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Guide to Posing: Hands and Arms


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BY Doug Box September 10, 2014 · Published by Amherst Media

Shooting a professional portrait is all about sweating the details. Doug Box explains how to tell your portrait subjects what to do with their hands.

This excerpt from Doug Box's Guide to Posing for Portrait Photographers is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media website.








Posing Hands

You’ve heard it said that you can tell a lot about a person by looking at their hands. Likewise, you can tell a lot about the portrait subject by looking at his or her hands. Fortunately or unfortunately, you can also gauge the photographer’s skill at posing by considering the hand pose of the subject.

When posing the client, you should take care to avoid pointing the hands straight on to the camera to prevent them from appearing distorted. The hands are best viewed at an angle to the camera, and, when possible, care should be taken to photograph the side of the hand, which gracefully continues the line of the arm when the hand is bent upward at the wrist.

Avoid having the client curl their fingers into a fist. Rather, present the hand with the fingers somewhat outstretched and with a slight space between all of the fingers.

Notice the effect that the hand pose has on the overall mood of the portrait. In the image on top, the hands are tucked under her arms. The image has a closed off look. In the center image, the subject’s left hand appears attractive. The wrist is bent upward, there is space between the fingers, and the hand has a graceful appearance. However, with the woman’s right hand hidden from view, the pose seems unfinished. In the final image, the woman’s hands seem to show warmth and grace and add to the pleasant mood of the image.

In this image series, we start with the hand in an undesirable position. The back of the hand is straight on to the camera and, with the fingers curled inward, the hand looks like a fist. The second image shows an improved hand position, but the third and fourth images are more pleasing still.

The above images show several ways in which the subject’s hand can be posed resting on her face. In the first image, the back of the hand shows, creating a fist-like appearance. The second image is better, but her hand obscures too much of her face. In the third image, the subject’s right hand was placed on her far cheek, and we have a full view of the left side of her face. Her left hand is wrapped around her elbow. To improve the pose, the woman extended her left index finger; this draws the viewer’s gaze to her face or, more specifically, to her eyes. We see the edge of the hand, and if we follow the lines of her arms with our gaze, we can see that the pose helps to lead our eyes through the frame. Since the eye is drawn to areas of sharp contrast, we hid a portion of her left hand from view. It does not appear “missing”; rather, with less of her skin showing, the prominence of the hand has been visually diminished.

Lenses and Distortion: Try to keep the subject’s hands in about the same plane as the face, especially in close-up or half-length poses. If you are using a short lens (50mm, 35mm, or shorter) and the hands are closer to the camera than the face, the hands may appear large and distorted.

This image pair shows two views of the woman’s hands. In the top photo, there is a slight space between the fingers; this creates separation, providing a defined view of the hand. Unfortunately, the angle of the hands to the camera makes the hands appear too prominent. Posing the hands as if the woman was pulling the chair out, with her hands on the sides of the chair back, provides a more elegant, graceful view.

The photos above illustrate two more hand posing options. The image on top shows too much of the back of the hands. The bottom photo presents a more desirable, graceful view.

In general, women’s hands should appear graceful, and men’s hands are posed to show strength. When posing men’s hands, it is common to slightly curl the fingers. Be careful to ensure that the fingers are not tightly curled into the palm; again, in this position, the hands look too much like fists. In posing men’s hands, it is also important to show the side of the hand rather than the back of the hand, as the more streamlined view is more attractive.

Posing the Arms

The positioning of the arms can help to lead the viewer’s gaze to the portrait subject’s face. When creating a pose, it is often desirable to create a triangular form. If you look at the series of images shown on the previous page, you will see these concepts at work. The arms form diagonals that create a triangular shape, and those lines lead the viewer to the focal point of the image—the woman’s face.

Earlier in the book, we discussed Ralph Romaguera’s “twosey” law. It’s a concept that’s integral to posing your clients and is worth reiterating: any body part that a person has two of should be positioned at different levels.

