“Can you make me lose ten pounds?” is the first thing every one of my subjects asks, implying the use of Photoshop wizardry. Ten Pounds? Sheesh, we can do that with a simple pose.
Here’s a good looking guy, with a great smile. Carlos is a great friend and photographer, and we can help him look more dynamic and engaging in this portrait by shifting the way he stands.
Turn Your Body Away from the Light
The first thing you do is stand in front of your subject and say, “Turn your body this way, point your feet this way, too.” Move your body so it’s pointing away from the light at 45 degrees or so, and he’ll mimic your movement. Never say, “Turn to the left,” because half the time you’ll say the wrong direction, or he’ll hear the wrong direction, and then someone’s embarrassed. It’s best to mimic, but if you can’t mimic the movement, then say, “Turn your body toward that door frame over there,” or that garbage bin, or that camera bag or that meteorite–whatever you have sitting on the floor you can direct him to. Be specific, and no one will be embarrassed for turning the wrong direction.
Turning away from the light allows the light to fall off across the body, showing form creating dimension. This especially helps necks look less large.
Stand On One Leg to Be Engaged
Not like a flamingo, but ask your subject to put all his weight on the leg nearest the camera. His legs are about shoulder width apart. This is body language–when you lean towards someone, they see that you are interested and engaged, and it really shows in a photograph.
Pockets, Hips, or Thingamajigs
I often invite him to also put a hand in a pocket or on the hip. People need a place to put their hands. Pockets and hips aren’t for everyone, though, so give them something to hold. Anything will do–like a baseball or a coffee mug (empty) or a thingamajig about that same size. It’s comforting.
Look Past the Light
I always like to light the short side of my subject’s face, which means Carlos is going to need to turn his face back toward the light. However, if I just say, “Turn toward the light,” it won’t be enough when he looks back at the camera–he won’t have any light on one side of his face–and he’ll likely look stiff and posed. Instead, I ask him to look somewhere past the middle of the light, like the light stand, or the outlet on the wall behind the light, or the base of that chair over there (be specific). If he were to keep his face there and look at me with his eyes, it would look kinda creepy and weird. But when I say, “Now look into the camera,” his face comes up, but he’ll still be facing toward the light enough to have light on both sides. If I want his face to end up in a certain spot, then I direct his face farther to begin with.
Two other advantages to having Carlos look downward like this are first that I can say, “Let me just make sure the light is still looking great,” and make some test exposures and he’s not looking in the camera. This really helps him rest a bit–any time he’s looking at the camera is more stressful than looking away. Secondly, it’s a pretty good pose and view of his face. Without a smile, it’s very contemplative, and it should always be made. Just keep reminding him to stand forward on that one leg and engage toward the camera.
Stick Your Face Out
If you haven’t watched Peter Hurley’s video about the jawline, then watching this video is your homework. This is essential to photographing people, and he says it so well, I’ll leave it him.
Never Smile, Always Laugh
Never ask people to smile. In fact, while he’s looking down at that thing on the floor or at my toes, I ask him to frown for a minute. Once he gets a smile on his face, there’s about .025 seconds when it looks good; after that it has waned. Frowning relaxes those muscles so they’re fresh when they look up to the lens.
Never ask people to smile. Yes, I’m repeating myself. If you want him to smile, do something that invokes a smile. Does he have a daughter named Macy who is the cutest thing on earth? “Look up here and say, ‘Macy’,” will get a good smile every time. Talk with him while getting things set, and find something he is passionate about. Ask him to say keywords or think of a thing and you’ll get more real expressions and truly engaged eyeballs. If all else fails, ask him to laugh out loud–it’ll be pretty wimpy, but he’ll almost certainly laugh truly afterward, and that’s when you make the picture.
One More Thing
You’ve got the person facing away from the light, leaning forward with weight on one leg, his hands are engaged, his face is to the light, the jawline is looking sharp, the expressions are excellent…the last thing that’ll make your pictures better here is a tripod. With the camera locked down, you’re free to mimic the poses and adjust lights and talk about kids all without the camera in your hands. The camera separates you from your subject, so keep it out of the picture for as long as possible. Furthermore, you’ll record more of those second laughs if the camera is ready and locked in place.
Give this pose a shot and I think you’ll find you can make a pretty good portrait of just about anyone.