Mr. Fix It
Posing Is Problem Solving...But Why Bother?

The thing is, we don't always look our best. And even when we do, the face in the mirror is not the face we're going to see in the photograph; neither is the rest of the body. We tend to automatically edit out the flaws--double chin, large ears, long nose, or a little too much avoirdupois--when we see that familiar image in the reflecting glass. But the photo doesn't lie, and that's where posing comes into the picture. Not that posing will lie; it'll just...well, spin the truth a little.

As a photographer of people--for weddings and executive portraits--Steve Sint is acutely aware of the benefits, and thus the importance, of posing. Matter of fact, a chapter of his recently published book, Wedding Photography: Art, Business and Style, is devoted to just that subject.

"The whole idea of posing and the real trick of it," Sint says, "is that you're aiming to make people look natural." So why not just let them stand there...naturally? "Because people can stand naturally, without any direction, and maybe they'll look great--and maybe they'll look not so good." And "not so good" is not so good at all when it comes to a photograph. "How people stand often has to do with their physical attributes and how they see themselves. People who study themselves a lot in mirrors, the `beautiful people'--believe me, they know how to stand. The rest of us often need help."

But making people look natural is only one part of posing, although it is the part that people most often think of when you say the word. "The other part of posing," Sint says, "and I think the more important part, is for the photographer to eliminate or hide some things that people don't necessarily want to show. Careful posing can look very natural, but more important than getting people to look natural, you can hide some weight, eliminate a double chin--in other words, make them look better. And if they look better, they'll be happier with the pictures.
"The job of posing, then, is not only to keep people looking natural--and well-posed pictures don't look posed--but also to accentuate their good points and diminish, if not banish, the bad ones."

Sint advises that the first thing to consider when posing someone is the subject's comfort. "The first thing I look for is that the person look comfortable--and he should be comfortable, too." Sint promotes this comfort with talk. "I always say things to my subjects to relax them, make them comfortable, and I want them to respond. For it to work best, there has to be communication."

And that communication is often in the nature of a conspiracy, in which the photographer and subject work together to triumph over shortcomings. "I'm a little overweight myself," Sint says, "and invariably when I'm posing someone who's also a little overweight--which happens to be, it seems, 90 percent of real people--I lower my chin and point to my double chin and say, `Look at this, you see this problem that I have? I don't want this to show in your photograph.' And they know exactly what I'm talking about. Then I say, `The way we're going to get around this is you're going to lean forward a little bit. You're not going to raise your chin so much that I'm shooting up your nose, but just lean a 1/4" forward.' When they do that, the skin under the chin pulls back and the double chin disappears. And I show them how that works by demonstrating on myself. Then I tell them to lean forward from the waist so that they can bring their heads up level with the camera. The double chin disappears and it doesn't look like they're leaning into the camera. The key is leaning forward from the waist, then leveling the head to the camera. For it to work, they've got to do both moves."

It's an easy trick, but it can make all the difference in the photograph. "A lot of posing," Sint says, "is not about tilting or moving your head 60°; it's about minor moves--say, moving your head 1/4 of an inch."

Posing not only hides problems, it also accentuates strong points. "When a person who doesn't have a double chin lowers his chin a little bit, the plane of the face tilts toward the camera. When that happens the eyes get bigger--they're now closer to the camera--and the eyes are very important in a photograph. They're the most expressive part of the face; the cliché is that they're the windows to the soul. Making the eyes more prominent is almost always a good thing; it's what I want to show.

"As an added benefit, if the subject happens to be wearing eyeglasses, lowering the chin usually makes the reflection in the glasses disappear."

When it comes to posing, the photographer is walking a very fine line. "You're balancing between the strong and weak points in a person's face," Sint says. "Sometimes you're caught in a situation where if you fix one problem, you accentuate another. There are times that no matter what you do, you can't hide all the problems.

"Sometimes the person is just so overweight that you can't eliminate the double chin by having him lean forward. In that case, you try to use posing to hide the problem: give your subject something to lean on and let him use his hands under his chin. Have him put his elbows on the table, forming a Y-base, and clasp one hand under the other and put both hands under and a bit in front of his chin--you've blocked the double chin completely.

"It's all a series of tricks, basically a shell game. The really good guys can play this game and still make it look natural."

The game doesn't necessarily get more complicated when you deal with more than one person. "Posing two people offers you only so many options, and so it's not hard to master," Sint says. "There are four ways two people can go together: back to back, front to front, one's front and another's back and vice versa--that's it. The real variables are that in every one of those four instances you can rotate the two people as a unit through 360°, which you wouldn't do, of course, but you would rotate them, say, 15 or 20°. Knowing what those ways will look like and knowing the limitations of your people, you can choose the one or two ways that will make the people look their best."

