Tips + Techniques


The Art of Posing: Body Language Basics

July 25, 2016

By RF Staff

Have you ever wondered what a pose actually is? Why one pose conveys power, another sweetness? Why the slightest shift can impact the mood of the image dramatically? 

What if I told you that a pose is a coded message that speaks directly to your brain in a language as old as the origins of human life on earth? Pretty cool, right?

Before humans evolved into speaking beings, we communicated with each other through gestures, sounds and expressions. This mode of communication is commonly known as body language, and our brains learned how to recognize emotions linked to different behaviors so we could survive and live together. As it turns out, body language is trusted 14 times more than spoken words. When you feel an emotion, your body instinctively moves in response. It’s essentially a physical reaction that happens without a filter. And this is where it gets really interesting for us photographers.

Micro Expressions

When our bodies react through movement, they can be big movements with your body or smaller movements with your facial muscles; the slightest tension in the face can make your subject look angry, sad or disgusted and can impact the overall feeling of your portrait.

At right: The slightest change in a facial expression can completely change the emotion in your image. Can you see how just changing the eye tension makes the subject look bored, connected or angry? All Photos © Danielle Libine

Don’t Say Cheese!

Real happiness doesn’t happen in the lips or mouth, but around the eyes. When humans feel real happiness, it’s the muscles around the eyes that pull up the cheeks, not the mouth that pushes them out. We can identify a fake smile by the absence of action in the eyes.

Why do we want to avoid fake smiles? Because what a fake or tense smile says about the person in the image is that they are not being honest, that they are uncomfortable or even submissive.

An emotion can’t be faked and a person has to really feel it for the image to look genuine, so if you want a real smile, you need to help the person to actually feel that emotion on the inside. I ask my clients to think of something that makes them happy—a person, an object, a food, a memory—and observe their faces as I run through the options. As soon as I see that little tension around the eyes, I know we have it. At that moment, I ask them to share that thought with me and we’ll use that word during the shoot to get a real smile every time.

Engaging the Eyes

When we are actively engaged with another person or activity, we squint slightly by tensing our lower eyelids. We change the shape of our eyes in this way so we can focus better (just like the aperture in our cameras), and on a non-verbal communication level, this indicates to the other person that we are actively engaged with them. On the other hand, when we are bored or scared, our bottom eyelid drops and this makes us look less confident and lower power.
When working with someone to create that confident look, I like to help them connect to a moment in their lives where they felt really proud of what they did; I see that lower eyelid come up automatically as soon as they have connected with that thought.

I try to avoid telling people to squint to get this result because—just like with happiness—they might try to fake it and end up appearing angry instead. When we squint, we do bring the lower eyelid up but also push our upper eyelid down, and this is what our faces do when we are angry. 

The way we angle our bodies and faces toward or away from another person is one of the most important indicators of how powerful and confident we feel, and also indicates how we feel about the person we're interacting with.

Angular Posing

Because our torso holds all our vital organs, making it one of the most vulnerable parts of the body, we’ll only leave it open and unprotected when we feel safe and comfortable. When we’re uncomfortable or don’t like someone, we start to pivot away as our bodies get instinctively ready to fight or flight. The way you use this in your poses can drastically impact the feeling of power in the image.

Fronting

To make a person appear confident, powerful and trustworthy in your pictures, you will want to shoot them straight on. However, this presents a particular challenge in photography because we often ask our clients to stand sideways to create a more visually pleasing image. 

At this point, it’s important to know the objective of the image, and to choose what’s more important: the feeling of power or making a more pleasing image. If you’ve been hired to create an image for a client, it’s important to understand their personality and the objective for the image so you can adjust the amount of fronting to match the level of power they want to portray.

Pivoting

A slight pivot can still convey a certain amount of power, especially if the posture is good and the expression is confident, but the more you pivot the body away from the camera, the more defensive or low power the person is going to appear (versus high power, which looks more open and confident).

Not all pivoting is defensive, however. A woman who is flirting with someone will turn her body sideways and look at them over her shoulder. This is a pose that we see a lot in glamour and boudoir photography for this reason. But because nothing is clean-cut with body language, she can also communicate disdain at something or someone she doesn’t like with this same movement; the difference will be in her expression.

It’s also very important to pay attention to pivoting while photographing groups of people. When people stand in groups, they will naturally pivot toward the people they like and away from those they might not. If you want to avoid the individuals in your group looking disconnected from each other, you will want to pivot them slightly toward each other to create a nice sense of connection in the image.

The same goes with couples during engagement and wedding sessions; if you want to create a sense of love and connection between them, always keep their bodies pivoted toward one another, even slightly. If you want to have some distance between them, or their bodies facing away from each other for aesthetic reasons, make sure there is a lot of connection going on elsewhere in their bodies—especially their eyes—otherwise the body language will communicate distance or even distrust between them.

Far left: Facing the camera is going to give the strongest feeling of power to the person in the image. Middle left: A slight head pivot with no tilt in our face usually indicates that we are listening and creates a sense of connection, however the expression on the face will determine if the intention of the pivot is a friendly one or a higher power one. Middle Right: Pivoting sideways with a slight tilt toward the camera is a very friendly cue to be used when friendliness trumps strength, as it can come across as a little low power.  Far Right: A sideways pivot with a slight tilt away from the camera happens when we are evaluating what the other person is saying or when we are feeling a little superior. It is a higher power cue and can come across as a little cocky. All these gestures need to be kept very small in practice, or they will look fake. As nothing is simple in non-verbal communication, the expression on the face, the pivoting of the body, and the extent of all visible gestures will also impact the power and feeling in the picture. 

