Model Posing Secrets in Fashion Photography: Understanding Body Language

The science of body language is really quite simple.  The messages that the body gives off can reveal the character of the person inside.  The language of the body can reveal the person’s health, age, state of mind and even station in life.  The language of the body is universal, it can cross language barriers and bridge cultures.  When you see the body as more than just hands and feet, arms and legs, and see it as a means of communication, you can take communication to another level.

Anywhere in the world, it is all the same.  People give off certain impressions about themselves regarding their moods, health and station in life.  Physical characteristics of a person can reveal much about them and it is often what sets them apart from others.

Line up six people, same sex, same height and weight, same hair color and style, same physical characteristics and create differing characters for each: 

Young, old, rich, poor, smart, not so smart.  Dress them alike and have them assume their characters.  What do you suppose you will see?  Each person will have their own body language that will convey the unique characteristics that each person has.  This concept is used by models and actors everyday as they bring characters to life on the screen, in print and on the stage.

The shoulders and torso are greatly responsible for carrying the messages that the body conveys.

Mood and character are revealed through the shoulders.  The little effort that it takes to manipulate this area of the body can yield big results in how the person is perceived.  When combined with other parts of the body, like the shoulders, it can be very effective in revealing the intended character.  The clever photographer will know how to best use this part of the body and can direct the posing model to effectively move and pose to bring the character to life.

Neutral Shoulders:  are not really expressive in their own right.  They are a good starting point for determining how much expression should be used for each character.  In some cases, they may not even move from this position.

Forward Shoulders:  indicate a state of weariness or weakness, poor health or a shy or timid personality.

Low Shoulders:  reflect grace, elegance and poise.  They can also mean a casual attitude or natural stance.

Back Shoulders:  give an impression of pride, courage, strength and physical vitality.  Happiness is also shown through back shoulders.

High Shoulders:  generally have a rather negative connotation such as lack of confidence, strain, fear, stress and anxiety.

Combining several different positions can lend an entirely new dimension to the shot.

Up and Forward Shoulders:  this presents a more flirtatious, coquettish, kittenish attitude. 

Low and Forward Shoulders:  this shows a state of mind that is dejected, weary, discouraged and advanced in age.

When creating these movements of the shoulders, the movements themselves may be slight or they may be dramatic.  The depth and forcefulness of the movement is entirely contingent upon the role or character that the model is attempting to portray.

Even more is communicated when the torso is brought in to play.  Adjustments to the position of the upper and lower torso, also known as the shoulder track (line drawn from shoulder to shoulder) and the hip track (line drawn from hip to hip), convey mental attitudes, convey moods and depict characters.  When  the model has her hip track square to the camera, but her shoulder track tipped at an angle to the camera, the feeling is that of curiosity, interest, concern and alertness.  Swap this positioning where the shoulder track is square to the camera and the hip track is tipped at an angle to the lens and you get quite a different emotion, one of flirtation and casualness.

Body positioning is just as crucial in group shots.  When there are several subjects in a shot, their body language tells a story.  If all the people are learning towards each other, it gives a feeling of friendliness and camaraderie.  However, if those same people are leaning away from each other, it tells quite a different tale.  Even in shots where the subject isn’t facing the camera, the body positioning can convey certain feelings. In model posing it is important that photographers understand body language and how to use it to achieve the shots that they want based on model talent and posing skills.

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Model Posing Techniques: Arms

The way a model’s arms are posed can be integral to the shot.  It can make it great or it can serve as a distraction and take away from the impact of the shot.  While the legs may receive more attention, the arms can deliver impact by deepening expression, creating an artistic tone and lending balance.

The model’s arms should receive adequate attention when posing because poorly posed arms can wreck an otherwise great shot.

When posing arms, you need to pay close attention to not only how they are positioned, but how they look in the shot.  Sometimes the model posing may have no clue how to position her arms, and the frames of the shot offer a limited posing area.

While this may sound difficult, in reality it isn’t.   I can be a challenge, but when you break down the arms into three segments, upper arm, forearm and hand, you can make the task a bit more manageable.

