Posing - A place to start

As a photography trainer one of the biggest issues that I find confront people starting out shooting portraits is knowing how to pose someone.

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Posing is one of those lifetime learning subjects, meaning you will never stop learning new ways to pose people.

People are not easy to shoot, the process is a collaboration and if either party doesn't commit to it then the final image will suffer. 

There are ways to help keep the process smooth and quick and for people who are not used to being shot then that will help the whole shoot go much smoother.

However, when we start out all we are looking for is some 'starting points'. A starting point to at least get someone into a position to start the shooting process.

Fortunately there is such a starting point that works every single time you use it.

And that starting point is simply LIGHT.

Pose For The Light - Light should be the starting point you use for any portrait

Pose For The Light - this should be your starting point for any portrait.

Depending on the shot you are trying to achieve this may mean posing the whole face, half a face, body towards or body away from the light - that is all your artistic choice but when you prioritise the light first then it gives you that starting point most photographers struggle to find. 

Once you have the area posed for the light that you want to shoot then that will guide you in how to pose the rest of the body.

Once you have found the light and posed them for it you then have to decide where YOU stand in relationship to where that light is falling on your subject. Do you shoot from front on, side on or from behind where the light is hitting your subject. You may find there are several different shots available to you without having to move your subject at all.

Posed for the light but where do you shoot in relationship to where that light falls.

Good People shooting requires good communication:

I always try to emphasise to photographers the importance of being more than just a person with a camera when shooting portraits.

There is nothing more impersonal than, as a subject, having to stare at someone with a big block of plastic and glass attached to their face.

One of the biggest non technical deficiencies I see when someone is trying to capture a portrait is lack of communication. They may have the technical side of photography down pat and the image itself may be technically great but, due to the lack of talk, the image is just lacking that extra little spark that takes a shot to the next level.

In today's world we have many many distractions, it is easy for a model to drift off and start thinking about everything else that is happening in their lives if they are not being constantly challenged and connected with.

The glint in the eye that shows that a connection has been made is a subtle but very important part of any successful image.

 Good clear concise directions allow you to work with light to create dynamic images.

They say that 75% of all communication is visual, it is for this reason that while I am setting up a pose I try to have my camera hanging down on its strap so I have two hands and, more importantly, two eyes to work with the subject.

Keeping eye contact, verbal reassurance where necessary and a full face for the subject to connect with keeps them in the moment far more than would be the case if I had spent that set up time with my face hidden behind a camera.

Learn to give orders

A lot of photographers do not feel comfortable 'ordering' people around to get them to do what they want but funnily enough that is EXACTLY what your subjects want you to do.

There are several reasons for this.

First and foremost - people don't want to be made to look silly in photographs - period!

There is nothing worse that trying to look good in a photo and still ending up looking silly.

This is why so many people pull faces when you point a camera at them. At least then when they see the photo they can say 'Hey see that silly face I pulled'. 

Sure they look silly, but they know anyone who looks at the picture will know they meant to.

There is nothing worse than us trying to put on our 'good' face and still ending up looking silly.

This is OUR fault as photographers, when people start to pull silly faces it means we have not done our job properly. We have simply not talked with them enough, we have not reassured them that the shots are indeed looking good. We have not built a rapport and confidence with them that allows them to relax and get into the zone of being shot.

It doesn't matter what kind of personality you have, you don't have to be an over the top 'Austin Powers' type of photographer and, believe it or not, you don't have to use the words 'You're a Tiger' at any time during a portrait shoot. You just have to keep up a fairly constant stream of chat to keep people focussed and reassured.Put simply we have not convinced them we can make them not look silly.

The other main reason for taking control of the shoot, especially of people who do not have 'proper' portraits taken of them often, is to add some dimension and life to the image. People who rarely have a 'formal' shot taken of them tend to immediately take up the high school photo pose. You know the one - everything pointed straight at the camera, body rigid, forced smile on their face. 

Most peoples first recollection of having a formal shot taken of them is their school photos. You are probably picture your own in your head right now. Remember the position you were forced into, remember the teacher yelling at you to stop pulling silly faces, sit up straight and behave? Well maybe that was just me she was yelling at, I was never the best student, but the pose we get forced into year after year through school stays with us in our sub-concious and every time we have a 'formal' shot taken our body seems to spring into this position pretty much of its own accord.

Here is where your ability to 'order' someone around is actually doing them a huge favour. You are doing your part to ensure your subject doesn't look silly.

Knowing a couple of posing techniques will quickly change that awkward pose into something you can work with.

First up, get them to shift their weight onto their back foot. This straight away changes their body position from straight on to a slight angle away from the camera. This adds dimension to your shot and this is exactly what you are looking to add to your image. 

Weight onto the back foot creates dimension Changing your perspective helps create dimension

 Changing your perspective, either higher or lower, to see how you can add an element of interest to the image. Just be careful when shooting from low angles, especially with a portrait lens, not to shoot up nostrils or add more chins to the image. We are so used to seeing the world from a particular viewpoint that whenever we see an image the was shot outside of that perspective it tends to stand out and therefore it is a powerful tool for adding impact to our images.

We know what the top of a head looks like

One of the biggest areas of contention when it comes to portraits is what to leave in and what to crop out.

This is especially true when it comes to chopping the top of peoples heads off. Something I do all the time, personally it doesn't worry me in the slightest to chop off the top of a persons head. After all other than hairstyle, or lack of, what does the top of the head tell us about a person? If you were shooting Donald Trump of course you would leave in the hair - if it is iconic or makes a statement about the person then of course you leave it in but if it doesn't then don't be afraid to leave it out of the frame.

Look how much more dominant the eyes become when you get in tight and remove the top of the head.

Robert Capa the famous wartime photographer used to say "If your photos aren't good enough, you're not close enough"

Does the top of the head really add much to the overall image?

Light Not Location:

One of the biggest mistakes photographers starting out make is thinking that finding a great location will automatically make for a good photograph. A couple of problems occur with this idea. One is that you have to keep finding great locations to be able to take a good shot and therefore you need to keep running around in a panic.  If first we prioritise light over location then we can take great pictures anywhere and there is nothing more rewarding than that. We are truly photographers when we can capture fantastic images at will any time day or night regardless of location.

A window and a face - nothing more is needed to create a great image

 Maximise your shoot

The final way to ensure you get a great range of images from a single shoot is to maximise each set up.

If we have gone to all the effort of  finding some great light and posing your subject then try to get as many varied shots out of the set up you can. Full body, half body, head and shoulders, tight head shot... and that's just the vertical options. Then swivel your camera and look for what horizontal shots the set up gives you. Then, once you have exhausted these options walk around your subject. Look at how the light is playing on them and see what other opportunities arise from the same light source.

You should find that you have 10, 20 or 30 different shots you can produce in one single set up. And the whole shoot only takes five minutes... and that is simply good photography.


Glynn Lavender is a tutor at Creative Photo Workshops