Secrets to Crafting Top-Quality Beauty Portraits: Posing & Framing

Secrets to Crafting Top-Quality Beauty Portraits: Posing & Framing

This is yet another article of the Secrets to Crafting Top-Quality Beauty Portraits series. If you haven't read the first three, you can find them here: on compositing, on shooting Beauty portraits on location and in studio.

Today I would like to talk about framing, posing and directing your models when shooting Beauty portraits. While lighting and compositing are very important parts of creating a striking image, the model's pose, facial expression and her body language can make or break it.

When your model or client is in front of your lens, she can't see herself the way you're seeing her through your viewfinder. Even if there's a mirror somewhere in your studio, she still cannot see herself from the same point of view as you are seeing her.

If she is a professional model with a lot of experience specifically in Beauty, then you are in "good hands". Although, you need to always keep in mind, that you are the creator of the image, you are the director and you need to help your model to get into the right pose, so that you can capture her beauty within a smart and visually balanced frame.

There are many things that I have learned from my own experience and mistakes shooting Beauty around the world, and I would like to share some of my tips with you today.

And before we begin, I'd like to suggest that the best way to learn to direct your models into graceful and elegant poses is to observe and analyze a lot of great Beauty photography examples. Study framing, poses, facial expressions and hands placement in images in the leading Beauty magazines, on the advertising posters and promo materials in cosmetics sections in department and specialized stores. On websites such as Pintrest, and thousands of others.

Find your most favorite Beauty photographers and study their work. Observing great examples and submerging yourself in the imagery that you enjoy will help you train your eye and eventually it will be easy for you to direct your models into the poses that work.

I am a firm believer in the fact that there are almost no rules set in stone in photography, or any other types of visual arts for that matter. You can always see great examples of how every single rule can be broken. But before you can learn how to successfully do that you must first learn what those rules and standards actually are.

I have collected a whole Pinboard with lots of examples, both great and not-so-great, for you. They will illustrate what I'll be talking about in this article, and you will probably learn even more from reading my comments under each photo in that Pinboard. But first, please read this article, so that my comments make sense to you.

You can find my examples here: Posing & Framing In Beauty Photography Pinboard.


Framing In Beauty Photography Subcategories

There are of course many of them and each subcategory has its rules and specifics. I will mention only those that I am personally very attracted to.

When we're photographing simple Beauty Portraits for private clients (non-models) we usually step back and leave some negative space around our subject. If we're shooting on location we usually include some of the surroundings into the frame.

We're traditionally cropping from the hips (or above the waist) up, but are free to get as close as we want and as the subject's skin condition allows us. Faces typically take up anywhere from 10% of the canvas up to 50% in this type of Beauty.

Beauty Photography Posing & Framing


In Makeup Beauty photography there are usually three main types of framing:

  • From top of the shoulders up with a little bit of negative space around the subject's head (face takes up around 40-50% of the frame)
  • Tight closeup from right under the chin up to the forehead (85-95%)
  • Macro closeup of just one facial feature in the frame (usually an eye or lips) - please see examples in my Pinboard.


Beauty Photography Posing & Framing

In Hairstyling Beauty photography you will normally see more negative space around the model's head and shoulders. The hair is obviously the center of attention here, so the model's face is not necessarily even fully visible (see more examples in my Pinboard). Faces take up anywhere from 5% t0 30% of the frame.

Beauty Photography Posing & Framing

In Celebrity Beauty Portraits the subject in the frame is already 99% guarantee of a successful image (given your lighting and compositing skills are great). You can crop tight or you can leave a lot of negative space around your subject, you can be as traditional or as artistic with cropping, framing and posing as you want. Almost anything goes in Celebrity Beauty photography as long as the images are flattering the subject's beauty.

Shoulders and Hands

Remember that one of our main goals is to make our subject look elegant, feminine and attractive. You can make your model look heavier and wider, if you place her so that her shoulders are directly facing the camera. If you ask your model to turn her torso slightly away from the camera, so that you can still see her further shoulder, she will look slimmer in the shot.

If you lower your camera level and ask your model to relax and drop her shoulders while slightly bringing them forward (so that her collar bones become more pronounced) - her neck will look elongated. Watch her move into that position through your viewfinder and help her by directing until she gets there.

Her hands and fingers should be relaxed and slightly bent in each joint. Or they can be straightened out, pointy and intense, but their positioning and placement must always match the facial expression, so that the overall feel of the image makes sense and doesn't send mixed signals. For example, if her face is soft and relaxed, her hands and fingers should resemble a ballet dancers' hands.

