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Don't Pose, Give Direction

Don't Pose, Give Direction

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 our 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 she 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.


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!

Ben Sasso | Facebook | Instagram | Education

Ben Sasso's picture

Aside from taking pictures, I love to be in nature (camping, climbing, running around) and I have an unmanly love for cats. I am a firm believer in fostering a close knit photo community and encouraging individual progression. We are all in this together.

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Great stuff Ben!

Thanks Clay!

I love the last photo, and the idea of having friends off set to distract and add to the entertainment for the model. Thanks!

Thanks and you're welcome!

Great article Ben! I struggle from time to time communicating with my models and getting them to loosen up a bit; maybe it's because they see me tense up too when I don't get the pose that I want.

Thanks Alfredo! Your mood plays a huge role on set. I'll actually be writing another article at some point about how to run a set that keeps everyone excited to be there (meaning you get the most out of it).

Nice. I'll be waiting for that article.

me too!

please do!

This is awesome! Some girls are better at this than others but its a good starting point to break the ice and get things moving at least.

thank you!!! I'm always looking for tricks on how to capture 'real life'!

great stuff! Thank you for sharing your tips/secrets.

Hands down one of the most useful articles that I ever read on the subject.


Great article. Your examples and "direction" are spot on. I do a lot of cinematography as well as photography and I never thought of taking the direction I give to my actors and using the same sort of imaginative direction to my models so they emote a character and not just "strike a pose". Makes sense. This way of thinking will definitely help me a lot on future shoots, especially with newer models. Thanks for the article.

Thank you! It's interesting to hear your perspective on it!

awesome and well written. THANKS!

excellent article!

Fantastic advise. Funny, I was doing a headshot of an actor the other day and came up with the idea to tell him his role was to play a guy getting a headshot in a photo studio. It worked great. Now I see I can use that same idea for lots of other shoots. Thanks for this article.

Ben Sasso, you are my hero. That is all :)


as a wedding photographer starting out ive thought alot about this.
Posing the stiff way, "hand here, leg pointing there, look there, weight on this leg" etc. feels weird, kills the mood and you lose the feeling of love. On the other hand if i say "hold each other under that tree" i get more true emotion but many times i also get so many details that doesnt look good(weird hand placement etc.).
Great article btw!

Jonas, That is where you refine what they give you. I start out with the "hold each other under the tree" Then if I see something a bit off I ask them to refine what they are giving me a little bit. This is basically because I suck at posing people but can refine details more easily.

I agree. What we need to do is simply what we already do, but then, after we let them place and pose themselves, we need to see the details that need changed. I know I need to practice that. I've gotten some great results, but it doesn't always work perfectly.

Shooting action sports has provided me with some pretty awesome portraits because I have the opportunity to photograph subjects who aren't preoccupied with the camera -- they're worried about winning and it yields some very genuine looking pictures. I think pictures should be believable and too much coaching and posing make pictures look contrived.

Do you work with Jordan Voth?

We are friends and will actually be leading a workshop together in the late spring!

So useful

This article was awesome! Seriously appreciate it!

Awesomeeee! Thank you!!!

Totally agree! great write up... and A-E-I-O-U: funny!! I'll try it

"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."

I find it unfortunate that the models I've worked with tend to default with very contorted, stiff, and unnatural poses, probably because that's what countless other photographers have asked them to do.

Great pointers! I will have to try this my next shoot! I love your A E I O U idea too.

great article, spot on!

This was great, Ben! I'll definitely have to try this next time I shoot some lifestyle work!!

Great article if you're working with professional models who know how to act out the scene you're giving them. Normal people usually aren't that emotive and require more hands on approach and posing.

Nice tips here! Thanks!

Thanks for the tips... love all of them!

Brilliant! Need a full course on this!

Useful. But the only minus is what if the [model]/subject is not really an extrovert and cannot "act" on demand?

Thanks Sergiy! If you are dealing with someone who is a bit more introverted, you can still give them smaller "acting" tasks. for example, walking and looking in a certain direction, cuddling up with their significant other pretending it is cold out (for an engagement session), etc.

Great concepts and illustrations. I've also learned a different approach from Roberto Valenzuela's training courses, however. That is to give models/clients their pose and baseline, get all the details set, then do something or say something to make them react while they are locked into their pose. This eases things naturally, and will typically yield a solid foundation while loosening things up a bit from a static HOLD IT command. Definitely trying the acting approach as well, however.

Any tips or exercises one can come up with directing models? For example I'm going to Disneyland later today it's dapper day where you dress up with bow ties abs suspenders. What can I tell my friend and his girlfriend? How does one come up with scene,actions to give to your subject?

I love the a e i o u trick!

Wow thank you SO much for sharing!