What’s that you say? You don’t like the look of posed portraits? You prefer your subjects to look natural and spontaneous? Well that’s great. But did you know that posing still plays a big role in natural and spontaneous portraiture? Some people naturally fall into comfortable and attractive poses. Other people seem to look good no matter how you photograph them. But the vast majority of humans need help when positioning themselves for a portrait. That’s where you, the photographer, come in. If you can’t guide your subject as to how to stand, how to sit, where to lean, what to look at, even what to think about during their portrait… well, they’ll be lost without you. And unfortunately when it comes to portraiture, when the subject is lost, so is the photo. So if you want to make attractive portraits while avoiding stiff, stuffy poses, you’re definitely going to need to know a thing or two about posing. I’m no expert, but I have a few tips that I lean on whenever I need to help a subject look a little less stiff.
– How they stand
Standing subjects often wind up flat-footed by default. That’s no good for our portrait, because not only is it generally unflattering, but it looks frumpy and lacks energy. Instead, almost every time I photograph a standing subject, I ask them to turn slightly away from the camera with their feet and shoulders. They will naturally want to turn their heads back toward the camera, which is good so let them. Then ask them to shift their weight from their front foot to their back foot, and vice versa. Do this a couple of times and most folks will naturally—or accidentally—fall into a comfortable pose, with their weight on their back leg their forward leg slightly bent. This also helps the hips and shoulders fall into appropriate, natural-looking positions as well. It creates pleasing diagonal lines where once there were stiffer horizontals (shoulders, for instance) and definitely helps keep even the stuffiest subjects from looking frozen in place.
– Let them lean
Instead of standing, give your subject a base—something firm to hold on to and help them through this portrait session—by letting them lean on something. Whether it’s a stool or the back of a couch or an apple box, however you accomplish it, a leaning subject tends to look less formal and more relaxed than one standing straight or even sitting up in a formal pose. Out in nature I’ll look for trees, tree stumps, large boulders, low walls… Anything that forms a natural seat is perfect, and anything vertical can work well too for leaning—like trees, tall walls and more. If you let your subject lean, you may be surprised how quickly they begin to look more relaxed and natural since they’ve literally got something to hang onto.
– Go for a walk
Sometimes sitting or standing still sucks all the energy out of a shot. If you’d like to add a bit of energy and maybe some motion, consider putting the subject in motion. Even just going for a walk can add a lot, as you continue to compose and shoot as you normally would. True enough, it does take a bit of skill to walk backward while you shoot, so consider employing a telephoto lens and positioning yourself far from your subject while you wait for them to walk toward you. This is also a great way to photograph pairs of people in a casual way; walking and talking works well when what you want is a casual portrait that might be a little rough around the edges rather than too formal and perfect.
– Give them something to do
One of the benefits of sending your subject on a walk is that it gets their mind off of having their picture taken and allows them to put their attention on something else. This is a great way to get them to relax and naturally find a realistic pose. It can also be helpful in telling the story of the subject in their portrait: a juggler juggling, a carpenter sawing, an artist drawing… All of these approaches not only help with the pose, but they help with attitude—and picture content—as well. Sometimes something as simple as adjusting one’s glasses or buttoning a sport coat can be enough to help the pose and the portrait come together.
– Give them something to think about
Many great portraits rely on a direct connection between subject and viewer. In order to generate that connection, ask the subject to look through the lens and see if they can see the moment the shutter opens, or ask if they can see your eye looking back at them. (They can’t, by the way, but it’ll take them at least a few moments of intensely looking directly into the lens to figure that out.) Another approach is to offer a mental task, such as counting the tiles on the floor or finding which flowers in the vase have yet to bloom. Not only is a concentrating subject going to look more focused and thoughtful (because they are) but they’re also going to be distracted—even if just for a moment—which can calm fears and redirect nervous energy.
– Watch out for geometry and symmetry
If there are two symmetrical elements in a composition—like two arms, two hands, two eyes or any number of other physical pairs—they should not, generally speaking, be positioned symmetrically. Parallel, vertical arms, for instance, turn into two straight lines guiding the eye away from the center of interest. Perfectly level eyes or shoulders can look a little too static and symmetrical. So when it comes to dealing with any pair in your composition, try to minimize symmetry and get them at opposing angles or on different planes. It not only adds a hint of movement and energy in the scene, but it keeps the center of interest where it should be: on the subject.
– Direct their gaze
When a subject is looking directly into the lens it makes for a direct, engaging portrait as the subject acknowledges the camera and the viewer. But sometimes it’s that direct eye contact that makes a pose look too formal. Instead, try turning the subject’s face away from the camera, and their eyes along with it. A subject facing off camera, any amount and in any direction, and looking at something off camera as well, brings an air of spontaneity and a hint of candid quality to the picture, simply by virtue of being less direct. It can be the difference between a portrait that looks natural and one that looks overly controlled.
If you want to really learn a thing or ten about posing, I really recommend Roberto Valenzuela’s tremendous book, Picture Perfect Posing. Even if you’re experienced with portrait posing, Mr. Valenzuela is sure to provide a few new ways to think about posing in a practical sense. I can’t recommend it enough.