Roberto Valenzuela’s Physics of a Portrait
June 17, 2014
Photographer, author and popular teacher Roberto Valenzuela is probably best described as a passionate observer of nuance. In his first book, Picture Perfect Practice, he pulled out all the stops to outline his own systematic, detail-based approach to imaging. It’s become a sort of bible to his acolytes and workshop attendees. In my review of that book (Rangefinder, June 2012), I ascribed this preoccupation with intricate minutiae to his former career as a classical guitarist. Then—as now—I couldn’t imagine anyone more profoundly sensitive to a single missed cue or overlooked detail than a soloist in the unforgiving acoustic vacuum of the concert stage. Valenzuela took that sensibility with him when he exchanged his guitar for a camera.
Picture Perfect Posing: Practicing the Art of Posing for Photographers and Models
Now we have his latest contribution to the world of photographic how-to literature: Picture Perfect Posing: Practicing the Art of Posing for Photographers and Models. In what seems to be the season for the proliferation of so-called “posing guides,” Valenzuela has, predictably, made something of a science out of this critical phase of the relationship between photographer and subject. An equally crucial relationship he broaches is that less tangible one that prevails between a photographer and his own self-respect.
A Path Out of the Comfort Zone
Picture Perfect Posing invokes the uncomfortable truth that most shooters—maybe from pure laziness, but more commonly out of insecurity—tend to harbor a personal repertoire of stock poses we default to with most of our subjects. These, Valenzuela writes, are “comfort-zone poses.” The majority of us, he claims, “have five or so of these and regardless of whom we are photographing, we just force our clients to fit into those five poses, so we don’t lose face.” With this cringe-worthy reality out in the open, he proceeds for the next 300 pages, to steer us out of our collective posing phobia. He calls his (characteristically) drum-tight regimen the “Picture Perfect Posing System,” (P3S for short), and breaks it down into 15 points, each carefully explained by a set of meticulous images, graphics and comprehensive solutions to real-world posing situations. Many of them are drawn from wedding scenarios—Valenzuela’s personal specialty—but all apply to practically every imaginable portrait challenge.
Creating the appealing “S” curve—indispensable to this sexy shot—by careful attention to placement.
It’s forgivable to assume that the personal interactions required in positioning your portrait subjects are matters of instinct. The social skills involved are definitively that—the largely unteachable qualities that make you a likeable, persuasive person, inclined to inspire your subjects’ confidence in front of your camera. But even the most amicable relationship can produce a portrait fraught with the minor imperfections that undermine the warmth of such a moment, no matter how well you seem to be connecting with your sitter. Those imperfections are more questions of physics than friendship. They’re the functions of plasticity and angles and gravity—all of which Valenzuela manipulates, in exhaustive detail, to transform otherwise lackluster images into compelling portraits.
In an especially instructive prelude to P3S—and something unique among posing tutorials—Valenzuela, with accompanying medical illustrations, delves into the anatomy of the human spine, the centerpiece of all postures a person can assume in front of the camera. The actual practical value of this chapter is in one summary paragraph—one of the little sidebars the author refers to as “flash cards”—where the three regions of the spine are listed by how they affect a pose: the cervical area “directs the head to where you want to focus the viewer’s attention,” the thoracic region “should be elongated...” to encourage confidence and strength, and the lumbar spine he credits as “responsible for slimming someone down. It should always be curved [in a picture]. It creates a very sexy quality to a pose.”
The 14 chapters that ensue follow Valenzuela’s signature formula approach to the minutest subtleties of the pose. There’s a chapter on weight distribution with both standing and seated subjects; an entire section discusses joints and the application or avoidance of 90 degree angles, which can be death to a single subject portrait, but attractive in couple shots, if the subjects are properly directed. Amply illustrated with overlays and diagrams, every “point” in the P3S dissects even the subtlest details that can make or break a portrait’s effectiveness.
Clockwise from top: Valenzuela’s “Hand/Arm Context System” at work in an exterior portrait. The diagram suggests the careful placement of the model’s hands and arms to frame her face and anchor her pose without distractions; the author demonstrates the “risk areas” of a portrait with color coding. The red dots indicate body positions that threaten the integrity of this glamour shot. The blue dots are “safe areas” that are easily altered to create the vastly improved version seen on the right.
In a chapter devoted to his “Hand/Arm Context System,” Valenzuela devotes 26 pages to dealing with those annoying appendages we all have that can drive a photographer to distraction, as they have to every actor and model, who at some point has to confront the age-old question, “What do I do with my hands?” One especially useful discussion comes under the rubric of “Point-of-Contact” in Valenzuela’s 15-point schema, addressing the subject’s engagement with the camera (and thus the viewer). He summarizes this notion in simple terms, and they’d probably improve at least half of every shooter’s single-subject portraits, if properly heeded. “Generally speaking,” he writes, “your subject’s eyes should be the closest object [sic] to the camera, because the eyes are the soul of an image.”
With wedding imagery, a major priority for Valenzuela and, no doubt, many of his readers, the dynamics of poses in the ubiquitous two-shots and groups that consume so much attention among shooters in this specialty figure prominently in the P3S. There are specific protocols for dealing with “mirroring” of hand and arm positions in groups and couple shots; there are details on interactions such as hugging and hand-holding, the relative arrangement of faces and eye lines and the direction of noses in the familiar warm-and-fuzzy bridal couple images. Returning to the subject of hands, Valenzuela gives detailed advice on dealing with that ever-annoying effect produced by a concealed arm wrapped around another person in a shot, creating a disembodied hand on the opposite side of the person being embraced. One chapter actually deals specifically with this problem and no other. The solution: simply separate the pair slightly to reveal a portion of the arm connected to what, Valenzuela writes, would otherwise become “the creepy hand.”
If it occurs to you that Valenzuela borders on being obsessive, you’re probably not far off. Obsession is frequently the mother of great ideas. So, if the formalism of his method seems a bit rigid—memorizing solutions and the color coded charts and visual aids—you can still freely cherry-pick the sound nuggets of advice that fill these pages. No matter how long you’ve been photographing people, you’ll recognize the minute you flip through this amazing book that at least some of Valenzuela’s advice on the arcane skills of posing