How to Pose for Photos: A Guide For New Photographers

Learning three manual exposure settings seems simple compared to memorizing the placement of chins, shoulders, hands, elbows, hips, knees and feet required to create a flattering portrait. Posing can be downright scary for new photographers, but without it, a technically perfect photo falls flat in an unflattering rendition. But, all those posing “rules” boil down to a set of basic ideas that can help any photographer create a flattering pose without imitating another photographer’s work. Use these four basics — and a quick checklist — to master how to pose for photos.

What is the closest to the camera always appears the largest.

By keeping the elbows out to the side instead of in front, the arms appear smaller. Photo by Hillary K. Grigonis

The placement of objects inside a flat photograph gives our brains three-dimensional clues. Placed incorrectly, our brains will automatically assume that an object is larger than it is in real life. Objects — including body parts — that are closest to the camera will always appear the largest. If you pose someone with her hands in her hair but her elbows are straight out in front of her, her arms are going to look abnormally large. Instead, keep the hands in her hair but move her arms out to the side.

Ready to take your posing and styling techniques to the next level? Check out John Keatley’s Portrait Photography Master Class today.

Outside of learning how to pose for photos, this idea can also be applied to the camera’s angle. Unless you are shooting maternity portraits, avoid shooting from belly-height or you will emphasize the subject’s stomach. Shooting from the subject’s eye-level is often best. Shooting slightly above the subject is almost universally flattering, emphasizing features like the eyes while making the body appear to be slimmer. Occasionally, some subjects can be shot from a low angle to make them appear taller, but low angles don’t work for every body type and they also tend to get those up-the-nose shots, so avoid low angles until you’re more comfortable in your posing game.

Shot straight-on, subjects look their largest; angled, look their smallest.

how to pose for photos
For a pose that makes the torso appear thinner, angle the body away from the camera, but if you want an athlete to look large and strong, keep the shoulders parallel with the camera. Photo by Hillary K. Grigonis

The idea of the camera adding ten pounds isn’t a myth — while we can see in 3D, a photograph only includes two-dimensional information. The trick is to use that 2D to your advantage, instead of the other way around.

If you place the subject so that their shoulders are parallel with the camera, facing straight ahead, they will look their widest. If the subject instead angles one shoulder away from the camera, standing at an angle, they will appear thinner. Knowing why this happens allows you to adjust your pose for your subject. If you are shooting a football player and want to make him look big and tough, place him facing the camera straight on. If you are shooting a new mom that’s uncomfortable in her new body, posing her angled away from the camera will create a more flattering look.

Angles are always flattering.

how to pose for photos
Angles, whether that’s the angle of the arm or shooting from a higher angle, tend to be universally flattering. Photo by Hillary K. Grigonis

Photographers are often asked by nervous subjects, What do I do with my arms? The hands can be placed in a number of different ways, but the big idea is to put space between the arms and the torso and create angles. With the arms at the side, the torso looks wider, but add some empty space between the arms and sides and the pose instantly improves. There’s no hard and fast rule to where the hands go — rest them on the hips, slide them through hair, gently touch the chin or rest them against a wall — the idea is to keep them from resting flat against the body.

Angles can apply to the legs too — angling one leg slightly creates a more interesting and flattering pose.. Popping one knee forward a bit, putting one foot slightly farther back than the other or shifting a majority of the weight to one leg easily improves a pose.

Ready to take your posing and styling techniques to the next level? Check out John Keatley’s Portrait Photography Master Class today.

 Shoulders back, chin out.

How to pose for photos
The chin and shoulders are often problem areas, so check both before you shoot. Photo by Hillary K. Grigonis

With the chin and shoulders held in the wrong position, everyone has chin flab and under-arm blubber. Watch for any loose skin under the chin, and ask the subject to move their chin forward slightly when you spot it. This may feel a bit awkward, but instantly eliminates any indication of a double chin.

The shoulders are another common trouble spot. While creating angles with the arms slims the torso, pushing the shoulders back and the chin out is another optics trick hat emphasizes the face. Pushing the shoulders back is particularly important with strapless dresses and sleeveless tops — watch for any skin bulging over the top of the dress and correct by pulling the shoulders back a bit farther.

How To Pose For Photos: Watch for these common pitfalls.

Posing is part directing and part letting the subject fall into a natural pose, then making small corrections. Once you’ve learned how to pose for photos by picking up the basics, move through a mental checklist to make sure a pose hits all the right marks.

  • Hair — Watch for stray pieces of hair to save lots of editing time later. With long hair, experiment with hair behind and in front of the shoulders.
  • Eyes — Make sure majority of the eye is the color — looking too far to the side can emphasize the whites of the eyes instead. Talk about awkward.
  • Nose — The nose will look larger if the tip goes past the face and into the background. If you spot the nose beyond the cheek-line, make the angle a bit less extreme to correct.
  • Chin — Double check for double chins.
  • Shoulders and Hips — Angle slightly away from the camera for the most flattering pose, unless you want to make the subject look larger, like when photographing athletes.
  • Hands — Create angles with the hands, but use light pressure for a more relaxed pose.
  • Feet — Pop a knee out and a foot back for full body poses.
  • Odd Crops — Don’t wreck a good pose with an odd crop, remember not to crop at any joints. Aim for variety by getting full body poses as well as three-quarter and head shots.

Posing is a tough task for new photographers to tackle, but by concentrating on a few basic concepts, you can learn how to pose for photos without memorizing a long list of rules.

Ready to take your posing and styling techniques to the next level? Check out John Keatley’s Portrait Photography Master Class today.

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Hillary K. Grigonis is a web content writer and lifestyle photographer from Michigan. After working as a photojournalist for several years, she made the leap and started her own business and now enjoys sharing tips and tricks with emerging photographers.