The New Model’s Guide to Posing

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.

You get to watch a new model grow more comfortable in front of the camera. They transition from being nervous to having fun.

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.  

Underwater Modeling Guide

Working underwater adds yet another level of intricacy for a model to consider.  Just like the photographer needs specialized equipment to shoot under the surface, a model needs to specialize her posing.  However, most models don’t know how to shoot underwater, so it’s not often discussed.  I had to learn how by trial and error (and let me tell you, my first underwater shoot was one big error), and by picking up a few hints from that first photographer, who had shot underwater previously and learned the ideas from the floundering of his past models.  

The most important skill to learn concerning modeling underwater is breath control.  It’s also the most counterintuitive.  I’ve now coached around half a dozen new models and several photographers through their first underwater shoot, and this seems to be the make-or-break skill set.  You can’t hold your breath when you go underwater—having air in your lungs will cause you to float quickly back up to the surface while you’re trying to pose.  Instead, you need to oxygenate your blood with several deep breaths and then breathe out all of the air from your lungs before you sink under the surface.  Most people can’t do that the first few tries.  As a survival mechanism, your body instinctively wants to hold as much air in as it can.  I’ve seen a few people blow out their breath right after they go under the surface; this can also work, but it will cause a lot of air bubbles around you, which have a high probability of obscuring the image for the photographer.  

Once you’re under the water, you still have to deal with the actual posing.  A good underwater shot looks effortless, like you’re floating serenely in a weightless environment.  The very weightlessness that makes the final image look so ephemeral is what makes posing so difficult.  You’re no longer grounded, so if you move one body part, it will affect the rest of your body.  Instead of sinking or staying still, you will always be pulled towards the surface.  From what I’ve seen, different body types seem to pose better in different positions.  I think that this is because of the amount and location of body fat causing buoyancy.  I have a lot of curves for a model, and I’ve found that it’s easiest for me to hold stretched out poses—both vertical and horizontal. If I choose to do a more compact pose, I know that I’ll be fighting either my butt or my breasts trying to pull me back to the surface.  In contrast, my good friend, fellow model, and part fish Mallory Ann is great at compact poses.  She can twist around gracefully in the middle of the water in what seems like an endless series of contortions, but has issues with horizontal poses.  She also has a much more traditional fashion model build, with most of her (tiny amount of) body fat stored in her core.  

The best advice I can give you is to watch your hand shape, and point your feet.  Whether you’re skimming the bottom of the pool, floating in the middle, or just breaking the surface, a perfectly pointed toe adds to the weightless, impossible feel of the image.  Try to move slowly and gracefully through the water; it will allow the photographer to keep up with you, and hopefully give you a chance to recover from any change in body position without thrashing around.  And realize that, although posing is incredibly difficult, you’re not stuck to the ground anymore.  Don’t just orient your body upright!  Use the difficulty of the environment to your advantage to create fantastical body shapes and orientations that aren’t possible on land.  

Facial expressions, like posing your body, are particularly difficult underwater.  The weightlessness will give you chipmunk cheeks, and you’ll naturally want to close your eyes.  The best that you can do is to relax your face and make sure you’ve gotten rid of that last bit of air to try and control the puff.  Realize that opening your eyes is something that you have to do consciously underwater.  Don’t just assume that they’ll be open—remind yourself to do it.  Oh, and don’t forget that your hair is now a separate entity with a mind all its own—keep an eye on it, and make sure that it’s behaving and not floating in front of your face.  

You can get an incredible underwater image with just a nude (and as a matter of fact, my favorite underwater image that I’ve ever shot is just that). However, props add another element and level of visual interest to an underwater image that isn’t always necessary in an “on-land” shot.  Cloth of any kind will illustrate the weightlessness of the water, as will any other type of flowing prop—long hair, dresses and clothes with extra yardage, ribbons, even strands of kelp.  Since shooting underwater already looks otherworldly, adding disparate elements will only increase the surreal feeling.  Clothing again will do this, but I’ve also had photographers sink everything to the bottom of the pool from chairs and tables to a real gramophone, an antique scythe, and an old radio flyer.  

Last but certainly not least, the best tip that I can give you is a product.  Your eyes will be burning and miserable after shooting underwater for any length of time (particularly if you’re posing with your eyes open).  A little while after that, and you’ll be seeing haloes around anything bright, white, or reflective for hours after.  The best way that I’ve found to mitigate this is overnight ointment for dry eyes.  Don’t buy plain eye drops or even the liquid gel—only the nighttime ointment will last long enough in the water.  Apply it liberally before you get in the water, and on every break.  It’s expensive, but the small tube will last for many shoots, and trust me, it’s worth it for the relief it will bring.  

Posing underwater is certainly one of the biggest challenges you’ll face as a model.  If you ever get the opportunity to try it, remember that it’s not a well-explored facet of modeling.  Experiment, have fun, and create images that no one has ever dreamed of!