The Basics Behind Posing Your Subjects

After a while, landscapes are really just a matter of metering your light, exposing correctly, and composing to position lines in appealing perspectives.  The same goes for many other types of photography too.  Whether you are talking about candid street photography, event photography, and even architecture – it’s all about timing, composition, and exposing for the light.

Portraiture though, brings a unique set of circumstances to the table though.  The timing is much more controlled, lighting is managed more strictly, and little is left to chance.  Yet, even in these controlled environments, many photographers have trouble because of the fears associated with guiding and instructing people on how to pose.  It’s understandable, considering all that goes into posing your subjects, as well as the fact that some subjects aren’t the best at being guided.

To those ends – here’s some basics to start with in posing your subjects.  For starters, focus on the face – it’s what we all gravitate toward anyway, and body posing can be very complex depending on a persons body style.  By focusing on the face, you can really highlight that which we all look at anyway.  Here’s the simple secrets to posing a persons’ face:



If you think about it, we can only move our faces in three different directions:  Left to right, up and down, and tilting to one side or the other.  Look at it directionally speaking:

Left and Right

Up and Down

Tilt Left or Right

When broken down to these simple directional perspectives – you can easily explain this to your subject.  I’ve found that using hand gestures to both indicate the current and desired direction is also extremely helpful.  When you start using left and right, the question becomes “your left or mine”?  Directions can get confused, as can both photographer and subject.  By using your hands, you maintain a sense of connection too, because the person is looking at you and following your guidance.


If you project hesitation, your subjects pick up on that and it becomes more difficult to effectively manage a shoot.  On a recent outing with the local photo club, we were at a firehouse (remember the shots here?).  When they got one of the crew to agree to don their gear and pose – nary a soul stepped up to offer guidance and direction.  I stepped up, introduced myself, shook his hand, and started talking about some of the looks and poses I was going to try and get done.  I asked him if he’d be cool with that, started talking up his background and experience (“So, how long you been a fire man?  Are you married?  Any kids?  What was the scariest fire you had to put out?” )

After getting him comfortable with me, I got a few poses set up and went to back up a little to get him framed right – and found myself backing into the rest of the group – literally everyone in the group was following my lead.  By simply exerting some knowledge and confidence, people gravitated toward that and completely deferred to my experience.  Some of the guys in this group have been shooting for decades!  It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the photo club know more about composition, post production, and even lighting than I do, but my willingness to engage the subject, direct, and pose got the job done…and the model also really responded well to that too!

Castle Rock Fire House

Castle Rock Firehouse - Profile

Castle Rock Firehouse - The Heat of the Flame

As you shoot more people and start to pick up a particular style or approach, that can help build your directing abilities and confidence across the board.  So, keep on shooting and we’ll see you back here next time!

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