Dancer and choreographer Asia Dickens poses for a portrait at Marquette Beach in Gary, Indiana. The ability to make your subject laugh is often helpful in capturing honest, relaxed moments.
It’s been a while since I shared one of those career-suicide morsels of truth with you all, and with summer slowly melting into fall, I figured now was as good a time as any to boost the confidence of you new-comers to the photography world. So, here goes: Posing people for portraits was, and sometimes is, a very awkward thing for me to deal with on a shoot.
I like to think of myself as a documentary-style photographer. I enjoy capturing moments as they happen in front of my lens, witnessing life from the perspective of the most-handsome fly on the wall. I love the moment when people I’ve just met finally forget that I’m standing there with a 17mm in their personal space (sometimes, this takes a while) and begin interacting with their environment as if I never arrived.
Shooting a portrait, unfortunately, is the complete opposite of the above scenario. The very reason the subject is standing before my camera is for the photo itself. The subject is relying on me to make them look their best, which includes (on top of lighting, location, lens choices, etc.) posing them in a flattering way.
I don’t have as much of a problem with posing as I used to. A few years of experience under my belt has allowed me to accumulate some techniques to allow people to relax and look their best. Assisting other photographers who specialize in portraits has also given me a first-hand look at how to handle making people comfortable while on set, and what to look out for when people begin posing themselves.
Most established photographers I know are vehemently opposed to assisting others because of pride issues – not me. Any opportunity for me to get an hands-on look at how someone does something (especially when that person might be better than me) is welcomed with open arms, and the fact that you’re getting paid to be there is the icing on the cake! But, I digress…
Making people comfortable and relaxed isn’t any skill unique to photography situations. Away from the camera, I’ve always loved making people laugh and laughing with others. Often, if I start acting silly or start doing some impressions, the subject will immediately relax and let go of their death-grip forced grin and nervous posture. I’ve evern heard stories of photographers screaming at their subjects at full-volume from behind the camera to elicit some sort of reaction (shocked or otherwise – I haven’t gone that far). Most times, it’s pretty simple. If you’re relaxed and at ease, your subject will be relaxed as well. A relaxed subject will often naturally fall into a few poses that work, with only a few pointers from me necessary from me to touch it up.
One group of subjects that I rarely have to pose, however, (and are a joy to shoot as a result) are dancers. Dancers are keenly aware of their bodies and are used to constantly varying their movement while on stage. It seems that every dancer I’ve ever photographed has been able to strike pose after pose after pose with little to no input from me, and most of them end up working!
Team USA ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto were a piece of cake to photograph at least year’s U.S. Olympics Media Summit. I only had to ask the pair to, “Have fun,” and off they went!
Last summer, while shooting portraits at the U.S. Olympics Media Summit, ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto did just this when they stepped into my booth. I simply directed them to, “Have fun,” and a barrage of wacky poses followed. All I had to do was fire the camera as they came up with each one on their own. Talk about easy! Of course I had to prepare for this by making sure my lighting was correct and my equipment was ready to go, but the rest of the energy was brought forth by the subjects.
Dancer and choreographer Asia Dickens moves through the grass on Gary’s Marquette Beach. Asia lived up to the “dancers are easy to shoot portraits of” stereotype exceptionally!
This summer, on a portrait shoot with dancer / choreographer Asia Dickens, things fell into the “easy dancer routine” once again. I chose a beach location at sunset for flattering, warm light, and a long 400mm lens to compress elements like the setting sun against the subject. I even scheduled a fireworks display to add to our options on location for backgrounds! (Okay, I didn’t schedule the fireworks display, but I’ve never re-set a softbox for another photo so quick!) Asia, however, handled the rest, and moved through each of my frames in a way that gave us a great amount of variety while editing down the final take.
If you’re lucky enough to have a dancer in front of your lens for a portrait shoot, and you suffer from a slight degree of posing anxiety, you can breathe easy. Chances are, the dancer will call upon their years of experience with placing their body in flattering ways and give you everything you could have asked for and more without you saying a word. If your subject is a non-dancer, don’t worry! Simply put your camera down and pretend you’re a ballerina for a few moments (or, saving this, make them laugh somehow)! Your subject will be embarrassed, then smile, and probably chuckle. They’ll relax, begin to let their guard down, and you’ll be well on your way to a few naturally posed frames with only a little help from you.
No Photoshop here! A surprise fireworks display and some hustle on my part allowed us to capture a unique look during Asia’s shoot.
Poses like this are decidedly a dancer advantage.