Don’t Pose, Direct!

If you are a lifestyle photographer one of your jobs is to make your images look natural- not stiff, not awkward, and definitely not staged. Your audience should see your images as moments that were going to happen regardless of whether or not you were there to capture it. The imagery that Roxy uses in their advertising is a spot-on example of this. Their photographic brand is made up of images of surfer girls living their carefree, summer lifestyle. Each image is a moment. A moment of a girl cruising down the road on her vintage bike, a moment of a surfer having a blast on the summer waves, and many more. These images show that the type of girls that wear Roxy are fun, carefree, and happy. Are these models in the images really carefree? Of course not. They have to pay the bills and do the dishes just like the rest of us but during their shoot they were directed into that carefree character and they embraced it which made us believe that they were. Your job is to direct your models into the role that fits and adds to the mood of your shoot. This will help bring out that candid feeling and will make your images seem much more natural.



Canon 5d II + 35L and 50L / In these two frames I directed Megan into slightly different characters in order to give a bit of variety in the set. In both frames, her persona is soft, innocent and  calm but in the frame on the left she is much more attentive and aware of the camera while in the frame on the right, she was directed into a scene where is is lost in her head. Directing her into that persona and those scenes allowed her the freedom of becoming the character and acting it out on her own instead of only posing how I told her to pose.


Since every photographer likes to work a little bit differently, I always let my models know how I prefer to work. Even if your model has been on 100 sets, they won’t have any idea how you like to work unless you tell them. Personally, I prefer that my models act instead of pose. Instead of remaining stiff, I tell my models that I prefer for them to be moving and trying new things. I always make it a point to tell them that I know that not every movement is going to look perfect, but that is okay! More action means more opportunity to find the image that I am looking for. Once your model knows how you like to work, your job will be to direct her into the character that fits your the mood of shoot. When you are directing, think of yourself as a movie director, not a photographer. Instead of telling them to stand this way with their head slightly tilted and their eyes looking two inches to the left of the camera, tell them about the persona that they need to convey. Give them a character and let them evolve into it. For example, if I was shooting on set for Roxy, I would tell my model that she is a carefree, fun-loving surfer girl. She has no bills, no homework, and  nothing to worry about. She thrives in the sun and lives for the freedom of summer. This type of direction will allow your model to explore her options more freely and will create a set full of open creativity instead of a one-sided set with you barking orders for your model to blindly follow.



Canon 5d III + 50L / If I needed to direct Lindsay into her character, I would have told her that she is someone who lives for winter and wilderness and she was finally able to step away from her busy life to come be in awe of what is around her. The truth is, I didn’t need to say any of that on this shoot because we were all in awe.


As soon as you can, kick your posing habit to the curb. Don’t get me wrong, giving your model an exact pose every now and then can add to your shoot in a beautiful way, but if you want natural-looking imagery, don’t rely on pose after pose. A great way to rid yourself of the posing habit is to create a scene for your model. Once they know the character or persona that you want to see conveyed, give them a scenario in which that character can come alive. For example, if I was shooting a soft morning camping shoot, I would tell my model that she just woke up to a cold morning after being bundled up under the stars and is going to sip her coffee while she takes everything in. In a more dynamic beach shoot, I might tell my model that she is on vacation with her new boyfriend who is chasing her with the camera as she (flirtatiously) tries to dodge his picture taking. These both give specific scenarios for your model to act out but don’t lock them down to any specific poses. Instead, it offers them an open-ended task, allowing them to explore their options and add to the creativity that you have already brought to the set! Creating these scenes will not only help your model’s character to come alive, but it will bring forth images that have natural allure to your viewers. Since posing isn’t something that people do in daily life, images of posed models can be harder to connect to. By creating scenes that could easily happen in real life, we are instantly providing an easier and more meaningful way for our audience to connect to our images.



Canon 5d III + 35L / In this shot Melissa was directed into a scene where she was in the middle of a photo shoot and had friends off camera who were being goofy to distract her. I use that one pretty often to get those happy little interactions that make for beautifully candid lifestyle images.


