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That Killer Look!

The Theory and Practice of Posing a Model

Written by Rick Trottier

Introduction

Many elements make the difference between “just taking pictures” and the art of photography. High quality equipment certainly helps, but having impressive firepower doesn’t insure beautiful imagery. You can put a top notch camera in the hands of someone without skill and knowledge and the end product can be underwhelming to say the least. Superior lighting technique and first-rate editing skills are undoubtedly “musts”, but even these essentials don’t insure capturing that memorable image. Even the presence of a stunningly beautiful model does not guarantee success. Beauty must be sculpted into an image that draws overarching attention, that creates emotional impact, and which leaves a lasting impression, and the only way to “sculpt” that loveliness into a photograph that endures is achieved by carefully, thoughtfully and strategically posing a model.

 

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Theory

Like most of the components of photographic artistry, learning how to pose a model is best accomplished through three pathways of knowledge acquisition. One of them is study. Judiciously observing the reputable works of your colleagues and finding inspiration (NOT childish emulation) in their creativity is a good place to begin. Another outstanding source of studious inspiration is reviewing classical sculpture and painting. There is a good reason why I used the term “sculpted” in the first paragraph. A sizable percentage of my knowledge of posing theory has been attained through painstaking analysis of the other avenues of artistic expression. The hyper-idealized forms of human posture I have and still revel in have given me a diverse and rich foundation upon which to build. The second method of gaining posing knowledge is experimentation. All photographers have “favorites”, models we work with on a regular basis, whose personal and professional qualities inspire us. Challenging each other to attain greater and more complex ideas for posing is a requirement of the professional. The amateur/hobbyist leaves things to chance, does not push themselves to loftier levels of achievement and is perfectly happy with having “time with a hot girl”. The professional artist knows that the voyage of progress is never-ending and to best serve clients, deeper awareness and more profound knowledge is indispensable. Finally, the last piece of the puzzle is flexibility/patience. Each model’s physiology is different. A pose that is striking with one may not be as impressive with another. Each model also has differing levels of experience and athleticism, as well as comfort. Knowing the model, encouraging her to strive for more awe-inspiring looks and at the same time being aware of her limitations, your limitations and the look that you are after will circumvent frustration and disappointment. It has been often said that “there is no substitute for experience”. All three of these learning curves will help the intrepid photographer gain that critical experience.

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24-IMG_7850-DonyelleIn addition to all the afore-mentioned corollaries in my “creed”, I have other philosophical tenets to which I subscribe. I categorically disagree with the thinking that models should be left to pose themselves. Certainly, the more experience a model has allows the photographer more freedom in how much direction they need to give. However, there is a simple fact in crafting an image, the model cannot see herself during the posing process and the photographer can. The shooter MUST see where the light is falling, what angles are being created by the pose and how those lines marry with the angle the photographer is shooting from. Depending on the level of experience of the model and the personality of that model, it is the responsibility of the photographer to provide direction, feedback and/or subtle prompts. Brand new models and/or fairly inexperienced models are people with which I take the time to instruct on posing technique and to reinforce proper utilization of skills, while at the same time redirecting improper habits or problematic tendencies. With more experienced models, I most certainly allow a degree of freedom in their posing, but I still craft the look in concert with the model. I do not try to dictate and/or crush freedom of expression; rather I wish to provide a wide-ranging platform of skills from which a model can draw when she doesn’t have the luxury of working with someone who provides the kind of direction I will.

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5-IMG_8252-AlexandraAnother reason for giving ample directions stems from my disapproval of the use of mirrors to aid posing. While it seems like a potentially valuable option to improve posing, there are problems inherent in their use. First, it is a short-term solution to a long-term problem that has benefit for the photographer and not the model. A model should leave any shoot better, wiser, more skilled and more experienced. Modeling is a tactile experiential opportunity. Learning poses requires the acquisition of “muscle memory”. For example, once you have learned to tie your shoes, your hands and eyes know the process. It isn’t something that can be easily explained, you simply memorize the physical steps and the “feel” of what you are doing, and the knowledge is now yours forever. Posing technique is precisely the same. A model should and must practice her posing and a photographer should and must give direction and feedback for that model to grow and thrive. The use of a mirror is no different than giving a student a “times tables sheet” to use in class. That student may get through the assignment, but their knowledge of their math facts has not been augmented. Using a mirror may allow a photographer to “get the images they want”, but a model has been provided a crutch during the shoot and crutches don’t increase learning. The final problem is that a model should not be engaged with the mirror during a shoot, she must be creating a connection with the photographer. That all-important chemistry is often the difference between average and superb imagery and a mirror will create an artificial sense of skill, while at the same time placing a wall in between the two who are part of the artistry, negating any chance of a bond being forged.

