POSING TIPS - PORTRAIT

 
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By definition, “a portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person.” (Wikipedia contributors. “Portrait.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.) Although for many photographers, the purpose remains true, the “portrait” today is broader in the respect of how it is both composed and captured. One of the most important aspects to a great portrait is the pose— how the subject or subjects are positioned within the frame of the image. Posing in contemporary photography has become more fluid and less rigid, and as such speaks to the viewer on a more emotional level. However, fluidity of posing has also led to a loss of structure within our industry. Photographers often give no thought to the history, psychology and artistry of a aesthetically beautiful pose. Like Dance, posing should have expression, grace, ease and flow through the movements, otherwise it becomes mechanical and unemotional.

Find your inspiration: posing is all around us, from ballet, to a scene in an old b&w movie, to the old masters whose every stroke of their brush and subtle position of their subjects was done with purpose and intent. There is so much one can learn through observation of the expression of human movement in artistic masterpieces and historic photography. From Leonardo da Vinci’s hand gestures, to the body lines of classical dancers, to the fashion and portrait photography of Horst P. Horst.

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Location, location, location

When determining a location for your sessions you need to stay true to your style. We love shooting in nature, as it reflects our calm approach and makes our clients feel more comfortable. One also needs to be aware of the lighting conditions that are present at a given location. For example, if you are photographing your session in a dense forest you will not want to go too late in the day as you might not have enough light. However, you also don’t want to go too early when the sun is directly overhead, as this would make it difficult as well. We almost always plan our sessions a few hours prior to sunset, as the light is softer and will produce a better overall outcome.

Pre-scouting is such an important part to any of our sessions. We always walk the area in which we plan to take our clients to get a better feel of the space. As in other professions, preparation is key to a great outcome. It is also important to go to the location at the same time of day that you will be photographing your clients, as you will have a better understanding of the direction and quality of the light. By having a game plan you are more prepared and can better focus on interacting with your subjects.

our Approach

When it comes to posing, we approach it in the same way we approach many other elements of our business... keep it simple; less is more. Do your homework, develop a strong foundation to build upon, and don’t overcomplicate things. Simply put, a great pose is one that doesn’t look posed, it comes from a stillness within movement, as though you have stolen a single moment from a scene. It must look as though the photographer is not present, and like an extraordinary movie, the viewer can become lost in the story.

Relax.... your presence and energy will directly affect your subject and the outcome of the images. If you are grounded, confident and enter the shoot prepared with a positive calm energy, you can direct the flow of the session. For the most part, we photograph our clients in natural environments and let them relax into their surroundings. Usually our shoots require a fair bit of walking, so while we walk, we talk and get to know the clients. We always speak to them in a soft calm voice, and if they don’t understand what we are asking them to do, then we will demonstrate the pose for them.

Keep it simple. Don’t expect your clients to be able to do the pose you are asking them to do if you can’t. If the pose doesn’t look right we take a few frames and say “let’s move onto something else” without them realizing they did not achieve what we had envisioned. This is simply our approach that works for us and the type of portraits we hope to achieve. It is important to develop your own approach that works for you and your photography.

Success is what happens when 10,000 hours of preparation meet with one moment of opportunity.
— Anonymous
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KEY ELEMENTS

We truly believe that a great photograph is like a recipe. There are a combination of ingredients, and when mixed together correctly, they can be transformed into something beautiful. However, like any recipe, for it to truly be amazing it must be made with heart, and reflect the personality of the individual who created it. This is our recipe:

  1. Practice.

  2. Find the Light.

  3. Negative Space.

  4. Perspective.

  5. Slowing Down.

  6. The Pose.

There is a multitude of elements that come together when a photographer captures a beautiful image, but how do we define what a successful photo is? Is it technically perfect, is it emotional, moving, provocative, or is it simply just a pretty photo? Photography, like art, is extremely subjective, and what makes us human is our ability to think and perceive on an individual level: Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. However, Amy and I believe that art and photography must have a foundation which is built on creativity, craftsmanship, skill, and of course, rules and principles. And yes “rules are meant to be broken,” but only when one knows the rules they are breaking.

Photography is a journey, and we are always learning new ways to improve our skills The following Key Elements are an accumulation of the knowledge that we have obtained as photographers over the last fifteen years. Knowledge can vary, and these elements are simply ideas and principles that work for us. We encourage you to utilize this as part of your foundation, then build upon it.

