How to Pose Your Subjects

Today's post comes from the book Studio Lighting Anywhere: The Digital Photographer's Guide to Lighting On Location and in Small Spaces by Joe Farace. It is available from and other fine retailers.

When I was learning the professional photography business, I asked my mentor, “What’s the worst mistake I could make when photographing a wedding?” His answer surprised me. “The worst thing you can do,” he told me, “is not talk to the people.” I’ll pass his words of wisdom along to you so you’ll know that when it comes to photographing people, it’s not just about the equipment, it is mostly about your interaction with your subjects. Often, I see photographers working with models and expecting the models to do all the work. Though it may be okay to assume that experienced models can be self-directed, the occasions when you will be photographing professional models will likely be few and far between.

Victoria is a high-energy model. All you have to do is tell her where to stand and take photos. Models like her will toss poses and expressions at you faster than you can click the shutter. The camera was a Nikon D700 with a 24–70mm f/2.8 lens. The exposure was 1/125 at f/6.3 and ISO 200. © 2011 Paul Peregrine.

For this shot of Victoria, Paul Peregrine used two stacked Grin&Stir’s ( 30-inch FourSquare light-banks each with a single Nikon Speed-light mounted inside one. A reflector was placed at camera left. Backdrop was a “Joe Farace” carbonite muslin background that’s available from Silverlake Photo (

I believe there are two types of photo subjects: those who are inner- directed and those who are outer-directed.

Inner-directed people are the Energizer bunnies of photo subjects. You tell them, “Stand over there,” point the camera at them, and they will change poses as fast as you can click the shutter. You will get lots of good poses, some great ones, and a few that are not so good because the model is not getting any feedback, except from themselves. The downside is that you will shoot a lot of photos, which will require a lot of editing time and bigger memory cards. These experienced models can make you look like a better photographer than you are, but it’s still your job to get the lighting right. Unfortunately, this type of subject comprises only 20 percent of the models or subjects that the average shooter photographs.

Outer-directed subjects represent the other 80 percent of photo subjects or models. These people expect you to tell them what to do. Shooting this type of subject takes longer, but taking the time to communicate what you want the subject to do will help get great results. The best subjects will respond better if you show them what the photograph looks like on the camera’s LCD screen—big screens really help with this. The bottom line is that it’s up to you to tell them how to pose and in order to do that, you need to know what you want.

There is as much conflicting advice on posing portrait subjects—and typically the person giving the advice claims his is the best way. You should select poses that you think you’ll like, try them, and improve on them if you can. Your model will have her own ideas too.

Keep in mind that there is no one perfect way to pose every subject. They come in all sizes, weights, and abilities to understand your directions. Keep the pose simple, and if the subject is comfortable and the pose looks good, it’s a good one.

Kent Hepburn photographed Maria Eriksson using three lights: One Photogenic 150 watt-second monolight was used with a 42x78-inch white scrim to the model’s right, another light with 24x24-inch lightbank was placed to her front left, while the third monolight was aimed at the white background to push it to high key. A Calumet radio trigger was used to trip the lights. Camera was Canon EOS 40D with EF 28–135mm lens and an exposure of 1/200 at f/8 and ISO 200. © 2011 Kent Hepburn.

Nicole isn’t wearing much, but I asked her to “rip off” her clothes, and this is the pose and great smile she gave me. The photograph was made in my basement studio using two Flashpoint II ( monolights. The camera was a Canon EOS 40D with a 50mm f/1.8 lens that I bought on eBay for $50. Exposure was 1/60 at f/10 and ISO 100. The background was a Belle Drape muslin.

I can’t tell you the best way to pose people, so I’ll just tell you how I do it. In a studio—no matter where it is—posing against a backdrop is difficult because often there are no objects that the subject can interact with. The biggest mistake many photographers make is assuming that once a model is placed in a pose, all they need is one shot. Wrong! That’s just the beginning! Follow up by refining the pose with a slight head tilt to the left or right, have her move her chin up and down. Have her look at the camera then not look at the camera. Don’t just click the shutter. Watch what happens and follow up on a good pose with slight variations that can turn it into a great one. The most important advice I can give you—and you can take this to the bank—is to keep talking to the subject so the portrait becomes a collaboration between you and the subject.

Dave Hall originally captured this unique pose (you’ll need a limber model) in color in his living room. A monolight with a lightbank mounted was positioned at camera left. A second monolight with an umbrella for fill was placed at camera right. The image was shot with a Canon EOS 50D and an exposure of 1/80 at f/7.1 and ISO 160. © 2011 Dave Hall, Hall Photographic.

The biggest problem when working with new models or portrait subjects is deciding what to do with their hands. That’s when props, like the chains Jerry Bolyard used for his “blue” photograph in chapter 1, come in handy. One of my other favorite hand poses is to have them tugging at their clothing in some way. I ask them to look like they are ripping their clothing off, and this often elicits poses that I can refine.

No subject is perfect, and you can fix some flaws by posing. For example, heavier subjects should never be posed with their shoulders square to the camera. I believe that the purpose of any portrait is to idealize or glamorize the subject. If she has a few extra pounds, why not minimize them by having her stand at three-quarters to the camera rather than straight on? It’s also a good idea to ask her to shift her weight to the foot that’s farthest from the camera to avoid the flat-footed pose that makes her look like she is just standing there—even if she is just standing there! Conversely, you can pose thinner subjects so they are square to the camera to give their body more weight and depth.

Once a subject or a model is comfortable, I like to ask her to cross or fold her arms. As you can see by these six examples, each woman has interpreted this direction in her own way! With subjects who are outer-directed, establishing this basic position gives you a starting point for improving that pose.

Faces are not symmetrical, and we all really do have a “good” and “bad” side that will photograph better or worse than the other. Experienced models know this and will only give you what they think is their good side, but they are often wrong. So shoot a few test shots and determine which side of the subject’s face looks best to you. This pose may be lighting dependent, so what looks good under directional lighting may look completely different under soft or flat lighting. The important thing to remember is that even drop-dead-gorgeous models have a good side and a bad side. Learn early in the session which one works best for you.

One of my favorite posing instructions is to ask the model to twist and bend at the waist. They interpret this in many ways, including this pose. In this shot, the main light at camera right had a Westcott Halo mounted on it. The fill light at camera left had a 32-inch Westcott satin optical white umbrella attached. The third light was placed behind and to camera left. The camera was a Canon EOS 5D with an EF 135mm f/2.8 SF lens. The exposure was 1/50 at f/9 and ISO 100.

Just as it’s important to minimize any flaws your model might have, it’s important to look for her strong points and accent those features. Are her eyes beautiful? Then you should shoot headshots and close-ups. Does a female subject have long, shapely legs? Shoot several images from a low angle and don’t be afraid to use slightly wide-angle lenses to accent them. Watch your camera angles too. Don’t get too low. Nobody likes looking up somebody’s nostrils—no matter how beautiful they may be.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Ken Hepburn,

    I 've seen a set of LIZ ASHLEY METART photographed by you. What an amazing set. The lighting is perfect .I wish you can make a set of the model named Dariya from or Dashka from Zemani.Here are links :

    I am wondering if you can ask for any particular model to work for you or you are assigned to do the job by the publisher?