Working with models can make it easy to shoot away and rely on their skill as a model but the truth is that models are people too. They get nervous and shy just like the rest of us. If you give your model a scenario to act out and you see them tense up, nip that nervousness in the bud! As soon as you see that little bit of shyness peaking out, step in and show her that there is no reason to be shy. This happens every now and then on shoots (mostly with newer models) but once I correct it, we are right back on track and ready to roll. When I see a model tense up, I immediately step in to demonstrate the action. Not only do I demonstrate it, I overdo it. I make sure they know why I am a photographer and not a model. When they see me running around flirting with the camera, or whatever the scenario is, they suddenly realize that there is no way that the could possibly look any more ridiculous than I just did and their tension seems to fade away. Taking away that pressure of performance and making yourself look silly can do wonders when you are on set with someone who may be a bit more shy. Once the model takes over after you are done making a fool of yourself, make sure you give them plenty of encouragement so they know that they are doing it right!

Getting natural expressions out of a model can be a tricky thing but most of the struggle lies on our shoulders. It can be way to easy to rely only on our posing (which can lack that emotion) instead of trusting a model with the character we want to see come alive and allowing them to act it out on her own. Give them a character, give them a scene, and encourage them along as they act it out. Easy peasy.

More posing goodness in my Posing & Directing class!


One of my favorite little tips for getting great expressions out of a lifestyle shoot is to have your model laugh while saying the vowels (a, e, i, o, and u) out loud. This not only gives you a huge variety in the look of their smiles (go ahead, try it in the mirror), but it also usually end up making them actually laugh. That means you get variety and a huge natural laugh out of them. Win!  
  1. Reply

    Been following your work for awhile and it’s genius. This post is just awesome…thanks for sharing your tips and thought process!!

  2. Reply

    One of my favorite posts by you! Incredible way to look at shoots and the way to direct models! Thanks for this, you explained your point perfectly.

  3. Reply

    Such a helpful perspective on achieving natural expressions. I do my best not to focus on posing because I like to direct people, too.

    I had a challenging time working with two teenage models at a recent Alice in Wonderland wedding inspiration shoot. No matter what I did, they just weren’t coming across as comfortable.

    While culling and editing my images from the shoot, I thought about how I could have handled the situation differently. This is great advice to keep in mind for next time. I did talk to her about channeling her inner Alice but I didn’t paint as clear of an image like you did!

    Thanks for the tips! Can’t wait to read more blog posts like this!


  4. Reply

    Greatly written and some extremely valuable tips. I am also a huge fan of the “capture a moment or interaction” as opposed to posing all the time 😀

  5. Reply

    Great article and you totally set the scene in my head. I will definitely be thinking of these tips next time I go out and shoot!

  6. Reply

    Cool post! Love the vowel idea!

  7. Reply

    Seriously, great advice Ben. Love this perspective and it’s definitely something that I’ve been working on developing myself already. Solid advice man!

  8. Reply

    I’ve been working on getting better at directing all the time, and have gotten better, but this post really opened my eyes. It makes so much more sense to let them be actors than trying to fit them into a pose, especially when that pose clearly isn’t working how you want it to. Thanks, Ben, this was super helpful, and now I’m pumped for my future shoots!

  9. Reply

    Thank you very much for this helpful advice

  10. Reply

    Great advice! I hate producing photos with a fake and posed feeling. That’s the reason why I personally don’t work with models. I work with normal people, who almost always take more time to get comfortable in front of the camera, but they almost never do ridiculous poses.
    A nother great advice for photographers/art directors/advertising professionals is to hire actors or actresses instead of models. They’re used to show different emotions and it’s what they’re trained at.

  11. Reply

    Perfectly said my friend! Such a great tip!

  12. Reply

    Thank you so much for posting this! I am pretty new to photography but have gotten a handful of shoots! I do more of the posing photography(which I’m pretty bored of) and my dream is to be more of a lifestyle photographer so everything you said is super helpful! I know what I want but don’t always know how to get there so thanks for your tips!! Can’t wait to try it out!!

  13. Reply

    Thanks so much! This actually REALLY helped. I’ve always wondered how other photographers direct their models and it’s awesome that you’re willing to share!

  14. Reply

    This is fabulous, Ben! Thank YOU! 🙂

  15. Reply

    Love this!!! Thank you so much!!!

  16. Reply

    WOW! This was such a wonderful post. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!

