Pose for Effortlessness

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Posing is a subject that stumps quite a lot of photographers. Whether our first or thousandth time working with people, sometimes we just look at our subject and draw a complete blank. It’s a scary moment. There are a number of great articles on some of the basics of posing on dPS already, and I recommend you check them out.

Even with an understanding of the rules of flattering portraiture, I’ve seen plenty of photographers grabbing their subjects and moving them around all akimbo like a wooden artist’s mannequin, just searching for a pose that works. Sometimes we’re working so hard to exactly create the pose we want, we forget to just step back and let a pose happen. It’s the non-posed pose…of posing. Say that five times fast.

So if you feel yourself floundering around without a clue what to do, here are some exercises and tips I’ve found helpful, while minding a few of the rules of portraiture. Just remember, there is no rule that can’t be broken.

The Hands Say It All

Hands can be one of the hardest parts of posing, because they’re a subtle element that often can speak volumes to the comfort (or discomfort) of your subject. They can instantly add a great depth to your image, or crush it with awkwardness. I recommend picking up a catalog from any local department store and studying arm and hand poses. Watch how they’re turned, where they rest in peoples’ laps, if they grasping or open, etc. Try replicating some of these poses.

If you’re still feeling a little stumped ask your subject to take 30 seconds and try grabbing or moving their hands in as many positions as they can. Make it a little game and see if you can beat them at different hand gestures. Pay attention though and watch for any that catch your attention. Have them stop, redo the gesture and work from there. If you’re still having a lot of trouble, give your subject something to hold or do. The same principle works well for feet. Have your subject tilt them in, toe one up, kick a little, etc, and watch for what catches your eye.

Know Thy Subject

Know thy self… err subject. As a people photographer, your job is generally to make your subjects look their best. This is very much a science of practice that every photographer is continually working to improve. Look for ways to enhance flattering features in your subjects. Work for angles that thin them out, show off a great pair of eyes or capture the personality or trait that makes your subject their own unique person. It’s there if you search for it. Great portrait photographers are masters of pulling out and expressing their subjects’ personalities. Practice, practice, practice.

Study and Replicate

The best way to learn how to pose is to study catalogs, editorials, ads and other photographers you admire. You’d be surprised how much you can learn by spending an hour analyzing various poses in a catalog. Tear out a few pages and bring them along with you. If it helps you become more comfortable posing that’s a big plus. Eventually, learn to then leave the tear sheets behind and work from your own creative ideas.

Stop Posing

That’s right. Stop posing. Sometimes the best pose is not a pose at all. It’s an action, an in-between “shake it off” and unguarded moment. When your subject is tense, it’s extremely noticeable. It makes anyone viewing the photo feel a bit uncomfortable. I like to ask my subject to start walking forward while I move backward with them. Sometimes you’ve got to get downright silly and really break them out of their shell. Start skipping with them. Jump and spin. Rock a hard fashion pose. Bust out your smoothest dance move and ask them to do the same. You didn’t think you’d get to keep your humility as a working people photographer, now did you? Get goofy yourself and it’ll help relax your subject and bring out those natural expressions and poses.

Posing and paying attention to the subtle details in hands, feet and expressions takes effort and practice. It’s a constant refinement and a new adventure with each unique subject. Learning to recognize what makes a person unique and draw that forth will go a long way toward helping you pose for effortlessness.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Matt Dutile

is a New York City based travel and lifestyle photographer. He recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a book on Mongolian nomads. Check the page out to learn more. You can view his website or join in on his Facebook page as well.

  • good tips on posing. If you’re also interested in see how famous photographers light their images, check out:

    GuessTheLighting.com

  • Medeni

    Starting that in a few days, perfect timing !
    Thanks again Matthew.

  • Scott

    I’m certainly not a portrait photographer, much better at candid shots, but I’ve learned that the photographer’s position can often bring about an interesting “pose”. In this case from a lower viewpoint.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4318739475/

  • I’m more into street photography myself, but I did try to take few photos when asking my ‘model’ to pose.
    I find that I enjoy such portrait specially when I play with light as well.

    http://www.ilanbresler.com/2009/07/morning-ritual.html

    Taken in Barcelona.

  • I agree with the writer that the hands are often key, maybe even especially so for men. Hence I do not often include the hands in a portrait for a man. I recently looked through a book of poses and it did help some, but the poses were so complex that they could not be easily memorized.

    But that’s why I specialize in candid style, like the last part of this post refers to. This is a portrait of 3 sisters I made on the beach at sunset:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jasoncollin/4903784966/

    I gave them a few suggestions like try to spread out, though their arms still kept overlapping no matter what. Then they just went with the semi-Charlie’s Angels theme for the shot.

  • Great write up!
    Love it.

    Hands are of course the hardest, I am glad that you approached that. …

    And yes.. the nonpose sometimes is the best.
    One trick Ive learned is that after a few posed shots, to step back and start fiddling with your camera (even if not) and then let the subject know they can relax, but keep an eye on em and watch where they go.. you might get just that perfect unplanned shot.

    also, i totally agree with the reading books. i keep a few of them on hand at all times

  • Thanks Matthew, you encourage me not to always pose the model when taking photos. Many time I get the right gesture when doing candid.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hendrohailana/4846408066/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hendrohailana/4735799135/

  • I always find myself not knowing what to do with my hands when someone is taking photos of me when in holidays, so in most of the pictures i hate the way i turn out…. still I found out that when in doubt the best option is to just put my hands in my pockets and problem is solved 😛

  • Paul Snook

    this is good advice, thanks much for sharing it. I like to let my subjects do there own thing, but this will surely help me refine what I’m already doing. Articles like this make me glad I joined this forum

  • I wish I could practice having people pose for me. It’s expensive to hire models and my friends aren’t very good at signing up for it.

