Posing for Emotionally Rich Images
To create emotionally rich images, start by studying the ins and outs (that’s what she said) of emotion. You need to know what an emotion feels like before you can know what it looks like. Also, thanks for being here! It’s awesome that you want to push your work forward and I’m flattered that you came here to do it.
First, a little distinction in how I plan emotion in editorial work vs. my couples sessions:
EDITORIAL WORK – Before I show up on set for an editorial shoot, I already know the emotion I want to bring out in the images because I know which mood will best convey that specific shoot’s concept.
COUPLE SESSIONS – I let the love-butts steer the mood for couple’s sessions because every couple is different I want the couple to end up with images that feel like them. I’m going to go meta and quote myself from an interview about this (I know it’s weird, just go with it):
“You know that whole thing about humans being infinitely complex with oceans of individuality swirling inside of them? We all laugh at different things. Some of us laugh more, some less. Some of us cry at videos of kittens, some of us find peace in nature, etc. The point here is simple:
Don’t put anyone in a box.
It’s dangerous to show up on set with an inflexible view of what you want to create. If you’re trying to direct a couple into delicate, intimate poses but they only sit there for a few seconds before they start making fart noises and tickling each other, you might need to adapt. Let your couple steer the mood of the shoot. Otherwise, you’ll end up with photos that feel forced to you and foreign to them. If they start getting goofy, play into it. If they’re quiet and calm, let them sink further into that.
Whatever fire they light, throw some wood on it.”
– Ben Sasso (Cat Lady. Photographer.)
ALONE WITH A CHAIR
Good news! We’re humans and we’ve each been meticulously collecting data on what emotions feel like since we were born. Let’s look inward for a bit to translate what those emotions feel like into what they look like.
Let’s take a mind journey into the land of imagination. Imagine yourself in a room with nothing but a simple, wooden chair. You there? Good. Now I’ll tell you what you’re feeling, and I want you to imagine how each feeling would change the way you sit in the chair (I’ll include my answers in gray).
You’re cozy as butts. I’m talking steaming-hot-chocolate-and-wool-socks kind of cozy.
Sitting curled up under a warm blanket. Feet tucked in, arms wrapped up, muscles relaxed.
You’re relaxed and it’s summertime. Windows are open and a hot breeze is blowing through.
Loose and lounging. Leaning way back in the chair, feet out, legs open, muscles loose, and head leaning back.
You’re ecstatic! You just found out that Trump’s presidency was just a bad dream!
Jumping up and down, arm’s joyfully flailing about, thanking whatever lord there is that the movement towards equality wasn’t actually set back 50 years!
You’re distraught because you read one of my posts discussing free will and you think your life might just be a predetermined, unavoidable string of cause-and-effect events.
Feet planted, hunched forward with your elbows resting on your knees and your head sunk into the palms of your hands.
You’re mad because you thought this post was going to be lighthearted but it made you question your existence.
Sitting up straight, arms crossed over your chest, muscles tense, jaw clenched, and brows furrowed.
And finally, this exercise has left you confused about everything, and you feel a sudden need to talk to a friend.
Laying face up on the floor, chair tipped over in the corner, limbs all straight out, and a lonely drop of sadness rolling down your cheek.
Okay. That got weird. Hopefully some of you are still with me. The moral of the story here is that figuring out what an emotion looks like is simple. If humans have anything in common, it’s that we all feel. Use that. Picture the chair (or do what I do, and act it out in real life), and run through how you would interact with the chair while feeling whichever emotion you want to convey. Below is a quick little video that illustrates the point:
The “Alone with a Chair” exercise plays out in a practical sense for me the most often during the planning stages. When I plan editorial shoots, one of the first things I do is pour words into my journal. I write down the ideas I want to convey, the symbolism I want to reference, and the mood I want to bring out to best represent the idea. From there, I start a shot list and that’s when the “Alone with a Chair” exercise happens. I’ll pull up a seat (sometimes in real life, sometimes in my head), get into character, and interact with the chair. That helps me understand how I can best represent that mood through body language and it helps me build a shot list with a more solid base of emotion behind it.
If you shoot couples without a planned mood ahead of time, practicing this will help you understand how to emphasize whichever mood their particular style of love brings to the table. As an example; Imagine you’re shooting in a hip little summer home in Joshua Tree with a couple who has a laid back, calm kind of love. Once you know the vibe you’re after, have them take little break so you can think about what type of body language would bring that out even more (And yes it’s 100% okay to have them take a break mid-shoot for you to think and develop your ideas. Art requires thought.). To me, that sounds like a perfect opportunity for a lounging summer vibe so if I imagined myself in the chair, I’d be sitting with all of my muscles relaxed, my limbs loose and open, and leaning back like I’ve been sinking into that chair (and, if I was part of the couple, into each other) for hours. Once I started shooting again, I’d direct them into more relaxed, lounging poses where they’re resting deeply into each other. Bingo!
EXTROVERTED vs. INTROVERTED MOODS
The two over-arching moods that I shoot most frequently are Energetic, and Intimate. Obviously, each of these have a ton of depth and could encompass a universe of nuanced emotions, but if I boil it down into something simple, those are the two that most of my shoots fall under so I’ll use those examples to show how the emotions you want in your image can translate into your posing and directing!
I like to think of the differences in posing for energetic mood and an intimate mood as the differences between two major personality traits: Extroversion and Introversion
Energy is the extrovert of moods. That sentence will probably only ever make sense in the context of this article. To convey an energetic mood (ecstatic, frustrated, in love, or something else) through posing, I direct my subjects into exaggerated movements with a focus on things going outward (limbs flying out, hair spinning, etc). This is why I call it the extrovert. It’s wants to get out. It wants to be seen. It wants to be noticed.
