Posing for Portraits: A Quick Way to Get Inside Your Subjects Head

Posing for Portraits: A Quick Way to Get Inside Your Subjects Head


The big day is here. You thought it might never come, but now that its here, you feel yourself nervous with excitement.

Your first big portrait assignment.

You’ve been asked to shoot portraits for a local youth choir. You have less than two hours to shoot 55 members. You could mess up big. Or you could score big. Your not quite sure which one will come about yet.

While you clean you equipment, you review the facts:

  1. 55 Members.
  2. 100 minutes of rehearsal.
  3. Not quite one minute per person.
  4. [yikes]
  5. There are a lot of personalities.
  6. The practice location is a nice brick church with green grass outside. You definitely can use it, but…
  7. It’s the great Northwest – it could rain.

Hmmm. This could be interesting. For this shoot you have your Canon 30D, and your favorite little 50mm 1.8 lens. You also have a reflector you plan on having one of the choir kids hold.

You get in the car and start the drive down. And of course, it starts raining. Ok. I guess we are inside. It’s a good thing I brought that reflector.

You get to the church and quickly scan the foyer. Two benches. Bathrooms. And – your breath catches in your lungs – a window and plush chair. Hope rises. This just might work. The window light is your best friend. The chair you can use as a prop for posing people. The reflector will add a nice fill light.

But no time to breathe easy. The choir director sees that you have arrived and calmly greets you. “Okay, are you ready? I will send them 3 at a time. After you are done with each individual, they’ll go back to rehearsal and send someone else out. Is everything ok?” You nod confidently [after all, confidence is the key for any photographer]. “Absolutely. We’re set.”

You do some quick thinking as the director turns to leave. No way are you going to do the standard mug shot portraits. Even having to shoot 55 people with a fast turn around time. You want them to be artistic. You want them to be individualistic. So, how do you do it?

It’s then you remember a trick from an old photography mentor. His handy suggestion for quick personality profiling. Pick 5 sets of opposites in your pocket. Then ask your subject to choose which opposite they would prefer. If they choose the ones that are more dramatic, pose them like an extrovert. If they choose the ones that are more quiet and solemn, go with poses that are for an introvert.

You don’t know if it will actually work, but hey, with the first 3 choir members approaching, you figure you’ll give it a try.

“Hey there!” You introduce yourself. Ask their name, and then launch. “OK, here are a couple quick questions for you.” You pause for a little drama then dive in. “Do you like apples or oranges?” A blank look is your only response. You hurry to cajole them, “It’s ok, really. Just tell me, what do you like better? Apples or Oranges?” Apples are soft, oranges are bursting with flavor?

She giggles but replies. “Oranges.”

“Ok. Cool. Here’s another. Would you rather ski or snowboard?” You smile at this one – a hot topic among profiling in the North West. [Snowboarders being very youth culture, skiers being confident of their own individuality].

“Snowboarding.” She answers with another laugh.

“Last one, I promise. Would you rather see a movie with friends at home or in the theatre?” This one got a little tricky. One preferred the security of ones home, the other enjoyed the public life.

“Definitely movies at the theatre.”

“Great! Let’s do this then!” You decide to pose your subject as a girl who loves adventure and public life – but don’t forget a bit of pizazz. For the next hour and a half you go through these questions with each of the choir members with great results. The questions keep the kids smiling and wondering, and you have a general idea of how to work their personality posing.

As you get in the car after the shoot, you know that it probably wouldn’t work all the time, but that tip was a great success this time.

3 weeks later, the choir year books are published. You have the pleasure of seeing the kids as they are handed out. You note the excitement their portraits generate with a smile. The kids all felt that their portraits described them well, and you gained a good reputation as being a fast, fun, and unpredictable portrait photographer.

Yeah. This is what I love.

Read more from our category

Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography www.BrideInspired.com and leadership with www.RevMediaBlog.com.

Some Older Comments

  • Sarah March 22, 2009 05:12 am

    Wow, I think this is the 2nd argument I've come across on this site now. It never fails to amaze me how some people can find only the negative or the 1 thing that's wrong in the entire article and make some negative or rude comments about it.

    Thank you for the article, I would feel a little goofy asking those questions, but it probably would throw them off guard a little & loosen them up. I think doing a good job on that many different portraits in that small space a time would take a ton of creativity so any advice she can give - I'm ready to listen!
    Thanks again,

  • Geek's Dream Girl March 15, 2009 11:56 am

    As a former high school orchestra director, this story reminded me of the yearly orchestra photos! The company we were with did a series of 3-4 poses per student while they held their instrument.

