Beyond stunning looks and a great personality, a big part of what makes a model successful is good posing technique. A model who looks amazing may get plenty of first time bookings, but if they don’t know how to pose, they are unlikely be called back for another job with the same client or photographer.
There’s a lot more to good posing than merely acting all glamorous and dramatic in front of the wind-machine though. Sometimes what’s needed from a model is a much more subtle and psychological technique; at others what’s required may almost border on dancing or even acting.
In this article we consider some of the different approaches to professional model posing, offering tips and pointing out any potential problem areas.
Every photographer has their own way of working. Some may spend an eternity asking you to make the subtlest of changes to your position until they find precisely what they are looking for, only to fire off just one or two photos and move on to the next set-up. Others might have you leaping around spontaneously while they shoot dozens or even hundreds of photos in quick succession. Some will take you out on the street, rapidly improvising shots with the natural daylight. Others will need you to hold a precise pose for long periods of time so as to be in exactly the right position for studio lighting.
As a model you need to be prepared to work in a variety of ways, depending on the demands of each job and the particular photographer’s shooting style and level of experience.
When it comes to working with models, a fashion photographer will usually fit into one of the following three categories:
The Dictator knows exactly what they want, and they know how to get it. Here you’ll be expected to patiently follow instructions, but perhaps won’t be asked to provide much input or interpretation of your own.
Collaborators usually know what they want too, but may not be entirely sure how to get there. Or at least they are more open to experimentation and an exchange of ideas. Here they’ll need your help. The photographer may explain their ideas to you, making suggestions about how you might pose, but they will likely also be expecting you to add something of your own to the shoot.
Finally there are those photographers who don’t really have a clue what they want, but will expect you to provide it all the same. Here you’ve got some real work to do. Often this means trying out a few different approaches to posing until you get positive feedback from the photographer.
Let’s stop for a moment to consider the tradition of “posing” for a photo.
In its early days, photography was not considered the legitimate form of art that it is now. In order to be taken seriously by the art world, 18th century photographers often tried to emulate works of classical art, to show that photography could depict the human form in the expressive manner of painting or sculpture. But, in doing this, photography unthinkingly took on many of the customs and traditions of classical art. Some of which have stayed with us until present times. Posing is one of them.
Not only this, but the technical limitations of early photographic technology meant that the rapid exposure times we are accustomed to today were just not possible: although a portrait no longer took days or weeks to complete as it had done with painting, producing a photographic portrait nonetheless required the model to stay totally motionless for a long period of time. No doubt this is part of the reason why we often think of people in the Victorian era as being very stiff and formal: we would undoubtedly look the same if we were told to stand totally still for several minutes on end.
This concept of posing for a photograph has remained with us right up until the present day, but it’s largely an anachronistic left-over from a bygone era.
By asking you to pose in a fixed position, a photographer respects a long tradition, but it is by no means the most logical way to photograph a model today.
Googling a phrase such as “model poses for photo shoots” will bring up numerous ”posing guides”: pages filled with thumbnails of women (always women) in various poses that you as a model are expected to copy.
Looking a lot like the menus you find in some budget Asian restaurants with photos of each dish – so you can point at the one you want without having to go through the humiliation of incorrectly pronouncing the name – these posing guides instead save the photographer from the hard work of trying to get a good performance out of a model. Unfortunately the results are usually about as satisfactory as cheap take-out.
Unfortunately, many photographers still like to position their model in a very stiff and lifeless manner.
True, sometimes a photographer might want to reference classical painting or sculpture in a fashion shoot. Here it makes total sense that they would ask you to mimic the pose of the original artwork. But to choose from a selection of cheesy preset poses purely because of lack of either imagination or photographic skills makes no sense whatsoever.
Unlike in the early days of photography, today’s cameras are capable of lightening-fast shutter speeds. Modern digital sensors perform astonishingly well in low light. Studio strobes sync at minuscule fractions of a second. And one of the primary advantages of digital photography is that it costs the photographer precisely nothing to try out ideas until they find one that works.
Why pose in a stiff and unnatural position when technology permits shooting quickly and spontaneously?
