posing normal, everyday people for portraits

how to pose normal, everyday people for portraits

When you work with models, or subjects who are used to presenting themselves to the camera or an audience, it is much easier for the photographer to pose them. The challenge though is how to pose people who aren’t used to pose in front of the camera. Then it is up to the photographer to guide them, and give clear instruction how they should pose for the camera. The question just came up in the Tangents forum – how to pose everyday normal people.

The photograph above is of me as I was showing a model at the After Dark photography workshops how I wanted her to pose. Now you may well say that I was showing a model how to pose, and not an inexperienced subject … and some may even say that I am hardly ‘everyday’ or ‘normal’. However that may be, this image neatly underlines my advice on posing.

You need to be able to show your subjects how you want them to pose.

If you’re working with subjects who aren’t used to the camera, then you absolutely need to be able to show them what you want them to do – how to position their feet, their hands, their body and head. Just vaguely pointing, with vague verbal instructions just won’t get you as far as physically showing them.


let them mirror your pose

As mentioned in a previous article on tips on posing people / working with a model, my best advice is to to ask your subject to mirror your body position and movements. This is exactly what I was doing here … but goofing around a bit as well, breaking the ice. Get in there and show your subject what you want them to do. Then you can do minor corrections to their pose or stance or hand position – either by verbal suggestion or a physical gesture.

To summarize those tips on working with a subject or posing a model:

1. have your subject mirror your pose
2. internalize a few ideas
3. give your subject positive instruction and feedback

These points are just as valid when you are working with camera-inexperienced subjects.


internalizing a few ideas

Let’s concentrate on the second suggestion there – internalizing a few ideas.

This comes back to the basic idea that if you can’t show your photo-inexperienced subject what you want them to do, then you’re lost.

There are numerous books on posing. (I have Amazon links to a few suggestions at the end of this article.) But you can’t simply look at a series of poses and memorize them. It doesn’t quite work that way. To build up a “memory” of poses, you need to internalize them. You need to be able to copy the poses yourself. Physically. In front of a mirror even. Seriously, this is something you can practice. And it is something you need to practice and memorize.


break up a ‘blocky’, straight-on poses

The best way to break this stiff pose up, use the  up / downforward / back guideline as an idea. Start off by not having both hands, or both feet, on the same plane.

Have one foot higher or more forward than the other. For example, if you’re photographing a guy .. have him stand with one foot higher up on the steps. Or his one foot on the lower beam of a wooden fence that he is leaning on. Similarly, you can break up a pose by figuring out where his feet can be, so that he isn’t simply standing flat-footed. You really want to break up a pose where someone is simply standing there, straight-on to the camera, flat on their feet, hands to their side.

If they have both feet on the ground, have then place their weight on the back foot;
– have men turn their front foot towards the camera,
– have women slightly ‘pop’ their front knee forwards to the side

The same with their hands: one hand up, one hand down; or one hand forward from the other. Have a woman hold her one arm loosely wrapped around her waist, with her fingers on her waist; the other hand up to her face. There are numerous ways to work with the up/down and forward/back idea.

But you need to be able to show them.
So, study, internalize … and get in there and show your subjects what to do.


recommended books on posing


related articles

33 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1 says

    That is a great example picture! Looking at that picture, I can understand how much of an icebreaker that is. If the photographer is willing to look goofy to show a pose, that will certainly ease up the subject.

  2. 3Graham Blouin says

    Great blog Neil–i’ve been a follower for a couple of years as your hints on flash use are wonderful. As a point of interest. I just watched an hour special about a photographer with the last name of “Disfarmer”–so named to indicate that he was no longer in the farming business. His works (glass plate and natural light) now have the collectors fighting amongst themselves mainly because his subjects were clearly “not posed” and the white backdrop was taped together with black tape creating thick vertical lines that “grew out of the head” etc etc. Somehow, his sloppy work is a selling feature.

  3. 4 says

    Love the pic, Neil. I pose for my subjects all the time and if my wife and I are doing a wedding and I want to show a couple shot I grab her and pose with her for the same reason.

