Fine Tuning Portrait Poses :: Digital Photo Secrets

Fine Tuning Portrait Poses

by David Peterson 4 comments

Most of the time, when you're shooting portraits, you want your subject to be happy with the final photo. Not all the time, because honestly we all get a little bit of evil delight from catching a misbehaving toddler in full-tantrum mode, don't we? But other than that and maybe a few other circumstances, it's probably safe to say that when you're shooting a portrait the photos are not just about your subject, they are for her, too.

And let's face it, no one wants to look bad in a photo. And let's also face this: it's easy to make people look bad in pictures, even when they really look very good in person. If you're going to be shooting a lot of portraits - especially if you plan to one day make them a part of your business - you need to know the tricks to posing your subjects so that they'll look great in those photos. Here's how.

[ Top image Whew~ (Explored) by Flickr user Dia™]

Making everyone look good, regardless of size

I'll give some posing tips for curvy people below, and they will work well regardless of your model's size. But first let's cover some non-slimming things you can do to make sure that all of your models look their best.

  • Nikon D200
  • 100
  • f/4.0
  • 0.005 sec (1/200)
  • 50 mm

Untitled by Flickr user stenz

No model should ever stand with her hands hanging limply at her side. It just looks awkward and unnatural. Do not neglect to notice what your model is doing with her hands, because unless she's experienced in front of the camera she probably has no idea what to do with them. Make sure she relaxes her hands, and now tell her where to put them. I've already suggested putting a hand on the waist to create a slimming effect; you can also have her slip her hand into a pocket. You could ask her to hold something or put her hands on a nearby object. Make sure her hand is angled toward the camera so that you're not seeing the back or palm from straight on. Remember that arms should never be symmetrical, as that almost never looks natural. Instead make sure you angle one arm slightly above the other.

Remember good posture. There's a reason why your mom told you to sit up straight, and it's not just because it's polite. Slouching makes your model look bad. It makes her look tired, bored and older than she is. Ask her to stand up straight and take a deep breath. Then have her exhale and relax without slouching. You may need to have her do this a few times during the session until she starts to do it naturally (though some subjects never do). Make sure she doesn't overdo it, though, her shoulders should still look relaxed and slightly dropped even though her back is straight.

Wrinkles. Even younger people can have laugh lines, neck creases and wrinkles in unflattering places. Sometimes these can add character; sometimes they can create horror. Chances are you are going to be the one who thinks they add character and your subject is going to think they create horror. It's best to try to deaccentuate your subject's wrinkles or creases in at least some of the photos you take of that person. When shooting from above, for example, be aware that looking up at the camera may create wrinkles in the forehead. Neck creases occur when your subject looks towards the camera while her body is turned away from it. In severe cases of neck creasing you should have her change her body position, or you can hide these creases with her hair or a piece of clothing such as a scarf. Smiles are good in some photos but not all of them, as a broad smile can really accentuate a subject's wrinkles. You can't eliminate wrinkles from every subject (nor should you), but be aware of them and try to minimize them when it's appropriate.

Posing in the garden by Flickr user Waechor

Group portraits are all about variety. A photograph of a group of people is not a photograph of the group as a whole--it's a photograph of a group of individuals. You don't want all of your subjects seated in the same way. You don't want all of their heads at the same height. You don't want them to look alike; you want them to look like individuals. Make sure you stand them in a way that they compliment each other--smaller people in front of taller people, for example. People of the same height shouldn't stand next to each other, instead try having one sit while the other one stands. Try to form triangle shapes with your groups--this will help draw the viewer's eye into the image and around the triangle.

Posing men. I've been using the pronoun "she" throughout most of this article. That's because although many of these examples do apply to both sexes, women tend to be more sensitive to the way they look in photos than men do. I know, generalizations. Men like to look good, too, but they're often not as concerned about the details. The key to photographing men is to use more masculine poses, such as square legs and shoulders and crossed arms. A tipped head will give your male subject a confident attitude.

Know when not to pose. Sometimes the best posing tip is to just unpose your subject. This is particularly good for children, who are really difficult to capture well when you try to pose them. Sometimes it's a good idea to just let your model be and do what she wants to be and do for a little while. At the very least, this will help her relax and look natural. This is particularly helpful if you're having a difficult time getting her to pose without looking like she's posing.

Slimming down your curvy model (without Photoshop)

No one likes to see a picture of herself looking tired or pulling a funny face or just looking awkward. But more than that, no one, and I mean no one, wants to look chubby in a photo. So let's make sure that doesn't happen.

10 Things (and maybe a few more) by Flickr user Bunches and Bits {Karina}

Never shoot from below. Almost no one (with the possible exception of the very slim) looks good when shot from below, but curvy models in particular will benefit from a high camera angle. Higher camera angles are slimming, but remember that you may also create distortion when shooting from above, so be aware of shots that end up making your model's head look larger than it should. Use a longer focal length lens to minimize distortion and experiment with slight angles until you find the right one.

Avoid shooting from directly in front of your model. Instead, ask her to turn her body 45 degrees and then drop the shoulder that is nearest to the camera. Here's where some fine tuning can make a big difference to your photo. Have her bring one leg forward and turn that foot slightly outwards, keeping the knee bent. Ask her to roll her hip slightly up and to keep her weight on her back leg. All of these things help give the bulkier parts of the body a slimmer appearance.

