I had no desire to be a portrait photographer when I started learning photography at university. The amount of work it took to connect with people, pose them, and take on a powerful image was daunting. A few years later, I realized that being an empathetic human was an optimal professional skill for portraits. Connecting with people became very easy once I leaned over and felt the energy in the room. The challenge was how to direct them into a natural looking pose once we developed a rapport. An even bigger hurdle has been learning to pose the hands in a way that makes sense.
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Turns out the hands are a challenge for people on both sides of the camera. Anything can go well in a portrait image. However, if the hands are stressed or don’t make sense, that’s the only thing viewers will see. A simple solution is to have your hands on your sides or hide them in pockets. This quick fix can also leave a lot on the table. Knowing how to work with the hands in a logical way can elevate your portrait work.
More often than not, the hands will feel soft no matter where they are positioned. Any stress in the hands will result in tension. Below are some tips to make it easier to lay hands.
Sitting on a chair
Put your customers at ease when they are in a seated position. Notice where they naturally place their arms. Do they lean against the armrest on one side and place the other hand in their lap? Is one arm draped with the backrest or are both hands in the pockets? Paying attention to these details will often reveal the starting point of your first pose. This usually requires a slight easing of the hands on the knees or placing them with the backrest/armrests. If the hands aren’t cooperating, ask them to curl their fingers and gently clench their fist.
From there, it’s simple to ask them to raise their hand by their forehead. Choose what feels natural and most comfortable for your subject. Direct hands to be gentle with slightly extended fingers. He always looks great. If their hands aren’t cooperating, ask them to place their fingers in a soft fist and tilt the palm toward the camera.
I like men putting their thumb on their chin to accentuate their jawline. I will generally ask most women to put one hand under their chin or to the side. A personal favorite direction is to extend their index finger towards their mouth. It works for both men and women and adds a bit of privacy to the viewer.
If the customer has a killer watch or amazing detail in the clothes, ask them to raise their hand to the ceiling. Hands can be soft with outstretched fingers, a soft fist, or a combination of both. Direct the angle of their palm to best match the angle of the camera. If you’re shooting straight up, the little finger will be closest to the camera. You’ll want to lead the back of the hand if you’re shooting them sideways for an over the shoulder pose.
You can also have them lean forward with their elbows on their thighs. Think about GQ-type images for men when making them. Often you can ask them to make a fist with one hand and the other hand around it or do the letter A.
On steps, a stool, or an Apple box
Most of these signals will work seamlessly if your client is sitting on a staircase. You can play the element of relaxation or add to the ambiance. Ask them to put a hand in their pocket. Have them put their other hand on their lap or on the step above them.
Hand placement and directions will be simplified when your client is seated on a stool or apple box. There are only a few instructions you can give them. You can make them comfortable with one leg straight and the other slightly tucked in. You can point both hands in the pockets, both hands on the thighs, or one of each. You can also have them lean forward with their hands or forearms on their thighs.
In standing up position
Standing poses can be as simple as asking a client to put one hand in their pocket and the other by their side. For women, ask them to put a hand on their hip. Keep in mind that crossing your arms is easy, although it translates differently. We are conditioned to think that men exude more confidence and approachability. With women, society communicates that it is closed or inaccessible. It is therefore essential to direct the gentler hands with women in this case.
You can ask them to put both hands near their face and laugh. Once they’re comfortable moving, you can also have your subject place their hands on top of their head or closer to their forehead.
Use the environment while standing
Use your surroundings as much as possible when your client is standing. Have them lean against the wall with one arm in their pocket and the other hand near their forehead or chin. Choose a soft hand with outstretched fingers or a soft fist with the palm facing the camera. You can also place one forearm across the forehead with the palm facing forward. Another option is to have the hand closest to the wall holding the side of his neck. It will add a sensual feel to the overall mood.
If there is a window that tilts, use it. Ask your client to gently lean on it with their outstretched arm for a relaxed feeling. Or have them raise their hand by their forehead or chin for a different mood.
ask them to do something
Adding a little action or movement can bring new energy to an otherwise outdated image by doing something with your hands. It can be as simple as placing both hands together and rubbing their fingertips together. The interaction always livens up the mood and brings a bit of their personality.
Ask the customer to tip or adjust their hat. Ask men to adjust their watch, adjust their tie or collar, button their shirt, or even roll up their sleeve cuffs. Have women run their fingers through their hair or act like they’re applying lip gloss with their middle finger while looking away. Let them have fun and play with their clothes, especially if they are wearing a dress.
Hands are instrumental in beauty work for both men and women. Whether one-handed or two-handed, you’ll notice that the hands are almost always soft. Stressed hands only work when there’s plenty of intensity in the facial expression and style to match the mood. Otherwise, it doesn’t make much sense.
A good rule of thumb is to practice asymmetry when placing the hands. Ask your client to have one hand on the forehead and the other gently cradling the neck. Ask them to nod if you want both hands facing the face for a smiling image that would make toothpaste ads proud. You can also practice asymmetry by using both the front and back of the hand for a more intimate image of beauty.
One-handed instructions include placing their hand near the forehead, on the neck, and under the jaw with the index finger up. Emphasize the gentle touch so his hand doesn’t create a squashed face. This is the perfect time to use your client’s hands to accentuate their jawline. I will ask the men to rub their thumbs gently on their chin and ask the women to pretend to apply lip gloss.
Knowing how to place your hands in an image and direct them appropriately will improve your portraits. Take the time to find out when they are comfortable and use that to your advantage. Playing around with their comfort level will make the process much easier. Also, keep the poses and direction natural for an organic experience. It’s normal for people to hold some tension in their hands when first leading them. Sometimes they tense when repeating a pose. If this happens, just ask them to shake their hand and start over.
I will often go through all of these categories in order as a progression during a portrait session. This helps paint the general mood and expression of your customers that you are trying to reach. Describe the mood and emotion of the pose you are trying to achieve. Have them hit everything at once and count them down. It might take a few tries to hit it, and it’s worth it when it all comes together.
Keep practicing with your customers to improve your communication with them. It will eventually become second nature and help you become a successful director. Having this skill in your back pocket will help you create better portraits.