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Portrait Posing Basics for Photographers

When you’re taking portraits of people, it can feel overwhelming to memorize a list of set ‘poses’ for different situations. It is far better to understand a few portrait posing basics for photographers.

Then you can pose people for photos in no time regardless of the situation!

portrait posing basics for photographers

Here are four basic principles of posing that will help you immensely when you’re photographing portraits:

1. Whatever is closest to the camera will appear largest.

Whether it’s someone’s face, or hip, if it is closer to the camera, it will appear larger than everything else.

portrait posing basics for photographers - photos by Casey Fatchett Photography
Photos by Casey Fatchett Photography

This is why when women do the ‘skinny arm’ pose and push their hips out it makes their hips look much larger than they actually are.

2. Angles improve everything.

Angles and lines lead the viewer’s eye around a photo. Straight lines do not elicit interest!!

portrait posing basics for photographers - photos by Casey Fatchett Photography
Photo by Casey Fatchett Photography

Arms hanging straight down to the side? Not good.

Standing straight like a bean pole? Not good either.

People standing in a straight line? Not interesting.

Whatever you are working with, you need to create angles. Whether it is with your subject’s arms or legs or how you position a group of people. Straight lines ARE NOT interesting.

portrait posing basics for photographers - photos by Casey Fatchett Photography
Photo by Casey Fatchett Photography

Create angles in your photo. We’ll discuss rules and theories of composition in greater depth in other posts in the future, but for now, just remember that angles are your friend when it comes to portraits.

3. Your subject can appear bigger or smaller depending on how they face the camera

A photograph is a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional reality…

How is that for some nerdery?

portrait posing basics for photographers - photos by Casey Fatchett Photography

But it is absolutely true! Since we’re only getting two dimensions, the camera can be tricked into misrepresenting reality. This can be used to your advantage, or, if you don’t pay attention, it can work against you.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “The camera adds ten pounds.” Well, it’s true, and it doesn’t always have to do with lens distortion.

It has to do with how your subject(s) face the camera. Facing straight on, with their shoulders parallel to the plane of the camera makes the subject look larger.

Creating an angle away from the camera with the shoulders makes the subject appear smaller.

Learn to use this to your advantage. If you want your subject to look tough and imposing, have them face the camera straight on. If you want them to look thinner or more approachable, have them stand at an angle.

4. Shoulders back. Chin Forward.

My wife calls this move “The Turtle”, and it is definitely meant to be subtle. Go to far and your subject will look painfully awkward. But just a fraction of an inch forward with the chin will dramatically improve results.

© Casey Fatchett Photography –

Shoulders back? That’s just good posture.

Are these unbreakable rules?

No. No rule in photography is unbreakable. These are just guidelines that overall will lead to better portraits. It’s important to know the rules though before you go breaking them.

Bonus Tip: Pay Attention to the Details

Pose the hair. Make choices on where your subject’s hair is, especially if they have a lot of hair.

The iris of your subject should be more prominent than the whites of their eyes.

Don’t let the nose ‘break’ the line of the face. Meaning, unless you’re shooting a profile shot, don’t let the nose move outside the line of the face.

Should you use a ‘posing guide’?

There are a lot of guides out there. I find them to be stale and not helpful if you’re trying to build any sort of rapport with your portrait clients.

Building rapport and creating natural expressions in your subjects are things that posing guides never take into account. They assume you can throw any person, or couple, or group into a cookie cutter pose and get a great picture.

More on that another time. Personally, I would suggest using prompts over a posing guide.

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The Nerdy Photographer
The Nerdy Photographer

With more than a quarter century as a professional photographer, The Nerdy Photographer's goal is to spread knowledge and laughter throughout the photo industry. Please follow along on social media and subscribe to the podcast.

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