This is how I work. I believe that this will translate for many photographers and clients because this is what I've learned by experience as a photographer over the past 8 or so years, but that doesn't mean that there aren't other ways to get things done that will be effective. Much of this advice will still apply to those who shoot more candid photos, though obviously the more controlled posing is genre specific.
There is so much to learn about posing that it would be impossible to tackle it all in one blog post. The first blog post about posing focused on the fundamentals and that leans heavily toward posing the body. Once the fundamentals are learned, there are a million other things to tackle when posing a person such as what to do with their hands or what angle to turn or tilt the head; but those are all things that can be fine tuned once you've mastered the foundational principles. What you need to learn about posing now, because you'll be working to master it your whole career, is how to capture expression.
Body language is a big deal in portraiture. We read it in people every day, almost like a second language that everyone knows but few people ever take the time to think about. As portrait photographers, you must take that time because what you capture is frozen forever to be stared at and nit-picked. Start paying attention to people around you and note what they do with their bodies. As a a voracious reader and someone who has always loved to write, I've learned to pay attention to body language because it's also a fundamental way writers communicate what their characters are thinking and feeling.
Picture this person in your head: she's shifted her weight to her right leg and she has her arms folded over her chest, the toe of her left foot tapping against the ground.
What impression would that person's body language give you? Impatience, maybe?
Picture this person: his fists are balled at his sides, shoulders tense, as he braces his feet apart and lowers his head.
What impression, now? Anger?
One last example: she stands on her toes with her feet apart, chest lifted up to the sky with her arms stretched heavenward and thrown wide, her face turned up toward the sun.
How would you imagine she felt? Joyful, perhaps?
Body language communicates so effectively without the benefit of speech that when you are taking a portrait, the subject's body language will speak volumes about how they feel. You need to learn to pay attention and direct their body into a pose that will communicate what the intention of the portrait is and that extends right to the expression on their face. We could do the same imagination exercise with facial expressions that we did with body language but I don't think it's necessary. Most people can read anger, discomfort, anxiety, joy, contentment, jealousy, or love on someones face. If you want to test it and see how well you can interpret the expression in someone's eyes, you can take this test by the New York Times for fun. If you didn't score very well, consider studying people just a bit more. Just for reference I got a 33 out of 36, so I was pretty impressed with myself!
Expression and body language come together to give the viewer a clear picture of how the subject of a portrait is feeling. Your job, as a portrait photographer, is gain expression from your subject.
In order to do that effectively, you need to earn your subjects trust. You need to make them comfortable around you. They need to see you.
Most of time, portraits are intended to show someone comfortable and at ease, as they would be with old friends. That's what we're going to focus on. If you intend to capture fine art portraits then your methods might need to differ but most of what I'm going to say about connecting with your subject should still apply.
One of the fastest and most natural ways to build trust with your subject is to get to know them. Talk to them. Ask them about themselves and tell them about yourself. Feel free to throw in an embarrassing personal story if you want, one that will show them that you are human, too. If someone can laugh with you as your laugh at yourself, you've broken the ice. The key here is not to find some contrived method, but to be yourself genuinely. Be interested in your subject and be honest with them. Not only does that make you a human being with whom they can connect and not just a big ol' scary looking lens, but it also helps YOU to find interest and empathy so that when you're shooting you are truly invested in capturing something authentic about who your subject is.
There are many people who are just not comfortable in front of the camera. This could be for any number of reasons. I've talked to many photographers who start to panic inside because they can't get the expressions they were hoping for. They have a hard time getting their client to relax or give more than one bland expression and, instead of taking a step back and trying to figure out WHY their subject is less than comfortable and address that, they just keep shooting in fear that if they reveal their frustration it will damage their subjects trust in their ability to get a great photo.This will not work. I know that from personal experience.
The one time I've ever had a client who wasn't happy with their expression in a photograph, it was because it was a last minute shoot and I didn't take the time I should have taken to get to know her better. If I had, I would have known that she is a smiler, someone who sees themselves as a happy person and didn't feel that her features represented who she was if they weren't happy. Score one for me, who took a look at her inspiration for the shoot and interpreted that she wanted something sultry. That was MY fault, not hers. As a portrait photographer, I know that it's not my clients job to look great for the camera or be photogenic, it's MY job to get great images of my clients that they connect with and love. If I had followed my own advice, it wouldn't have happened.
Personal example #2: I took the professional portraits for a company in Olympia. This company, a CPA firm, would need portraits of their employees that made the subjects look professional, competent, trustworthy and approachable. One of the ladies I was supposed to photograph was naturally very tense in front of the camera. Some people have a difficult time smiling naturally while having their portrait taken, and she was one of them. I started by chatting with her and playing with my lights a bit. Not because I needed to fix the light, but because I wanted to give her some time to loosen up in front of the lens. She was a gorgeous lady with big blue eyes and a chic, salt-and-pepper bob. I complimented her on her eyes. I made a few jokes. I told her that her outfit would be perfect for the portrait. She seemed comfortable enough with me, but as soon as I brought that camera up, her expression stiffened and her lips thinned and her shoulders got tense. No matter what I tried, and I even broke out the threat of poop jokes, I couldn't get her to relax for me.
Finally, I pulled my trump card: I asked her about her family. She has a daughter in college, of whom she is very proud. Her daughter plays music. I chatted with her while my camera was at the ready, asking about her girl and what she was studying. I watched as her eyes softened, as the tension relaxed from around her mouth, as her shoulders began to relax. That's when I fired off a few more shots. By the end of the shoot I had gotten exactly what I needed to capture from my subject. When she left the room I overheard her say to her boss, "she's good," and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I was relieved not only because I knew I got the shot I needed but because I want the folks I work with to have a great time in front of my lens.
- Talk. Talk, talk, talk and don't stop talking. Photograph while you talk.
- Give praise. Pepper your conversation with praise words when your subject is getting it right.
- Always give direction to perfect the pose. Most of the people you photograph will not be models who can keep their body under control for long periods of time. They're going to shift or turn or do something that changes the pose you've worked so hard to get right. As you're talking and photographing, correct their pose.
- Use hand gestures as examples of what you'd like your client to do. You can ask them to tilt their head or bring their eyes to a certain point or turn their chin or angle their shoulders and use your hand as a visual example for what you mean.
- Take your time. It's okay to stop what you're doing for a second and chat or make a joke as long as you're always communicating and keeping your subject comfortable. Comfort = trust and trust = better photographs.
This is how you might sound while working with a client. Keep in mind that you should be working the entire time. That doesn't mean you are taking 8 million photos in 4 seconds, but you should be paying close attention to expression and body language and pressing the shutter when your subject is giving you what you need.
"Did you really say that? Man you're brave, I don't think I could have said that! Turn your shoulder toward me just a bit. Perfect. Can you give me a bit of a smile? Oh come on, give me a real one, don't make me break out the poop jokes. Ah, there it is! These are looking amazing, Joe. Can I have you drop your chin just a bit for me? Right there, stop. Ahh, that was the shot! So what did he say when you told him?"
If you sound anything like that then you are truly directing the shoot, keeping your subject comfortable, and getting genuine expression.
It's important to note that nothing is fail safe. No two people will react or behave the same way in front of the camera. That's why you need to talk to people, and always be working on being a communicator. Get to know your clients as much as possible so you can find the best way to suit them. Be your authentic self and it will help them to be theirs for you.