life . Portrait . street

Madison, WI


Fontana Giusti

My best posing tip for portrait and family sessions

I’m glad you found your way to my humble little corner of the internet looking to learn something about how to pose people or how to pose yourself during a portrait session or a family session. I’m writing this article to start a series on the art of photographing people to tell powerful stories and I hope you’ll come back for more as I share what I’ve learned in my practice.

I really hope this will not disappoint too many readers, and I actually feel like I’m going to upset quite a few people here, but there’s really only one tip in the article, and it’s not what you’d expect: stop posing.

Yes, I’m aware that photographers use posing as a tool to make their subjects look their best, and while that can be valid approach, it ends up making every photograph and everyone look the same, and the standards social media sets are only making it worse. 

As a storyteller, a visual storyteller, but a storyteller nevertheless, I find myself wary of these tools because I want to tell unique stories, express unique characters, and that requires more than a cookie-cutter approach to flattering poses. 

Let me use a few sentences here to zoom in on the flattery aspect of posing. It may feel good, but flattery is not the truth, it’s base salesmanship: “let me tell you how wonderful you are so you’ll listen to me and give me all your money”. Truth be told, I’d probably make more money if I did that, but I want to stay true to my art, and while a genuine compliment goes a long way, flattery is the cheapest tool, and if you’re still reading, you’re probably above that.

Now that’s out of the way, I’ll get back to my point: posing is stiff, it’s uncomfortable, it gets in the way. When I was doing seasonal gigs for a major portrait studio I was taught how to reduce double chins and whatnots, and let me tell you, while it is effective, you end up with a subject that’s sitting in an unnatural position, hyper-focused on their so-called “problem features” instead of relaxing, leaning into the session, and connecting with the photographer. 

So to finish the sentence of my one and only tip for people-based photography: Stop posing, and start directing.

Directing is a much more hands off approach. Observe your subject, how they move, how they talk. Are they shy? Or simply introverted? Is there anything you can say or do to make them more comfortable? Or maybe just give them a minute to sit in silence, soaking up the sunlight on their face, always be ready. I’m myself a quieter, more introverted person, so while I’m not shy, I won’t jump at you if you sit for me, but I’m watching, I’m paying attention, even when I don’t do it consciously. So place your subject where you want them to be, and let them take part in the creative process. Your role is to let them know whether you’d like them to turn their bodies towards the light, or the other way.

Or don’t.

To document a family, for example, I find that the most authentic approach is to get people moving, let them almost forget a lens is being aimed at them, and go with their flow. This works especially well with children. 

When I take preschool portraits, it’s the tool I use the most. Even on small sets, there’s always room to make a kid twirl, jump or dance. It’s joyful, and it focuses them away from the camera – the simplest things, they work like magic.

Children can be tough subjects, they might have a hard time to let their guard down. Who are you? Can they trust you? But they have nothing on an adult who dislikes the way they look.

And there’s no amount of posing that can fight that. My point is also about self-acceptance. 

Portrait of a young man on state street with black curly hair and an open shirt, wearing finder jewelry and blue nail polish, feeling handsome and happy, looking like greek god Apollo

People’s bodies look the ways they look, carved by the lives we lead, and the genes we were born with and that’s actually a beautiful thing. Different subjects have different stories to tell, and that’s a treasure, something to cherish, not something to erase.

Let me see how your body moves, how you use your face, if I pose you, I sacrifice crucial information about what makes you you.

So let loose of those clever posing tricks. Because photography is a dialogue between the photographer and his subject, it’s a creative collaboration, and  posing often becomes a screen that interrupts the exchange, and in my opinion it also obscures the story. 

Now let me tell you more about directing. Directing is intuitive, which is not to say it cannot be learned, but it’s the wisdom you retain when you forget what you learned formally. It requires a deep understanding of light, composition, color, what works and what doesn’t. It requires knowledge of the history of art, the collective visual language that we use and was built over centuries of artists pushing the boundaries of how we tell stories without words. It requires a lot of trial and error, many failures, but also real success, the sort of work you will not produce by hiding behind tried and true recipes.

Directing comes from conversation, letting your subject move, be themselves, and yes, sometimes asking them to “please do that again, how you just had your hands, it was beautiful”…

So go on, read about posing techniques, learn the stuff, but don’t take it too seriously, and expand on it, go have a look at how the masters of paint posed their subject. Take what you need, forget the rest, and eventually move on. Don’t let it become a hindrance to self-expression.

If you like my approach to photography and are interested in working with me, whether you’re looking for a family photographer , or a portrait photographer in Madison, Wisconsin, please get in touch with me!

stay in touch

subscribe to my newsletter to keep informed about my next events and whatever I’m concocting… 

– I promise I won’t spam, I can barely send an email…