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25-IMG_7020x-SamanthaOne of the most valuable benefits derived from “sculpting a look” and thoughtfully posing a model is the judicious use of time and energy. What too many photographers forget is that posing is physically and energetically taxing on a model. As the hours pass, to keep shooting frame after frame becomes a situation where the “law of diminishing returns” is brought into play. In the modern, digital-camera age, there is no need to “rip film” anymore and to shoot for endless hours, creating multitudes of images. I am deeply amused when I hear a photographer trumpet his joy in shooting for hours on end and the thousands of frames they shot. The likely end-product is an exhausted model who mentally/spiritually checked out at some point. I rarely shoot more than 2-3 hours in studio (as much as 4 hours on location) and try to keep my frame count under 120 in studio (under 250 on location). I want to make each moment the shutter clicks count, get the very best from my model’s physical and mental energy by harnessing her enthusiasm, encouraging that passion and finding ways to collaborate in such a way that she feels like every single moment has been well-spent and has not been expected to survive an assignment in endurance. The days of machine-gun shooting are long over and making your studio sessions fun yet business-like, exciting but thoughtfully managed will engender respect and gratitude in your artistic partners.

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28-IMG_7409x-Lindsay-AFinally, I consider body posing and facial expressions close cousins, both of which improve through practice, reinforcement and experience. While this article focuses on body posing, both elements are a part of this examination of “how to” and “why”. I have maintained throughout my career that while body posing may seem more challenging, facial expressions take twice the work to hone and strengthen. However, since facial expression practice needs only a small mirror and can be done almost anywhere a girl goes (if she has a compact); body posing sometimes takes longer to master. Just as with photographers, for models, becoming skilled at posing takes practice, time, energy, patience and flexibility. Some people have natural fluidity to their forms of posing, but improvement can and must come if one puts in the dedicated amounts of effort.

 

Practice

The type of pose used in a shoot is dictated by the following criterion; concept of the shoot, attire of the model, setting/background of the concept. While concept and setting seem like they go hand in hand, that isn’t always the case. For example, if the shoot is of the outdoor variety and the attire of the model is very casual in nature, then the pose should reflect that casual appearance. However, if the attire is more formal in nature, then the pose should be far more “sculpted” to bring about a more elegant and sophisticated look. Matching the attire, the setting/background and then crafting a pose to marry these elements helps to create a sense of atmosphere, which carries the image forward, potentially tells a story and most certainly creates emotional attachment in the observer. Another element to consider is whether the focus on the imagery is on the garments of the model (fashion/commercial imagery) or is the image focusing on her beauty/figure (glamor). Knowing which kind of imagery you are going to create is essential to arriving at a superb image. And while this last point seems obvious, I have seen throughout my career that it is NOT so at all. Both persons involved in the shoot MUST discuss content before-hand. Too often I have heard models complain that they thought they were going to be shooting less aggressive content, while the photographer was expecting far more aggressive content. Beautiful posing is achieved through trust and comfort. Knowing precisely what the content will be before a shoot so that a happy and safe chemistry can be initiated will also bring about the likelihood of first-rate imagery. As I have preached throughout my time in this industry, planning, strategizing and grafting those thought processes to managed spontaneity will bring spectacular results.

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4-IMG_8750-ChristaI break down posing into categories that best fit the needs of the imagery; Eclectic-Geometric poses, Energetic poses, Casual poses, Sensual poses and Headshots. Each of these types of poses is meant to highlight certain elements in the image and create a specific mood. Each has its own unique strengths as well as clear-cut challenges.

Eclectic-Geometric poses are intended to create a wholly artistic look, are artificial in design/execution and are calculated to draw the eye to either the attire of the model, a specific part of the attire or create a look that is meant to connote stylishness, avant-garde sensibilities or innovative fashion.  The physical demands of these poses are often tremendous, as the broken, intersecting and curvilinear lines created are incredibly dramatic. There is little that is “everyday” in these poses and the old phrase “if the pose feels awkward, it’s right” serves as a guiding principle. While creating these kinds of poses is frequently daunting due all the varied elements that must be managed and considered, the payoff is fantastic when “that killer look” is created. Eclectic-Geometric poses are best used in the realms of fashion, beauty and high art categories of photography and often leave the viewer contemplating the artistry of the image for long periods of time.

