Posing Guide for Better Portrait Photography

by WordCustard

Posing tips and book reviews to help you take better photos of other people and some great poses to ensure you look your best in self portraits too.

Great Poses Make Great Pictures

OK everyone, say "cheese"! Did you see all those fake grins and stiff poses appear? Posing for a portrait or even a snapshot is something few of us do naturally. Whether you are photographing children, teens, or adults as individuals or groups, you are likely to run into challenges when posing a photograph.

When it comes down to it, most of us are pretty self-conscious about our appearance. Society tells us that we are not as slim or flawless as the media role models. We are the wrong height, weight, skin tone, age... well you get the idea.

A great pose can bring out the best in your subject (or of course in yourself, if you are the one in front of the camera, and every photographer ends up staring back at a lens sooner or later). The trouble is, most of us associate posing with an artificial stance. Those of us who learned a few "tricks" are the worst of all. I still cringe at photos where I'm holding my "slimming pose"!

Posing people is a challenge because you have to coax them to drop those bad habits as well as making them feel relaxed about the way they look. When it comes to getting those flattering shots, it makes sense to take some professional advice rather than both photographer and subject ending up tense and frustrated with poses that don't feel natural.

Copyright: Article copyright ©WordCustard on Wizzley, May 2011. Article preview image courtesy of morgueFile. All other photos copyright of the photographers credited. 


How Photogenic are You?

Let's put this to the test...

Head and Shoulders Poses

The "Classic" Portrait

All of us are likely to need a head and shoulders portrait at some time, whether for an online profile, printed publicity media, or just to please our parents.

According to professional photographer and author Jeff Smith (who defines a 'head and shoulders' photo as from the waist up), deciding on how to pose these shots begins with understanding the mood your subject wants to create and the purpose the portrait will be used for. 


Other top tips that Smith shares in his book Jeff Smith's Guide to Head and Shoulders Portrait Photography include:

  • Clothing for portrait photography should neither be too tight or too loose; black can be slimming.
  • Long sleeves are a great idea for just about everyone.
  • Coordinate the background with the clothing.
  • Use lighting to direct attention to the most flattering parts of the subject.


Flattering posing suggestions for head and shoulders photos:

  • Disguise the neck by resting the chin in a hand or against the back of the wrist.
  • A side view of the shoulders is more slimming, particularly for women.
  • Avoid resting the fleshy parts of the arm against a surface.
  • Dangling and clenched hands look unnatural; holding something can help.
  • Avoid large grins that create a squint and emphasize wrinkles.


Photography credits:

All photos shared on flickr.com under Creative Commons licences. 

Shirley: Alaskan Dude; Portrait Photography: cherie6c; Kao 10: Robert Bejil Photography; Nan: Jon Ovington.

Some Great Head and Shoulders Portraits

Shirley - very classy portrait
Shirley - very classy portrait
Portrait Photography
Portrait Photography
Kao 10
Kao 10

Full Length Photo Poses

Head to Toe Portraits and Group Photography

The challenge of full-length body poses lies in dealing with the all the added body issues that worry so many of us when caught on camera. Group photography only multiplies these concerns and also requires a photographer to create balance and harmony so that each subject is neither too prominent nor too hidden.


Professional photographers' tips on full-length poses:

  • Use furniture and props to minimise a sense of exposure (Julia Greer)
  • Props (or other people) can also be used to block part of the body if needed (Carolyn Wright)
  • Shadows can be used in a similar way to slim subjects (Elizabeth Etienne)
  • Be careful with body language: avoid having both hands in pockets, folded or clasped in front; instead lean against a prop, have one hand only in a pocket, or hold something (Elizabeth Etienne)
  • Try posing an overweight client on the edge of a seat, leaning forward (Ron Jacobson)
  • Avoid straight up and down, square on portraits for women, instead create curves with the body's posture (Chris Nelson)
  • Show hands in profile (side on) to keep them from looking too large and ensure one heel of the foot is always visible instead of phtographing both feet and legs straight on (Billy Pegram)
  • Ensure legs have some separation between them and, in sitting poses, that one foot always touches the ground (Jeff Smith)

If you need some inspiration, take a look at fashion photography, but take care to ignore the body proportions and to focus on the poses themselves. Yes, these women and men are gorgeous, but they are usually posed to their best advantage too!


