There are at least a million different ways you could pose your subject. At least. Some of them are great poses, and some of them might qualify you for that email that goes around every year, you know the one, "Awkward Family Photographs" or "Horrifying Portraits." So how do you know which pose suits your subject and which poses you should avoid altogether? Well, that depends a lot on your subject. But it's usually a pretty safe bet to start with a few of the classics.
I have created a downloadable zip file with all the poses listed in this article. You can download here: Recommended Portrait Poses
Here's the thing: there's no one-size-fits-all pose that works for both women and men. The truth is that your approach for women should be different than your approach for men, because women and men have different bodies, different clothing, different hairstyles and different presence. Now of course, there's not really any one-size-fits-all approach for all women or all men, either. Some women may prefer to look classically feminine and other women may prefer to break out of that mold, so it's helpful to know something about your subject and what they expect from a portrait. In general, though, here are a few poses that will get you started in the right direction.
The side shot
In this pose, you turn your subject at an angle to your camera and ask her to bring her shoulder up a little and push her chin forward slightly. This does a couple of things: first, it will make your model look her best—even a thin subject may look unnaturally wide when shot from straight on, and a side shot is a lot more slimming. And that chin-forward stance will keep any extra chins under control. Take care that there is a small gap between your subject's chin and her shoulder, though, because if chin and shoulder are two close the pose won't look very natural.
Hands on the face
You may remember that classic portrait pose where the model places a closed hand under her chin. That pose looks a little dated today, but that doesn't mean you have to tell your subject to keep her hands away from her face. You could have her touch her hair or put her hands on her cheeks, or just experiment with different ways to incorporate her hands into a head shot. Just one quick note: try to make sure the sides of her hands are visible, not the back or the palms. The backs or palms of the hands tend to look a lot wider in an image than they actually are, and as a general rule you want to avoid making pretty much any part of a person look wider than it actually is.
Long flowing hair is immensely photogenic. Have your subject flip her hair or quickly whip her head around and capture her hair in motion. This is a bit of a tricky maneuver, because you want to make sure that her face is not only in the shot but sharp and natural-looking. Remember that you'll need a higher shutter speed to freeze the motion.
Over the shoulder
This is also called a 3/4 turn. This is where you have your subject stand with her back to the camera, but shoulders turned slightly towards the lens (hence the name, three-quarters). Then you have her look over her shoulder at the camera. This is something of a power pose, because it portrays your subject as if she's almost regarding the camera as an afterthought.
This can be another power pose—crossed arms suggest a person who knows where she's going, or who has a certain amount of authority. But this pose can also suggest a person who is relaxed. It may also be more comfortable for your model—some people have a difficult time with full-body shots because they don't know what they should be doing with their arms. If your model is one of those, crossed arms are a good way to make her feel like her arms and hands are in a comfortable place. Don't worry about that old idea that people who cross their arms are unfriendly or distant—remember that it has a lot to do with body language, too. Make sure that your subject's face isn't sending those unfriendly signals—if its not, then crossed arms won't do that either.
The forward-facing shot is not completely off-limits, in fact some models have body types that lend themselves to this angle. Don't have your subject stand completely square with both legs carrying an equal amount of weight, because that looks rigid and forced. Instead, have her place her weight on one leg. With this pose, you can solve for that "lose hands" problem by having your model hook her hands into her pockets, but remember also that lose hands aren't always a bad thing. If your subject can keep her arms lose but natural-looking, there's no reason why she needs to find something else to do with them.
Leaning on a diagonal
Diagonals are a part of those compositional rules you're always trying to put into practice when you shoot scenes like landscapes or architecture. Diagonals give the viewer's eye a line to follow and help divide up the frame, and they work great for portraits, too. If you have your subject lean on a diagonal surface (a low tree branch, for example, or a stair railing), you'll create a composition that has added interest and a sense of dimension. You can also simulate this effect by tilting the camera to turn horizontals into diagonals.
Generalizing is almost always a bad thing, but I'm going to generalize. Most men don't like having their picture taken, and chances are if it's being done formally there's going to be some reluctance, and maybe even impatience to just get the whole thing out of the way. Men tend to require a little more direction than women do, so keep the session moving, but also try to keep it fun.
Full body shot
Men and women both tend to feel uncomfortable about what to do with their arms, so when you're shooting a full body image of a man, have him hook his hands in his pockets. Remember that when you do this there can be a tendency to slump forwards a little, so make sure you have your subject straighten up and pull his shoulders back. As with women, make sure that he's not supporting his weight equally on both legs—that doesn't look natural.
Or ask him to lean on something, like a wall, with his legs crossed:
For a simple, classic pose, just have your subject cross his arms. This is an easy one because it gives him something to do with his arms, and it can also be done just about anywhere, in any situation. Make sure that the shoulders are square—ask him to pull them back a little. And don't let him relax his stomach muscles. You can tell him to tighten up his chest and stomach that should do the trick.
