There are certain pieces of photography equipment that are exciting to research, fun to save up for, and even more delightful to eventually unbox. Whether it’s the latest fast zoom lenses or the highest-megapixel mirrorless bodies, studio strobes or high-speed speedlights, gallons of pixels are spilled covering these exciting photo gear essentials on a daily basis.
But talk to a professional about the items that really help them to make better photographs on the daily and they will include some items that are decidedly unglamorous. Sure, they love their TTL studio strobes and their fast f/1.2 prime lenses, but they also love the simple things—like apple boxes for quickly changing height, cinefoil for shaping light, or gaff tape for solving practically any problem that might arise.
There is one of these non-glamorous items, though, that is an essential in every portrait studio. Whether it’s a school photographer working with little kids or a family portrait specialist photographing the whole crew. From corporate photographers to senior portrait shooters, they have all invested a decent amount of time finding the perfect examples of this item. Scouring yard sales and flea markets, keeping their eyes open in furniture stores and home centers, even eBaying and Googling in hopes of adding to what’s surely a growing collection. All portrait photographers want this one simple item available for almost any shoot. What is it? It’s the humble stool.
Now before you go slamming the lid of your laptop shut in disgust, allow me to explain. I earn my living photographing editorial and corporate portraits and I use a stool for posing my subjects every day. I’m sitting to the side of a set right now, in fact, and included in the essential kit is stool number five.
You see, I have a collection of no less than eight different stools, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Depending on how I might like to pose my subject, I choose the stool based on its construction, how high it allows the subject to sit or lean, and what options it will provide for placement of hands and feet. I deploy a simple, adjustable metal posing stool for studio headshots in which the device will not appear. I seat subjects in a high-backed bar-stool sideways so they can lean an arm casually across the back. And I have a few options of old wood stools that get used based on the aesthetic of the composition and the need to place a subject at a low, medium or high sitting position.
The challenge with posing stools is—like so many things in life—they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. My favorites are of old-school wooden construction, with multiple crossbars perfect for resting the feet at different heights. These are the kind of stools likely used in schools and stores and bars 50-plus years ago. These stools can be very difficult to find in the internet age, though I’ve occasionally seen some nice vintage stools on Etsy for a small premium. Rather than relying on Google and eBay and the like, your best bet is probably to keep your eyes open at yard sales, flea markets and estate sales. The last one I purchased came from another photographer’s studio sale.
While I am not advocating that budding photographers invest their kids’ college savings into a suite of stools, I do think it’s important that portrait photographers who are learning the craft understand that a stool is a vital piece of equipment. Even if you only have one, you’ve got to have one for when the need arises. And the need is pretty much constant.
You see, stools give subjects an anchor, something to literally ground themselves, to lean on, and to get comfortable. They help amateur subjects feel more relaxed because they aren’t obligated to come up with a standing pose on their own that looks attractive to the camera. They feel less exposed, and typically more natural, in a way that becomes evident in the pictures. And for a skilled model, or for a photographer who knows how to help an amateur subject into a pleasing pose, the stool gives a lot of options for creating aesthetically pleasing body positions. Half sitting, half standing, one leg up, one leg down, leaning one hand onto the seat, knee up and leaning out… There are a lot of options for attractive poses that are unlocked by a simple stool.