  17. Reply

    you are amazing. I love how simple these tips are, and yet so effective! I’ve always loved how natural and “un-posed” your work is, and I can’t wait to try these out 🙂
    thanks so much!

  18. Reply

    I’m always struggling when directing the models (always my models are normal non-model people). That’s why I focus so much into learning how to direct better. Your text is great!

  19. Reply

    I was so honored to be able to be taught by you this past weekend at Field Trip and I said it before and I’ll say it again, you have such a gift at educating and explaining things clearly (while still being fun to read!) Thanks Ben!!

  20. Reply

    Great post Ben + such a great reminder! I’ve always felt that actors are the best models + I love how you’ve encouraged us to set the scene for all of our models!

  21. Reply

    Great tips. Never thought about some of these- I have SO much to learn! Gah. Thank you!!

  22. Reply

    Excellent article and tips! Thank you!

  23. Reply

    Great article! I don’t shoot people except for my family and these tips will be great for when I attempt my daughter’s senior pictures this year! I am a newbie and basically picked up a camera to gain inspiration for my paintings; I never thought that I would enjoy the freedom of creating art with it wherever I am. Wish there was a way I could share a couple photographs with you to get an honest opinion.

  24. Reply

    Very helpful! I’m always looking for new ways to get different images of my subjects, so this was wonderful!

  25. Reply

    Love your work! I always look forward to seeing a new post.


  26. Reply

    Thank you SO much!

  27. Reply

    Such great advice! The vowel trick is genius, I will have to try that out!

  28. Reply

    Excellent tips 🙂 thanks.

  29. Reply

    Man, this article is just pure gold. Thanks so much for writing it!

  30. Reply

    I have just discovered you and your work Ben! I love it and you seem to be such a genuine caring, sharing person. Thank you so much! Keep up the amazing work!

  31. Reply

    Posing clients and models has always been a pet hate of mine. This article has eased me a little and I now look forward to my next shoot. Thank you Ben.

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  33. Reply

    ReaLLY Great article. Id love to give all this a try. Have a shoot tonight actually so I think Ill take a few pages from your book 🙂

  34. Reply

    Great tips there. I like the vowel idea a lot. I might try with with when I am photographing a bride.

  35. Reply

    Good stuff, Ben. Any tips for directing couples? In my experience, they’re much tougher to work with/make look natural than models. What are your thoughts?


  36. Reply

    Totally going to use these tips! thank you!!!!

  37. Reply


    • Thanks! I would, Lauren. I might say something like “Pretend its super cold and nuzzle up together” to an engaged couple, etc. That way they have something to act out!

  38. Reply

    LOVE those photos, mind me asking what colour you using? VSCO, do it yourself? any tips on those please?

    • Johnny, Thanks! I don’t use VSCO. I actually offer a full class on my editing if you want to check it out. You can find it under the Education tab!

  39. Reply

    Hey man! I am a photographer for a site called , I`ve been doing research on this topic to take my work up a notch and get more natural looks. I`ve read so many articles and yours is by far the most helpful so far. Its obvious your insights come from experience and I just wanted to tell you I appreciate you sharing.

  40. Reply


    Katch actually sent me to this post when I asked for help on this topic. I’m totally new to photography and have a few practice shoots coming up and have no experience with posing (which i generally just hate the idea of).

    This is perfect! You guys rock!

  41. Reply

    Ben, a huge thank you for your blog and your valuable tips here! Well appreciated (and gorgeous images, of course)! 🙂

    A lot of good advice here for posing but I’m not sure that the demonstrating part will make sense for female togs, too. When I demonstrate something while trying to make myself look ridiculous, I fear they might be thinking I’m making fun of them or even they might look just as ridiculous as I. Do you get what I mean? Are there any women here who apply this successfully?

  42. Reply

    found article on google searching for posing tips. this is most original and probably helpful as i prepare for tomorrows shoot. thanks!

  43. Reply

    Loving these education articles and posts!

  44. Reply

    Simple and informative, I love the article! Reminds me of candid photography in a way.

  45. Reply

    I have never heard of the vowel laugh tip, so fun! What a great idea. thank you so much for sharing so much!

  46. Reply

    couldn’t agree more with this post. As we often work with couple whom we do not know well. directing and not posing is extremely valuable. because it helps the bride and groom to relax. especially the groom.

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