Conflicting angles in a portrait


Before we begin discussing how to pose for headshots and portraits there are a couple of things I’d like to mention. First, for clients, you do not have to remember all (or even any) of this. You pay me to remember it. This post is for those clients who, in order to collaborate better, hope to understand the mechanics of posing a little better, and for other photographers looking to learn a bit more about posing. 

Second: Don’t be fooled into thinking what I’m referring to as conflict is controlled by one body part more than the other. For example, a straight on pose can have conflict and can certainly be harmonious — as there are other elements to work with other than the shoulders. This is especially true when we get to headshots.

2 Essentials of Portrait and Headshot Posing: Harmony and Conflict 

Aesthetic principles are generally the same regardless of the medium. The two principles considered here are harmony and conflict. Contrast or dynamics might be a more appropriate term than conflict. But for the purpose of this post I’ll stick with conflict. 

So what is harmony? Harmony is when the elements of a thing come together in a unified way. A piece of music, a painting or a story all are more pleasing when they have harmony. Even an effective piece of art that’s meant to disturb will use harmony to get there. With respect to posing, put simply, a good pose is when all of the parts work together to achieve one ultimate end. A balance must be achieved by arranging the different parts to create the desired effect. 

The same is true for conflict: A visual art may use opposing angles or colors to create conflict, while a story may create conflict between characters using the unity of opposites. Without conflict a story is hardly interesting. The same can be said for a pose. 

Standing stiff with all appendages straight and a clinched jaw is only interesting because it’s rarely ever done. But this in-itself is only given interest by the fact that there is typically a better and more interesting way to do it. The more interesting way is more interesting because different angles invoke different emotions. More emotion usually translates to more interest. Rarely will anyone step in front of the camera and stretch their appendages straight and stiff. They’ll stand in what they believe to be their natural posture. Often this is a great place to start. The point of blowing the scope and mentioning the extreme of “straight and stiff” is to give a point of reference to move away from. We want our over all composition to be the opposite of straight and stiff. We want angles and curves. 


A pose is essentially made of angles. Angles can portray strength or grace or elegance. A 90 degree angle portrays strength while an obtuse angle portrays grace or elegance. An acute angle portrays vulnerability. These angles can be arranged or combined in different ways using the different body parts to maximize or minimize a particular effect. If the goal is to create a strong pose you may use strong angles in the arms, shoulders and neck. To soften the pose you might soften one of the angles. Let’s look at some of the parts of the body individually.

Example of strong angles in a portrait

Head Face and Neck

You have to play around with head tilt as the traditional rules don’t always apply. A feminine head position is usually a head tilt toward the high shoulder. A masculine head position is usually a head tilt away from the high shoulder. A head straight on to the lens portrays openness while a turned head suggests reserve. 


Shoulders control how broad you look. The more broad you look the more powerful you appear. 

Hands and Arms

For a feminine pose hands should be soft, relaxed and curved. Fingers should not be perfectly straight but with some shape. A 90 degree angle in the arm is going to portray strength, a more obtuse angle portrays sophistication, elegance, or grace.

Conflicting angles in a portrait
An example of interest created by conflicting angles. The head and gaze face one way, the body another.


How to Begin: Basic Posture

Essentially you start a pose by selecting a position, looking for what’s unflattering and changing it. A good basic starting posture for standing is first, breath, then shift your weight to the back foot, lengthen the spine, lean in a little and move your chin forward and down – not up. By not up I mean you don’t want to lift your chin and move your eyes back. Often people believe this will hide what they believe to be a double chin. It may, but it looks bad. There are other ways to minimize a double chin. 

Continue to practice breathing throughout. Nothing extreme, just recognize your breath, calm, slowly in and out. The aim from here is to avoid standing like a block but to stand in a way that creates negative space. 


Experiment with different angles using the principles of conflict and harmony. Here are some things to think about while experimenting:

  • Remember, breath and relax.  Are shoulders relaxed? If things feel tense, start again and shrug your shoulders, wiggle your arms, relax your jaw.
  • Is the spine elongated?
  • Sometimes it helps to wiggle the hands to loosen them before placing them in position. A hand on the face often does not look good when flat. 
  • Look for soft lines and avoid locked joints.
  • You may want to remove hair from the shoulder to elongate the neck. 
  • Remember what’s closest to camera usually looks largest. If your goal is to maintain focus on the eyes (which we typically do with portraits and headshots) you can take advantage of this by titling the head down so that the eyes are closest to the lens. On the other hand you may want to avoid, for example, hands coming towards camera which will make them more prominent in the image.
  • If you’re going for a really dramatic pose a general rule is to put parts that we have two of, e.g., hands, arms, legs, etc. at different levels. For example out of two arms you may have one up and one down.
  • Eyes — we don’t want to see whites of eyes. So if you’re turned to a profile don’t look further away.
  • And don’t forget to check wardrobe for anything out of place. 
Negative space in a portrait
Example of negative space being created by bending arm


I saved expression for last as expression is just about the most important thing when it comes to headshots and at least tied for most important thing when it comes to portraits. 

Facial Features

This first thing is to try and relax. Remove yourself from the situation if it’s troubling to you. A few ways to help with relaxation are to shrug your shoulders, wiggle your arms, relax your jaw. You don’t want to clinch your jaw or do weird things with your lips. You want to relax your jaw. A good tip for getting a good neutral look is to breathe in and then breathe out. Do it again but this time hold the way your lips are at the end of your exhale. Remember that feeling and hold your lips there while you continue to breathe.

For eyes, remember what’s closest to camera usually looks largest. So if you tilt your head down as opposed to up you are putting your eyes closer to the camera.


Some folks can’t stand the way they look when they smile, others can’t keep themselves from doing it. I suggest always trying both. We can always delete what you don’t like. If you have a hard time smiling in front of the camera (or not smiling) there are techniques we can use to achieve the goal. 

The Neutral Expression

If you’re going for a completely neutral look with out a smile the most important thing to remember is to start with relaxed jaw and lips. If you need help, do as mentioned above: breath in and then out. The way your lips feel after the exhale is how you want them to feel while posing. 

The Smile

Duchenne was a 19th century French neurologist who studied expression and found that when we smile an authentic smile the muscles at the corner of your eyes active along with the muscles at the corner of your mouth. This can be staged or done on cue, but it takes practice. The best way to get an authentic smile is to activate what ever passion makes you laugh. Some can do this by recalling funny things. Others not so much. For those who can’t do this on their own there are techniques that can be used.

Techniques For Getting A Good Smile

The most simple technique, adequate for standard headshots, is to have clients shut their eyes and open them with a smile. Another good one is to have clients say words that activate the smile muscles in the face. One way to do this is by having a two word conversation using only the words, “hey” and “yes”. If all of this fails and it comes down to just saying a single word try the word “money” or words ending in “uh” sounds rather than “cheese”

A technique for producing real smiles is to start with a fake laugh. Fake laugh three times and then try and laugh for real. Often the thought of doing this brings the smiles or laughs and no real attempt at a fake laugh is even necessary.

And of course there are jokes. “I’m addicted to break fluid, but I can stop whenever I want.” Or “An old lady at the bank said she was there to check her balance, so I decided to help, and pushed her over.” Maybe not all that funny, but often that’s what makes them work. 


The best way to develop a pose is to just start. Then refine using basic aesthetic principles. Remember to use your overall goal as a guide. What is the image suppose to say? Use angles and expressions accordingly. When in doubt think back to these two posing essentials: are there conflicting elements and is it harmonious. Please contact us with any questions.

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