You’re just a couple of minutes into this portrait session. You’re staring at the back of your camera pretending like you’re checking something but, in reality, they are waiting for you to guide them into the perfect pose that will make them look and feel like their best self, while you’re stalling and fidgeting with buttons. Your mind has gone blank. You can feel their eyes burning a hole into the top of your skull as your neck bends over looking at the tiny display. You’re considering just scraping up whatever dignity you have left and making a run for it. Eventually, you look up, say “okay,” ask them to smile, and no matter how good or bad that smile is you snap the shutter.
When taking a portrait, many photographers, even seasoned professionals, find it intimidating or awkward to guide or ask things of the people they’re photographing. I have good news for you, though! Even if you’re the timid or quiet type, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Posing your subjects is a learned skill, just like any other part of photography. You can learn to work with, pose, and direct people with absolute confidence. I’ve learned a lot from awkward moments, hard lessons, and the graciousness of other kind professionals. I’m going to pass some of that knowledge to you today, and I hope that it serves as a tool to guide you away from long pauses, brain farts, and endless fidgeting with your camera, pretending that you know what’s going on.
FYI - This isn’t a guide of poses. It is a guide to help instill more confidence in your ability to pose and direct people. You can study and know all the posing positions in the world (and there are some great ones to keep in your back pocket), but if you don’t know how to direct and speak to your subject, then those poses aren’t worth much.
People almost always want you to give them direction. Whether you feel like a professional or not, your subjects will look to you with trust and authority in your craft.
Imagine that you’re at the dentist, sitting in the chair with your mouth gaping open and trying not to swallow your tongue. She says, “Okay. Now, touch your left elbow.” Most of us, without the slightest thought or question, would do it immediately. Not because it makes perfect sense, but because the dentist is the professional and you trust her, so you do it.
When that camera is in your hand, you are the professional. You can ask. You can guide. You can direct, and you’ll be glad that you did because, short of dropping your memory card in the toilet, there’s nothing worse than going through images after a shoot and kicking yourself for not fixing what would have otherwise been the perfect shot.
It’s going to take some time and some practice. Directing is a skill, like anything else. The more you do it, the better you’ll be, and you’ll eventually find your own style of directing too.
- Always be with your subject: If you can make them feel that the experience is more “we” or “us” rather than “me and the photographer,” they’re bound to relax more and have a much better time, giving you a more authentic portrait. You’re on a journey together, but you are the guide.
- Don’t be afraid to ask: Ask for what you want and need from them. They want you to! (Just don’t be a creep.)
- Don’t worry too much about perfection: Don’t feel like you have to get it right every second of every pose. Every person is different and will shine their brightest under different poses and scenarios. Think about each individual as a unique puzzle to solve. If you have fun with that, it can give both you and the subject a greater sense of play during your shoot and will make it far more relaxing.
- Don’t forget to talk & affirm what is good: Especially if you’re photographing someone unfamiliar with being in front of a camera. Quiet can be awkward. If you’re too silent, subjects will often assume that they’re doing something wrong. Affirm what is good and engage so they can feel relaxed.
- Direct subtle movements: Practice how to verbally and visually direct subtle movements and changes. Be specific. Saying “left shoulder that way” is not as clear and specific as “Move your left shoulder, towards me, and down just a bit.”
- Ask yourself, “Would I understand what I’m asking them?”
- Imitate the pose you’re asking for: Mirror for them what it is that you are asking them to do. Don’t be afraid to move and even goof around with your subjects.
- Pay attention to the light! This is a big one, and we’re going to dive deep into it for a bit.
It doesn’t matter if it’s studio strobes, a speedlight, window light, the beauty of golden-hour, or the harsh rays of high noon. If you can learn to look at light, and how it reacts with your subject, you can easily find the perfect pose at any time.
Following are a few examples using one studio light. (see diagram above) The lighting is an intentionally more dramatic Rembrandt-style, which will serve as a poignant example of observing light and shadow. Similar to what you might find from window lighting in the middle of a sunny day.
It’s, of course, helpful to know what you’re aiming for as far as style, composition, etc. but let’s say that what we want at the moment is a straightforward portrait with visible eyes, a defined jawline, and balanced shoulders and posture.
Even though there are dark shadows, we’ve worked with the light to come to a pose that works well. The subject is positioned so that the light source is about 45º to the subject's right, and quite high above. The subjects head is slightly tilted back for this reason. Otherwise, the shadow would have fallen into the eyes too much. (see example below)
You can also see that the lower chin is overall not as flattering with this light, and also casts a more harsh shadow onto the shirt. The face and portrait just aren’t as clear.
This doesn’t mean that you should always raise the chin, but in the case of this lighting, it was the best call for what we hoped to achieve.
Now, with this same light, let’s move our subject around and see what happens:
In the example below, we’ve directed the subject to turn his head slightly to the right, keeping the eyes following the nose, as well as to bring the left shoulder slightly toward the camera. This adds dimension and still keeps the face defined, and the jaw-line in contrast.
The more you look at light, the more second nature it will become to work along with it or even play with it.
Here’s an interesting, natural-light portrait of my buddy, Tommy. In an otherwise dark and dusty warehouse, there was a single beam of afternoon light coming in through a small window. Rather than have him stand right in the light, I had him stand next to it and lean over into the beam. It’s a more carefree take to be sure, but it was a lot of fun, and the results are unique at the very least.
These are just a few of the many techniques that I keep in mind, and I hope that they help you find your own unique directing voice. The more you do these things, the more nuanced you’ll become and begin to find your own tricks and ways of communication. Overall, just play, have fun, and remain as curious as possible.
I’ll leave you with a few other tips to keep in mind, and as always feel free to contact me with any questions!
- Do your research before a shoot. Hop on Pinterest, Google, Instagram, whatever, and create a log of visual inspiration. It serves a visual cue and reminder for your brain.
- A mood board (especially one that is on display during your shoot) is a great reference and reminder for your subject, makeup artist and yourself.
- Practice poses on yourself. Practice in the mirror, with phone-selfies, or set your camera on a tripod with a timer (tethering makes this easy if you have that option).
- Pay attention to how other photographers direct their subjects. Pick up on what techniques and tricks they use.
- Something that I like to do, especially before a larger editorial style shoot is sketch or storyboard.