Becoming more confident in posing people
How to confidently pose people for portraits, is likely as big a challenge for new photographers, as how to use light. Even a model as professional and inventive as Ulorin Vex has told me that one of her biggest frustrations with photographers is when the photographer expects her to drive the shoot, and pose herself and come up with ideas. So yes, even when working with professional models, you need to guide them.
For me, the first step in becoming more confident in posing people was to practice. And practice by posing yourself while looking in a mirror ), and figuring out what looks good as a pose, and what just looks clumsy.
But the break-through realization for me was that as a photographer, the people that I am photographing, gave me permission to pose them. It’s not an intrusion to (gently) pose people so that they look good in front of the camera. Somehow, it had to eventually dawn on me that I have their permission. I don’t have to be shy and wonder if I should. In fact, I have to pose people when photographing their portraits.
It need not be rigidly structured posing – I don’t often do that anyway. It’s more of a nudging of an existing pose. But it really depends on the person you are photographing. As the photographer you have to be perceptive about that and read their body language and the situation.
Looking at the photograph above of Kelly and Joe – part of the portrait session of their elopement wedding in New York – it certainly isn’t posed in a “classic” way. I much more prefer that the pose for a portrait comes organically out of their own natural body movements and postures … and then nudge it to look better. I had Joe anchor the pose, and then asked Kelly to lean into him with her shoulder. Kelly naturally fell into this pose. I then asked Joe to sweep his foot out a little bit. With that, I am sure their friends and family will recognize this as *them* and how they are. It looks natural. But with a tiny bit of guidance – that nudge or two – it looks really good.
So yes, you have permission to pose people. And that is liberating. No reason to be shy anymore.
More articles on Posing
- Tips on posing people / Working with a model
- Tips on posing – asymmetry
- Posing tips – The leaning pose
- Posing normal, everyday people for portraits
- The next step – Going beyond just posing people
8 Comments, Add Your Own
This is a good article as I have a similar problem. I am fine with asking the couple to pose for me but I never know how to start. I would like to make poses naturally.
I have the feeling that it is to stiff as I tell the couple exactly how to pose. The poses do not come naturally. I have the feeling that the couple is like puppets.
Can you tell me how do you handle the couple to make the poses naturally.
2Johan Schmidt says
The complexity of posing seems to grow (for me) as the audience / subject gets bigger. I find posing a single person OK, but couples are still tricky. I agree – the more you practise the easier it gets – but it’s like fitness – if you don’t do it regularly, you don’t stay sharp.
3Patrick Ng says
This is an area that I am working hard to improve. It is safe to say that at the beginning I did not have a lot of confidence. One of girls helping me out was working and still works as a model. She would just “stand there.” For a few seconds, I was telling myself that the was going to be difficult to work with (because of my lack of experience) until I realised that she is probably used to being directed. She was actually very easy to work with in the sense that she would take directions very well.
Since then, I have been learning, and studying poses a lot. My wife is also helping me a lot by acting as guinea pig. It was not easy at first because we would get frustrated with each other easily. It’s getting better now.
4Victoria JK Lamburn says
Great post Neil. I had a similar realisation a few years ago, in some ways I needed to believe in myself more and be confident that what I was saying was valid, and good! It comes from experience as you say. As a tip to other photographers, I’d suggest not expecting too much from either yourself or the couple on the first few frames, just warm things up gently being positive and upbeat and observing what is working for the couple and go from there. Then it is as you say, lots of communication and encouragement. At some point in the shoot things will start working really well and I will show the couple photos on the camera as we work which always instils confidence. And think about how you are expressing what you want the couple to do, the idea of nudging is it. I don’t care if I sound like I am making a idiot of myself to others not part of the shoot, if I am getting the results on the camera, that’s what matters.
There are no hard and fast rules, some things will work amazing on one couple and really just not work at all on another couple, you have to be able to read their temperament, their personality and observe body language. When you can identify all these cues you will be able I believe to represent the couple in a way that reflects them but has a good amount of structure from the helpful posing that has been allowed to develop. You’ll be surprised how often you go to move a couple into a pose and they do something different and you’re like yeah yeah yeah that’s it, amazing, wow – just keep that positive encouragement going with your couple. Think how would I feel if I was being told in a robotic fashion what to do. Also a plain dumb sense of humour goes a long way but be careful, otherwise you will end up with an hour of hysterical/laughing photos which misses something from the emotion.
Anyway – fab stuff Neil, always enjoy your writing, and thank you for your books, I have learnt so much from you over the years.
p.s. I’m glad it’s not just me working out poses in the mirror!
thank you for this article very interesting
Great article, its something I’ve always struggled with and perhaps always will, I’m better now than I used to be but it depends on my frame of mind at the time, the subjects frame of mind and how well you get along with your subject. I always try and build up a rapport with the subject and try make them feel relaxed, which in turn makes me relaxed which makes it easier on both sides.
I always appreciate any advice on posing, because this is probably the most difficult thing about shooting people. It’s not a problem for me to understand exposure etc., it’s also quite easy to observe the light and decide on the settings etc., but when it comes to actually pressing the shutter button, I realize “oh, wait, they’re just standing there – there has to be some pose”! And that’s it, my mind goes pretty much blank. I did one shoot last year with a friend’s niece, she was a teenage girl who wants to be a model, and neither of us had any idea about posing. Zero, nada. So I had printed out a couple of pages of various poses, which was a great help, but even so, it was such a struggle! We were both looking at a pose on the paper, and we literally had to decipher it bit by bit, limb by limb – how this hand is placed, where’s the other hand, what about the fingers, where’the elbow etc… It was tough, but necessary, because when we tried to just do “something spontaneous”, it looked very awkward.
So I find posing to be a big obstacle indeed. My currect job certainly doesn’t help, I’ve been working for almost 9 years as a freelance translator. That means working from home, in solitude, almost zero contact with living people, only work-related chat via Skype and e-mail. That certainly affects one’s sense of humour and ability to interact with people! :) I guess there’s only one way out – go out and practice.
Thank you, Neil, for the vast amount of info and advice that you so kindly share with us for free.
8Kefa Olang says
I’ve posed quite a number of people, but even I have to admit that sometimes it can still be a challenge for different reasons – some subjects don’t take guidelines well, and others just have a hard time even with the simplest of poses. This is a good article. I constantly study different positions to keep working on posing different body types well.