To Pose a Model or Not to Pose? That is the Question

Before we get started, be warned: this is not a how to pose article. In fact, if you’ve read any of my articles on posing or heard me talk about the subject in one of my videos, you already know how I feel about most books and videos that teach you how to pose. They suck. As I like to say, “pose” is a four letter word. So instead of teaching you how to pose your model, I’m going to show you some of the techniques that I use to communicate with my subjects to ensure that I get consistent results time after time.

 
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched even experienced photographers tell a subject to move a hand or tilt a head without telling them left or right or how much. Throughout this article I’m going to say the word “model” but understand you can interchange model with bride, groom, high school senior, CEO, celebrity, portrait subject, etc. These techniques that I’m going to show you are less about getting your model to pose and more about creating consistent results when you’re photographing people one on one. So where do we start? With space.

Respecting Space

No not outer space. Respecting space. There is no benefit to getting up close in someone’s face and talking quietly like you’re making some kind of connection. All you’re doing is invading their space and making them uncomfortable or sick from your bad breath if you had a spicy burrito for lunch.

You can stand back and communicate eye to eye very effectively. Remember: eye contact is very important, especially if your model or subject is wearing something skimpy like a bathing suit or lingerie. If you have to move close to adjust hair or fix a strap it’s best to have a female assistant or a makeup artist do it. If you’re working one on one with your subject, tell your subject exactly what you intend to do first, then move in to make the adjustment.

Move where you want your subject to look

Don’t tell your subject to just look over there or turn 45 degrees. Most people aren’t going to know how much 45 degrees is.

The best plan of attack is simply to move where you want them to look. That way, they’re going to turn and they’re going to face you. You’re going to have them exactly where you want them.

Often times I will hold my fingers up and ask them pick a spot directly behind my fingers, and tell them “That’s where I want you to look.” This way I’m even able to control where their eyes are for my shot.

Use the Model’s Left to right (and hand gestures!)

This takes a lot of practice. You can’t just say move your hand or tilt your head. You’ve got to tell them which hand and which direction. Don’t make the mistake of looking down and saying move that hand. You’re going to break their concentration and more often than not they’re going to look down too to see what you’re talking about. When that happens the hair drops and you lose your shot. Use hand gestures instead.

I’ll usually put my hand up between myself and my subject and use that as a point for them to focus on as I ask them, “Please just tilt your head a little tiny bit to the left” or “A little bit to the right.” This way not only do they hear the directions that I’m giving them but they’ve got this point to focus on which makes the directions clearer and also more obvious. Believe me, a lot of people will suddenly not be able to tell their left from their right if you just say move this or move that to the left or the right.

Demonstrate the pose (mirror image, of course!)

Don’t just tell your subject to tilt their head or turn their body or lift the rib cage. We’re all humans, and as humans we are visual learners. Give your directions backwards. When I want someone to turn their head to the left I’ll tell them, “Okay, just a little bit turn your head to the left.” This way my words, hand gestures grab their attention and leave the actual direction until the end of the sentence. They can’t jump the gun and anticipate what I’m going to tell them.

Tog Tip

Probably the most important piece of advice: take the time to teach your subject what you need them to know. It will pay great dividends in accomplishing your goals of getting a great shot.

Now, what do we mean by that? Simple. Explain to them all the things that are in your head that you want to see come out of them as they’re your subject.

For instance, I will explain to the model that I only ever ask them to do three things with their head. Up and down, side to side, or a little tilt either way. I’ll explain to them that I really want them to focus on happy thoughts instead of giving me a big cheesy smile. The few extra seconds that it takes me to give them this information and this understanding payback in dividends because when I start shooting and I’m giving them directions they understand what I’m looking for.

Example

Let’s put this into practice. Now, instead of me demonstrating to you how great I am at working with a model and getting the perfect pose and all that, I want you to imagine for a moment that you are my model, and I’m talking directly to you. I want to do this because I want you to experience being on the receiving end of my technique, and I want you to have a sense of what your subject is going to hear and what they’re going to understand in terms of the directions that I’m going to give. Now, this is only going to work if you have a very active imagination, so if you’d rather watch me go through it, check out my video demonstration here, or the full video at the top of the page.

Imagine for a moment that you are in my studio, sitting in front of my camera, and I am about to photograph you. I am the photographer, you are my subject. As I’m shooting, you’ll probably hear something along the lines of this:

“Since you’re sitting down I’d like you to just relax. You don’t have to sit up really stiff. We’re not taking school portraits and there’s really not a lot of value to that. Sitting like that really just tires you out. Just relax, but don’t be too relaxed. I don’t want really hunched shoulders. I want you to look right here at me and as we take these head shots understand that I’m only going to give you three different directions for your head. I’m either going to ask you to lift your chin up and down, I’m going to ask you to turn your face side to side, or I’ll ask you to tilt your head, like this. When we do the tilt do me a favor, I don’t want you to drop the chin or lift the chin just a tilt, like this, wherever your head happens to be. Now, when I ask you for these moves understand I’d like you to make them really small. Seriously, if I’m looking for a turn of the head, I want you to go from here just to there. That’s it. The camera magnifies things quite a bit. You have great eyes.”

“I want to make sure that I see those eyes and I can get the energy that is in those eyes. We’re not going to be turning your head way over here. Very simple for me, just stay relaxed. I’d like you to think about something that makes you happy. We’re going to try and avoid that cheese but I definitely want that happy energy. I want a little bit of a soft smile. So looking right here just a tiny little bit, I’d like you to turn your face to the left. That’s perfect. If you could just a little bit we’re going to tilt to the left. Awesome. We’re just going to do a couple shots. Right, happy thoughts. I want to see a lot of energy in those eyes. Great. Now that’s perfect. Stay right there. Listen, just a little bit we’re going to come right back to center. Perfect. Now this time we’re going to do just a tilt of the head to the right. Awesome. Right there. Nice energy. Good. Perfect. Really soft just lift that chin up a little bit. Great. Good energy. Nice. That’s awesome.”

The bottom line….

Do you see where I’m headed with this guys? Don’t pose. Communicate. Put yourself in your subject’s seat or shoes so that you can understand what they’re hearing when you’re giving directions. But the key is make your directions specific, take the time to explain to your subject what you’re looking for, and, like I always say, don’t be afraid to suck. You’ve got to experiment. You’ve got to try things. The more you put these techniques to use, you’re going to find the pieces that work best for you. You’re going to adapt them to your shooting style and they will improve your technique. And one last thing- whatever you do, don’t pose!

Now, get out there and shoot something! Try these techniques and see what works for you. And whatever you do, don’t forget, your BEST shot is your next shot! So keep learning, keep thinking, and keep shooting. Adios!

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Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Olympus Visionary Photographer, Photo Educator and the host of The TOGCHAT Photography Podcast and The LAST FRAME LIVE, both of which are listened to or viewed by photographers in over 100 countries.   Click Here to learn more about Joe and view his portfolio.
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