Portrait Posing Tips and Composition Tips


© Copyright Ed Krimen

I strive for quality in everything I do. I don’t claim to be an expert photographer, but I know what works, either from my own experience or my observations of other people’s work. Granted, I have a lot to learn, but I think I know my current boundaries.

I came across an article on the Digital Photography School website that provided some poor tips on portrait photography. The Digital Photography School usually has good articles, such as these two portrait photography articles we focused on here in the Photobird Daily: “Capture Personality in Your Portraits” and “Beautiful, Natural, Genuine Portraits“. But the article I discuss below was unfortunately not a good one. Plus, the photos that accompany the article could be improved as well. Photography is subjective, we all agree, but I feel it’s important to point out obvious, fundamental errors or omissions that would otherwise improve photos.

Don’t Follow These Portrait Posing Tips

In the article “Portrait Photography’s Power Posing Part I: The Components“, the author, a photography instructor, offers tips on how to pose. But the tips are convoluted and contrived, which would result in your subject looking stiff and unnatural. Moreover, the poses in the photos don’t follow the advice in the article — but that’s a good thing, because the poses in the photos are actually pretty good and natural looking. Unfortunately though, the composition in the photos is poor. The photos could be much better if their composition was improved.

The first tip in the article states that “Girl’s (sic) fingers should be long and elegant.” What does that mean? What if a girl’s fingers are not long and elegant? Then what? The girls’ fingers in the example photos that accompany the article aren’t particularly long and elegant; yet the girls’ poses are good and look natural.

In the tips for arms, it reads “Elbows bent express a comfortable casualness” and “Arms straight give a feeling of formality and often stiffness (to be used with much caution)”. Unfortunately, these tips didn’t work for the guy in the photo with his arms crossed: He still looks stiff, even though his pose looks fairly natural. Maybe he’s stiff because he’s uncomfortable having his photo taken.

Follow These Portrait Posing Tips Instead

Of course, poses should look natural, albeit have some personality to them.

Instead of following the tips given in the article, follow these portrait posing tips:

1. Pick up any mass media publication, such as a fashion magazine, catalog, or weekly newspaper circular, and look at the models, both female and male.
2. Look at their hands, hips, feet, and hair. Look where they’re placed and how they’re positioned.
3. Look at the eyes and the mouth. Is the person smiling or serious? Where are they looking?
4. Analyze and replicate the models’ poses. But the poses need to look natural, not contrived. With some practice, you can achieve similar looks. It’s really not that difficult.

Portrait Photo Critique

Also, the photos shown in the article on the Digital Photography School website could be so much better with some quick and simple changes.

1. In the first photo, the girl’s outfit is very cute and colorful. But the photographer could have picked a much better background! At least remove the bent, rusty hanger sticking out from under the locker door below her left shoulder. The floor of the locker room looks awful; I can’t believe the photographer wanted her to sit on the floor with her cute ‘n colorful outfit. Not good. If this was an artsy fashion shoot, the situation would be different, obviously. Her pose, nevertheless, is pretty good, natural, relaxed, and cute.

2. In the second photo, what kind of photo is this supposed to be? Is it a portrait or a landscape shot? If it’s a portrait shot, get a close-up on the guy! Not 30 feet away with the blank sky taking up half of the photo. His pose is not bad, but the photo could be so much better if we could actually be closer. Why have so much of the sky in the photo? There’s nothing in the sky to see, no clouds, no mountains. But even if there were, it’s a portrait shot, so the photo should be a close-up of the person.

3. In the third photo, the girl is attractive and has a beautiful smile. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see her smile in this photo because the photographer decided to include the stairs, the three pillars, and the trees in the background. This photo should also be a close-up. There’s really no reason to try to show all of those architectural features in the photo. The girl is not wearing anything particularly interesting; her pants and shoes are not noteworthy. Her coat looks like it might be interesting, but we’re too far away to see the detail. Focus on the important things in the scene: the girl and her smile.

Examples of Good Portraits

The photographer who took those photos could really benefit from the composition articles we’ve highlighted here in the Photobird Daily. One of the best, fundamental composition tutorials I’ve found is discussed at this link in the Photobird Daily.

Please understand: I’m not trying to be unnecessarily harsh with my commentary. I feel that if you’re going to offer tips and help people learn how to take better photos, then make sure the tips are helpful, and provide some good photos as examples. I don’t claim to be a professional photographer (far from it), but I know a good photo when I see one, and I try to figure out what looks good in photos and emulate those features in my own photos. Some of the portrait photos I’ve shot are in my Photobird photo album, in the Portraits album here, with more on the way. The photo of Alina shown above is one of my favorites. (There’s a good story behind the shooting of that photo; read the description on the photo’s page.) I think my portrait photos are pretty good. I’ve seen much better photos shot by other people, and I think my skills will improve, but I’m on the right track.

To see some truly inspirational portrait photos, check out Dustin Steller’s photos at http://stellerphoto.com/blog/, which was mentioned in the comments of the article I discussed above. Consider what I’ve written above and compare Dustin Steller’s photos to those in the article at Digital Photography School. Also, when analyzing Dustin Steller’s photos, try to disregard the attractive coloring and post-processing he’s applied to the photos; look at the composition and the poses in the photos, and consider how you could do something similar.

I hope my critique and tips will help you shoot more, beautiful photos.


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4 Responses to “Portrait Posing Tips and Composition Tips”

  1. josoIII Says:

    Ed, I’m im total agreement about your thoughts on that other site for portraits hints.

    The second photo has way to much head space, the black and white photo has a backround that is far to busy with lines that dominate the composition more than the subject, which is the model.

    I think a key to portraits is when shooting a female, the least amount of force or muscle strain, yields the best natural look.

    Camera angle and lighting may have the greatest impact in a portait, clothing and make-up, along with proper backround adds a image dynamic for subject focus.

    I think a shallow DoF works well for close-up head shots.

  2. Ed Krimen Says:

    Hi josoIII, thank you for your feedback and additional portrait tips. Much appreciated!

    — Ed

  3. Jessica Says:

    Hey Ed,

    Too bad you felt the need to criticize so negatively. One of my favorite things about DPS is the welcoming, inclusive atmosphere. The feeling given in your comment there and your post here is absolutely the opposite.

    Whether you are a good photographer or a bad photographer, I would never hire someone with such a terrible attitude to take my portrait. Maybe the most important tip to being a good portrait photographer is ‘make your subject comfortable.’ Are you doing that here?

    Just a few of my thoughts.

  4. Ed Krimen Says:

    Thank you for your feedback, Jessica. Sorry you did not find this article constructive. My goal is to help you improve your photography. Please see the Photobird Daily for articles which you may find to be more helpful and enjoyable.

    I agree that making your subject feel comfortable is indeed very important, especially when working with people who aren’t comfortable getting their picture taken. What’s also very important is understanding the fundamentals of composition, which is helpful not only for portrait photography but all forms of photography; you can learn more about composition in the Photobird Daily article “Composition Is Key“.

    Identifying and discussing these characteristics helps us become better photographers. Offering an unpopular opinion and being critical in writing may sometimes be perceived with an unintended negative tone.

    I appreciate your feedback, Jessica. Please continue to send it.

    Also, please sign up for the Photobird newsletter, which will have some fun things in it when it starts up soon. The Photobird newsletter will also keep you informed about more opportunities to learn more from “How to…” articles in the Photobird Learning Center and the Photobird Daily.


    — Ed

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