Portrait posing guide: 5 tips for dynamic photo shoot poses

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You have planned a portrait photo shoot but the person stands helplessly in front of your camera? Or your model overdoes it and seems to randomly contort her body? As photographer you are responsible for your model to look good in the picture. That’s why you have to take matters into your own hands and give instructions. But what should you say? This post is about the best photo shoot poses for photos. These 5 posing tips will help to improve your portrait photography right away.

1. Portrait poses: The basics

What is the positioning of people in the photo all about? What do you want to achieve?

The model or the person should look as advantageous as possible: Neither fat, immobile, nor static she should look on the picture. To do this, avoid things like an unflattering overextension of the joints or a double chin. Instead, a good mood should be created in the image through dynamics, lines and movement. This allows the portrait to come to life and the person to look good.

When your model stands in front of the camera for the first time, you have to tell precise instructions for poses by yourself. You always have to tell the other person what to do and if the pose is already flattering. Advanced (but often not professional) models, on the other hand, often need to be slowed down. But no matter who is in front of your camera:

No one can know exactly how to position themselves. Because the person can not see himself at that moment. No matter if the pose fits or not: Say regularly what you see.

Communication is key for great portraiture.

Here are a few basics you should always keep in mind when posing for photos:

a) First things first: Avoid symmetry

The image should look as natural and dynamic as possible – which is actually the opposite of symmetry. Symmetry can also be a nice style, but unintentionally it quickly creates a static and awkward effect.

In most cases it occurs accidentally, because our entire body has a symmetrical structure: our two halves of the face, both arms and legs are usually as good as symmetrical. Therefore, you should now gradually resolve this symmetry. This will also be seen throughout the entire post.

In principle, it is very simple: instruct your model to turn away from the basic symmetrical posture. This works best if you let the model turn in a bit.

The twisting in is not only used for stronger persons to make them look slimmer. But also very effective for thinner models to generally look more dynamic: Slightly turn in the body of the person. Good are angles of approx. 30° – 45°. But the head remains turned straight into the camera depending on the chocolate side.

See how this makes the person look more relaxed and dynamic in the following?

b) Do not let your hands hang loose

As just indicated, the arms and hands must be removed from the basic symmetrical posture. Therefore, you should avoid to simply let the hands hang down loose. Regarding the arms, this is always the first thing I pay attention to. With hanging arms your model looks like »ordered but not picked up«. The picture looks more like a snapshot, the model looks insecure.

That’s why it’s important to bring some excitement into it. This happens by simply putting your hands to your body, e.g. touching the hip or to put the hand into the trouser’s pocket. Or somewhere else just to “clean up” and stabilize the pose in this way. Another example and simple trick is to grab the other arm with one hand.

c) Let hands and model interact with environment

A good trick to make the hands »useful« is to simply let them interact with the scenery. You can see in this example that it can be an by touching e.g. trees, plants, flowers etc. This will provide a moving pose. With this interaction the model will also fit in the scenery better:

d) Provide tension from feet to head

You have already improved the picture by letting the body turn in and making the arms “move”. The only thing missing is a critical look at the legs and feet. These also usually look clumsy at first due to the symmetry. This makes the complete stand look a bit jerky.

Introducing asymmetry here as well will automatically provide tension and elegance. A good tip is also to instruct to shift the weight to one leg (instead of both equally). This allows each leg to take a slightly different position, which looks more relaxed.

Bonus trick 17: The shoulder view

The shoulder view is not only taught in driving school. I also regularly use this trick when instructing for a photo shoot pose. First let your model stand with the whole body turned away from you. Then instruct to look over the shoulder of the respective chocolate side into the camera.

By doing this, just pay attention to possible wrinkles that may appear on the neck. These could look strange. Thus, this pose is recommended only when the neck is covered by clothing:

Portrait photografy pose turned around shoulder
Rotate body to make people look slimmer. Here even extremely turned over the shoulder for more dynamics.

2. Avoid beginner mistakes when posing for photos

Once you have initiated the portrait pose basics and explained them to your model, it’s time to move on to step two. Here you carefully observe the model and avoid simple mistakes. This will take your posing one step further.

