses:

Crossed arms

First, let’s talk about one that harks back to traditional headshots – the crossed arms pose. While this general pose is nothing new, by simply changing location, having the subject add a slight lean, and loosening up the tightness of the crossed arms, this pose can feel modern. In the example below, the subject is slightly leaning in to the brick wall, while crossing his arms and maintaining an upright posture. When having women do this pose, encourage them to very loosely cross their arms; otherwise it will feel quite severe and cold. Men do have a bit more room to keep the arms tight, but be mindful of how tight they are to avoid that same severity.

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Here we see another example of a headshot with crossed arms, only this one relies on location to add warmth. Since the subject is a woman, she is also adding a slight tilt to her hip and dropped her shoulder closest to the camera. This all helps to soften up a traditionally harsh-feeling pose.

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Lean

Adding a slight lean can make a big difference in headshot posing. Many people are looking for a lifestyle feel to their headshots, which typically will call for an outdoor location. So if you go on location, why not use it to add personality?

I’ve already mentioned adding a lean to the crossed arms pose, but a simple lean against a wall or railing can also provide a more natural feel to your pose. In the example below, the subject is leaning against a clean wall. The detail is in the texture of the wall, and the lean provides a softening to the pose. The wardrobe helps maintain some formality (this subject in particular is a lawyer), while the slight lean and setting add a touch of modern casualness.

Note that even though the subject is leaning, it is still important for them to maintain good posture. You can let them know to lean with their bottom half, but not let their entire back slouch into the wall. Or, they can gently lean with one shoulder to maintain balance, while keeping posture upright. If the subject starts to look a bit stiff, have them “shake it out”, take a deep breath, and settle back into the pose. Sometimes all they need a break from the stiffness!

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Here is another example of a lean working to the subject’s advantage. In this case, below, the subject is portraying a casual brand, but still needs to look polished and professional. Using the railing of the foot bridge that is the setting, the subject raises one arm to lean on the railing. This helps to give the subject something to do, rather than having their arms dropped to the side. In this case, the crossed arms would have portrayed an image that was too formal for the client’s needs, so this alternative was ideal.

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Sitting pose

There are a few variations of sitting poses that work well for headshots. One option is to have your subject sit and join their hands over their knees. Ideally, this would happen if they are sitting at a location where the knees end up being slightly higher than their hips, which can easily happen if they sit on stairs. In the example below, the subject is sitting on steps, loosely laying her hands over her knees, and still keeping her posture upright (very important!). This gives the subject something to do with their hands, and it adds a bit of formality to a pose than can very easily feel far too casual.

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This next example is a bit more formal overall in terms of location and expression, but the pose is meant to soften it a bit. Here we have two subjects, each sitting on different stairs. Note that the subjects are quite different in height, so the different steps offer an opportunity to balance out the heights a bit. In this photo, the subject on the top step is sitting and leaning slightly on the railing. His arm is casually laying over his leg. The lean towards the railing helps to show a bit more of his torso since there is another subject in front of him. The front subject is slightly leaning back and to his left, helping to unify him with the other subject. Since these two men are business partners, it was important to maintain a sense of partnership in their poses.

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Walking

This is one of my favorite classic moves for headshots, and it does several things including:

  • It loosens up their body if they are a bit stiff in front of the lens.
  • It encourages a more natural expression because I get the opportunity to banter with them as they walk.
  • It creates a sense of movement that translates into a deeper connection with the lens.

Below are several examples of headshot subjects walking towards the camera. As always, be sure to let your subject know to maintain good posture while walking.

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Action

Here is where modern headshots get fun. Especially with entrepreneurs, you have the opportunity to express something about what they do, and what their personality is like. If they make a product, you can have them show you their product, If they do some sort of training, you can have them perform a bit of what they do. With these, giving detailed direction about posing is not as important as letting them do their thing. In the photos below, the subjects were given free reign to do what they want to express themselves. In these cases, be prepared to snap quite a few frames! The final images will need to not only capture the movement and activity, but also have flattering facial expressions.

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HeadshotPose16 HeadshotPosing12

Regardless of the poses used, be sure that they are a good fit for the branding of the client. Getting to know the client’s needs is absolutely the best way to know how to pose them.

Do you have any favorite poses that you like to use for headshot clients? Please leave a comment below to let us know.

Check out more in this week’s posing series here:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Natalia Robert

, founder and lead photographer of Full Circle Images, brings her background as an architectural designer forward to produce luxurious images that create a sense of warmth and culture. Natalia is based in San Diego, California, USA. She has had the honor of shooting with AirBnB for 3 years and counting, as well as with various publications, TEDxSanDiego, and countless small businesses to convey stories through strong imagery. Today, her furry co-pilot, Daisy, inspires a daily sense of wanderlust while serving as a reminder of how valuable it is to maintain a sense of HOME.

