Posing is one of the cornerstones of portrait photography, yet how to pose your subjects can remain a mystery for many photographers (It was for me). Now, more than 15 years into shooting professionally, I’ve learned to overcome these common posing mistakes and would like to share with you my tips.
My goal is to help you speed up the learning process, and share the things I wish I knew when I first started.
Today, we’re going to be taking a look at three mistakes that I often find can completely mess up your pose.
You’ll want to begin by analyzing your current work and seeing which problems you are falling prey to. Then you can start to train your eye to recognize these problems during the shoot and vastly increase your number of favorable images.
So what are the 3 most common posing mistakes that I find?
Foreshortening, poorly posed hands, and the “arm squish”. Let’s take a look and learn to eliminate them from our photography!
You may not have heard of foreshortening, but you’ve probably seen it happen in your photos.
Foreshortening is when part of the body appears shorter than it is due to perspective (hence the name foreSHORTENING). This happens when part of the body (arm, hands, legs, knees or even entire body) is coming directly toward or away from the camera. Perspective starts to play dirty tricks on how your poses look.
The most obvious example of foreshortening in action is when your subject raises their arm and elbow upward toward the camera. This may be to create a little drama or to pose the subject with their hand in their hair. Suddenly, the elbow looks like it’s been cut off. To fix this, the subject will need to lower their elbow or adjust their arm placement, so the issue of perspective is not occurring. You can see that in the two images here:
Foreshortening, however, doesn’t just happen with the arms. When a subject is seated, for example, if the legs or knees come toward the camera the same problematic effects will occur. In this boudoir example, my subject has her knees coming directly toward the camera. The knees look compressed, and the body looks boxy overall with no curve for the eye to follow. When we fix the foreshortening by repositioning the knees and legs (so they are not coming directly toward the camera), the image is vastly improved. Our eyes have a much more pleasing flow throughout the form and the knees appear correctly proportioned.
Most of the time in our images we aim to elongate our subjects and avoid making body parts look shorter or more compressed than reality. When adjusting my subject’s pose, I pause and ask myself… is anything coming directly toward or away from the camera? Is there any foreshortening I can fix either by changing the pose or my camera position? Sometimes if the pose looks good, you may just need to move around your subject (or rotate your subject) to get just the right angle!
Pro Tip: Foreshortening is not always 100% wrong, particularly in boudoir shots or images where parts of the body are thrown out of focus. That being said, any use of foreshortening should be used purposefully and carefully— if you’re just starting out I suggest avoiding it in general!
Hands can add a great deal of visual interest and emotion to a portrait. Unfortunately, they can also be a detail that turns into a major distraction. I’m certainly not saying to avoid using hands prominently in your images. Far from that! Instead, just do so carefully. You can’t help but look at your subject’s hands, and when they are poorly posed it can completely mess up an otherwise beautiful shot.
Furthermore, people often hold tension in their hands (balled fist, picking at the nails, gripping into the body) and this can be a clear giveaway that your subject is nervous or uncomfortable!
As a general rule of thumb (see what I did there… :D), you want women’s hands to appear relaxed and with the pinky side of the hand to the camera. The pinky is the narrowest and most elegant part of the hand, particularly when posing the hands near the face.
Both of these photos are making use of the pinky side of the hand and relaxed fingers. Notice how feminine elegance that is achieved. Of course, there are endless solutions for posing hands that will work, and you are not limited to these two. Does the pinky need to be toward the camera 100%? No, but it is a much safer bet when you are trying to achieve elegance. Additionally, you should be aware of some things you want to avoid when posing hands.
Things to avoid when posing women’s hands
- Palm of the hand turned to the camera
- Balled fists
- Fingers pressed into the face (causing indentations)
- Hand completely hiding/cupping the jawline
- Hand completely flat against the body
To achieve relaxed and flattering hand positions, I often coach my subjects’ hands with movement instead of just having them set their hands in place. For example, when placing the hand by the face, I’ll have them softly trace their hand around the hairline and pause them when they get to an elegant hand position. Then, I focus on getting them to relax the fingers, inviting them to wiggle their fingers and melt away the tension.
For men, typically you want the hands to be ‘occupied’ and a bit firmer. A lightly clenched fist may be appropriate based on the mood and body language you are trying to achieve with a shoot. Typically I try to give my male subjects an activity for the hands—fixing the jacket, in the pocket, jacket slung over the shoulders, and more.
My posing checklist typically begins by getting the subject in a flattering body position, then position the hands, and then finally interact to bring out a flattering expression. Hands always get a second check!
There can be a lot to think about with hands, and a lot more than I realized when first starting out! I recommend studying the hand position in the work of master portrait and fashion photographers as well as old paintings. Trust me, it will totally change the way you think about just how important they are to the final success of your portraits!
If the arm is squished, your subject will more than likely NOT be happy with the final shot. Us ladies hate it (I can speak from personal experience)!
The arm squish occurs when a subject has their arm too tight against their body, therefore spreading out their arm to make it wider. This happens quite often when photographing couples — when the woman brings her arm in to pose against the male subject for instance.
The arm squish can also occur when your subject is leaning and puts too much pressure on their arm. If a subject is not toned or muscular, this doesn’t make their arm look firm — it makes it look flabby.
How do you fix this? In most shots, all you need to do is put a tiny bit of space between the arm and the side of the body. Pulling the arm out subtly releases the unwanted pressure. Be sure not to pull the arm too far out to the side or it will make the pose look awkward AND make the arm look disproportionate (from being too close to the camera).
In this couple’s portrait, I’ve posed them in a way to help them ‘cuddle up’ a bit. Unfortunately, in doing so, my subject has brought her arm in tight against her body making it appear much wider. I asked my subject to release tension on her arm, lifting it away from the body about an inch — and the problem is solved
In other poses, you’ll need to find a way to take pressure off of the arm in a lean. Instead of having the subject lean out onto the arm, ask them to place the arm without putting their weight into it.
You can see this happening in this image of the slender young woman here. As she leans all of her weight on her arm, it bulges out up top. It’s not that it makes her look heavier, but the arm squish looks unnatural. Furthermore, the pressure on the hand also is less than ideal, and the straightness of her arm prevents the flow of the pose (learn more about this in my book!). Watch how the change in the pose and the arm position makes all the difference!
Note: The “reverse” arm squish can actually be used when photographing some gentleman to help their arms a bit more ‘built’ than they actually are. When posing for a male, you may cross their arms and put pressure beneath their biceps in an attempt to make them look thicker. Sometimes it works brilliantly! This is an issue you’ll need to watch for in all body types!
The next steps in improving are to start to watch for the problems that show up most often in your photos, and begin to change them. Do you see after the fact that you keep messing up hands? Practice in the mirror, study old paintings, and be sure you pay extra attention to hands in the next shoot! Conquer posing mistakes bit by bit and eventually, it will become second nature for you as well!
Finally, my brand new book. The Photographer’s Guide to Posing is more than 400 pages on this subject. You can find it here on Amazon, or at a major bookstore near you!