Below I’ll show you how to avoid the grossest mistakes to achieve flawless posing:

a) You did not observe the lines outside the photo

This is a situation when you shoot an upper body portrait. Do not only pay attention to the area that is actually visible in the photo. Also the invisible lines outside the photo are really important. By looking at the photo later our brain adds these lines to the visible in the photo. Think the lines of the legs and other body parts further. This mainly affects the lines that touch the edge of the image. Note whether the lines diverge or converge. As soon as the lines diverge and go wider to the edge of the image, the person appears thicker. As soon as the same person crosses legs, lines appear that converge towards the edge of the image. This makes the person appear slimmer.

So as a photographer, it’s your job to find a composition for the photo where you can best make the cut. Experiment a bit when looking through the viewfinder and you will find the perfect spot.

b) Eye whites appear extremely large

When showing the eyes of your model, you always want to show the pupils with the beautiful eye color. This is distracted as soon as the eye shows too much white. Pay attention as soon as your model looks out of the picture. Here, the white should not take up the entire eye.

Why can this cause such a distraction? Because white and bright areas always have a particularly distracting effect. By looking at a photo, your eye will be automatically drawn to the brightest areas. To solve this problem, always tell your model to look in the same direction as her nose points:

c) Palms facing the camera

Have you ever seen a picture with a palm facing the camera? Me at least not often And if then it really happened as an intentional stylistic device. Accidentally, this should not happen to your photos for good reasons:

  1. Palms quickly look very large. This often creates competition in terms of area with the face, which should be the main focus of the portrait.
  2. Showing the palm of the hand unconsciously creates the symbol for »Stop! Stop!« – this can be very defensive.
  3. As soon as the hand is turned back in, it simply flows into the posing much more naturally.

You can observe that in this example:

d) Hands deform the face

Be careful when hands touch your face, as they just did, or when body parts in general are deformed: There is often only a fine line between a thoughtful photo and hurting teeth. This is the reason to avoid too much pressure. Otherwise that will cause »dents« and deformations. By paying attention to this, the image will look more natural again:

e) Avoid chin height and double chin

The height of the chin automatically determines the head position. For communication, however, it is usually easier to simply say chin up or chin down. This saves time and further explanations.

Different moods can be achieved through the posture: Chin down usually looks more serious or mysterious. Straight normal to friendly. If the chin is tilted upwards, it can also quickly become »arrogant« look.

But what you want to avoid in any case is a double chin. As soon as you take photos in a frog’s perspective, you should be careful. In this case, the model should stretch her chin or simply look out of the picture – but not into the camera:

f) Avoid competing forms

Just as the complete photography composition, the model’s posing also is all about shapes. As soon as a posture is adopted, shapes are created. The trick is not to let too many competing shapes emerge.

Also too many shapes look rather rigid and immobile. See how the example first creates triangles between arm and head, arm and leg, and leg and floor? Resolve these mishaps and the image will look more natural again:

Note: These tips and before and after examples are from my book, Seeing Outdoor Portraits. Here I show you a total of 147 portrait photography mistakes through just such before and after examples. One chapter is also completely dedicated to what you should pay attention to when model posing and outfit. If you want to become even more confident in this area, you should definitely take a closer look at the book.

3. Model Poses: Less is more

No, this is not Hollywood or any model contest. So stop extremely posed posture. This usually just seems exaggerated or contrived. Although there are models who act out extreme poses with ease, I generally recommend to keep it simple. Avoid waving arms and concentrate on the basics and the expression instead. Also, the standard poses that you know from old-established studios are forbidden in my shoots.

After all, it is much better to capture people just as they are. And I think that’s what a lot of photographers get paid for in the end. In the first step you can achieve this with the basic posing tips from above. In the second step you also always have to decide, what poses suit the individual person. Think about it: Do you want to create a lot of dynamics? Does the posture make sense for the image you want to achive in the end? Does it fit the concept?

If there’s no reason to exaggerate, then you should prefer to go “quiet” and keep it minimal. You should literally focus on the essential features of the person and the natural charisma instead. For this you should start to direct the person for some unposed attitude.

