You’ve just arrived at the studio for your very first photo shoot. Maybe you want to work as a model, and this is your first gig. Or maybe the photo shoot is just for fun: you’re posing for portraits or a private boudoir session. Either way, you’ve done your research; you’ve arrived on time, ready to shoot, and with everything you need for wardrobe on hand. You’re standing in front of the backdrop when you realize something terrifying: you have no idea what to do when the camera is pointed at you.
I’ve been lucky enough to coach several new models through their first shoots. It’s truly one of the most rewarding experiences imaginable: you not only get to see their posing improve before your eyes, but you also get to watch a new model grow more comfortable in front of the camera. They transition from being nervous to having fun.
Of course, I can’t coach every model’s first shoot. So if I can’t be there for yours, here’s a few pieces of information that I always try to share.
—Hands are incredibly important for two reasons. First, they are almost as expressive as the human face. If you don’t believe me, ask any actor about gestures. Second, they continue the lines of the pose beyond your body. A well-placed and shaped hand continues the visual line down the arm and into the rest of the image.
It’s easy to make hands look awkward in photos, especially for new models. Put too much weight on a hand and it turns into a pancake. Too much spread between the fingers and your hand is suddenly a starfish; too much tension creates claws.
So how do you create graceful hands in your photographs? I’ve heard proper hand positions described as “holding an orange,” or “creating a cup,” but that never worked for me. Instead, I learned the most by studying old paintings. Most people are familiar with “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo on the Sistene Chapel. In the painting, Adam reaches out to God with perfect hand position—the fingers are relaxed, the second finger is slightly elevated, the wrist is curved but not limp.
There are also innumerable spoofs and parodies of the painting. A personal favorite replaces God with the flying spaghetti monster; I like to think “flying spaghetti monster hands” whenever I’m posing.
Another good place to study hands are ballet dancers. Notice that they not only use the same hand shape as Adam, but watch how they angle the wrist as well.
—Feet are almost as important as hands. Feet continue the line of the pose through your legs, but flat feet often leave a pose feeling static. One of the best things to do is to pose on your tiptoes. Just like standing in high heels, posing on the balls of your feet lengthens your legs, defines your muscles, and makes your butt curvier. It does, however, make it harder to balance and takes some practice.
Even if you keep one foot flat on the ground, make sure to put at least one of your feet up on tiptoe. A perfect example of this is in another famous painting: Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” Or if fine art isn’t your thing, you can also see it in any Victoria’s Secret catalogue.
—Ever heard someone tell you to “suck it in” for a photograph? Well, they’re right—partially. Instead of holding in your stomach, breathe up into your ribcage. This flattens your stomach, elongates your torso, and lets your ribcage expand—creating more of an hourglass figure and the look of a slender waist.
Also, instead of holding it in, pop your hip by putting more weight on one foot than the other. This once again creates more of an hourglass figure and the famous “S-curve” shape, which will also make your waist look smaller by comparison.
—Don’t just stand there. You’re allowed to move around and try out interesting, different, and downright weird poses. Experiment! Not every pose has to be perfect, and I think creating a new shape with your body is more valuable than mimicking an old one that everyone else has seen before. I like to think of verbs when I’m trying to come up with a new pose: twist, knot, compress, lounge, reach, bend, sprawl.
—Relax your face. There’s a reason that this is so far down on the list of things to think about. If you think about your facial expression first, then as soon as you move your body, you’ll get distracted. I only think about my face and my connection with the camera once I’ve positioned my body into the pose that I want.
It’s easy to say “relax,” but it’s a hard thing to do on command, especially in a new and stressful situation. The best way I’ve found is to make funny faces and to laugh. This is, of course, easier to do in person when I’m coaching. I stick out my tongue at new models; I tell jokes; I make bunny ears or moose antlers when the photographer isn’t looking. It’s all a little bit immature, but as soon as I get the first tentative smile at my goofball antics, I get to watch a new model’s face light up for the camera as well.
—Fake it ‘till you make it. At my very first photo shoot, the photographer commented that I was one of the easiest models to work with that she had ever shot. She couldn’t believe that I had never modeled before. It had nothing to do with inherent talent, beauty, or posing skill. I did one thing differently: I didn’t wait for her to tell me what to do. I tried to always have an idea for the next pose, and then to take the initiative and move into it before I was asked. I moved, acted confident, and pretended to know what I was doing. That alone put me above all of the local competition.
So if you don’t know what to do at your first shoot, pretend that you do. Try something; try anything. Even just faking it will get you far better results.
—And last but certainly not least, have fun and be proud of yourself. Getting in front of a camera can be terrifying. It’s like getting on stage or giving a speech to a crowded room. You have to perform, and you have to be aware of yourself and your body. But on top of that, you also have to face your own self-image. If you go to a photo shoot, remember that you’re doing a brave thing. But also remember that there’s room to make mistakes. Even if you think you’re doing lots of things wrong, merely acting confident made me seem great to work with. The same is true for you.
Although it’s challenging, modeling should also be fun—and if you’re enjoying yourself, that will come through in your images. So think about how to pose, and about your hands and your feet and your face, but also remember to smile and laugh and make funny faces. Try to enjoy the process of creating art while you’re modeling. If you do so, you’ll probably enjoy the final images too.