Photos below shared on flickr.com under Creative Commons licences.

Tiff explains all: KaiChanVong;  Friends Back Friends: makelessnoise

Posing Ideas for Full Length Photos

Tiff explains all.
Tiff explains all.
Friends Back Friends
Friends Back Friends

Now Let's See Some Poses in Action!

Discover More Advice on Posing for Portraits

All of the tips shared here and much, much more can be found in the books below. 

Many different professional portrait photographers contributed to the second two of the three books, including those quote above. They include specialists in portraits for seniors, family photography, boudoir photo shoots, advertising, engagement and bridal photography, pregnancy and baby photos, and of course studios catering to portrait photography in general.

Posing Guides -- Packed with Tips and Tricks

Jeff Smith's Guide to Head and Should...
Amherst Media, Inc.
$34.95  $4.98
The Art of Posing: Techniques for Dig...
Amherst Media, Inc.
$34.95  $16.25
Professional Portrait Posing: Techniq...
Amherst Media, Inc.
$34.95  $16.25

A Final Posing Tip

Remember, happy and natural people look much better in photos than stiff and uncomfortable people do.

If you are the photographer, encourage your subjects to relax. Lighten the mood by chatting with them and maybe telling a joke. Even if you don't want big smiles, creating an easy-going atmosphere will help the person or people you are photographing to stop worrying and start trying better poses.

If you are the subject, try to get comfortable and enjoy having your photo taken! A good photographer will ensure you look your best. And with digital photography there's always an opportunity to take another shot.

Useful Digital Photography and Portrait Posing Links

Top Tips on Taking a Self Portrait
Getting a flattering shot when you are taking your own photo

Beginning Digital SLR Photography
Tips and book reviews to help you get up and running with your DSLR.

Jeff Smith Photography
Discover the website of photographer Jeff Smith who was featured here.

Hey, Before You Go...

Why not join me here on Wizzley and build an online income writing about things you love! Just click the link to get started.

Updated: 10/30/2011, WordCustard
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?

Share Your Thoughts (or just Strike a Pose)!

Maggie on 12/04/2013

Great tips. Thanks.

sheilamarie on 12/14/2012

Great tips for taking portraits. I just had someone visiting today who kept clicking photos. I really identified with what you wrote about our self consciousness in photos. Why do we feel so vulnerable?

theraggededge on 08/07/2011

Great article and wonderful tips! I run and hide whenever a camera appears!

Michey on 06/08/2011

Taking Pictures for a portrait is an art, Thanks for share, you have great examples.

WordCustard on 06/04/2011

I like that tip, Cheryl! Great way to get a natural smile.

CherylsArt on 06/04/2011

To get my daughter to laugh or smile in front of the camera, I tell her to think of... (and mention one of our cats names here.) Brings a smile or laughter every time.

_Joan_ on 06/03/2011

Thanks for this. I'm very camera-shy, so I welcome any advice to help me feel more confident about being photographed.

Grandma Deal on 06/03/2011

Great ideas. I'll practice them on my grandchildren. ;o)

ohcaroline on 06/03/2011

Great advice for both taking and being taken in photos.

KathyMcGraw on 06/03/2011

I remember everything from my Portrait Photography Class, and you have some great tips here. But, sorry, no matter how much I know, or even with your helpful tips on posing I still don't like my picture taken :) I have one portrait that someone took of me with my hand on my chin as I was thinking...that is the only picture I actually like :) Your tips here are right on!

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