Practice

Like the saying goes, “practice makes perfect.” (Well, maybe not perfect but definitely better!) The pursuit of the perfect image is an affliction that many photographers have to endure throughout their career. As Imogen Cunningham said, “Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.” Practice... shoot as much as you can, as often as you can. Only through repetition and experimentation will you learn what works and what doesn’t. You will be surprised just how fast you advance and how quickly your work will evolve!

Find the light

Light is key, and using it properly can unlock the beauty in your photographs. Learning to truly see light takes dedication and commitment, and most importantly observation. Light has life, spirit and soul. it is always changing— it dances across a calm lake, it glimmers within the leaves on a tree’s branches, it lightly traces the contours of the face of a loved one… Light, quite simply, is magical. It is the paint from which a photographer can create their masterpiece.

As available light shooters, we are constantly watching the light, and more specifically how it interacts with the environment. Light has various levels of quality, and it is when you begin to understand and see the quality of light that you can drastically change the look and feel of your work.

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Backlighting. One of our favorite types of lighting situations is backlighting, as seen in the example above. Backlighting occurs when the sun is more or less directly behind your subject, and one to two hours before sunset. The ideal condition, is when there is a bit of haze or wispy cloud cover, which slightly diffuses the light. To expose in this type of light, simply set your camera to manual, dial in your iso, your desired aperture, then set your shutter speed. For the most part, there is very little you need to adjust, as the light will remain mostly constant and unchanged. It is easy to underexpose in this situation, so learning your camera’s histogram is essential to obtaining perfect exposures. We do not use any light modifiers or reflectors, just simply let the sunlight wrap around the subject, which produces beautiful rim light, and silky looking skin.

When backlighting, it can help to elevate yourself above your subject. We use small ladders to gain a higher perspective, which will not only help with flare, but can prevent the light from flooding your lens which can sometimes make your images look washed out. Elevating yourself will also help with positioning your subject so their head does not come in conflict with the horizon line. Try shooting wide open with fast primes, as this will isolate your subject from the background and create a soft dreamy look to your images.

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Overcast Light. Although it might seem easier to photograph on overcast days, it can at times be extremely challenging. The level or degree of cloudiness, as well as the position of the sun can make it more or less difficult to photograph in. Ideally it is best to have the sun at approximately a 45 degree angle from the ground, and a light or medium uniform cloud cover that creates subtle soft shadows. It is essential to know where the sun is, even when it is hidden by the clouds, as you should be working with and not against it. Shooting in overcast light in the midday, and photographing with the light behind your subject can create dark pockets in your subjects eyes, which is unflattering.

In the example above, we were shooting in heavily overcast light. In fact, if you look close, you can see the raindrops in the image. We positioned our subject so she was always facing the sun which was completely hidden by the clouds. We also selected a location on a hilltop where the light would not be blocked. This session was photographed in the late afternoon, with the angle of the sun at around 45 degrees. Having the sun at this angle both prevents the dark eye shadows, and also ensures that you are not blocking the light.

In overcast light, location is everything. Try and find open spaces where you are able to shoot with the light. Ideally, if you can find a space where the ground is light in tone, then it can help bounce the diffused light back onto your subject. For instance, there is a beach that we often photograph at on cloudy days. The reason we use this location is that the sand is a nice light color, which helps reflect the light back onto our subject. It is good practice to observe how light reacts in these situations, and see just how much it improves when you follow these guidelines.

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Open Shade. In harsh light, open shade can be a photographers best friend. What exactly is open shade? It is the shaded areas on a sunny day, such as the side of a building or opening in a door. However, not all open shade is equal. When you look for open shade, try and find areas where there are natural reflectors, such as a neutral light colored wall or building, or even a light colored road or walkway in front of the shade. These natural reflectors will help bounce the light back onto your subject, making the quality of the light within the shade more desirable. Shade that is lit by nothing more than skylight will tend to have a blue tint and may be more difficult to obtain a proper color balance.

In the image above, our subject was photographed in open shade during midday light. We selected this location because it was surrounded by light colored roads and buildings which reflected light back onto her. The result is an evenly lit image with great catch lights in her eyes. When looking for locations for sessions that will occur during midday, it is a good idea to seek out areas that have these natural reflectors.

