Nail that pose: How to make your subjects look their best in photos

Chad Verzosa

For portraiture and fashion photography, posing your subject is as important as composing the shot. Learning this skill is essential as it shows your level of professionalism as well as your artistic vision.

Professional models aside, however, many people find posing in front of a camera intimidating, and you could end up with forced smiles, rigid poses, and photos that, overall, simply lack life. By learning how to direct your subjects in a photoshoot, you make not only them but also yourself more confident in the photos that you will get.

Photo by Ivan Dodig

Along with some practice, these nine simple steps might help you master posing just about anyone for your photos:

01. Get to know your subject

Photography is more than just learning the technical aspects of using a camera. Creating beautiful photos, especially in fashion and portraiture, requires communication.

Photo by Ke Atlas

You don’t want to shoot someone who looks uncomfortable around you (most people feel that way if they don't know you), so don’t take photos straight away because that will just result in bad photos—no matter how good you are with composition. Talking to people makes them open up and feel comfortable around you when you start taking pictures.

Photo by Atikh Bana

If you don’t know much about the people you’re photographing, you need to start getting to know them before you shoot. Find things you share in common—from music to movies. Learn their personality. Whether they’re bubbly or serious, tap into their quirks to capture genuine emotions.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo

02. Bookmark photo inspirations

Saving photos of poses you’d like your models to do is helpful especially if you’re shooting people who don’t have a lot of experience being in front of the camera.

Photo by Erik Lucatero

You can show them the photos you’ve saved, not only so they don’t have to guess what you want them to do but also because many people understand a concept better when they see it, as opposed to merely hearing about it.

Photo by Allef Vinicius

However, don’t get caught up imitating images exactly from other photographers. The primary objective of saving photographs is not to copy them but to use them as inspiration. Studying other people’s work will eventually help you shape your style and method of shooting. Ultimately, you still need to follow your creative instinct and create poses that are uniquely yours.

03. Find the best body angles

Once you’ve made people comfortable around you, then you can start the process of directing them. Before clicking away, remind them to stand tall and avoid slouching. Also, make it a habit to have your subjects turn one shoulder slightly toward you. Angling the body this way creates a slimmer profile and emphasizes the natural features of the body.

Photo by Veronika Balasyuk

Male subjects will look masculine if their arms and legs are posed to show sharp angles. To keep the look natural, have them put their hands in their pockets or on their hips, keeping their shoulders and arms relaxed.

Photo by Greg Raines

On the other hand, it’s preferable to position female subjects in a way that makes limbs form soft curves to see smoother outlines. Leave some space between the arms and the waist to bring focus to their figure, and highlight feminine features by asking them to bring their chest slightly forward.

Photo by Kaci Baum

04. Highlight facial features

For a cohesive look, you need the head and the body to work together. However, sometimes, people focus too much on posing their body that they forget what to do with their head. That’s why constant direction is crucial.

The most flattering angle for any face is with the chin slightly forward and the face slightly turned toward one side. Looking down instead of up will almost always result in a “double chin”, and facing the camera directly will make the face look flat.

Photo by Dmitriy Ilkevich

Also, take photos of both the left and right sides of their face to see which angle looks best. Since people’s faces aren’t perfectly symmetrical, there’s a good chance that one side of their face looks better than the other.

Photo by Dmitriy Ilkevich

Your subjects’ eyes also have a lot to do with the mood of the photo. If you want your subjects to appear contemplative, make them look at something far away. If you want them to look more engaging, make them stare at something closer. A good trick is to ask them to look at the camera, but slightly away from the lens. If you want to give the impression that they’re looking straight at the viewer, have them look straight into the lens.

Photo by Dmitriy Ilkevich

05. Wait for the natural smile

A forced smile results in a tense-looking photo, so you want your subjects to smile naturally when you pose them. However, smiling in front of the camera can be very daunting, especially for inexperienced subjects.

If they feel awkward in front of the camera, let them close their eyes for a second. It will help them refocus and forget the camera. After a few moments, have them open their eyes slowly and smile.

Photo by Allef Vinicius

You can also create situations that will make people smile naturally. If you know them, for instance, talk about happy memories you shared with them. If not, cracking a joke or two will do the trick. Showing your sense of humor makes people think that you’re easy-going, and that helps them relax. Just keep your camera ready to capture their reaction.