Of course, it’s more difficult to get a good shot of a person in movement. And there are many legitimate situations in which a photographer might choose to statically pose their model. But where possible, the best results will usually come from forgetting about the idea of posing altogether, and instead thinking of things in terms of movement and action. The “pose” will be whichever precise moment the photographer chooses to capture from your continuous action – but in any case that’s the photographer’s responsibility, not yours.
To be totally clear, we’re not suggesting that every fashion photograph must feature a model in frantic activity. The “action” you perform as a model might be something as simple as just standing still and looking into the camera. Rather, what we’re arguing against is the practice of photographers placing you, the model, in a stiff and unnatural pose that is meant to resemble a spontaneous action or movement. Even if the pose might look natural for a second or two, the longer you hold a pose the more awkward it tends to become.
Ultimately though, it’s the results that count. And despite what we’ve said here, some photographers may produce great photos by working in this way. So if the photographer asks you to pose like this, that is of course what you should do.
Many times, though, a photographer will just place the model in front of the camera and wait for them to “perform” – without offering much in the way of direction. If that’s the case, then our suggestion is to engage in fluid and continuous action rather than moving from one fixed pose to another. At least unless the photographer gives you instructions to the contrary.
Just as in any of life’s relationships, it’s usually beneficial if you can imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes; trying to see things from their perspective.
The more you know about photography, the easier it will be for you to understand what it is that a photographer is expecting from you when you stand in front of their camera.
But don’t just blindly trust photographers to know what’s best and give you the right direction. You’ll be in a much better position to produce good fashion photographs if you yourself have a clear understanding of what makes a good fashion photograph.
Regularly look at photography in order to develop a photographic taste of your own. Learn to tell the difference between a good photographer and a bad photographer. A good model and a bad model. A good pose and a bad pose.
It’s particularly important that you notice the things that don’t work: the awkward angles that make the model look weird; the bad composition that seem to give the model an extra leg in the form of a lamppost, or a tree for hair. Remember these things while shooting and try to position yourself accordingly. Although noticing such errors should be the photographer’s responsibility, you can’t rely on every photographer to do their job well.
Study the body language of the people you see around you. See what kind of message they transmit to the world depending on how they hold their bodies. Do they seem confident? Shy? Strong? Weak? Open? Closed? Aggressive? Gentle?
Add the most useful stances to your repertoire of poses. Practice them in front of the mirror. Or, better still, on video. If it works for you it will probably work for the camera too.
Also try to become aware of the kind of body language that doesn’t look so great in a photo. A hand pushed through the hair, a hand on the forehead, a hand on the chin, a hand behind the head, a hand up on the shoulder: all can look quite clichéd and self-conscious.
We’re not going to say that you should never do these things, but bear in mind that they usually don’t come across like entirely natural actions – at least not to a trained eye. Instead they are the kind of automatic nervous reactions that people often make when they feel uncomfortable in front of a camera. The portfolios of amateur photographers are filled with such poses.
Viewers of such photos can often subconsciously sense this kind of awkward body language, even if they may not be entirely sure how or why the photo seems contrived. This undermines the credibility of the image. Good models never look uncomfortable or self-conscious in front of a camera. Even if they are.
Learn not to care.
Everybody’s face is different, but generally photos are more flattering when the camera is positioned slightly higher than the model. Although shooting from below can make for a dramatic composition, we are not so accustomed to seeing other people from this unusual angle, and it tends to distort perspective, exaggerating limbs and facial features.
It may also highlight parts of our physiognomy that we might prefer to hide. So if you are at all at risk of suffering from a double chin, or perhaps have a slightly turned up nose, a low angle will likely accentuate these features.
This isn’t true for everyone though, and some people can look great when shot from below: giving them a dominant and powerful look. Experiment by taking selfies of your own face from different angles in order to learn which works best for you. This way you can be sure of always putting yourself in a good position in relation to the photographer.
It can also help to gain a basic understanding of the way photographic lighting works. Whether you are working in the studio or out on location, quality of light will tend to vary enormously between one position and another; one angle and the next.
Sometimes even just moving your head an inch or two can completely alter the effect, transforming the shot from mediocre to sublime.