4. Unposed-Poses: Directing instead of commanding

As mentioned at the beginning we want to avoid symmetry. Unfortunately, our bodies are symmetrical – but our movements not at all. Therefore, it is self-explanatory that portraits in motion will look more dynamic.

As you can see in the following photo, extremely vivid photos can be caputred at the photo shoot. But only if you don’t explain poses to people in detail. Avoid giving specific commands on how they should hold their hand or at what angle their left ear should stay:

Photography poses with movement
For unposed couple or wedding photos, give a frame and no direct poses. This is how naturalness is created.

Instead, the current trend is to give your model or couple a creative setting rather than to intervene in detail. You create situations where your model becomes an actor. So as photographer you can stay behind and be a “silent observer”.

A few examples of how you and your model can get into the flow:

  • Ask your model to walk along between two points
  • Bring a Bluetooth speaker and play music to liven up the atmosphere
  • Make the model dance (to the music)
  • Ask a couple to whisper something in each other’s ear
  • Let the persons put themselves in different emotional states
  • Have the model re-enact a scene from a movie and do some acting

With couples the whole thing can become even more lively than with a single person. Stage a beautiful day with them. Ask them to whisper something in each other’s ear. Or let them walk along a path. Dynamic scenes can develop from this by itself. You as the photographer dive under and capture the scene from the background.

All these instructions and ideas of course also provide some fun during the photo shoot. The mood is thus automatically lightened. Everything is done and you just have to press the shutterbutton at the right moments.

Unposed pose
This photo was taken after the instruction to walk around.

This is how it looks, when I try to shoot unposed poses with a lot of movement. Unfortunately the video is in german language – but you can turn on Youtube’s subtitle function:


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5. Show expression without a mask

People love faces. Faces tell stories. Facial expressions transport emotions. There are so many muscles that work together every day on your face. They emphasize what we say or think. Use this in your photo as an advantage.

It is not at all about learning the »perfect model expression«. First of all you should make sure to photograph people without their mask. What mask? I call it the »Oh no, someone is taking a picture of me«-Mask. Especially for people who are not regularly in front of the camera, this expression is a natural defensive reaction. Often you are a bit shy in the beginning so both of you need to warm up a bit first. Only then will the person open up and show a natural face and expression.

The person will drop the mask step by step.

Communication once again plays a big role in this. As you cannot »order« a smile, you have to create a pleasant situation. Then a smile will follow automatically.

With experienced models (or if you already get along well with each other) there is also the possibility to let them put themselves in emotional situations. Simple sentences can serve this purpose. Start your instruction with something like this: “Imagine how it feels, …”, “Imagine you are…”.

Also the model’s mouth is one of the most important factors. The mouth (of course, along with the eyes and many other parts of the face) fundamentally determines the expression. I usually find it best here when it is slightly open. This does not suit every personality, but if it does, it enhances the expression and gives the lips more volume.

Last tip: If you do not let the person look directly into the camera, new moods can also be created again. For example, it looks thoughtful when the model looks down. Inspiring it can also look when the view moves upwards out of the picture. Or you try out how the photo looks when the model closes her eyes. Some people are feeling more confident when you are not forcing them to look directly into your camera.

Conclusion: Portrait Posing Tips

I hope that I could take away your fear of telling your model what to do. I suggest to memorize a few of these suggestions. So at the next photo shoot you can give your model some good tips. Often it’s enough to remember a few of these basics. So even beginners can appear really relaxed in the photos.

The real supreme discipline, which often produces the best photos, is to dive into the background as a photographer. Try to give less direct instructions during the shoot. Instead, you create a situation in which people move around on their own. Movement can be taken literally: Let them run or interact with each other. Let them imagine things or even act things out. This can lead to completely new situations you never thought of before.

Markus Thoma

I'm Markus and I write about the creative way of photography - all from my experience as a professional photographer. I prefer to shoot portraits outside - in natural light. Because less is usually more. Sometimes I also like to travel. When I'm not taking pictures, you can find me at metalcore concerts, in nature or at the snack bar. Also check out my social media channels:

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