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Negative Space. In art as in photography, negative space is the area around the subject of an image. Negative space can be used in a multitude of ways to create interest in your images. For instance, as you can see in the examples above, negative space is a great way to direct the viewer’s eye to a specific area of a photograph. Also, you will notice in many of our poses, that we often create “windows” or openings with the subjects arms or legs. By doing this, you can give your subjects body more shape, and your poses will look more dimensional and dynamic. In the examples here, you can see how we used negative space to not only isolate our subject, but to draw your eye directly to her. By using negative space in conjunction with framing, we were able to visually isolate the subject even further, and bring more depth and visual interest to the image.

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Perspective. Move yourself... This is probably the best piece of advice we can give any photographer. So often we have seen sessions where the photographer stands in one position with a zoom lens and keeps directing and moving their subjects. This not only makes it awkward for the individual(s) being photographed, but it is also creativity limiting.

Try positioning your subject, then move around them. You will soon discover that you can create numerous images that look completely unique from one another. Shooting from a lower or higher vantage point, or backing away from the scene and including more negative space can completely change the look and feel of the photo. You will be amazed at just how many images you can capture without ever saying a word.

As you can see in the examples above, we have created two truly unique images by simply moving ourselves to a new perspective, and only making a slight adjustment to our subject. It should also be noted that we only shoot with prime lenses, which is a great way to force yourself to move around the space.

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Slow down, be present in the moment, and never forget your purpose.

Slowing down. We often forget just how fortunate we are to be able to capture a moment that can be cherished for years to come. With the advent of digital, we have taken this privilege for granted, and shoot as though these captured moments are meaningless. Our hard drives and mobile devices get packed full of thousands of photos, that may or may not ever be seen again. Maybe as photographers, and even as subjects, we need to slow down, and truly appreciate the single image, print more of our work so that these memories are not lost, not taken for granted.

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The Pose. Learning how to pose your subjects so they look natural can be extremely difficult. We have spent years researching and developing techniques that work for us and our clients. There is still so much for us to learn, but that is the beauty of art and photography, it is always changing, always evolving. Posing is a style, and how you pose your subject is simply a matter of knowing yourself and the mood or feel that you want to convey in your images. It is also about knowing your clients, and your clients knowing you. In every frame, we capture both our subjects’ personalities and reflect our own.

We hope to demonstrate how effective posing comes from the following: a knowledge and understanding of light, perspective, artistic line, body and movement. Posing is not something you simply emulate, and as a photographer one should understand the purpose behind the body placement, and within that purpose lies the art of posing.

Keep it real. One of the easiest things a photographer can do is over pose their subjects. When working with your clients, they should be relaxed, comfortable, and having fun. Putting your clients in positions that feel awkward, will simply end up looking awkward as well. As a photographer you do not need to have thirty different poses in mind when you go into a session, you simply need to know what will make your subjects look amazing. Everyone you photograph is different, so it is up to you to know how to work with both their personality and body type. Once you build a foundation, or a set of “rules” that you follow, the rest will come easy. Some of our favorite images are captured when our subject simply forget that we are even there, and were lost in the moment.

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Movement. One of our favorite techniques when photographing our clients, is through movement, either by walking into a scene, or moving into a pose. For instance, we will ask our subject to walk towards us, and to shift their gaze from the ground to out in the distance, and try not to look at the camera. To photograph this, we will set our cameras to continuous focusing and hold the subject in the middle of the frame, then walk backwards keeping in pace with them. If there are two photographers, such as in our case, then one person will walk directly in front of the subject, while the other will walk from an angle, just out of the first photographers frame. Some of the most beautiful natural images can be created this way.

Another great technique, is to have your subjects move into a pose. To achieve this, we will first demonstrate the idea, then ask our subject to walk into the pose. By creating a pose this way, it will look more natural and feel more comfortable for your subject. This might even be as simple as having them look down away from the camera, then look back up at you. In that split second, they will have an incredibly beautiful natural look on their face.

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Softened lines & Posture. Two key elements to a great pose for women, are softening the lines and posture. We like to think of this as in ballet where the dancers move with strength, poise, elegance, and grace. For instance, in ballet you will see rounded arms, hands that are gracefully placed, and beautiful poise in the shoulders and head. As in dance, our posing techniques are similar in that we want our clients to look the best they can. We look for ways to soften the look of their limbs so that they are not full of tension.