Getting hands look beautiful in Beauty portraits sometimes is very challenging for both the model and the photographer. Sometimes my models are naturally good with their hands. But sometimes it can be a struggle for the both of us, and if I realize that it is too difficult for my model to hold and place her hands and fingers elegantly, I avoid getting them in the frame altogether.

Check out this wonderful video by Joe Edelman "How to handle hands". I personally not completely agree with some of the "good" examples in this video, but the overall message is really helpful. I actually send the link to this video to some of my models to help them understand what generally looks good and what doesn't.

Also please look through my Pinboard and read my comments to see more positive and negative examples on how to position hands in Beauty photography.


More Tips On Posing & Directing

1. When shooting closeup Beauty images, explain to your model right at the beginning of the shoot that because there's so little information in the frame, every tiny detail makes a huge impact. Tell her that you will be watching her and helping her to get into the poses that look most flattering. And that when you ask her to move her chin or hand, or turn her shoulders - her movements should be done in small increments, so that you can capture the best pose before she completely changes it.

2. Have a set of reference images on your smartphone or tablet, so you can always show it to your model during the shoot. It often really helps to show a pose or a facial expression that you want from your model, rather than trying to explain it.

3. It also often helps to name the looks, or feelings and emotions that you want your model to deliver, rather than try to explain what you want her to do with her body parts, lips or eyes separately. For example, tell her you'd like her to look fierce, or careless and happy, or sexy and mysterious. She will figure out how to tilt her head, how to look into the lens and what her facial expression should be.

4. Never touch your model without asking for her permission first. I have seen grown men (photographers) touch young models' uncovered shoulders and arms during the shoots in attempt to place them into a desired pose. It is a big no-no! You MUST gently ask for her permission, or better yet try to explain what you need her to do without actual physical contact. I am a female photographer, yet I always ask for permission before I touch my model's hair to fix it, or their necklace, or the outfit, let alone touching their uncovered skin. You never know how a young girl can perceive your harmless touch, and I'm sure  you don't want to be that creep with whom local moms don't allow their girls to shoot.

5. Don't keep your model waiting until you release the shutter for too long. Keep snapping even if you're still adjusting your camera level or framing, or at least keep communicating with her. I have seen awkward situation when a photographer is silently staring at the model through the viewfinder trying to find the best crop, and her facial expression and pose quickly lose their spark. You want to keep the momentum going. When you lose that flow you make it harder for the model and yourself to get great poses and facial expressions.

6. When you ask your model to put her hands near her face, tell her that she shouldn't really physically touch her skin, only pretend. There are two reasons for that: 1. She will not ruin the makeup by rubbing her hands on her face and 2. Every touch creates a little shadow around the finder on the skin and it never looks good in Beauty photography, unless it is an intentional intense touch or pose.

7. At the end of the day you will learn to direct your models into graceful and elegant poses when you will have a good eye for those poses. The more great examples of Beauty photography you observe, the easier it will be for you to figure out how to get your model into a pose that will work best for each shot.


I hope you enjoyed this article as usual! Please feel free to suggest more topics related to Beauty, Fashion and Portrait photography that you would like me to write about in 2014.

Happy New Year! Wishing you lots of inspiration and great images in 2014!

Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

Julia is a Los Angeles based internationally published Beauty & Fashion photographer, digital artist, retoucher and educator. An International College of Professional Photography (Melbourne, Australia) graduate. Retouching Academy founder and Editor-in-Chief.

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Great start for the new year! Thanks! :)

We're still hanging in 2013 :)

Happe new year now then? :)

Yes, it's here now :) Happy New Year!

Good additional learning for my 2014! Thanks Julia

Happy New Year! :)

Awesome and useful as always @juliakuzmenkomckim:disqus. Happy New Year to you and family

Thanks Duke! Same to you, my friend!

Julia Kuzmenko McKim. The reason I visit fstoppers. Thank you again for a very insightful inspirational guide to composition and how to become a better portrait photographer. You inspire us all. You make the world a little more creative with your words and shared experience. You embody my favourite line in any and all professional and personal endeavours: ALWAYS OVERDELIVER. :)

Thank you Tobias! And words like yours motivate me to continue doing what I am doing and ignore haters. I do it for appreciative creatives like you :)

And the Fstoppers Writer of the Year award goes to...... drum rolll....... Julia Kuzmenko McKim! Another awesome read. Thanks Julia!

Thanks Bert! :) Happy New Year!

How do you (and others) go about directing facial expressions? I find it hard to put into words.

This sounds like a set up...Ill fall for it.

Get the Art of the Headshot video tutorial by Peter Hurley from the fstoppers store.