To accentuate curves, try a more extreme approach. Curves are not necessarily a bad thing - in many cases those curves can give your model an attractive, hourglass shape, provided you know how to make the best of them. Start by asking your model to stand against a wall. Have her arch her back while turning towards the camera. This can create a slimmed-up yet curved shape that will flatter almost any woman.

Use arms and hands wisely. Crossed arms can help hide a larger waist, but camera angle is important when using this technique since crossing the arms can also make those arms (and the body) look larger. A hand on the waist will help make it look smaller, as will that space between your model's arm and torso. Have her drop the other arm slightly behind her body while turning towards the camera at that 45 degree angle. Never let her arms hang against her side, because that will make her look wider.

  • Canon PowerShot A630
  • 75
  • f/2.8
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 7.3 mm

IMG_0950 by Flickr user Tiffy-doodle

  • Canon PowerShot A630
  • 75
  • f/2.8
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 7.3 mm

IMG_0949 by Flickr user Tiffy-doodle

Get rid of that double chin. Even thin people can end up with a double chin if photographed from certain angles, and I'm pretty sure there is no one in the whole world who enjoys a photograph of her (or him)self with a double chin. A lot of curvy women are aware of this and will just automatically raise their chins whenever a camera turns towards them. This is actually the wrong approach, because although it can eliminate that double chin it also looks unnatural. Instead ask your model to stick her neck out a little, and then point her chin very slightly downwards.

Don't let her sit square. A model who is sitting square on her chair or on the ground is going to look wider in that part of her body that I'm pretty sure she doesn't want looking wider. Have her sit slightly to one side, on her hip. This will help accentuate the good curves and slim the bad ones. Crossed legs can also help your model look slimmer.

Use other subjects or props to hide unflattering body parts. If you're photographing two people together, you can use one of them to shield a larger waist or other parts of the body that may not be particularly flattering. You can do the same with a prop, though this is harder to pull off because it may seem as contrived as it actually is.

Make sure she feels good about herself. How you look in a photo has a lot to do with how you feel. A tired subject doesn't usually make for a good portrait, so make sure you ask your model to get plenty of sleep the night before. If she can have her hair and makeup done professionally, that's going to help her feel good about herself too - though obviously not everyone can afford that kind of luxury. A flattering outfit is also essential. Obviously, horizontal stripes on a curvy model aren't going to help her look slimmer. Darker colors are more flattering and slimming, and long sleeves can help deaccentuate larger arms. Curvy people sometimes dress a size or two too big to hide their curvy figures, but this often has the opposite effect--it can make them look larger than they actually are. Clothes that fit are going to be much more slimming than clothes that don't.

Get some head shots. Some people just aren't happy with those full body poses, no matter what you do. Make sure you zoom in and get some head shots, too, taking care to use those slimming tips for double chins. Get a few head and shoulder shots, but always include these in addition to the full body shots. Regardless of your subject's size, you need a good range of images for her to choose from.


I'm not going to go into lighting equipment in this particular article, because although there are also a lot of things you can do with light to flatter your subject this article is about how you can flatter them through simple tricks of body position. But it is worth noting that you need to eliminate distortion from your portraits. No one likes to look like she has a giant forehead or, god forbid, butt. A telephoto lens or long zoom is really almost essential for portrait photography, as the shorter the focal length of your lens the greater the potential for unwanted distortion.

Xander by Flickr user ericarhiannon

Except for that aforementioned tantruming toddler and perhaps that blackmail shot of your teenaged daughter's hair right after she gets up in the morning, you do want your subject to be happy with her photograph. This even applies to a subject you're profiling for a newspaper article, for example, who isn't paying you for the shot but is still going to give your editor an earful by telephone if you publish an unflattering photograph of her. Making sure your subjects look great in those portraits is kind of your duty as a photographer. First of all, it's a simple kindness and it's not really particularly difficult to do once you understand the tricks. And when you have a happy subject, you have a repeat customer. And it's good for your karma, too.

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  1. anneline says:

    Always wondered how I can minimize a double chin without the model looking arkward

  2. Patti McBride says:

    I never have much luck when taking portraits or head shots. I use a Canon Rebel 450D xSi camera and a telephoto lens, hoping to get a better shot, but I seem to have problems with a busy background. I have tried to take my 'snap' a little off center, but my subject ( model) always looks as if the head is too big, or that their eyes look too big. I've been a loyal follower of your posts for 2-3 years, choosing to file your posts for future reference. I want to personally thank you for all your tips & advice. I am an amateur photographer and I'm very protective of my camera, choosing, reluctantly, not to take my camera out when its extremely cold outside, due to fear on condensation on the inside of my lens. I also put my camera into a cooler to prevent my camera from getting too hot, should I have to leave my camera in a hot car. Am I being too protective of my camera? The cooler also helps to hide my camera keeping it away from roaming eyes.
    Thanks for any feedback you can give me.
    Patti Mc. :-)

  3. Candy says:

    These are wonderful tips that I, unfortunately learned the hard way! Great article!

  4. Lesley says:

    Thank you so much for all the portrait tips. I work at a frail-care home and am always on the look-out for tips/advice on how to get the best portraits especially of the older generation. We also have staff month in March and all staff are having their photo taken individually to be displayed in the "gallery" in the corridor. Any tips, good ideas, unusual but nice poses is greatly appreciated. :)

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