Focus on going big and bold. If you shoot a few images of someone running, it might convey some energy, but if you shoot someone taking enormous, leaping strides, you’ll have an image that’ll give your viewer that extra little rush. Instead of shooting a couple doing a goofy little dance, shoot them while they’re running around flailing. That exaggeration is what turns an energetic image an ENERGETIC IMAGE. As a side note, keep in mind that you can use your gear choice to draw out this mood even more. Using a wider lens can exaggerate the length of limbs, making a small stride look like a leap. More about that here: My Gear & How I Use it to Create Emotion
DON’T BE A MANIAC
If you show up to a couple session and immediately ask your couple to flail around like maniacs, you’re the maniac. Work into it. One you start shooting and notice that they’re a more energetic, shake-your-buttcheeks kind of couple, then you can start picking up the pace a bit so they can get into the mood gradually. Once they do, they’ll commit more than they would have if they stepped out of the car and were expected to perform on cue.
DON’T BE LAME
Match the energy you want to see. Don’t worry, you can do this and be an introvert (I’m proof of that). Nothing would be lamer than you quietly, and calmly requesting that your couple flails around like maniacs. This doesn’t mean that you need to be a maniac too, but you should bring up your energy a bit, speak with confidence, and be be open to being part of their good time. If you commit, they commit. If you don’t, you’re lame.
If energetic images are extroverts, intimate images are cat ladies. I am one with the intimate images.
This is my comfort zone because I live in it. I’m quiet as heck. In fact, when I filmed Katie and Joe’s sessions (Session 1, Session 2) for my Posing & Directing class, there was so much footage without audio (other than the music we were playing) that I ended up narrating the quiet parts to explain what was happening in my head while shooting. It’s how I’ve always shot couples sessions (directing them when I need to and staying quiet when I can) and that’s a huge reason that my style often leans toward the intimate. I let the couple interact with each other instead of with me.
Much like a conversation between two introverts (does that exist?), intimate moments are quiet, and something that you have to be welcomed into. In stark contrast to the energetic posing, intimate posing almost doesn’t want to be seen. Smiles are subtle. Movements are more delicate. Limbs and hands get buried and tangled in each other instead of reaching outward. Intimate moments tend to be calm, peaceful, and vulnerable, so our posing and shooting style should match that.
Intimate posing in images can come from two sources: Our direction, or their intimacy. If it comes from our direction, it will likely be an image that has a more intimate look to it because we directed their body language into something that looks more intimate. If it comes from their intimacy, it’s because we created a space where they feel comfortable being vulnerable and then we invited them to open up. As an introvert (I once surprised someone by responding when they asked me a question) I often find that my most intimate moments happen when talking with someone I’m close to so I like to bring that into my couple sessions by getting the two of them talking. Below is one of my favorite cues from my Posing and Directing class in the Fostering Intimacy section:
“ASK THE RIGHT QUESTION
If you’re an introvert like me, you might already know how powerful a simple question can be. Talking tires me out. It drains me and makes me feel overwhelmed. The good news, I’ve become awesome at asking questions. I love that I can be in a meaningful and long conversation without ever saying more than a few sentences. This is the epitome of how I shoot. I give a prompt for the couple to respond to, and then I sit back while things unfold. It’s fun, it’s easy, and it’s the perfect shooting style for a quieter personality like me.
I have a few questions that I love asking couples to prompt those little moment’s of intimacy. Sometimes, you’ll end up with a pretty general answer but, more often than not, you’ll end up watching something beautiful unfold as they share things with each other that may have previously went unsaid. Below are some of the questions I’ll ask during sessions when the moment’s right:
• When were you most proud of him/her?
• What are you most excited about in the next 10 years?
• How has he/she changed you?
• When was the last time you cried together?
• Why is he/she so important to you?
• When are you two at your best?
Some of these questions aren’t ones that people think about often so they might not have an immediate answer. I usually ask one of them the question and then ask them to think about their answer as I keep shooting for a bit. After a little while, I’ll have them share their answer with each other (I let them know that I don’t need to hear the answer).”
I’m including this last little tip here because I think any article about posing is lacking without it. Play Music! If I only had room in my brain for one bit of information about posing, it would be this. I use this little bluetooth speaker on my shoots and play one of my two playlists (below):
1. Bring out a Mood
If I’m expecting a model or a couple to give me an energetic vibe, why not flood the room with some FUGGIN BEATS? On the other side of the spectrum, if I’m trying to hit a quieter, more serene mood it may be helpful to play something soft and soothing so they can sink into that feeling.
2. Kill the Awkward
Silence can be awkward. Don’t get me wrong, one of my favorite traits in a person is being able to be quiet with someone without feeling like they have to say something, but the truth is that not everyone feels the same. Music fills that gap. Aside from that, if you ask them to laugh out loud, the music drowns out the laugh that they might think sounds awkward. It even allows your couple to talk to each other and be cute without the fear of you hearing it. It just flat out brings out the natural in people.
3. My Creativity
Playing music is as much for me as it is for them. Listening to the music I love is when I feel the most myself. When I feel like myself, I feel more creative. When I feel creative, stronger work happens.
4. Fart Silencer
Music silences farts.
Okay. That’s it friends. You made it all the way to the end! For your troubles I’ll reward you with this and the moral of today’s story: Become a student of the emotions you want in your images. Study them. Feel them. Practice them. Sit alone in a chair with them. If you want to see it with your eyeballs, feel it with your heartballs.
If you want to dig way farther in: Posing & Directing.
It doesn’t not not suck.