Knowing how poses look and work is as important as knowing your equipment, and with practice, it should be as automatic. "Remember the basics," Sint says. "The camera is monocular and there's no real depth to a photograph. You can give the feeling of depth and make a photo appear to be three-dimensional, but because it's two-dimensional, most people look better when you turn their bodies slightly. If they face the camera dead on, their bodies appear to be wide. The photograph takes away even the illusion of the body's depth. But if you turn someone to a 45° angle, his body appears narrower. Then turn his head back to look straight at the camera and you've created a pleasing angle while maintaining the perspective of the features of the head and face."

One of the first things to do when dealing with more than one person is to create different levels. "You don't want the eyes of all the subjects in a picture to appear to be in a straight line across the picture. Straight horizontal lines have a tendency to put people to sleep--it's like a peaceful, relaxing horizon. There's no energy. What you want to do is form diagonal lines between the faces of the subject. If you form a triangle by using the faces of three people as points, it's a much more dynamic, energized pose."

Posing can also overcome certain technical limitations. "Let's say you have one short, one tall, and one medium-sized person," Sint says. "If you put two in back and one in front, you have a depth of field problem between the front person's face and the two farther back. But if you stand the tallest person in the back, the shortest in front, and the middle-sized person to the side, you've formed a shallow arrangement. If the tall person's shoulder is behind the medium-sized person's shoulder, you've created a pocket for the shortest person to fit into, which limits the depth of field you need for the scene. That's to your advantage: You can now choose an f/stop that will throw the background out of focus more readily."

Ultimately, it all has to look natural and unposed. "I'm always saying to people as I pose them, `If you don't feel comfortable, tell me, because if you're not comfortable, it's wrong.'"

Sint believes that although a candid photograph is completely valid, a true candid is extremely rare. "The minute a person says, `Take my picture,' or you say, `Let me take your picture,' it's not a candid, it's not unposed. The camera has become an influence, and once that happens, you might as well use your posing knowledge and technique to improve the picture. Once your subject is aware of the camera, all pretense of a caught moment is gone."

Of course, when a person says, "Take my picture," you could say, "Okay, but go back to doing what you were doing and ignore me." But, Sint says, "even then you've introduced the camera into the situation, and once someone knows you're going to take pictures, the situation has become a collaboration. The camera is now a part of the dynamic. Once that happens, the photos is, in a sense, going to be posed.
"Let's say you're going to take a picture of Dad, Mom, and your two brothers, and Dad's got a big pot belly. The minute you go to take that family picture, I think it's almost your duty to do your best to make Dad look his best. Put a kid in front of him. That's simple and effective, and it's posing."

Does posing always mean improving? "In my world it does," Sint says. "You've got to decide who the picture is for and what statement you're making. Are you out to hurt this person? To reveal the ugly side of a person's personality? Arnold Newman posed Krupp in what became one of the world's most famous portraits, and when you look at it you know exactly what Newman was aiming for. But I don't do that.

"Posing is power. It's part of a photographer's control of the situation and, ultimately, his control of the photograph."

And while most photographers, amateur and professional, will agree that control is a good thing, many are afraid to pose their subjects, or are uncertain how to do it. First, they say it takes too long. Then they're afraid it'll make everyone self-conscious. "Sure," Sint says, "we all want to just snap the picture--and then the picture isn't very good.

"Most people don't want to get into posing because when you pose someone you're invading that person's space. Richard Avedon has that famous series of black and white view camera photographs of people just standing there in front of a seamless white background. He didn't want to intrude at all on their space. The paradox is that I think he was intruding just by the very fact that he was putting up a camera and putting them in front of a background and shooting a picture. `Just stand there,' then, becomes posing. But he was looking for something very raw, and he got what he was looking for. In general, most people don't have that as a goal of the photographs they take of family and friends or people they meet along the way.

"It comes down to deciding who you are trying to please. If you're trying to please the people you're photographing, you have to take your knowledge and the fact that you are trained to see things that others don't see, and use them to portray people in the best way possible."
Reluctance exists on both sides of the camera, though. How do you handle people who are nervous about being posed? "Relate to them, talk to them," Sint says. "And previsualize--know what you want and what works.

"The process can't be overbearing. It has to be natural, and it helps to give people a reason why you're doing everything you're doing--like hiding Dad's belly. `Let's put this part behind this person,' you say. When I view the people I'm going to photograph and I see that posing is necessary--and it almost always is--I say, `I can make this better.' Or, `If you were to place your hand on the back of that chair, it would look nicer.' Of course, you've got to know what looks better and nicer."

What the photographer is really trying to do is make people comfortable with him, to instill trust. "Create a situation that's comfortable enough for your subject so he'll allow you to do more," Sint says. "You release your control, let them emote, then reestablish the control. They need to have confidence in you, and believe that you're going to make them look good.

"They'll get that belief from your personality. You have to come across as a person who cares both about them and the photograph you're making."

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