When posing the arms, keep in mind that they should not be held tightly against the body, as this will flatten the arms and seem to widen the arms and torso. Even when the subject’s arms are folded across their chest, ask them to hold them very slightly away from their body (also, be sure the hands do not tightly grip the arms, as this will distort the arms).

Always take a moment to finesse a pose to make sure your subject looks her best. Here, you can see the improvements in the refined pose (bottom) over the starting pose (top).

When a subject has a good figure, you want to show it off by showing the waistline. This is accomplished by having space between the arm and the waist (the subject’s right arm in the top images of the pairs above and below). I did not like the way her left arm was positioned in the image below. The bottom image shows a better presentation of her left arm. Note the position of her right arm in the bottom portrait. The pose deemphasizes the waist area and can be useful for posing larger subjects.

Always take a moment to finesse a pose to make sure your subject looks her best. Here, you can see the improvements in the refined pose (bottom) over the starting pose (top).

In the top photo of the pair above, the top of the subject’s hands are pointing straight toward the camera. This shortens the perceived length of the arms. Note that her shoulders drop almost straight down. In the bottom photo, the subject’s arms appear to be in a more natural position but were actually posed. Posing doesn’t need to look “posed”; it just needs to look better. The subject’s shoulders were positioned square to the camera. Though this is not ideal, it looks okay in this case.

As you read through this book, look at the various arm poses I’ve used for men, women, and children. Note the way they contribute to the mood of the portrait and how they aid in creating a composition that leads the viewer to the subject’s face. You might consider re-creating some of the poses shown in this book with some of your own subjects. Also, magazines, classic portraits painted by the old masters, and even catalogs can be a great resource when learning how to best present the body. You can create an idea file to expand your posing repertoire, or you might present a collection of images showing posing options to your clients. Some clients may enjoy offering their input—and anything you can do to build rapport with your client will help to build their confidence and comfort.

This trio of images shows the progression from a pose the subject naturally assumed (top), to one she assumed with a few directives. The bottom image shows the refined pose. With her spine straightened, the image has more energy and polish. The pose is still casual, however. Sometimes holding the body in a position that feels slightly exaggerated or unnatural will produce very natural results.

Above, we have a series of images in which the subject is posed in a comfortable seated position. The first image shows the pose the client fell into when she sat down. Many photographers like to photograph their subjects “as they are.” I believe that one of my responsibilities as a photographer is to make the subject look their best. We need to look at each individual client and pose them in a way that flatters their form. The first, “unposed” portrait does not make the most of the client’s figure. Her arms are held close to her body, with her hands together. The pose in the second image is a little better, but her left arm is pointing toward the camera, resulting in a distorted, foreshortened appearance. Also, her posture could be improved upon: her back has a convex curve. We have addressed these issues to create the third image. Note the huge difference in the woman’s appearance once her back was straightened and her arm was pulled in toward her body. Taking the time to finesse the pose can make a good portrait a great one.

Let’s look at the image pair below. Though the first image may appear acceptable at first, a closer look will reveal some shortcomings. The legs are pointed at the camera, as is the subject’s right arm and hand. With her weight on her left hand, her left shoulder was pushed up, making the shoulder appear too horizontal to the top and bottom of the image frame. What a difference a few changes make! The image below shows the subject in a well-crafted pose. The subject’s body was turned slightly away from the camera, with her face turned back toward the light. Though she appears to be resting on her hand, her weight is on her left hip, and her hand is merely resting on the ground. This allows us to show her shoulders in a desirable, more dynamic position. Finally, her legs were angled away from the camera, with the full length of the top leg visible. This creates a beautiful line and beautifully renders the subject’s figure.

Though the top image seems nice enough at first glance, it breaks a number of posing “rules.” The image below is far better. Note how beautifully the subject’s figure is rendered.

Composition and Posing

Featured photographer: Doug Box

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