Your subject is on site, the background is set up, your lights are on their stands but how are you going to pose your subject? How far from the backdrop do they need to stand? Where do the lights need to be placed? Where do you focus the lens? What aperture do you use? These are the factors that can take a portrait from mediocre to a masterpiece. From posing your subject to setting your exposure, portrait photography is defined by details.
85mm ISO100 f8 1/125th
Let’s start by breaking down the image above. This is Evan Hammond, a professional opera singer from Alabama; as an opera singer, his portrait needs to sing where he cannot. He was looking for a serious image that showed off his character and stoic personality while displaying his ability to captivate an audience with his stage presence.
This image has two defining factors: the pose and the light. The human eye likes two things: lines and bright areas in an image; therefore, we want to use these visual cues as guides for posing and lighting. Evan is placed on a stool which allows his legs to play a greater role in the pose. The stool also allows him to have a slightly off centered, almost slouched pose, adding character and a sense of drama to the image. The spread of his legs allows for a place for him to rest his hands while keeping his shoulders broad, opening and framing his torso. This also exposes the white of his shirt, providing a visual guide for the eyes to follow through the image. His eyes are placed on the upper third with his head slightly off centered. The viewers attention is immediately drawn to Evan’s right eye and the right side of his face helped by the dramatic lighting and the placement of the eye on the third. The light on his right arm and the inside section of his left arm frame out his torso and build while his hands placed on the lower third provide a place for the eye to finish after traveling thought the image, carried by the white of the shirt.
Now we understand how the pose and the light play a role in defining the image. But how do we get Evan in that pose? How do shape the light to be where we want?
Posing is the single hardest aspect of portrait photography. You can have best equipment money can buy but the image will still come down to how your subject was posed or their facial expression – or both. The most important step in getting your subject to pose how you want is clear, calm communication. So how did we do this with Evan?
85mm ISO 100 f8 1/60th
It always starts with test shots. Your subject may think you are just fiddling with buttons on your camera, but what you are really doing is shooting astonishing candid shots. Check out this picture of our Violist friend Addie Funderburg. This image was not posed at all, she was adoring her beautiful viola when voilà lights went off, shutter closed and out came this masterpiece!
Test shots accomplish three things:
1. You need to set your exposure and light power
2. You can get some incredible candid shots (it is nearly impossible to pose a candid shot)
3. You set your subject at ease
By taking an amazing candid shot, you can pull some of the pressure off your subject. They can see in the LCD the “dang, I can look good for a portrait” shot you just created; now when you are going about the business of posing them, they stay comfortable and are excited to see what they can do next. It’s a win-win.
A disclaimer with test shots, always be sure to communicate when you are taking test shots. There is nothing more unsettling to your subject then when the lights flash, you start taking pictures and they have no idea what’s going on. Tell them what you are doing so they know they can relax, and you can pull off those candid shots.
In general, there are three styles of posing:
- Commanding: telling your subject what you want, then having them do it
- Mirroring: You put yourself in their shoes, so they can see what the pose is supposed to look like
- Molding: You are moving the subject around as they sit or stand
As you pose people, you will develop your own personality for posing. Each of these carry their advantages and disadvantages. Commanding can lead to miss interpretation but is easiest to do from behind the camera. Mirroring takes up a lot more time but can be more descriptive. Molding gets your subject exactly how you want them but can look a bit stale and some people don’t like to be touched.
Back to Evan. To get this shot to work, we use a combination of commanding and mirroring. We started by mirroring the pose, then moved to having him practice getting into the pose and fired off a few test shots for him to see what he did and did not like. For us behind the camera, this was the time to correct things we did not like: lifting the chin, pulling the shoulders back, smile with the eyes. It is important to work with your subject; you are the photographer, yes, but this is their image and they are in front of the lens. Once we start getting to a pose we like, we had Evan stand up, shake out then sit down into the pose – having him shake out kept the pose from looking stale. Once he got in the pose, I immediately began pressing the shutter, having him make minor corrections between frames.
Posing is about being inspired. You are creating an image that is going to represent who a person is, that should inspire an image in your mind that you need to bring out. The best way to get good a posing is to…pose people; it’s really a trial and error type of skill. Be bold, be creative; don’t be afraid to say, “Hey Evan, lets try this.”