This is also true for the face. As photographers, we like to pivot the face slightly as it creates and shows a nice jawline (which is also rooted in non-verbal communication, as this area of the body indicates our hormone levels). As soon as we pivot the head sideways there is another cue that enters the equation, and the way we tilt it will also create a different meaning (see the graphic above).

Negative Body Language

Like with any other language, body language conveys information and emotion. While there is no “wrong” body language, some cues can be linked to negative emotions or levels of discomfort, and you’re going to see them in your clients’ bodies (and therefore your photos) as you interact with them. 

Pacifying and Blocking Gestures

Rubbing or pressure movements are called pacifying gestures and are meant to calm down the brain when we are feeling discomfort by releasing a hormone called oxytocin. 

You will observe this when a woman is playing with her necklace, rubbing her arms or legs, or a man is playing with his clothes or squeezing his fingers together. Another place to look for pacifying gestures is the mouth; lip pressing and licking, and tongue movements pressing inside the cheeks or lips show high levels of stress. 

Take any of these as a sign from your clients that they are uncomfortable, and this might show up in your pictures. 

We implement blocking gestures by putting something between ourselves and an uncomfortable situation. Crossed or closed arms are the most obvious ones, but the person might also be holding something like a bag or a laptop in front of them, or even crossing their legs tightly when standing or sitting.

To cross or not to cross arms in pictures? It depends on what message you want to convey.

Crossed Arms

Torso-shielding gestures occur most often when a person is feeling defensive or uncomfortable, and also to indicate that they are not open to discussion. Whether it’s arms folded across one’s body, buttoning up a jacket, holding something in front of their torso or straddling a chair, these gestures are initiated to put something between ourselves and a situation or a person. 

People often argue that they don’t feel defensive when they cross their arms, and this is explained by the fact that this soothing gesture releases oxytocin and makes us feel calmer. And that is exactly the point. Any pacifying gesture highlights a discomfort of some sort, and will come across as low power.

But what about crossing your arms in business portraits? Isn’t that a powerful sign of a successful businessperson? 

Just because we are used to seeing this image everywhere doesn’t mean it’s conveying the right message. We have become accustomed to these images and have stopped questioning their validity. 

Of course, people can also cross their arms when they are cold, to relieve pain, or to indicate that they are not open to discussion, but no matter the reason, this is not an open and confident expression.

Let’s take it out of the context of photography. Think about the last time you were having an open and positive discussion with your friends. When you were happily out on a date. When you were trying to convince someone about a subject you’re passionate about. Did you cross your arms? Think of the people giving powerful presentations on stage. Do they cross their arms? When we’re looking to create a confident and open image of someone, we want to stay away from shielding body language cues.

So when do we want to use crossed arms in photos? There is no right or wrong body language; it’s just a language that conveys an emotion, and it’s a great cue to use if the emotion you want to convey is one that happens when humans do cross their arms.

1. Defiance
You’ll see this behavior as a characteristic in children who don’t want to do something, or in two people disagreeing on a subject. Pair this one with a higher chin and squinting eyes to achieve the perfect defiant look.

2. No Discussion
People will also cross their arms to indicate that they are not open to discussion anymore. An interesting study found that when our arms are crossed, we are actually less open to hearing what other people are saying. If your client wants to show that they are not open to discussion and it goes with their personal brand, or their profession, then this is the perfect pose to adopt.

3. Bigger Biceps
Although not linked to an emotion, crossed arms are also favored by portrait photographers when shooting male subjects because it’s an easy way to make their upper arms look bigger. Simply get your client to make fists, place them under their biceps and tada! Bigger biceps. 

Note that if the objective is first to make your client look strong and virile, and we don’t care too much about openness, the crossed-arms pose will trump the closed body language message.

Mirroring helps your clients understand what to do.

Mirroring

Understanding and using body language doesn’t end at creating stronger photos—it will also help you when directing and interacting with your clients. Many people feel uncomfortable at photo shoots, mostly because they don’t know what to do, and this will translate in your photography if you aren’t careful.

A client of mine shared this story: “At my last photo shoot, the photographer asked me to smile. So I smiled. ‘No! Not like that!’ he said. ‘You know…relax and smile!’ All I could think is, ‘Damn…I’m not relaxed, how do I relax?’ which made me stress even more, and the more he was telling me to relax, the less I was! It was horrible! I look like I’m growling in all the photos. I hate them!”

Telling your clients to “act natural” doesn’t work because what would be natural for them in this moment would probably be to run away.

So if telling them what to do doesn’t help, what can you do? Show them. People can easily mirror what you want them to do. Ask them to mirror you, and show them exactly the pose you want them to take. Not only will this help them relax, it also allows you to get them to tap into the ideal body language for your session. When working with children, you can turn this into an imitation game, and they will play along with you in seconds.

Mirroring, when done well, allows your subject to relax and give you genuine expressions.

Mirroring has roots in body language theory, too. It’s a key human bonding behavior that creates an immediate connection between you and your subject, and allows them to relax, shift their attention away from the lens and focus on you instead, all while feeling safe and comfortable.

Danielle (Dee) Libine is a Swiss-Canadian portrait photographer and a certified body language trainer with Science of People. Running photo studios in Switzerland and Hong Kong allowed her to test her approach with a wide variety of clients, and she went on to write and publish A Photographer's Guide to Body Language to share this knowledge with portrait photographers worldwide.

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Related: 8 No-Fail Posing Tips for Every Shoot