  • Andy
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  • Nice to provided explanation & photos about some poses and to become best photographer we all need to practice & learn Poses as mush as possible as photographer if you want to generate great photo albums for events like Marriage, Birthday party, Business meeting, Annual Get together party, then we should practices click poses so thanks lots digital-photography-school & team to provide such used full poses i would like to receive more update from you so keep it up
    http://paperbase.in

  • Natalia Robert

    Thank you, Aish! Glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Bob Dumon

    I wouldn’t consider these to be “headshots.” For me a headshot is a shot of, well… just the head, not arms, bridges, distracting backgrounds, etc. These are nice “portraits,” but they’re not headshots. Attached is what I consider to be a headshot. JMHO.

  • Frank

    These are portraits more than head shots.

  • Natalia Robert

    Thanks for your input! I’ve found that today’s definition of a modern headshot is much more varied. Also, with so much online interaction, I have found a very real need for folks to have professional portraits (yes, a headshot is a type of portrait, after all!) that reflect a bit more about them, and that tends to involve showing a bit more of them. Of course, doing a tight crop on some of these photos is always an option as well, if it’s a matter of how much of the body you want to show.
    We’ll just have to agree to disagree about backgrounds, though. I love using the background to farther support their branding.
    Regardless, many of these points for posing would still apply, I believe. The ones that are more active are, in large part, meant to relax the subject and create a natural feel to their expressions.
    Thanks so much for your feedback!

  • Bob Dumon

    Hi, thanks for the reply. I have no problem with backgrounds in portraits, but we’re into a semantics thing here. For me as I indicated, a headshot is a shot of the subject’s head (face), whereas a portrait can, and often is, much more than just the person’s face. Had your title been “How to pose people for PORTRAITS” or even “closeups” I’d have had no problem with it. However I take “headshots” for real estate agents for use on their business cards, where a VERY small image is all that can be shown on their cards. Too much background and the person’s face gets lost in the clutter. So for those I ONLY include the face. For Marketing portraits, etc., it’s a different story and I agree with you for those shots much more can be shown. Here’s one I took recently of an author of sailing mysteries, so as you can see, we’re in agreement on what can be contained in a portrait. We can just continue to disagree regarding what constitutes a “headshot.” ; )

  • Natalia Robert

    I completely agree that it totally depends on the person’s profession. I’ve shot tighter headshots where it’s just the head and a bit of shoulders, as well as wider ones like the ones shown. I also want to add that oftentimes, a client will get a shot that maybe shows more of their torso, and use a cropped version for things such as business cards or social media profiles.
    It really is semantics, and it all depends on the subject’s needs. Still, I have to disagree about the title being misleading, only because I do believe the term ‘headshots’ refers to a wider variety than it used to.
    Thanks so much for your input. It’s always interesting to see how others out there interpret terminology!

  • Bob Dumon

    Okay, no problem, thanks.

  • Lynette Wibbe

    some dramatic lighting and a slightly different type of angle.

  • Lynette Wibbe

    I think the modern professional workplace atmosphere is becoming more “free to be me” and these type of professional head shots reflect that. It’s good to know you can be more “free” and show individuality than just a stiff studio shot. I was actually wondering this myself.

  • Paul

    These are great ideas to bring life into the everyday, boring headshot!

  • Natalia Robert

    Thanks, Paul! 🙂

  • Many thanks for an excellent article about headshots/portraits: well structured, good ideas and very practical. I am a travelling amateur and I love headshots/portraits, especially in combination with one (or both) hand/s near the head. It’s very symbolic to me: the interaction of face and hand. When its possible and doable, I try to motivate my model to move her or his hand/s near her/his face: eating, drinking, smoking, phoning, working, pointing, waving, praying, and many more options to get the desired “face-hand coordination/combination”. Please, see the snaps below, and feel free to find more examples in my travel/photo blog http://www.konniandmatt.blogspot.com, e.g. about Bhaktapur or Pontianak. Thanks.
    .

  • Natalia Robert

    Thanks for the input, Matt! I’d never thought about it, but you’re right that having your hand doing some action near the face can bring more interest to a portrait. Thanks so much for sharing your work!

  • D. San

    Crossed arms is a very closed off body language. That striped pattern is waay to distracting, some of these are over exposed, and there is some odd cropping going on, and a lot of fly-away hairs. :

  • Really good post.
    We’re preparing a corporate photoshoot session and was looking

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