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How To Achieve the Perfect Portrait Pose

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Read Time: 8 min
This post is part of a series called Portraits.
100 Seriously Cool Self-Portrait Photos — and Top Tips for How to Make Your Own

Knowing how to pose models is a key skill to have in making good portraits. In this article we will be talking about a few tips on how to pose your model to create stunning photos. From the hands and feet, right through to the head and eyes - we've got you covered!

Step 1: The Basics of Posing Your Model

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The key ingredient for any great portrait lies in the pose and expression that your model produces for the shot. It is your job to convey the message you want to see on camera to your model. Many times I have seen pictures where the pose and lighting were good but the model was conveying the wrong message with her face and it totally destroyed the photo.

The pose is also essential to a portrait for it creates dynamic lines and elements in the frame. Knowing how to get this out of your model is vital. Your subject won't know how to pose, handle their hands or what expression to make - that is your job as the photographer. In this article I will be showing you how to do just that by sharing a few helpful tips on perfecting pose.

Step 2: The Feet

As a rule of any type of portrait photography, feet come first. The way your model stands is going to determine whether or not they're comfortable during the shoot, and if they are going to look natural in their pose. Having your model look stiff on camera is not going to make a pleasing shot.

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In most cases, the back foot should be pointed away from the camera about 90 degrees, and the front foot should be pointed at the camera. This makes the model turn slightly to the camera for a slimmer, more pleasing stance. When the feet are squared off to the camera the pose takes on a sense of aggressiveness, and in most cases it is not desired.

Step 3: The Legs and Hips

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One quote I have heard about the legs is "if it can bend, bend it." So relax one leg and watch how the knee and ankle naturally bend to create a pose. When you put weight on one of your legs, it is going to push the hip of that leg out and make it more prominent. Some people like that style of portraiture, but most go with putting the weight on the back legs so that the back hip will be hidden and away from the camera.

Step 4: The Hands

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These are probably the most difficult to deal with. The hands can reveal something about your model and give a sense of animation to a pose. This being said, you have to make sure that they are not too prominent in the portrait. Remember the focus of the viewer still needs to be on the face so you got to make sure that the hands don't catch too much of the key light because the eyes automatically snap to the brightest part of the image.

If you are not sure what to do with the hands in the shot then get rid of them. Just as the shoulders, the side of the hands look better instead of the whole front or back of the hand for the side is slimmer and not as prominent. If the hands are above the waist make sure that they are bent up because it makes the hand look more elegant.

If they are below the waist then you can let them relax and fall naturally. Also, you can put them in your pockets but make sure that you keep your thumbs out of the pockets so your whole hand is not hidden. You never want to put them in a tight fist position because that is another sign of aggression.

Step 5: The Torso

Everyone knows about the dreaded police mug shot. Dead on with the camera, shoulders straight and slouched. When your model is straight on with the camera, the shoulders are the widest part of the body, it makes your model look out of proportion, too wide and just like the square feet, it makes your model take on an aggressive stance.

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The way to fix this is to slightly angle the models body to the camera, in turn making the visible width of the shoulders smaller, therefore making your model look slimmer. Have your model put their weight on their back foot which naturally causes the back shoulder to dip lower in the composition making your model more relaxed. Also, at all costs avoid the slouching shoulders or bad posture for that can ruin your picture.

Step 6: The Head

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As we work our way up the body we arrive at the head and face. If you ask a model to take on an expression and then go about posing the feet, legs, hips and torso, do you think that she is still going to have that same expression that you liked so much? A rule for me is to save the head and face for last.

Some photographers like to shoot right at eye level - and that works in most cases - but if you are looking for something different and unique then iI would experiment with shooting a little above or a little below the models eye level. You can have them look up, down or to the camera. Another option is to have them look off into the distance.

When relaxed, the head naturally leans slightly to one side. So when you are thinking about doing a natural look, consider tilting the models head. If you tilt the head up slightly, it makes the nose shorter and stretches out the neck area just in case of the "double chin problem". Tilting the head down gives you an intimate expression but only works with models that have normal or small noses, so this can't be used on every model!

Just like the shoulders, turning the head slightly to a three quarter position allows you to slim down a wide face or jaw line. If your model already has a thin face, then this technique would make their face thinner and longer which could produce some ill effects.

Step 7: The Eyes

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The eyes are the most powerful part of any portrait. The eyes make or break the mood that is being set up. You can create a more attractive expression if you have your model lower the chin because it will increase the size of the eyes. Of course this will only work if your models mouth and eyebrows are telling the same story.

The whole face needs to be on the same page so the mood or expression is not confused. You can have your subject look away from the camera, but keep in mind that it will be harder to catch the expression in the eyes. People say that the eyes are the door to someone's soul - if you can master how the eyes look, your photo will be even more powerful.

Step 8: More Quick Tips

Here are some other tips that can help you help your model look their best:

  1. If your model is balding, shoot from a lower angle to show less of their hair and don't use a hair light at all.
  2. If your model has a larger nose then have them look straight at the camera and shoot from a lower angle so their nose will not be so prominent.
  3. If your model has big ears, then turn their head so only one is showing and then feather the light so that the other ear will fall into shadows and not be noticeable.
  4. If your model has lots of wrinkles, light them straight on so that the light will not produce shadows from the wrinkles.
  5. As mentioned a little earlier, if your model has a double chin then have them lift their head slightly so that it stretches out the neck area. Also you can try to light them more from above which creates a shadow under the jaw line and makes under the chin less noticeable.
  6. If your model has a round or fat face, have them turn their face to the left or right, giving you a three quarter view. Also using a split lighting set up helps by keeping one side of the face in shadow.
  7. Another tip for making your model look slimmer is to make sure that you leave some space between their arms and torso. You will be surprised how much bigger they look with their arms at their side.


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Now that you have learned some of the basic, but very important, tips about how to pose your model, go out and try these to see how you can work them into your photographs. Just keep in mind that being square to the camera is a sign of aggression and - in my point of view - most of the time it looks really boring.

Also, a natural pose is better than a stiff one so try to make your model feel comfortable and not nervous. Let them sit on a chair instead of just standing up in the studio. Last but not least, never count down to a shot because right when you say one your model automatically snaps into the fake smile or expression. If you want boring, staged and unnatural looking shot then be my guest but if I were you I would steer clear!

If you have any more tips of your own, go ahead and jot them down in the comments below. I would love to read them!

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