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A Guide to Perfect Portrait Posing and More

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As an aspiring-to-go-pro photographer or a casual shooter, it's important to understand the basics of portrait photography, whether your posing a spouse, child, friend or a bona fide model. Not only will your images seem more professional and polished, your model will look more attractive.


Introduction

By taking care in not only how your model is posed, but also paying attention to the background, you will minimize your postprocessing workflow. For example, it is much easier and faster to take a minute or two to clean up and remove the offending clutter, lint, or errant strand of hair before shooting than spending an hour cloning it out in dozens of individual pictures.

There are hundreds of different poses, and this tutorial will cover only a few of the common ones along with some suggestions such as the camera angle, composition and poses. A caveat: there is no one-size-fits-all technique when it comes to working with your model. A body position or camera angle that works for one person may not for the next.

Let's start with a quick overview of composition in portrait photography.

  • The Rule of Thirds: know it. And when you know it, you can break it. The better you understand why this rule of thirds is so effective, the better you understand when to break it.
  • Centering: avoid centering your subject; instead frame the model slightly off to the side. This has been proven to be more aesthetically pleasing. It has to do with what's called the "golden ratio." Observe television shows and movies; you'll notice that the actors are often shot off center for this very reason. This is obviously related to the rule of thirds as well.
  • Amputation: when framing the portrait, avoid cropping your subject at their joints. This has the illusion of amputating a limb and is generally undesirable.
  • Eyes: Focus on the eyes. It can look strange if your model's ear or hair is in focus, but not her face.
  • Camera angle: If you're shooting an image in which your model's face fills most of the frame, make sure the camera is a few inches above her nose. Nostrils are not attractive. And this compels your subject to look up at the lens, which is more pleasing. The angle will help thin out their face slightly. If you're photographing a woman that is bottom heavy, aka "pear-shaped" or heavy-weight, avoid shooting from below. Shooting from extreme low or high above will exaggerate people's proportions; photographing low to the ground makes the hips seem overly large and the head small. And the opposite is (usually) true if shooting your subject from above may help make a heavyset person seem slimmer.
  • Distance: some photographers are wary of getting too close to their subject. This has the end result in which the main subject - the model- is just a speck, too small to have any real impact. Practice filling the frame.

Posing

This site has a great posing guide created by Lynn Herrick to help you get started. It depicts over 200 different poses that you can use as a reference.

"Football Shoulders":

Hunched up shoulders are never attractive. It makes your model seem like they have no neck. Ask your model to sit or stand up straight and lower their shoulders.


Photo by ifraud

A common pose an amateur model may adopt is a three-quarter turn with the shoulder raised, hiding the neck and chin or jaws. While this may feel coquettish in your subject's mind, all it accomplishes is hiding the model's neck and makes the shoulder nearest the camera seem overly large and rounded. Have them drop the near-shoulder downward instead.

If you choose to have your model laying down on the floor looking at the camera, remind them to support themselves to avoid hunched up shoulders.

Slouching

Similarly to the "football shoulders," slouching simply isn't attractive, not even if they're a model on the ANTM show. Tell your model to straighten up! This also has the effect of helping your subject appear slimmer, taller and more poised.

Head tilt

Up, down, side...experiment with the different possibilities to see what's most flattering for your model.


Photo by Kevin Dooley

If your model protests taking many pictures with slightly different head and shoulder poses, point out that actors and actresses often practice their poses for the red carpet, and then know which pose to strike that will be the most flattering.

Chin

Some people have double-chins or may be tucking their chin subconsciously. Make them aware of this. If excess skin is still visible, change your camera and lighting angle to slightly above to minimize it.


Photo by jcoterhais

Standing

If your subject is squared off with the camera, this has the effect of making them look broader. This may work well for a male subject; however, for a female, this usually is not a desirable stance; a slight angle will be more slimming and attractive. Place all the weight on the leg furthest from the camera and the other leg bent or extended.


Photo by Lauren Nelson

Environment

The surrounding in which you take the picture of your model is equally important. If you're shooting indoor, ie. at home, be sure to take a moment and declutter. A neat, tidy room is far more attractive than a room full of magazines, papers, toys and books. By cleaning (or temporarily relocating) the mess, you will ensure that the focus of your audience remains where it belongs: on your subject.

If you're shooting outdoor, the background is still important - the last thing you want is a pole or tree growing out of your subject's head. Oftentimes just moving either the camera or your subject a couple feet to the left or right will fix the errant-growth issue.


Clothing

Black Vs Color

Many photographers recommend dark, solid clothing articles because it's perceived as more slimming. In contrast, I recommend bright, well-fitting clothes. Most casual or beginner photographers lack the studio lighting to adequately light a subject clad in black/dark clothing and the details of both their clothes and body are lost in the shadows.


Photo by Alaskan Dude

As you can see in the above image, the green shirt shows a lot of detail, where a white or black shirt may may have look flat.

While clothes do not need to be solid, patterns and prints are perfectly fine, the subtler the print, the better. If your model has a polka-dot shirt and the environment is cluttered/busy, the overall look can be chaotic and may appear more like a typical snapshot than a well thought out portrait. On the other hand, a polka-dot shirt, a coordinating, solid-colored pants and a well-chosen background can be a stellar combination.

Sleeves

Another suggestion is to request your model to wear tops with sleeves. Unless your subject is fit and toned, a tank or sleeveless top will just make your model's arms seem larger. Having them hold the arms slightly away from the body (do take care that this seems natural) will also help them appear slimmer as well.


Creative

Portraits don't need to always be a standard headshot or body shot. Get creative with how you frame your model. Focus on one body part. Make use of props.

Sometimes less is more. Use a prop and frame carefully to obscure most of your model.


Have fun!

The most important part of making portraits is your. While very occasionally, you'll find a model having a really bad day, 99% of the time your in control of the situation and the model is feeding off your energy. If you're asking your model to smile for 30 minutes straight, you better be smiling, too. Show a lot of energy. Talk about things that reflect of the mood of your shoot. Most importantly, talk. Engage your subject. And finally, keep in mind, you are not performing a root canal. It's photography, it's supposed to be fun, so have a great time while you're shooting.

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