When it comes to lines and posture, you can find great sources of inspiration by watching classical dance, old b&w movies, and looking at fashion magazine ads. Another great source for reference are paintings by the old masters, as they are rich with visual information in regards to body and hand positioning and placement. For instance, one of our favorite ways to pose hands is in a crisscross shape. This was a common pose for the old masters, as an example look at Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

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Body Lines: We wanted to show you the difference between these two images so you could see her first standing unposed, and then posed in the second image. The posed image has minor changes from the first photo, however the changes really impact the look and feel of the image.

Let’s start by examining the first image. Here she looks equally as beautiful as in the second photo, but it feels unfinished and her front shoulder is visually too prominent. Her hair has not been placed in one area so it simply parts and falls over her back and shoulder. Also, the dress at this angle appears to be digging in a bit at the edge of her bust by her armpit, which is not the most flattering.

Now let’s take a look at the second image. Here we asked her to move all of her hair around her far shoulder to clear off her back and neckline. We also asked her to simply round her shoulders in and lower her chin so it dips just behind her shoulder as if her lips could kiss it. When she pulled her shoulders forward it visually “thinned” her arm and took away the bulkiness seen in the first image. The second image has a softer more feminine quality that is more flattering for her and more interesting to the viewer. A great tip for beautiful mouth position for a female client, is to ask her to slightly part her lips and lightly breathe through her mouth. This will both relax her jaw line, and also create a soft plump look to her lips.

The S curve. Throughout our work, you will notice that many of our portraits follow the shape of a “S” curve. In portraiture, as in landscape, the S curve is a great visual tool that directs the views eye through the scene. It does not have to be over the top, just simple and subtle. Below is an example of how the S curve can be used when posing.

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The C curve. In these two images, we wanted to demonstrate an alternative to the “S” curve, which is appropriately called the “C” curve. This pose is very popular among fashion photographers, and is often used for posing male models. However, it can also be a great pose to use for females as well. This pose works best if you have your client sit back against a wall, or in this case a window sill.

As you can see in these two examples, head and arm placement can change the look and feel of the pose. In the first image, the pose is more rigid and “masculine”. Her head follows the curve of her body, and her chin is held higher. In the second photo, the pose is softer and more feminine. Her left arm follows the curve of her body, while her right arm is bent to create a window. We also asked Jasmine to roll her front shoulder in, and turn her face in towards it. Her hands are also placed in a soft position, lightly grasping one another.

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Get Moving: In this set, we wanted to demonstrate how different the images can look simply by moving your body closer to your subject and making minor changes to the pose.

In the first image we have a full body shot. Here, her weight is shifted onto the back leg, her shoulders are relaxed, and her hands are casually placed in her pockets. then by simply taking a few steps closer we achieved the second look. In this second image we have asked her to tilt her head slightly and roll her shoulders in a bit. The softness in her face is achieved by getting her to look down and then up into the lens.

By taking a step closer we have achieved another photo with a completely different feel. In this image, we asked her to look down and up, however this time we captured her while she was looking down. Her placement in the scene, along with the shallow depth of field and the breeze that lightly moved her hair, gives this photo a feeling of movement, softness, and romance.

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Common Mistakes. In the next few examples we wanted to demonstrate some common mistakes that are made when posing female clients. In the first image you will see that Kailey has locked her left elbow putting all her weight on her arm. By doing this she has created a bulge in the upper part of her arm. We asked her to do this so that we could show you the correction, and how different it looks when her elbow is unlocked and the weight is taken off her arms.

In the second image we told her to pull up in her body, and use her abs to support herself, then lightly rest her hand on the rock. This simple change makes her arm look more proportionate to her body, and opens up a “window” on her side. As photographers it is our job to make each and every client look the best they possibly can. By being aware of mistakes such as this, and then making simple adjustments during the session, you will save yourself a great deal of time during post-production.

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The first image below shows another example of a locked elbow, where the client has put all of her weight on her arm. It is interesting to note how her body does not look as flattering in this pose. In the second pose, we had her take the weight off her arm, then pull up in her posture. By making this change, it produced a more elegant and flattering position to her body.

Often clients will just naturally slouch into this position, so it is important to watch for this mistake then reposition them. Let them know they need to be strong in their posture and use their stomach muscles to hold them up, versus using their arm. Even though we have asked Kailey to pull up in her body and posture in the second image, she does not look tense or ridged. Her shoulders are relaxed and she is sitting comfortably on the sand.

