Frequently this involves providing the subject with something to sit on, lean against or physically hold on to. For instance, outdoors you can use a tree and ask your standing subject simply to lean against it. At home you can use a plain old table and ask the subject to rest their elbow on it. In the studio, you can bring in a posing table or construct a bar on which they can lean. In every case, it helps the subject to feel a bit more comfortable because they’ve got something to anchor to. It usually means that not only do they feel more at ease, but they look it, too.
Other elements that work this way in the outdoors? Stairs and steps, or even tree stumps, allow the subject to place one foot up. That alone is helpful. Better still, the subject can then lean out on that knee as if they were leaning on a table. Cars are a natural for leaning against, as are walls and doorways—the latter of which often brings along with it beautiful lighting via open shade.
Indoors you may prefer to sit a subject at a table, or stand them behind the back of a chair. Simply leaning one’s arm or hand on the back of a Windsor can help them feel grounded, like they’re not quite so exposed. Frankly, it also gives them something to do. And if they’re nervous about their session, any distraction is a benefit.
The posing table in the studio—a small, curved table on a wheeled stand that can be positioned right next to a subject at a variety of heights—is as old as photographic portraiture itself. And while it’s useful for formal portraits, by virtue of providing something for the subject to lean on it’s helpful in creating a more comfortable, contemporary pose as well. (The Photogenic posing table pictured here can be had at Adorama for little more than $200.)
I also use a long steel pipe, which can be draped in black fabric, to give standing subjects an opportunity to lean. This approach also helps position their shoulders and arms in different and interesting ways, and it makes it easier to incorporate hands into the composition. Hands are inherently interesting, so finding ways to get them into the frame will go a long way toward making better portraits.
First and foremost though, you want to make sure the subject feels somewhat comfortable before you’ll ever get them to relax and look at ease in their pictures. Giving them something to lean on is a huge help in this regard.