Our job as portrait photographers is often to flatter our subjects and help them look their best. There are so many elements that can go into this equation; lighting, posing, expression, focal length, camera angle and more. There is a lot to consider, so sometimes it is useful to train our eyes to see certain undesirable visual elements so we can weed them out.
I have both a creative and analytical mind. I do not like absolutes. I do no like rules. I do, however, appreciate guidelines that help give us photographers a better understanding of how to use our art to communicate. I’d have to side with Pablo Picasso on this one; “’Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.’”
When posing a closeup of a subject, sometimes adding hands into the image can add visual interest. The hands can show confidence, elegance, or simply add compositional interest. When I started my career as a photographer, I found posing hands exceedingly difficult. They were often either distracting, or too dominant in the frame, or simply looks awkward.
I’d like to take this article to provide you a few ‘dos and don’ts’ to consider as you pose hands. Yes, rules are meant to be broken, but watch for these few distracting elements as you begin to pose your subjects. Eventually it will become second nature and you will know exactly how to pose hands! When you learn the rules, then you also can learn how to break them!
Unless otherwise indicated, all the images in this article were shot with the Sigma 24-105mm 4.0 lens.
I. Don’t: Apply pressure or push hand hard against the face. Do: Rest fingers gently on the face.
It looks unnatural and unflattering to have fingers smushed against your subject’s face. Even here where the pressure appears gentle, it often moves the skin and does not look elegant. If too much pressure is being applied, I ask my subject to wiggle their fingers and then place their fingers gently back on their face. This usually does the trick!
Another trick I’ve utilized to avoid awkward or tense hands is to include movement when posing. Instead of having them place their hand in their hair or on their face, I have the trace their fingers around their face and stop them when the hand looks soft and natural.
II. Don’t: Hand covering jawline and hiding face. Do: Jawline visible or hand simply as compliment to face
If the subject’s hand is too far in front of their face or covering too much of their jaw/face, then the hand becomes a distracting element. Furthermore, having the jawline visible is often more slenderizing and flattering to your subject. If the hand is too far forward on their face, ask them to slide their hand back toward their ear or simply direct by demonstrating on your own face.
III. Here is another example when the subject is turned slight away from the camera. Don’t: Hand covering jawline, hiding face, close to camera. Do: Hand on far side of face, jawline visible.
When your subject is turned slightly away from the camera, if the hand is on the jawline closest to the camera, now NO jawlines are visible. Furthermore, whatever is closest to the camera looks largest. In this instance, this would be her hand. Simply switching hands and moving it to her back jawline makes a world of difference. Now her jawline will be visible and the hand becomes a subtle visual element.
IV. Don’t: Palm toward camera. Do: Pinkie side of hand toward camera.
Typically when posing hands, you are looking for the hand to look small and elegant. In general you are aiming to see the pinkie side of the hand for this smooth and elegant line. The palm of the hand is large, pale, and usually create visual distractions. Rotate or turn the hand so the pinkie side is visible when possible.
V. Don’t: Sharp angles and tense fingers. Do: Soft curves, relaxed fingers
Avoid right angles and tense fingers in your photos. Right angles in your subject’s wrists and fingers creates rigid and unnatural posing. Furthermore, it create visual distraction. Instead of right angles, aim for soft curves and relaxed fingers.
VI. Don’t: Fists, or tense fingers with women. Do: Soft, elegant hands.
Usually you want to avoid fists or tense hands unless you are trying to convey anger or tension in your images. Similar to the palm of the hand, you also want to avoid the back of the hand. It is bulky and distracting, while the pinkie is much more visibly pleasing.
VII. For men, the rules change a bit.
Don’t: Hands soft, feminine or fist obscuring face.
Do: Turn hand or make hand asymmetrical. Soft or firm fist.
For men, many of the same rules apply. You still do not want to push their hands against their face. You still do not want to see the palm of their hands. With men, however, it is okay to use balled or soft fists. In fact, you do not want to use elongated, soft hands. Typically you want to pose their hands a bit more firmly.
Review these “dos and don’t” to train your eye to detect distracting hands in an image, and then correctly them with simple solutions! Here are a few images I’ve created following these simple posing rules!
Hand A: Lens: Sigma 70-200mm 2.8 lens at 168mm | Camera: Canon 5D II | Shutter speed: 1/125sec , Aperture: F/20 | ISO 100
Hand B: Lens: Sigma 70-200mm 2.8lens at 104mm | Camera: Canon 5D III | Shutter speed: 1/125sec | Aperture: F/5.6 | ISO 100
Hand C: Lens: Sigma 85mm 1.4 | Camera: Canon 5D II | Shutter speed: 1/125sec | Aperture: F/13 | ISO 100