How to Pose People for Headshots

How to Pose People for Headshots

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!

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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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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.