Book Excerpt: Picture Perfect Practice
by Roberto Valenzuela
May 01, 2012 —
Editor’s note: In Roberto Valenzuela’s WPPI platform class, “Picture Perfect Practice,” the photographer focused on finding the best shooting locations, and eliciting equally perfect poses from subjects while in them. For those who didn’t make it to Valenzuela’s lecture, we present an excerpt from his book by the same name.
Says Valenzuela of the book: “Picture Perfect Practice was written as a guide to help photographers learn to break down any location whether it’s indoors or outdoors. By breaking it down, photographers can identify and pull sections from these locations that will yield the highest photographic potential. The book then continues on with a posing section that helps photographers identify key elements to create and finesse any pose. It also illustrates examples of what NOT to do and it offers a series of progressive photos showing the photographer how to correct a pose, identifying and fixing one problem at a time. Lastly, the book covers deliberate practice techniques that help the photographer be able to recall the information learned from various practice sessions and apply them seamlessly under pressure at a wedding.”
On the following pages, Valenzuela presents his best tips for posing from Picture Perfect Practice, Part 2, Chapter 16.
Five Key Posing Techniques
Posing is one of the most challenging aspects of photography. At workshops, when students are asked what they wish to accomplish, nearly 80 percent say, “posing.” The truth is that by breaking down posing and getting some practice under your belt, posing becomes simple, demystified and fun. You will no longer worry and sweat profusely in front of your clients. Instead, you will take charge. You will know exactly what you want, and be able to describe the pose to your clients like a master.
Posing is subjective. What looks good to some people looks bad to others. Photographers always have an opinion about how they would have done a pose differently or improved upon it. Therefore, I’m going to focus on the system I created for posing—Five Key Posing Techniques—because techniques, unlike rules, give you general guidelines you can alter to make your own.
Systematically Sculpting the Body
If you compare posing the body to building a house, then posture is the foundation of the structure. It’s what holds everything together. To achieve good posture is to achieve balance in the body’s weight distribution.
The person’s spine must be as straight as possible, an aspect that is usually overlooked. Many of the problems that arise in posing someone can be automatically fixed by straightening the spine and by making sure that the shoulders are down and relaxed. This applies to men and women, whether the subject is sitting, standing or lying down.
The problem with posing people for a photo is that when a large camera fitted with a telephoto lens is pointed straight at someone’s face, people depart from their instinctively relaxed position and stand up straight.
- To keep things simple, focus on three main points.
- Shift more weight to one foot.
- Straighten the spine.
- Lower both shoulders to a relaxed position.
- Any slouching or a spike in either shoulder will completely ruin your pose.
Posing the Hands
Hands are just as important in a pose as the body, head, eyes and expression. In studying what makes a good pose, I have come across countless beautiful photos where something was not right. The exposure was perfect, the lighting was complementary and the expression was romantic, but the hands were just dangling. This oversight completely killed the mood of an otherwise wonderful photograph.
Regardless of whom you are photographing, always find a way to engage the hands. If posing a couple, for instance, place the bride’s hand gently on the groom’s chest with his hands softly around her waist. Both hands don’t necessarily need to be on each other, but they need to be engaged somehow; if both hands are in sight, then both should have a purpose.
Once the hands are in place, pay close attention to the fingers. The smallest movement of the fingers can change the story of a photograph. Take, for example, a photo where the groom is holding the bride’s arm with his fingers spread apart. Spread fingers communicate aggression, power and involuntary control of the other person.
In group portraits, use the hands to solidify the relationships. The hands of every person in the picture should be doing something (example, far right image). If people are within comfortable reach of someone else, I place their hands on each other. If not, I simply have their hands resting naturally on themselves. Nobody’s hands are dangling—that’s what’s important. Before taking a photo like this, ask yourself if everyone looks completely natural. Check that all elbows are bent and do a final check of the hands.
Posing the Face
When posing the face, keep in mind the neck. I look for contrast between the neck and the head. Without contrast separating the two, the neck will blend with the face, giving you one big mass of skin—which is not flattering to anyone.
Achieve the “X” Factor—a technique that’s relevant when you are photographing a couple. Draw an imaginary line extending from the tip of both of your subjects’ noses. Angle both of their faces so that these imaginary lines cross each other, creating an X. This creates one of the most flattering candid face positions between two people. If, instead, these two imaginary lines run parallel, the photo will look quite cheesy and old-fashioned.
Although there are many poses you can use that will create this imaginary X, remember that this head position is just one piece of the puzzle. Several more elements must come together, such as expression, to complete the pose.
Injecting Expression and Balancing Energies
Coaxing a truly candid expression on command requires energy. It’s quite exhausting having to react naturally over and over again in a photo shoot. The reason my clients now have beautiful and believable expressions when I photograph them is because they trust me. You will gain their respect when they see confidence and assertiveness in your eyes, not fear. This assertiveness comes from practicing.
Removing clichés from your posing arsenal will be one of the best decisions of your career. Clichés work on children but not with adults. Instead, try being direct and specific about what you want. When people are treated like adults, they will want to follow your lead. Say things like, “I need a lot of movement here,” “Give me a hint of a smile,” or “Look straight at the camera without a thought in your head.” People can follow these types of directions without feeling patronized.
The eyes and hands say more about a person’s expression than anything else. When people are being posed, most photographers don’t tell the couple what do to with their eyes. I have heard clients ask the photographer, “Where am I supposed to look?” To address this issue of the lost eyes, I try to be particularly specific about where the eyes need to be.
If I ask a groom to gently kiss his wife on the upper cheekbone, both usually look up, completely killing the mood. Now I say, “Give her a gentle kiss on her upper cheekbone without pouting your lips and do so while gazing at her lips.” The word gentle sets the mood for a soft kiss. The upper cheekbone gives the groom a target for his kiss. This puts his face exactly where I want it. Asking them not to pout eliminates the natural reaction people have when kissing their significant other in public. I notice people pout much less when they kiss in private.
Gazing at her lips is the final step; this gives the groom help on where to look. By choosing the lips, it forces the groom to look down, almost closing his eyelids. When eyelids are mostly closed, the mood is romantic and sometimes sensual.
Give Specific Directions
It is amazing how fast you can gauge someone’s skill just by the way they give directions. In workshops where my wife and I have been asked to model, students pose us for 10 minutes. Then we rotate to another photographer for another 10 minutes.
When the students ask us to pose, I can tell in seconds that they don’t know what they want. Everything that comes out of their mouths is a guess. But when the photographer teaching the workshop poses us, it’s crystal clear what he wants. He describes it so well, it’s almost impossible for use to foul it up.
Be specific when giving posing directions. I can’t stress that guideline enough. It gives your clients great confidence in your skill and makes them glad they hired you.
Beverly Hills-based wedding photographer Roberto Valenzuela’s photographic style is often described using just three words: timeless, romantic and elegant. He has been recognized as one of the world’s top wedding photographers by Junebug Weddings, and has been won over 50 International print competition accolades from WPPI. He is an active speaker, teacher and print competition judge at photo conferences around the world.
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