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Techniques for Posing and Directing Portrait Subjects

Portrait photography is the art of expressing a subject’s personality in a still image. This can be surprisingly hard—think of all the shots you took where the person appeared stiff or awkward. The first step to showcasing someone’s personality is the posing. There could be an entire book about it, but in this article, we share one basic concept behind posing—the lines of the human body and how to portray them in a flattering manner. (Reported by Oliya T. Yabuta, Model: Nozomi Inoue)

Posing models (top)


1. The sit-down pose

Ideal (Technique applied)
The outlines of the model’s upper torso are depicted clearly.

Sit-down pose (good)

Not ideal (Technique applied incorrectly)
The model’s arm obscures part of her body, making it look wider. She faces away from the light source, which causes her face to be shrouded in shadow.

Sit-down pose (negative example)

EOS 77D/ EF-S18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM/ FL: 24mm (38mm equivalent)/ Manual exposure (f/4, 1/200 sec)/ ISO 400/ WB: Auto


Description of pose

Sit-down pose: diagram

Left: Ideal; Right: Not so ideal

Showcase the body’s natural shape

If you want to showcase the shape of the human body, it is important to note where you pose the model’s forearms. For example, if the subject has a waistline that you want to showcase, create some white space between the forearm and the waistline (see 'Ideal' example). If the subject’s arms are in the way (see 'Not so ideal' example above), viewers cannot see the natural outline of the body, which goes against your intent and can even make the model look broader than he or she really is.

At the same time, avoid posing the arms in a vertical line. This is what I did in the 'Not so ideal' example, and it makes the pose look stiff and unnatural. Instead, make sure the line that the arm creates is at an off-vertical angle. This makes the image look more dynamic and natural.


To direct a model into this pose, you might need to get them to…

- Angle their body towards the lighting source, so that their face is well illuminated.
- Place their elbows on the table, and lightly place a hand against the side of their face.
- Move their forearm so that the waistline is not obscured.
- Puff up their chest (or pull their shoulders back) to make their posture look better.
- Angle their faces in such a way that the light does not fall directly on it.


What to note

Make sure the body is at an angle to the camera

A slimmer-looking waistline looks flattering on anyone, male or female. You can achieve this by getting the subject to turn their body slightly away from the camera.

For the image in the good example, after the model was seated, I directed her to turn her upper body clockwise away from the camera.

It helps to make sure that the model’s body does not form a line that is exactly horizontal or vertical. This especially important  if you are trying to showcase feminine curves and physique. For the 'Ideal' example, I got the model to tilt her upper body slightly at an angle towards the camera, which suggests softness. The details matter too—make sure that the hands and fingers also do not form a vertical or horizontal line. (Here are some tips on posing hands). This also applies for the legs: See the 'Not so ideal' example in Technique 2 below. 


2. The S-shape pose: Flatters anyone’s figure

Ideal (Technique applied)
Legs look longer and waist looks slim.

S-shape pose (good)

Not ideal (Technique not applied)
Shot from head on. Not very flattering to the figure.

Awkward standing pose

EOS 77D/ EF-S18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM/ FL: 35mm (56mm equivalent)/ Manual exposure (f/8, 1/125 sec)/ ISO 800/ WB: Auto


Description of pose

S-shape pose (diagram), Awkward standing pose (diagram)

Left: Ideal image, Right: Not so ideal image


Angle the body slightly for a longer, leaner look

Unless you have a particular reason for doing so, try to avoid shooting portraits head-on with the model standing straight, arms directly to the side. The body looks larger when viewed directly from the front, which means that shooting from this angle can make subjects look bigger. Instead, make sure your subject’s body is angled slightly away from the camera (about 45° should be sufficient).


Make the legs look longer

Simply standing with both legs straight can make the pose look stiff. Get the model to lift the hip nearer to the camera slightly. This simultaneously creates the illusion of a longer leg and adds dynamism to the pose by breaking the horizontal line made by the hip bones.

To further complete the illusion, make the body look shorter (and the legs longer in comparison) by rolling the shoulder that is nearer the camera slightly forward. This also has a waist-slimming effect.


What to note

The basic figure-flattering pose forms an ‘S’ shape. If you get the pose right, the subject looks taller and leaner with longer legs and a slimmer waist. However, unless you are working with a professional model, the correct pose can be harder to achieve than it seems. Here’s a simple but sure-fire 3-step technique to get anyone into the perfect pose.


How to direct the model: 3 simple steps for a picture-perfect S-shape pose

S-shaped pose in 3 steps

1. Stand at a 45° angle to the camera
Standing at this angle emphasizes the curves from the bust to the hip, as well as the jawline.