  • Thanks for some great tips. There is one thing I noticed on family shots and other casual stuff is to smile – a lot – one may think he is smiling but photos need a much bigger smile. Almost un-natural exaggerated smile (in your head) will come across as a nice smile on photo.

  • inderpal singh

    i like them very much & i will try them as soon as possible

  • Mari

    I have so much trouble with my models, seeing as they aren’t professionals and they have insecurities, thanks for this info. Natural shots are lovely in my opinion.

  • SVG Graphics

    I agree with the writer that stress while posing will really show up in the photograph. Sometime sitting with your model, discussing the poses over a glass of wine or a drink “relaxes” the stress and makes for a better shot. They tend to let their guard down. Although this would not work with children, unless you want a shot of them sleeping………..

  • Ali

    Great post!
    Very useful info, I think there is almost no need to pose any one infront of your camera! Just keep talking to your model and keep them moving.

  • Mike Minick

    I agree with Dan Ketcham….I’d say that half of my keepers are ‘in-between’ shots, taken while talking with my model, taken between poses, taken during ‘breaks’, supposed test shots, hair and makeup fixing. I have one great shot that I got because my lighting completely failed to fire and I wouldn’t have thought to try that combo of (non) light.
    Quite a few models are dancers too so inquire as to your models other skills (photographing her all the while, of course).

Some Older Comments

  • Mike Minick August 26, 2010 10:50 pm

    I agree with Dan Ketcham....I'd say that half of my keepers are 'in-between' shots, taken while talking with my model, taken between poses, taken during 'breaks', supposed test shots, hair and makeup fixing. I have one great shot that I got because my lighting completely failed to fire and I wouldn't have thought to try that combo of (non) light.
    Quite a few models are dancers too so inquire as to your models other skills (photographing her all the while, of course).

  • Ali August 22, 2010 10:07 pm

    Great post!
    Very useful info, I think there is almost no need to pose any one infront of your camera! Just keep talking to your model and keep them moving.

  • SVG Graphics August 22, 2010 09:46 pm

    I agree with the writer that stress while posing will really show up in the photograph. Sometime sitting with your model, discussing the poses over a glass of wine or a drink "relaxes" the stress and makes for a better shot. They tend to let their guard down. Although this would not work with children, unless you want a shot of them sleeping...........

  • Mari August 21, 2010 01:50 am

    I have so much trouble with my models, seeing as they aren't professionals and they have insecurities, thanks for this info. Natural shots are lovely in my opinion.

  • inderpal singh August 20, 2010 05:15 pm

    i like them very much & i will try them as soon as possible

  • Martin Soler HDR Photos August 20, 2010 03:50 pm

    Thanks for some great tips. There is one thing I noticed on family shots and other casual stuff is to smile - a lot - one may think he is smiling but photos need a much bigger smile. Almost un-natural exaggerated smile (in your head) will come across as a nice smile on photo.

  • kate si August 20, 2010 03:25 pm

    I wish I could practice having people pose for me. It's expensive to hire models and my friends aren't very good at signing up for it.

  • Paul Snook August 20, 2010 12:22 pm

    this is good advice, thanks much for sharing it. I like to let my subjects do there own thing, but this will surely help me refine what I'm already doing. Articles like this make me glad I joined this forum

  • Mihai August 20, 2010 02:40 am

    I always find myself not knowing what to do with my hands when someone is taking photos of me when in holidays, so in most of the pictures i hate the way i turn out.... still I found out that when in doubt the best option is to just put my hands in my pockets and problem is solved :P

  • Hendro Hailana August 19, 2010 09:03 am

    Thanks Matthew, you encourage me not to always pose the model when taking photos. Many time I get the right gesture when doing candid.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hendrohailana/4846408066/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hendrohailana/4735799135/

  • Dan Ketcham August 19, 2010 02:59 am

    Great write up!
    Love it.

    Hands are of course the hardest, I am glad that you approached that. ...

    And yes.. the nonpose sometimes is the best.
    One trick Ive learned is that after a few posed shots, to step back and start fiddling with your camera (even if not) and then let the subject know they can relax, but keep an eye on em and watch where they go.. you might get just that perfect unplanned shot.

    also, i totally agree with the reading books. i keep a few of them on hand at all times

  • Jason Collin Photography August 19, 2010 02:34 am

    I agree with the writer that the hands are often key, maybe even especially so for men. Hence I do not often include the hands in a portrait for a man. I recently looked through a book of poses and it did help some, but the poses were so complex that they could not be easily memorized.

    But that's why I specialize in candid style, like the last part of this post refers to. This is a portrait of 3 sisters I made on the beach at sunset:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jasoncollin/4903784966/

    I gave them a few suggestions like try to spread out, though their arms still kept overlapping no matter what. Then they just went with the semi-Charlie's Angels theme for the shot.

  • Ilan (@ilanbr) August 19, 2010 02:03 am

    I'm more into street photography myself, but I did try to take few photos when asking my 'model' to pose.
    I find that I enjoy such portrait specially when I play with light as well.

    http://www.ilanbresler.com/2009/07/morning-ritual.html

    Taken in Barcelona.

  • Scott August 19, 2010 01:12 am

    I'm certainly not a portrait photographer, much better at candid shots, but I've learned that the photographer's position can often bring about an interesting "pose". In this case from a lower viewpoint.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4318739475/

  • Medeni August 19, 2010 12:33 am

    Starting that in a few days, perfect timing !
    Thanks again Matthew.

  • Guess the Lighting August 19, 2010 12:31 am

    good tips on posing. If you're also interested in see how famous photographers light their images, check out:

    GuessTheLighting.com

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