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The Biggest Posing Mistakes Photographers Make

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Roberto Valenzuela explains what makes posing your photography model so difficult, and offers some tips on how to think about posing.
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Hands down, the subjects of posing and lighting are the two biggest causes of headaches photographers face. Posing, however, can impact your business more than lighting or anything else. The reason is most clients are not photography gurus. They don’t really know what good lighting or composition is, leaving those artistic decisions to you, the photographer. But you can be sure of one thing: all clients can tell you immediately if they love or hate the pose. Posing creates an instinctive reaction because we have posed for photos since our first childhood memories. Although clients might pay for a photo that has an unusual composition or not so great lighting, they will not pay for or be happy with a photo if they appear awkward. For these reasons, it is absolutely crucial that your client’s poses appear natural, beautiful, and effortless.  In this article, I offer some tips on how to approach posing.

Why Posing is So Challenging

What makes posing so difficult?  Posing is especially challenging for three main reasons.

1: Body language.  We have the ability to communicate with our bodies just as much or better than we can with words. Furthermore, most people are very in tune with someone’s body language and how it affects them. For example, if someone quickly walks up to you, staring at you in the eyes with their chin down, you might feel threatened by that body language. In the same way, a beautiful woman could be at a social gathering when out of the corner of your eye, you see her gently glancing over her shoulder, noticing you from across the room. In this scenario, her body language might make you feel flattered.

2:  Distractions and distortions.  Distractions occur when a part of the body is posed awkwardly, resulting in a major distraction. The body is full of joints that can be bent in many ways. Each finger, for example, has three main joints that are used to create the curvature of the finger. Unless your subject is purposely pointing at something, the fingers should always have a nice curve to them, appearing relaxed and without tension. Otherwise, they will become a distraction. The same applies to the elbows, knees and any other joints in the body. During the posing process, photographers have to juggle so many elements to take a proper photograph that we often forget to pay attention to the way the joints are bent. Those fingers are small and can be quite sneaky, but they can also ruin your photograph. Another popular form of distraction occurs when a part of the body is past its natural threshold. You can bend most parts of the body to introduce flattering angles, but if you go too far and accidently bend it too much, it quickly appears painful and therefore becomes a distraction.

Distortions occur from lens choice and overall execution of the pose. From a technical standpoint, lenses are designed in such a way that the optics enlarge whatever is closest to the lens. If, for example, you are posing a woman for a boudoir shoot, and her knee is the closest part of the body to the camera, the result will be a very large knee in relation to the rest of her body. This problem occurs with higher probability when using wide-angle lenses. Any focal length below 100mm could cause unwanted distortion. However, even if you choose a telephoto lens, it won’t change the fact that whatever part of the body is closest to the lens will have more visual emphasis than the rest of the body. This could cause a plethora of problems if you miss spotting someone’s shoulder, knee, or elbow sticking towards the camera.

3: Light. This is a fun element that can make or break a pose quickly! Believe it or not, light has a massive influence on how you go about posing your subjects. In fact, light is the first element I look at before I decide how I will pose my clients. Depending on the direction of the main light source, you make decisions on what part of your subject’s body you would like to emphasize or hide.  Naturally, more visual attention will be given to the parts of the body that are lit than the parts of the body that are in shadow or farther away from the light.  Knowing these little tidbits allows you to shape the light in a way that best flatters your subject. I would suggest you become very familiar with light and its behavior. It’s not difficult, even though some basic math sometimes is required. Knowing how light behaves will be a lifesaver for your business.  

All three of these issues--body language, distractions/distortions, and light--must come together in harmony to create a pose that says what you want it to say! You, the photographer, must decide for yourself what you want the pose to say.

Posing Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t assume that posing is nothing more than something that looks good or bad. Let’s say you copy a pose from a magazine, the pose looks good, you feel good, and you move on to the next photo. The problem is that the pose you copied is someone else’s message, not yours. Again, you, the photographer, should approach posing as a means of getting your message across using your subject’s body language. Posing goes far beyond looking good or bad; it’s an actual language!

Another method that doesn’t work is to collect hundreds of tear sheets for all sorts of sources. We can look at these for motivation, but trying to memorize and recall the poses during a shoot is very difficult. Not to mention, you’re not exactly portraying professional energy to your clients when you have to pause the shoot to look at inspiration photos. There is an unspoken energy between the photographer and the client. This feeling of trust is key to getting your clients to relax and collaborate. However, this vital client/photographer trust lives in a fine line. If clients sense that you are not in control, that you are guessing, that you are struggling for ideas, or that you don’t know what you want, the energy will be lost.  Trust me, you don’t want to be in this situation.

The biggest mistake photographers make with posing is how they approach the subject. Posing is a language. The photographer communicates and or radiates a certain body language and energy though his/her subject’s pose. The issue is most photographers only see posing as an aesthetic topic. Posing goes far beyond what looks good or what looks bad. Posing should be approached with a purpose first. You should ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this photo?” or “what am I trying to show?” Once you answer those questions, you can then begin to think about the pose. For example, if the purpose of a photo were to showcase a woman’s beautiful face, certain poses and angles would achieve that goal more than others. Even though many poses could be aesthetically beautiful, only one pose achieves that goal better than the others.

My approach to teaching the subject of posing in my book Picture Perfect Posing requires knowledge, not memorization. I set out to teach the readers the WHY behind every move they make. My wish is for photographers to feel in control of the posing process instead of relying on luck or the subject moving into the right pose by pure chance. Remember, posing is a language that you can communicate through. Approach posing this way, and you will find posing to be a lot more fun than you could have imagined!

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