  4. 8 says

    Neil, you crack me up!!! I just facebooked your post. You’re the only person that I know (not yet in person, though) who is joyful, knowledgeable and spend so much to connect to his web site viewers, selfishlessly willing to share his knowledge. I admire you and give you all my thumbs up. (While writing this, I looked you up on facebook but couldn’t find out how to add you as friend due to my limited knowledge.) Anyway, great works!

  5. 14DD says

    Hey, just wanted to say I have been following your blog everyday for a couple of months now, great info, thanks for the details!!

    By the way I watched your video post the other day and you looked a lot different from what I picture you as.

    Thanks again!

  6. 18Allen says

    I’m not surprised you needed to demonstate the pose… there just aren’t enough words to describe it! But did she (the model) manage to replicate it?

  7. 19fotografii aniversari says

    First time, I said to myself: “Neil did it again, a unique funny photo!” After that, I realized what is about. But after reading so many advices, the same idea-funny and seriously: you are indeed unique!

  8. 20Peter Marin says

    Hey Neil, exactly what I find myself doing when shooting weddings/portraits. I always make sure to show how I want my subjects to pose if they are not used to it.
    I honestly believe that most (ordinary) people relate posing to their old school days. Their first and possibly only way they know how to pose is how they were told to in the obligatory school photo, I see it all time lol. Your tips are a sure fire way of getting great results.
    All the best.

  9. 21David says

    Hey Neil,

    On seeing your photo, had to check the date, to make sure it wasn’t April 1st again! :D (please don’t take that the wrong way!) :)

    Great photo and really wise advice.

    One thing that always amazes me, many photographers can pose other people but get them on the other side of a camera (for a photograph of them) and they stand there as stiff as a board, square onto the camera. :)

    By the way, with you always mixing up your left & right, are you slightly dyspraxic?

    As always, thank you for your great blog and helpful advice.


  10. 24 says

    I asked around for images taken during this part of the photo session at After Dark, and was sent this one. We used video light here instead of flash. It was easier to control the unpredictable reflections off the marble pillars using video light, than it was with a softbox.

    But the pose is there!

    I feel vindicated now.

  11. 25Bob Rossi says

    Great lesson plan. I have worked with models who know how to take direction but most of our clients it is a first time experience. Showing an example is the way to go. BTW I think Joe Cocker was Dyspraxic.

  12. 26fotografii aniversari says

    Just following your wise advice, I showed to a kid a pose; it worked and it was so much easier for both of us… thank you!

  13. 27David says

    Thanks for the follow up photo Neil.

    You are off the hook from a pose point of view, although I think your pose is better! ;) Next stop Bolshoi ballet? :O :D (Don’t read to hard into this)

    It is interesting to see your change in lighting styles, previously you seemed to favor around a 80% softbox, 20% video light, where now this ratio seems to have adjusted to around 60/40, is this an indication of a personal change in style, or one of exploration and new technology? I ask because, I really enjoy experimentation and trying new ideas, or even revisiting old ideas, with a new angle.


  14. 28 says

    David … the blog posts are sometimes planned; sometimes spontaneous. Some of them I come to the written material pretty quickly; others germinate as drafts for weeks or even months.

    So there might be a pattern, in that one blog post might spawn a few other similar ones. There is also, as you mention, my own style and experience changes over time.

    But mostly, it might just be that I am a text-book Gemini … I change direction, and my attention is splintered and diverse.

  15. 29Stephen Yelverton says

    Hi Neil. Another great post…I always find them so useful. I actually had a shoot last night right after I read this. I got alot more involved in showing my model how I wanted her to pose than I usually do. Worked out great! Not only was it easier for her to understand what I wanted, it was quicker too. Thanks so much! Maybe the most useful thing I’ve read this year.


  16. 30 says

    I dont think Neil was posing. Actually I think he just took a jump shot with a basketball.

    Kidding aside, what Neil said about internalizing poses, memorizing them, and being able to show the model how to do them is 100% good advice. My problem is that I am too stiff and inflexible to be able to show a model well….but I try :)

  17. 31Jeff Hill says

    One of the things that has worked well for me is bringing along a tablet device. I use my Nook color to show the the everyday people some images of poses that they can attempt to duplicate, it gives them a good idea of is being aimed for. As an additional note I don’t have them copy the exact pose but they usually get the idea and helps the flow move fairly well.

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