    PET PEEVE: Photographers who don't know anything about how to pose string musicians!!

    We had one guy who was hilarious. high school girls are infamous for practicing their "best smile" for pictures and looking really fake. High school guys are infamous for doing the SeriousFace(TM). This photographer had a series of crazy lines that he would spring on the students to get them to laugh.

    The first thing he did was have each student hold their ID card under their chin for the mug shot. For this he made the kids say "I'm a THUG." (Oh my gosh were those pictures hilarious. The company let the kids who ordered photos keep the proof of the mug shot.)

    Then there were the alternatives to "Cheese":

    - "I'm a pretty, pretty princess!"
    - "Big pimpin'!"
    - "I'm a ladies man!"
    - "POOOOOOP!!"

    If the guys wouldn't say they were a ladies man, he'd make them say they were a princess. It was absolutely hilarious and the result were portraits with genuine natural smiles.

  • Evan March 14, 2009 04:09 am

    alright i thought of a real criticism

    this questions thing is bullshit. how about you just ask them directly rather than trying to get into their subconscious with questions like apples or oranges... apples are bursting with flavor too, what the fuck. Maybe they have a kickass home theater system and invite their friends over. maybe they have other family members who ski

    frankly im pretty amazed at this encouraging others to stereotype based on completely trivial things. Come on, leave that shit to the government and be direct.

  • Nonnie March 14, 2009 02:53 am

    Thank you for such a terrific article! It was very insightful and helpful!

  • Georg March 13, 2009 09:47 pm

    Thank you!
    I love getting into other photographer's heads. :-)

  • Lucian March 13, 2009 02:10 pm

    Great article, thx for sharing !

    I have already found some interesting articles on how important is to establish the contact with the subjects and to avoid the standard boring shots, with 1 person in the photo or with groups. Never stay in line, always let your personality be seen in the photo etc. Great !
    But how to achieve that? How to break the ice when you are just the guy to be there for 30-60 minutes and they will forget you after that ? Well, your suggestions is amazing. I guess it is irrelevant what questions you put, but you have to engage them and to make them relax. Oranges, skiing etc - it doesn't matter (but your choices are really funny). And they will not forget you, for sure.

    Great article !!

  • Simon March 13, 2009 12:09 pm

    Wow, it amazes me how quick some folks can be to attack others when they aren't face to face.

    To those who criticize the math(s) Sure, 100 minutes and 55 people might seem like almost 2 minutes per person. But 60 or 120 seconds is not a lot either way. More importantly she stated that these kids would come out three at a time, then return to the choir practice to send another three out. Do you think they make that transition in zero time. Heck no, if you actually have shot for real (ahem!) you'd know that to get that transition done in less than two minutes is probably a freaking miracle in itself. So, 60 seconds per kid is probably still optimistic.

    To those who argue over the nature of the pose, a large part of the point here is to build rapport. As you talk with them you should be looking at their body language, which will tell you as much as the answers. Your instincts will pick up on something (hopefully) and just maybe you'll do it well enough to pick a pose that's relevant to them. If not, well hopefully you'll come up with variations at least, which is a good start.

    But please, there are few things as unpleasant as bad mouthing someone who has the kindness to offer something of themselves publicly. I've noticed that almost all those who criticize are either unbearably arrogant, or (in most cases) simply disappointed that they didn't have the spine to do so themselves.

    Be nice people, failing to do so makes you look nasty.

  • Jon March 13, 2009 06:48 am

    I've always considered this site to be a very mature (excluding the jokes and humor lol) resource, unlike many forums on the net, given our common interest in photography. So I was quite shocked to read such a bitchy comment from 'rmstudio'. This website is about sharing tips etc. If you don't like the tips the authour of an article has given then either ask constructive questions if you feel there are errors or contradictions, or just move on to another topic. Questioning the authors experience knowing very little about them and making silly remarks like that is nothing more than childish in my opinion. Clearly from the other comments, a number of people found the article interesting and useful. Yes, people have different opinions and ideas about things but that comment was unecessary.
    Sorry for getting like this but this isn't something I expected to see on this site.

  • terifreye March 13, 2009 03:22 am

    rmstudio - If you noticed at the start of the article she said it was her "first big portrait session". Reguardless of what experience she NOW has in the (real "working" world). As a beginer myself I was able to extract not only information but confidence through her experience in this piece. After all this sight is for all levels, not just the seasoned pro's.