Photo by Vinicius Amano

If their smile still looks unnatural, try having their tongue touch the roof of their mouth. Doing so will tighten the right facial muscles and result in a smile that looks “real”.

Photo by Autumn Goodman

Remember to ask them to smile only when you’re ready to shoot because if you wait too long, the muscles responsible for smiling get tired and you’ll get a crooked smile, instead.

06. Take candid shots

If your subjects don’t feel comfortable posing, try taking candid photos of them doing regular activities instead.

Photo by Seth Macey

Just keep things natural and do what you’d typically do when you're hanging out with a friend. With your camera in hand, ask them out for coffee or invite them to go biking around the neighborhood. Engage in a conversation and enjoy each other's company, then casually take photos when you see them do something interesting.

Photo by Avi Richards

Even if you’re doing these things specifically for a photoshoot, preoccupying them with a task will make them forget about the camera.

Photo by Greg Kantra

This technique isn’t just limited to coffee breaks and bicycling, of course. You can try this method with any activity. Whether you're walking around the park or hanging out by the pool, there's always an opportunity for good photos if you keep your eyes open.

07. Try role playing

Role-playing is another useful method for capturing exciting photos. It may seem silly at first, but sometimes, having your subjects imagine different scenarios can help them express genuine emotions.

Photo by Sam Burriss

Have them talk to an invisible friend or, better yet, play out a scene from their favorite movies. Ask them to twirl around like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music or be seductive like Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. Remember, having a visual reference helps people understand exactly what you want in your photos.

Photo by Ariel Lustre

Role-playing also helps people loosen up and just have fun, especially since they don’t have to stand still and try well-worn poses they’re not used to doing. You’ll be surprised what people are capable of doing when you ask them to play someone else.

08. Take dynamic shots

Ever heard of people saying a photo is “too posy”? Movement is the antidote to that. Doing static poses over and over again becomes boring after a while, so if it fits the look you’re after, try taking some action shots.

Photo by Oliver Shou

Have your subjects dance, jump around, flip their hair, run, and use the space around them. This will create compelling images that don’t make your subjects look too rigid. However, make sure that the face isn’t covered or turned away when they’re in the middle of an action.

Photo by Sam Burriss

Set your camera to burst mode so you don’t miss any moment while they’re moving around, and feel free to have your subjects repeat their movements until you get the right shot.

09. Use things around you

Scanning your surroundings and looking for things you can use to help your subjects pose comfortably can also be helpful in posing subjects. For instance, you can have them sit on a bench or lean on a table. Make them feel comfortable, and have them bend their legs and arms. This will lessen the tension and result in more natural-looking photos.

Photo by Brooke Cagle

Another excellent strategy is to create a visual narrative using your surroundings. Shoot a series of photos of your subjects running down the hill or getting lost in the woods, and make a story out of it. You don’t have to tell a story with a plot—it’s enough to provide clues that make the viewers wonder what’s going to happen next.

Photo by Allef Vinicius

You can also use your surroundings to better compose your photos. For instance, look for doors, windows, tree branches or anything that you could use to frame your model. Have them stand in the middle or lean on one side.

Photo by Caju Gomes

10. Look for good lighting

Lighting is another important aspect of making subjects look their best in photos—it allows you to play with details and textures and set a mood.

Try shooting during the “golden hour”—the brief window of time before sunrise or after sunset when the sun casts a soft orange light that’s ideal for photos.

Photo by Emil Jarfelt

What’s beautiful about taking portraits during this time of the day is how the warm light makes the skin look radiant. It also provides just the right amount of contrast that highlights the details in your photos.

On the other hand, don’t be afraid to go out and take photos when it’s overcast. Doing this may seem counterintuitive, but shooting on a cloudy day is just like taking pictures in a huge studio. Just think of the clouds as giant softboxes dispersing light to create soft and even exposure.

Photo by Maxim VDN

Meanwhile, when shooting indoors, you can use windows as "studio lights" to create dramatic portraits. If there’s enough ambient light coming in, have your subject pose beside one. If there are curtains, you can use them to diffuse the light and create a soft glow on the subject.

Photo by Beth Solano

Mastering how to pose people doesn’t happen overnight Just keep taking photos all the time.  Eventually, directing poses will be second nature to you. But no matter how good you become, don’t forget to let people's personality shine. In return, you’ll end up with compelling images that both you and your subjects will love. If you need more inspiration visit Canva's image library of people.