As with camera angle, direction of light can also be more or less flattering depending on the person’s face. Light from above looks more natural to our eyes, as it’s usually where the sun is positioned. Conversely, light from below is often unflattering – making the subject look a little demonic, like in a horror movie.
As you normally won’t be able to see yourself while you’re shooting, it’s of course the photographer’s responsibility to let you know where the light works best. But it can be easy to get carried away once you are shooting and move away from the correct position. Try to keep the location and angle of the lights in mind at all times – yet without worrying about this so much that it restricts your performance.
Facial expression is just the visible surface of a deeper inner emotion and attitude. Get into the right state of mind, and your face will do the rest. Don’t try to show that you are confident, sexy, cold, or aloof; feel confident, sexy, cold, or aloof; be confident, sexy, cold, or aloof. Your face will follow.
Sometimes a great fashion photo can come out of the simplest of poses: even just standing against a wall, looking directly into the camera, with the right expression. Often, though, a much more animated and dynamic pose is called for in order to bring an image to life.
At such times, posing overlaps with forms of art such as sculpture, performance art, and even contemporary dance: an exploration of the human physical form. And as with many other kinds of art, good posing means paying particular attention to balance, symmetry, movement, flow, and style.
Think of your body as a compositional element in a painting, and as an expressive tool. What mood is the photographer trying to create? Is it an aggressive and angular photo? A relaxed and serene one?
Consider the placement of your hand and limbs. Unless you deliberately want to display reserve or reticence, their position should be relaxed and confident, occupying the space around you; not tensely folded up close to your body.
Whether you are working in a studio or on location, think about the way that you interact with that space. Just because the photographer is in front of you doesn’t mean that you should face the camera straight on. Turn your body away and look back at the camera. Even a slight change of angle or a subtle shift of your weight from one foot to another can radically alter the shot.
Take a deep breath, relax, drop your hands to your side. Humans have developed an extremely evolved system of non-verbal communication. It doesn’t take exaggerated gestures to deliver a strong message. Sometimes doing nothing at all, or just shifting your body around slightly, is all it takes to produce a great shot.
Remember, if a photographer has chosen to work with you, it’s because you have something that excites them photographically, something that they want to capture in an image. It’s usually enough just to be yourself. No need to “act like a model.”
It’s true that when the average person thinks of a fashion photograph, they usually imagine dramatic and glamorous poses. But often the best fashion photography is a whole lot subtler than this.
As odd as it may sound, movie directors will often ask their cast not to act. Instead they may tell the actor to take on the character’s personality, to become that character, and then to just behave normally: as the character would behave in that situation. Now what happens is that the actor stops trying to show the camera how the character feels, and instead just feels; as the character. Then the camera captures that genuine emotion.
The real art of posing as a model goes on inside. Try to develop inner strength and attitude, and your body and face will transmit this without you even trying.
Sometimes it can help to imagine yourself as a character in a movie. This can work particularly well if the photographer or art director has given you a theme to interpret. Instead of striking poses connected to the theme, situate yourself in a story based around this theme.
What kind of narrative scenario does the theme suggest? What kind of actions would be logical for your character to carry out in such a scenario?
Watch a movie and imagine you are a photographer tracking the actors’ movements. When would you press the shutter? Now? Or now? What kind of movement makes for the most interesting and lively shots?
With all the talk of creativity and edgy concepts in the fashion industry, it can be easy to lose sight of the most important element: a fashion photograph primarily exists in order to show or promote clothing. True, some great fashion photographs display more attitude than actual product. But such shots tend to be a rarity, and most clients will want the clothes to be as visible as possible in the final photographs.
Not only visible, but looking their absolute best. The way you wear an outfit, and especially the manner in which you move while wearing it, will go a long way towards dictating whether a garment looks like a luxurious and alluring work of art, or an ugly old rag.
Although a photographer may be more excited about your face, or in expressing whatever clever idea there is behind the shoot, a client is most likely to book you again as a model simple because you show off the clothes at their very best. In part this is of course down to fit, but it’s also got a lot to do with pose.
Pose for the clothes and you’ll be more likely to get a repeat booking.