Try to imagine the arm as a flattened shape, causing them to appear as if they are cut from cardboard, like a paperdoll if you will.  Separate this flattened arm shape into three segments, joining the upper arm to the body at the shoulder, the upper arm to the forearm at the elbow and the forearm to the hand at the wrist.  Each segment rotates up and down, but never forward and back.

If the arms did actually only move up and down as opposed to away from the camera and toward it, there would never be a problem with posing them for the camera.

The human arm can not duplicate this flat, one dimensional concept.  They are three dimensional, flesh and bone.  They are not cardboard, not a paperdoll.  However, the basic motion represented in the illustration is quite correct.  The crux of the movement of the arm should be maintained within the up, down, side to side motion while limiting the movement toward and away from the lens.

The lens does not see as the human eye does.  The eye is somewhat forgiving and compensates for variations in depth within an area.  The lens, however, does not operate in that manner.  If the aperture is not adjusted to compensate for the various depths within a shot, then an arm that is too close to the lens while the body is at a normal range, will appear enormous, shortened or at some settings the arm will be in focus while the rest of the shot is not.  Likewise, if the arm is positioned too far away from the lens, it can appear very small or distorted. 

It is important to keep this in mind as you shoot.  This tendency is not impossible to work with, just something that you will have to sharpen your skills to contend with.  It is the nature of the beast and you can’t change it so you might as well learn how to play the game.  While some of the more artistic approaches to photography manipulate this quality, using the distortions and odd perspectives as a creative tool, this is usually not the case for commercial or glamour photography.  The sharp photographer and model will have a working understanding of the boundaries that the camera sets and they will know how to work around that.

The boundaries of the posing area are rather shallow, but quite wide.  This means that the model has a great deal of freedom for side to side motion, but limited range for forward and back motion of the arms.  She can swing her arms at her side in a casual, resting position, raise her arms so that the meet overhead or cross her body at various levels from the waist to the collarbone.

This shows that the restrictions are not as confining as you may think.  Each arm actually has quite a bit of freedom to move within the limitations set by the lens.  While the movement of the upper arm and forearm are somewhat limited in regards to depth, there are still many, many attractive, interesting positions that are available to each arm.

While the hand is a part of the three points of the arm, there is a great deal that goes into hand posing.  For that reason, this discussion will focus on the upper arm and forearm.

Upper Arm.  Positions of the upper arm are defined by the elbow.  The elbow acts as a reference point for the position of the arm. With the body facing front, move the upper arm out so that the elbow is at a 90 degree angle from the body, the upper arm is parallel to the bottom of the frame.  The upper arm can also move up so that the elbow is at the top of the frame, in toward the center of the body and down again.

Imagine the arm moving on a large clock so that when moving the right arm, up is in the 12 position, out is in the 3 position, down is in the 6 position and across the body is in the 9 position.  But just like a clock, there are many different positions in between.

The normal position of the upper arm is hanging down from the shoulder.  This is often the starting point.  However, there are many different options for poses, you just have to remember a few simple rules.  Too much of a bend at the elbow can give sharp angles that look hard and unnatural.  Also, if the forearm compresses the upper arm, it can give an unnatural look to the shape of the arm.  It can also make the arm look larger that is really is.  This can also happen if the arm is pressed to the side, against the face or even against the body.

Forearm.  Positions of the forearm are defined by the wrist and its relative position to the elbow.  With the elbow acting as a pivot point, it is usually a good practice to set the upper arm, then the forearm.

The normal position of the forearm is just like that of the upper arm, hanging down at the side.  Also like the upper arm, the forearm has the same four basic positions.  Different upper arm and forearm positions can be combined to create interesting model pose.  For instance, you can position the upper arm so that it is parallel to the model’s side with the elbow pointing to the bottom of the frame, while the forearm is positioned across the model’s body, meaning that the elbow is bent at a 90 degree angle.

Great shots depend on great posing.  The sharp photographer and posing model will understand these concepts and know how to best use the camera’s limitations to their advantage.  Often just a minute change in a position can make all the difference.  Don’t be afraid to experiment and try different poses in order to get that great shot.

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