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27-IMG_7090x-Tina-MarieEnergetic poses are all about action, movement and dynamism and while they sound like they are the hardest poses to craft, that is not usually the case. The wonderfully contradictory nature of an “Energetic Pose” is that they are meant to look as if a moment of natural motion has been captured, but that moment is likely to have been thoroughly scripted and theatrically induced. Motion can be engineered by adding props like weights of other workout gear, blowing hair with a fan, an off-set gaze coupled with a dramatic camera angle, or even something as simple as a step forward in the direction of the camera. Energetic poses are often the province of fitness imagery, specialized forms of fashion or outdoor/beach looks and they have an impact all their own due to their intensity.

Casual poses are the most realistic of posed pictures and are often created when the most collaborative forms of direction and redirection are utilized. Letting a model initiate the pose and then fine-tuning the facial and body posture tends to be the best method of eliciting these looks. While Casual poses are usually the least physically demanding of the five categories, they are deeply dependent on timing and a patient synergy between photographer and model. A close knowledge of each other’s personalities is essential to create beauty at these moments and I often reflect on how it seems like the model can “read my mind” during these instances.  Casual poses are often the most diversely applied of all the posing techniques. Casual fashion, light glamor, simplistic beauty looks and many beach and outdoor styles are best created using Casual posing practices and often can create lasting and complex emotional responses.

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19-IMG_5384x-ChrissySensual poses are meant to focus on the figure of the model, a specific attribute of her figure or to craft a sense of sexual tension. While the end product is often meant to “feel” as realistic as a casual pose, in the end these poses are just as contrived as an Energetic pose. Often times, the physical demands of a Sensual Pose are nearly as intense as the Eclectic-Geometric pose since deep back arches, lifted and pushed bosoms and derrieres, at the same time that faces and hands must look as relaxed and delicate as possible, are required. Sensual poses are the province of glamor photography and the attire is often sexy lingerie, partially or fully removed garments and implied nudes. Essential to the success of these images is that afore-mentioned sense of trust and comfort between model and photographer, for the mood begot in these pictures cannot and must not be negated by a model’s facial expression that belies what is supposed to be a relaxed sense of passion and is actually an uncomfortable instant bordering on threat.

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7-IMG_6746-DanieHead shots are a unique subset of the prior-mentioned categories. They are similar to the Casual Pose in that a sense of relaxed beauty and languid charm is created, but at the same time they are as contrived as a Sensual or Energetic Pose for the purpose of drawing specific attention to the eyes, lips, hair or accessories placed on or near the head of the model. Strangely, hands and fingers are often-times very strategically used in these precision images to create dynamic angles to lead the eye into, through and out of the picture. The Headshot may not require the same kinds of physical demands as other posing techniques, but the amount of concentration needed to create these incredibly specialized looks is considerable. The Headshot is, of course, most commonly used in Beauty and Fashion Imagery, especially as it applies to commercial use.

The last but potentially most important practice in posing a model is the need for a model to hold a pose as long as possible until she is asked to drop that pose. Shifting briskly from pose to pose may look impressive on television or in a movie, but it is a return to the unnecessary practice of “ripping film”. What often times works far better is to have a model hold a pose and then subtly shift that pose, or the photographer change the camera angle, or the array of the lighting or any combination of all the above. Sometimes, all it takes is just the smallest change in the tableau to go from “acceptable” to “incredible”.  For this reason, limiting the number of frames helps to preserve the stamina of your model, but just as importantly it gives each frame a sense of purpose instead of a feeling of haphazard “hope” that something special MIGHT be in the offing if fortune allows. Every model wants her time to be something used preciously and hopes that she may be part of a wonderful moment when that one incredible shot is produced. Making each frame count has strategic and psychological benefit to your studio time on both sides of the camera.

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Conclusion

Having an appreciation and understanding for the many types of posing, the rationale behind them and the how to best achieve them is just a starting point when it comes to mastering the theory and practice in this photographic discipline.  However, it is a critical bit of knowledge that requires mastery. An AMAZING pose can make the difference between a saccharine picture and THAT KILLER LOOK in a truly artistic photograph. Invest the time and patience necessary to become a master of posing and superior imagery will come.

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Managing Editor, GlamModelz Magazine I’m a Central New England photographer based out of Worcester, MA, just one hour west of Boston. I specialize in fashion and glamor commercial imagery as well portraiture of all types. My style is a blend of commercially viable work melded with artistic innovation, whether on location or in studio. I prize collaboration quite highly and am proud of the fact that most of my work displays the ideas and designs of my models as much as it does my skills, efforts and planning. Rick has published 80, articles with GlamModelz Magazine.

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