2. Shift all the weight to the leg further away from the camera
For the S-shape pose to look good, all the body weight has to be on one leg. To make sure, get the model to try lifting the other leg. She should be able to do so easily. The axis of the shoulder and hips will naturally shift to maintain the body’s balance, resulting in the entire body forming an S-shape line.

3.  Point the foot of the front leg
Point the toes on the free leg onto the floor directly in front of the supporting leg. The model should be able to do this quite easily without losing balance if step 2 was done correctly. When she is done, she can turn her face towards the camera.


3. The K-shape pose: For the illusion of dynamism

Ideal (Technique applied)
There is a sense of motion in the model’s limbs. The pose creates visual tension with the background.

K-shaped pose (good)

Not-so-ideal (Technique not applied)
The vertical lines created by the pose coincide with the lines made by the window frames in the background. The pose looks rigid and the entire image feels static.

Vertical pose with vertical background lines

EOS 77D/ EF-S18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM/ FL: 42mm (67mm equivalent)/ Manual exposure (f/4.5, 1/320 sec)/ ISO 400/ WB: Auto


Description of pose

K shape pose (diagram), Straight pose against straight lines

Left: Ideal image, Right: Not so ideal image

Stretch all you can—what feels exaggerated creates amazing, dynamic lines in the resulting image

In contrast to the S-shape pose and how it showcases soft, feminine curves, the K-shape pose is bold, open and dynamic. To achieve the required shape, the model needs to stretch her leg out and open her arms.

In this pose, almost every part of the body is either stretched, arched or bent. It might feel over-the-top, but you do not have to worry about the image looking too artificial: The tension from "exaggerating" the pose creates lines in the body that convey dynamism.


What to note: Make sure the pose does not replicate the lines in the background

This tip applies to any pose, not just the K-shape pose: Make sure that the lines formed by the body do not duplicate the lines in the background.

In the less-ideal example, the lines in the window frame and the shape formed by the upper body in the model's pose all form vertical lines. This not only draws attention away from curves such as that created by the bustline, but also disrupts the rhythm in the image.

The dynamism and contrast of a bold pose such as the K-shape pose help to create visual tension when used against a background with many vertical lines. This not only draws attention to the lines of the body, but also makes an image look more visually appealing.


To direct a model into this pose, you might need to get them to…

- Put all their weight on one leg and stretch the other leg as far out to the side as possible.
- Point the foot of the stretched leg. Rotate the entire leg so that the knee faces the camera This makes the legs look longer.
- Tilt the upper torso from the waist up in the direction of the stretched leg. This accentuates the posture.
- Stretch the neck in the opposite direction from the upper body. This makes the neck look longer.
- Touch a shoulder with one hand and/or the waist with the other hand to add some variation to the pose.


Lastly, remember that communication is crucial. Your portrait subject is human, too!

During the shoot

Communication is very important when you are working with a model. Your portrait subject does not know how she (or he) looks like through the viewfinder, so make sure you give detailed instructions.

At the same time, it is important to establish a good rapport with the subject. This helps them to relax and open up, which in turn makes for better portrait photos. Here are some tips for doing so.

1. Don’t criticize. Phrase things positively.
Even if their poses do not look good, there is no need to put them down. Stay calm and guide them on how they can improve their posing. Always put it across in a respectful manner.

2. Praise them as much as you can.
Everyone likes to be complimented, even if it is for the most trivial things. Do it as much as you can--it helps to make the atmosphere of the shoot more pleasant and gives the model more confidence.

3. If you want a shot of them smiling, make them smile.
If there is a certain expression that you want to capture, try to evoke that emotion in your subject through conversation. For example, if you want a shot of your subject smiling or laughing, you could tell them a funny story.

For some ideas on how to style portrait photos, check out the following articles:
EOS M6 Gallery + Review: Photographing Portraits of Women
4 Tips for Happy Family Portraits
3 Ways To Capture Adorable Sibling Photos

To improve your portrait photography skills, check out the following articles:
3 Flattering Techniques to Learn from Professional Models
How To Become A Better Instagram Boyfriend and Perfect Your Girlfriend’s #OOTD
How Do I Capture Portraits With Background Bokeh Under Backlit Conditions?
Step by Step: How to Capture Dramatic Portraits Using Backlight from the Window
2 Simple Tips for Beautiful, Blur-free Indoor Portrait Photographs of Children


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Oliya T. Yabuta

Oliya T. Yabuta

Before becoming a portrait photographer, Yabuta worked in a television programme production company, and then handled advertisements for an electronics manufacturer. He has made appearances on various Japanese television programmes as an expert on how take beautiful self-portraits. In recent years, his approach to posing models, which is based on human anatomy and bone structure, has been very well received. His book on this approach is on sale in various countries.