If you're photographing a man in formal attire, make sure that you're sticking with the theme of the occasion. If he's a businessman, for example, include some props such as his iPad or an attache case in order to give the viewer some context for the shot. If he's formally dressed for a wedding, you could have him adjust his tie or cufflinks (that solves the whole "what do I do with my hands" problem again). As always, make sure that his shoulders are square and that his chin is forward—avoiding that double chin is just as important for guys as it is for women. Slimming is important too—ask him to turn one side slightly towards the camera or even lean in just a little bit. If the upper body is closer to the camera than the waist, the waist will look slimmer.
Seated subjects look more casual than standing subjects do. But take care anytime you're seating someone that you don't have them sit flat on the chair. That can cause body parts to look bigger than they are, and no one really wants to look big, at least not in that way. Make sure at least one foot is square on the ground, and angle your subject's body so that it is at a sideways position to the camera (even just slightly). And avoid pointing the knees directly at the camera.
Heads and upper torsos
Head shots are great for men and women, but the hands on the face pose doesn't work as well for masculine subjects. Instead, have your subject put a hand behind his head, or keep his hands out of the shot altogether. Smiling is always a nice touch but make sure that the smile isn't forced or fake—it should come from a sincere place. Maybe he's laughing at a joke or smiling at a memory, but never just because you told him to "say cheese."
Or shoot from the side - either with hands crossed, or by his side.
Children have something of a reputation as being inherently more difficult to photograph than adults, but that's only true if you don't know the tricks. Children are not as easy to direct as adults are, but as a general rule you really shouldn't spend too much time trying to direct them. If you do, your pictures are going to be full of cheesy (fake) smiles and poses that look like poses. With kids, it's best to give them a little bit of guidance but let them call most of the shots. You'll get much more natural photographs that way.
Some of the best photos of kids will happen while they're busy playing with their stuff. If your subject has a favorite toy or activity, let him play with that toy or engage in that activity and then see what happens. You'll get much more natural looking photographs if you subject forgets you're there or has something to do that lessens your importance. If your subject doesn't have any favorite toys with him, you could just hand him a picture book or some other interesting object, and take some shots of him exploring something new.
Regardless of what your subject is doing, don't just limit yourself to full body shots or photos that show action. Fill the frame. Zoom in close and make sure you're always ready for those moments when something hilarious happens. You don't want to miss any belly laughs or other emotional moments. If your subject likes jokes, tell her some jokes. Have her parents help you out—most of the time, they're going to have more success at getting natural behavior and real smiles out of your small subjects.
If your subject is into sports, you've got an immediate opportunity for a photograph that tells the viewer something about her. Let's say soccer is her thing—you can get a shot of her in a soccer jersey, holding her ball. If he's into kung fu, take a photo of him in his belt and uniform, holding his Chinese fighting sticks. These are the sorts of images that convey character, and they will be some of the most cherished images in a family album because they provide a framework for some of what's going on in the child's life at the time the image was made.
Groups can be a bit trickier, because now you've got not just one person you need to make look her best, but a whole bunch of them. The key with groups is to not stress out about them, and to get them done quickly. Large groups can be difficult to assemble, and once they break up you may not be able to reassemble them if you didn't get it right the first time, so be ready for group shots and make doubly certain that you're going to get it right. Smaller groups are a little easier to direct, but if the group also contains young children you'll be time-limited by the attention span of those kids.
You will never be able to control everyone's facial expressions or fine tune the pose of each individual in a group, so don't try. What you do need to do is pay attention to how everyone is placed. Arrange people according to height so that you don't have shorter people behind taller people—everyone in the group needs to be clearly seen by the camera. And try to create a pleasing shape with your human-based composition—taller people in the middle, for example, with people of decreasing height on either side.
Group portraits don't have to just be limited to that classic "everyone stand together and smile" shot. You can have a lot of fun with a group portrait, too. For example, if your subjects are a bride and her bridesmaids, you can put the bride in front and have her bridesmaids lean slightly on her, looking around her or over her shoulder at the camera. Fun and silliness should be encouraged—laughter will turn this otherwise posed image into something that looks natural.
Couples can be really challenging to photograph, because it's easy to step over that line from tasteful to tacky. No one really wants to see corny images of themselves gazing into their loved one's eyes or swooning unabashedly, but they do want to see tasteful images of themselves doing just that. So the key is to capture your subjects looking natural, and that means using a little bit of creative thinking.
One very simple way to capture a photograph of a couple is to simply have them stand close with their heads together. This pose is very affectionate without being over the top. It looks natural, and, most importantly, uncorny. Zoom in and fill the frame with the couple's heads, or zoom out a little and include their torsos. You can also have the woman place a hand on the man's chest, but as always, try to engage the subjects in such a way that their smiles don't look staged and the pose looks like something they naturally fell into rather than something they were asked to do.
A photograph of a couple is a photograph of two people who have a close relationship, so it follows that they should be posed in a way that suggests that relationship. Have them stand very close to each other, and if you're having trouble getting them to relax try to engage them in conversation about happy memories—how they met, for example, or wedding plans.
So that covers the first handful of those million or so potential poses you could use when shooting portraits. These are pretty classic poses, and the reason they're classic is because they work with a lot of different types of subjects. Don't be afraid to branch out and mix it up when the occasion calls for it, but in the meantime commit these poses to memory and you really can't go wrong.