Locking elbows is probably one of the most common mistakes that we see in posing, yet it is one of the easiest to correct.

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Another common mistake that we would like to discuss is the “mystery hand”. You are more likely to see this in couple posing, however it can also happen when posing one individual.

In the first image you will see that the placement of her back arm and hand hides most of her forearm from the viewer. This visual break in her arm can make the image look awkward and strange, as though you wonder where this arm is coming from. In the second image you can see how making a minor adjustment, such as moving her hand on top of her legs, makes the photo visually appealing. The viewer is now more inclined to look at Kailey’s face versus her out of place distracting hand.

It is good practice to watch for breaks in the arm or hand such as this. Making small adjustments to correct these issues can take your images to the next level.

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Hand Placement. In the example below, we wanted to show how hand and body placement is so important. In the first image the viewer eye is directed to Louis’s hand out front, then down his arm to his face. As such, perspectively his hand becomes dominant and out of scale when compared to his face. He feels really distant in the frame and your eye gets caught between his face and hand.

In the second image we asked him to lean closer to the lens, and to grasp his hands lightly together and slightly lean into his raised leg. The outcome is completely different, and as the viewer the first thing your eye is directed to is his face. When you pose your clients take a moment to pause and observe hand and body placement/perspective and how your eye flows throughout the scene. Keep in mind that whatever is nearest to the lens is going to look larger, and if it is a hand, it will most likely end up being disproportionate and distracting.

Take the time to look through your photos and spot these distractions. Once you are aware of them, then that is the first step to correcting it in the future.

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OVERVIEW & A FEW MORE TIPS

Emotion: A great pose should convey emotion to the viewer, as though the image speaks to you.

Movement: Try photographing your subjects as they walk, or have them move into a pose. Posing this way can be fun for your clients, and will look more natural.

Breathe: Periodically have your female subject softly breathe through her lips, which will both relax her jaw line, and make her lips look soft and plump. This is especially great for tighter portraits.

Change your Perspective: Probably one of the most important aspects to posing. By moving yourself and not your subjects, you can create a variety of interesting images while making your clients feel more comfortable.

Soft Lines: When posing your female subjects, try and create soft flattering lines with their body and limbs. This is especially important with the hands and fingers. Use the works of the Old Masters as a great reference for this. For instance, look at the soft lines in the painting “Leda and the Swan” painted by Cesare da Sesto (Copy after Leonardo da Vinci). There are so many beautiful soft lines in this painting, including those of the Swan itself.

Keep it simple: Don’t overcomplicate posing, as it will look contrived. Create new “looks” simply by positioning yourself in new areas around your subject. See Perspective.

Curves: Try and create flattering body lines, such as those that resemble a “S” and “C” curve. Again, the Old Masters are a rich resource for examples of this.

Shallow DOF: Having a shallow depth of field by using fast primes is a great way to not only isolate your subject in the scene, but produce an overall “softness” to your images. This is also a great way to “soften” skin without making the images look over edited and “plastic”.

Nose placement: When shooting from an angle, watch that the nose does not go past the cheek line, as this will look unflattering.

Windows: By adding space or “windows” between your subjects limbs and their body, you can make them appear lighter and the pose will look more dynamic.

Crop in-camera: Don’t rely on your software to fix your mistakes or make your angles more interesting. By cropping in-camera, you will develop a better eye, and be more precise in your shooting.

Hair: Hair placement is very important for your female subjects. Be sure her hair is not blocking interesting elements of her body, or the pose.

Looking at the camera: By periodically having your clients first look down and away from the camera, then look at the lens, it will create a more natural looking expression in their face and eyes.

Lines: Be sure to “anchor” your photos so they do not appear that your clients are falling over in the scene. For instance, anchors can be horizon lines, architectural components, etc.

The story: Remember to try and tell a “story”. Capture details around you, and a wider scene setter image that shows the environment that your subject is in.

Scale: Be cautious of placement, as whatever is closest to the lens is going to look larger. Your subjects arm or hands should probably not look larger then their head.

Flat hands: Try and avoid flat hands that are parallel to the camera lens, as this will often make them appear larger and unflattering.

Tension: When posing your subjects, watch for tension points in their body. For instance, locked elbows and knees, strain in the shoulders, and tension in the hands and face.



A photographer does not operate a camera in order to merely take pictures. Photographic work is always personal. A photograph reveals the photographer.
— Anonymous


 
Richard McDowell