Aside from all the technical difficulties of choosing ideal camera and lighting equipment, then deploying each to its fullest potential, portrait photographers are also faced with a challenge they have much less control over: posing their subjects.
The challenges these days are even greater, as portrait styles have become increasingly natural with anything formal or artificial often deemed unacceptable to many. That leads portrait subjects to enter my studio on a regular basis saying things like, “I don’t want to do anything posed” or “I want to look really natural.” But here’s the problem: most of us don’t look good when we’re truly natural. I regularly joke with clients that they’re probably extremely natural when they’re at home relaxing on the couch, yet that probably isn’t the ideal look.
The key is to strike a balance between a natural position in which the subject looks and feels natural, yet a pose that also is attractive in a two-dimensional photograph. There’s one simple thing I regularly ask of my portrait subjects to help them look more natural, comfortable and relaxed—especially if they’re feeling awkward, uncomfortable and stressed about not knowing how to look natural in a portrait.
Whether the subject is seated or standing, portrait posing starts with a good foundation. That’s the feet and legs if they’re standing, or the rear end and spine if they’re seated.
Portrait Posing Techniques: Seated
For a seated portrait, I suggest they slide forward to the edge of the bench or stool and sit up tall. Their feet—or at least one of them—should be flat on the floor. Their back should be fairly straight, though not so much that they appear rigid and artificial. Slouched or falling back in a chair is rarely a good look, so sliding forward and sitting up tall is the best place to start for a seated portrait.
Next, it can help to bring one knee up by placing a foot on the topmost support of a stool, for instance, or with the help of an apple box placed in front of their chair. With the knee up, the subject can lean an elbow out on their knee to help achieve a fairly straight back and solid foundation while also providing something on which they can lean for comfort and stability. It’s a shortcut to a natural look even though it sometimes feels unnatural in execution.
Portrait Posing Techniques: Standing
For a standing portrait, that good foundation starts with the feet and legs. I always suggest standing at ease rather than with the weight evenly distributed to each foot. Bending one knee and putting the weight solidly on the other is a great way to get there. The difference is visible and immediate and can be seen even in the angle of the shoulders and the overall posture.
Still, there’s one small trick that helps almost everyone look great in a portrait, whether it’s seated or standing as outlined above. The secret? Turn the shoulders to either side. Not 90 degrees, though that can work too, but rather just so that the subject’s breastbone isn’t directed straight at the camera.
It matters little which side the subject turns to, although considerations such as their better side, the garments they’re wearing and the positioning of the key light all have an impact on which side may look better. Try it once and you’ll see that squared up shoulders look static, still and uninteresting. It makes the portrait look more like a mugshot with the subject often appearing anything but at ease. Turn the shoulders just a bit—which, by the way, is done by rotating the base—and suddenly the whole attitude is changed. Take a look at the examples here. Jeremy looks fine squared up to the camera, but turned to his left a bit and he instantly appears more confident and relaxed.
For a standing portrait, this turn combined with the weight shifted to the back foot can make anyone appear calm, cool and collected. For a seated portrait, rotate the knees to the side and the subject’s top half will follow. In each case, this simple turn is often the difference between a portrait that looks natural and one that doesn’t—no matter how they may feel.