  • Peejin March 13, 2009 02:43 am

    Interesting article.
    Maths error aside I'm sure it certainly helps if you also have 55 introverted and 55 extroverted poses in your head which you can then apply.

    This is a nice way of finding out about a person but it would mean nothing i you didn't then know how to pose them accordingly.
    If all 55 people were the same personality type (ie. 55 introverts) you must have a good stock of poses to call upon!

  • tonya March 13, 2009 02:31 am

    Evan and rmstudio:
    So you'll disregard what could be a useful, engaging idea because of math skills (or possible lack of) or the author's amount of experience? How about being open to something that was shared freely rather than jumping to criticize?
    People amaze me.

  • Eternalhope March 12, 2009 10:07 pm

    Thanks for these handy tips, must give them a go next time. Have you got any ideas for speedy personality profiling of a 'family' or small group of people?!!

  • wedding photographer hampshire March 12, 2009 10:17 am

    Ok, disregarding Christina's maths error, this was still an interesting read. This idea for personality profiling is something I wouldn't have thought of. We all like to talk to clients to put them at ease, but casual banter takes a lot longer. I'll remember this lesson when I have a mass portrait session to do.

  • rmstudio March 12, 2009 09:04 am

    Evan very true... Much of this article is very very contradictory.. Makes me wonder how much actual "Shooting" experience this person has in the real "Working" world....

  • Chris March 12, 2009 09:00 am

    Interesting tid-bit. Thanks for the good idea for personality profiling.

  • Evan March 12, 2009 08:04 am

    ...how the hell do you get "less than a minute each" with 100 minutes / 55 people...

    that's 1.8 minutes each.. almost two...



  • Karen Long March 12, 2009 06:52 am

    Great article... I love the way it was presented... thanks for giving us a glimpse into your head and the answers to the questions running through our heads!

  • Jeffrey Kontur March 12, 2009 02:13 am

    This is the second article I've seen from Ms. Dickson and the second I've enjoyed immensely. She has a very engaging, storytelling style. Very distinctive for one giving out photography tips.

  • Peter van Kekem March 12, 2009 01:40 am

    You've described my feelings with this post: How do you still get original picture's. And also, when they got the books with the pictures, and see them smile.. I also always think: Yeah. This is wat I love!


  • eric schnare March 12, 2009 01:26 am

    As to why I absolutely love this website, Deirdre after reevaluating I would agree with you. I was looking at his expression and not his body language (which is something not to be over looked!)

  • Deirdre March 11, 2009 10:11 pm

    Funny, Eric -- I would have said the guy straddling the chair is an extrovert, along with the girl on the top of the chair, and the others are all introverts. The other poses are all curled up, closed, while the straddle and the top of the chair are open.

    But I doubt what is extrovert and what is introvert is black and white.

    I would love to hear from Christina, the author of this article, what she suggested as extrovert & introvert poses.

  • adolfo.trinca March 11, 2009 08:44 pm

    great article, thank you.

  • Bob March 11, 2009 07:48 pm

    Great suggestion. By opening with some lighthearted questions you get over any initial hurdle of meeting a photographer and having them just jam their subject into the same position as the other 54 people getting their pictures taken.

    I think its well worth the time, even with only a minute per subject, to get a quick understanding of what pose would flatter their personality the most.

  • Riyazi March 11, 2009 07:07 pm

    What a fantastic article - very well written and a enjoyable read. Some good tips/lessons - now we need another lesson about the difference poses ! And maybe a list of questions ? :)

  • eric schnare March 11, 2009 03:55 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article, putting this all together will definitely help in the future for me. To answer Rick's question you can see some great examples in the image at the top of the page. The boy straddling the chair is what I would call an introvert pose, one that is more shy and serious in nature. As for the girl sitting atop the chair in the middle of the photo, this is a great example of an extrovert pose, one that is showing an expressive attitude and confidence.

  • Tanya Plonka March 11, 2009 02:06 pm

    Great idea with the opposites! Though if you had less than a minute to shoot each person, those questions could eat up a lot of time ;)

  • Rick March 11, 2009 01:28 pm

    What is the difference between and extrovert pose and an introvert pose?

  • fromBrandon March 11, 2009 11:54 am

    That was enjoyable. I liked that a lot. Definitely a fun way to teach a lesson, and a good lesson it was. I've never given much thought to a quick way to get at someone's personality.


  • Light Stalking March 11, 2009 08:32 am

    Reminds me of my first paid gig when I walked in and had nothing but fluorescent lighting to work with. It turned out ok, but my heart did skip a beat when I walked in. :(