Refine That Pose!: Some Basic Portrait Tips

One of the first workshops I ever attended when I began my career over 30 years ago was with the legendary Don “Big Daddy’” Blair. One of the things Don was known for was his almost fanatical obsession with posing, especially hands. Things have changed a great deal since then and posing as a rule has become much more relaxed, but there are still some basic “rules” that can serve as guidelines that can be incorporated into your own style.

These guidelines have stood the test of time because photographers and painters could see that by following them the results were more flattering to their subjects.

With that in mind, here are before and after posing scenarios. Of course, you can break any “rules”, but having an understanding of why you are doing so will help you become a better photographer. You and your subjects will both be better off for it.

Shaping Subjects: When you keep your subject’s arms against the body, the body and arms meld together to form a solid mass. It adds weight and is pretty much unflattering for most subjects. You can see how just bringing the arms out makes a pocket between the arms and body, reduces weight and adds shape to the subject (#1 and #2).

#1. (Left) #2. (Right)
All Photos © Steve Bedell

Background: David Maheu. Model: Sarah Gianino.

The White Of The Eyes: Eyes are pretty. So if you take a pose where the subject is not looking at the camera, make sure you can see their eyes. When you turn the head sideways you usually have to “cheat” the eyes. This means not having the subject look straight ahead, but more toward the camera. Having too much white showing is never a complimentary pose (#3 and #4).

#3. (Left) #4. (Right)

“I Think I’ll Punch Myself In The Face”: OK, this is one I see all the time and it drives me crazy. When you have the subject make a fist, turn it sideways and put the chin on it you see this flat, straight mass that looks like the subject is punching themselves. Turn the wrist and hand at an angle for a much more graceful and pleasing look (#5 and #6).

#5. (Left) #6. (Right)

“My Fingers Shoot Out A Death Ray”: Aiming fingers at the camera is very distracting. In the first image it appears Sarah is about to zap me with some mysterious power coming from her right hand. I quickly avoided this and turned her right hand to the side and her left aiming down to avoid any harm. Unless you’re doing Trekkie photos, avoid (#7 and #8).

#7. (Left) #8. (Right)

“Don’t Be A Square”: A general rule of posing is to not have the head and body on the same plane. If the body is square to the camera, the head should not be, and vice versa. It’s usually dull and uninteresting. You can see how much more interesting the second photo is where I’ve turned her shoulders away from the light and then her head back into it for a much more pleasing look. I can tell you that I often do break this rule if I’m looking for a strong and powerful look (#9 and #10).

#9. (Left) #10. (Right)

Shifting Weight: In the first photo, I have Libby with her weight on the foot closest to the camera. See how it makes a straight line up into her torso? In the second image, I shifted her weight to the back leg and had her bend her front knee in, creating a more graceful and flowing look (#11 and #12). Model: Libby Kahl.

#11. (Left) #12. (Right)
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