This is a massive subject and I’m only going to touch on it, because covering the whole subject would end up as a book as difficult to read as “A Brief History of Time” and as big as “War and Peace“.
Posing is probably the one thing that a lot of photographers really struggle with. Some people have a natural ability in this area, others seem to think that it’s an impossible task and they just hope that their model doesn’t need direction – but the reality is that everyone can do it, and that even the very best models need direction.
We need to make a strong distinction between photographing Mrs Brown + family for a portrait shoot, and photographing an experienced fashion model because although Mrs Brown will do her best to cooperate, she isn’t likely to understand the difference that even a tiny change to position can make to the shot. We’ll come back to these very different types of subject later, meanwhile, here are some very basic points.
You need to decide on the style of shoot. Up to a point, this will depend both on the subject and on the amount of space you have available. You can go for static, posed shots which, although they date back to the early days of photography when people had to keep still while the photo was taken, are still very relevant, or you can go for what I call movement shots, which is covered in part 2 of this tutorial.
The photos left and right above, by lighting master Marc Gouguenheim, are classical, highly posed shots. I know Marc well and although I wasn’t present when he took either of these shots, I know that he will have had a very clear idea in his head (and sketched out on paper) and he will have decided on his background, camera height, camera distance and the technical bits and pieces before starting on the pose, and would have ended up with the lighting which, with posed static shots, always comes last on the list of things to do because the lighting choices are dependent on the camera height and pose.
Let’s talk about camera height first, because the final result is very much influenced by camera height. If the camera is level with the model’s eyes, the effect is pretty neutral.
If the camera is pointing downwards, then you are literally looking down on the model, which makes the model look submissive, unimportant.
If the camera is pointing upwards, then you are literally looking up to the model, which makes him/her look dominant, important. The jargon term for this is heroic because it makes the model look like a hero.
I photograph a lot of very different people, but the one thing that nearly all of them have in common is that they need to have personal space – they don’t want me too near them (which may just be that they don’t want me too near them) and that must be respected. And that leaves us with a potential problem, because the easiest way of getting someone’s body or face in the right position is to physically move it to where you want it to be. So, as we can’t just grab hold of the person and move them, how do we get the angle we want? Well, if s/he is sitting, preferably on a stool, just angle the stool so that the person is facing in the right direction naturally, without having to twist his or her body, because getting them at the right angle to start with always looks more natural than if the body has to be twisted into position.
Asking the average, non-model subject to move their head slightly to the left, or up, or whatever usually results in a dramatic movement that we don’t want, so I simply ask them to look at something. As I often want them to look at a light, and as that light is often a softbox, I normally just stick a bit of masking tape onto the front of the softbox and ask them to look at it – or it may be slightly more complicated, where I ask them to point their head directly at the softbox and to look with their eyes at the top of the softbox to get wide-open eyes.
And if I can’t do that, I simply place a spare lighting stand out of shot and ask them to look at the spigot on the top of it instead. A lighting stand is perfect because of course it’s adjustable for height, so I can place its top exactly where I want my subject to look. Doing this sort of thing makes it easier for the model, as well as for you.
Good interaction with the model is essential, but some people find it easier to chat than others, and not everyone responds well to very familiar chat – there are some ‘celebrity’ photographers who are notorious for very blatant flirting with their models, it may sometimes work for them but generally there is a need to be a mixture of professional and friendly. Just avoid long silences, be yourself but don’t be over familiar.
To smile or not to smile?
Look at fashion photos, and you will never, ever see the model smiling – why is that? Well, when the average person smiles, they look “nice” but they don’t look sexy, and fashion is always about making the person (or their clothes) look sexy. The look that’s normally seen is an “attitude” look (who the hell do you think you are, looking at me)?
With family portraits of course, you may want people to smile, but that can be a problem because most of us just look false when we try to smile for the camera, so the best bet is usually to get the person to laugh, not to smile – a genuine laugh looks much better than a false smile.
Some shots need eye contact, but not all. The shot above left doesn’t even show the face, let alone the eyes, so please don’t assume that the subject needs to be looking directly at the camera for every shot. Where there is eye contact, then the face needs to be pointing more or less towards the camera, because if the eyes are swiveled round to look at the camera, you’ll see plenty of the white of the eyes and it will look wrong.
Bear in mind that strong eye contact makes the subject look strong, sexy and dominant. If the eyes are pointing downwards, and effectively closed, the look usually goes from sexy to beautiful. And, strangely, if the person is looking up at something out of shot, the look usually becomes one of wide eyed innocence, just like a child looking into its mother’s face.
There are various ways of making the eyes look larger, including having the key light high and directly above the camera, to produce a catchlight at the top of the eye, and of course good makeup plays a very important role too. Back to posing, if your model inclines the head downwards a bit, and then looks up, as in the photo on the right, then again this produces larger eyes.
Nobody really knows why it is that people look broader in a still photos, there are various theories but just accept that most people do look a lot bigger than they actually are. Now, if you want to show strength, muscle and bulk then you can emphasise this by posing your subject square on to the camera, and if you want to make someone look slim then you do the opposite, and have them at a bit of an angle to the camera.
Getting hands to photograph well can be surprisingly difficult. It’s just a fact of life that most subjects don’t know what to do with their hands, so it’s your job as a photographer to deal with this challenge. It can be helpful to avoid showing the hands, if possible, and if the hands do need to be in shot then it can be a good idea for them to be doing something useful – a bearded man could stroke his beard, a woman could run her hand through her hair, etc. If they can’t be doing that – which of course they can’t for every shot – then at least never, ever shoot with the fingers stiff and stretched out, it looks horrible, just like a bunch of bananas – there’s a reason why cartoon characters such as Postman Pat only have 3 fingers! Instead, get the hands into a realistic shape, with the fingers together, as in both of the example shots by Marc Gouguenheim, above. The shot on the right is the worst I could find on my computer, the fingers are stretched out but at least they aren’t stiff – which they often are with beginner models.
Whether the lips are a closed or apart again makes a massive difference. If it’s a happy family portrait, then a smile (or a laugh) will open the mouth in a nice, non-sexual way. If it’s a sexy shot, then having the lips apart is normal and almost essential, but it’s usually an ‘attitude’ or pout look, never a smile. Having the lips parted, apart from the obvious sexual connotations, makes the lips look larger and usually also shows the teeth.
Some models can do this very easily, and look natural, others find it very difficult and either can’t do it at all or look terrible when they do – a useful workaround if this happens is to do something like the shot above, or get the model to apply some lippy, which makes it look more natural.
In part 2, I will introduce you to movement shots, which are always easier from a posing point of view.