Stupid saying about photographers shouldn't be touching models? Is it ok for the stylist to touch them or the make up artist?? I work doing paid tests for some of the best agencies in the UK and touching a shoulder or moving a bit of hair is totally fine. Bit of a GWC comment if you ask me.

Thanks for your comment John. I'll pretend I did not notice how rude it was and just say that I don't write for photographers who shoot for best agencies, I'd assume there's nothing they could learn from me.

But I do know for a fact that there are thousands of male photographers who shoot locally in their small towns among those who read my articles.

It's not "stupid" saying that at all. It's called being courteous and not coming across as a creep. If you don't ask, or worse yet, "assume" that you have permission to touch someone you WILL come across as an ass to some people and they 1. won't want to work with you again if they feel uncomfortable about anything with the shoot and 2. Will spread your name like wildfire as the photographer that touches models without asking. It's a safe rule to ask for permission, not a stupid one and also common sense. Paid professionals have experienced more than new models and expect this kind of thing but there is NO downside to asking permission first.

Thank you Bert! Very well said!

I think it could of done without the "man" example, there are creeper women too. My only suggestion is to leave gender out of it next time and keep it simply as "photographer", otherwise fantastic images :)

Thank you for your suggestion. I stick with my words, I'm just an artist and am sharing my personal opinion. Please take it or leave it.

I'm not mad, I could personally care less. Just simply stating "grown men (photographers)" could of just been "photographers" and would stop butts from being hurt. Have a nice day :D

Frankly, I think Julia did us males a great service here for those that don't have names in the biz but are small-time folks. The last thing male shooters need is to appear creepy in any way even if it is unintentional considering how many females have taken a stronghold into professional photography in general.

If you already are established, have a name, regular working contacts, etc, then I think this is probably a non-issue.

This is another excellent write-up with solid examples done by Julia.

Knowing all the technicals of working the camera is certainly necessary and having reliable gear is too but *this* is what really sets apart the amateurs from the pros....I'm clearly in the amateur category after reading this and seeing the associated work.

I LOVE this kind of content. Frankly I'm getting sick of gear-type talk. Seeing debates on why the zeiss 50mm 1.4 is so much better than the regular Nikon 50mm 1.4 completely misses the point for me on generating compelling photos.

Save for some better TTL-based triggers so I don't have to keep opening the softbox for lighting adjustments I think I'm going to bail on buying any new gear this year.

Thank you for your comment! Sorry, I couldn't find your name.
You know, I am personally such a non-techie, I have been shooting with the same lenses, cameras and lighting for many years. I thought it was not good for a pro to not be interested in all the technical talk about lenses and new cameras functions, etc. but your comment made me feel I'd be fine if I stay the way I am :)

No problem. I learned this lesson when I played guitar. All the guys who thought having this amp or that guitar would make their tone better ended up being boring players...myself included. 75% of the tone is really in your hands and your practiced ability. Yes, the guitars and amps make a difference but not really without the human ability. You realize this when you see a guy plug-in a $200 guitar into a beatup old amplifier and smoke everyone on stage.

I vowed not to make that same mistake when I started doing photography and it seriously has helped me. Even when I buy gear I try to buy used if possible and try not to buy something unless it will really help my workflow. I have a long way to go in skill but I'm honest in saying that I could pickup some lesser gear than I have and still make good photos based on what I have learned thus far.

100% agreed! i shot with a Canon Rebel for the first couple of years, and I still have a ton of images from that era that are still in my portfolio and are very much loved. No one would guess they were shot with the cheapest DSLR you could get.

At the end of the day it's the photographer's skill that makes great images. Yeah an expensive Pro level camera body and lens will produce sharp images with ease but if you don't know how to take a damn picture it will show. Thanks for the article totally gave me the inspiration for one of the projects I want to do in 2014.

I totally agree! As someone said, a guitar and a camera is just a box with a whole in the middle that only makes noise until an artist picks them up and uses them.

I shoot my fashion/commercial/conceptual work mainly with a Micro4/3 camera (Panasonic GH2/GH3) and it has been my artistic eye that sets my images apart, in my opinion:

For long time I had the feeling Fstoppers has become a source only for very amateurs and wedding photographers. It's great to see you guys made a change and worked on your content. Over the past few weeks I've read some great articles here, some of them maybe the best ones ever published here so far. Keep up with the great work in 2014!

Thank you Steve!

excellent article as usual. Thank you Julia and Fstoppers.

Seriously one my favorite writers in ANY photography blog! Always something to learn and always something to be inspired with!

- Joe |

Thank you Joe :)
I am now thinking what to write about next.. Running out of good ideas. Need help!

Julia always rocks! :-)

Great article again, and thanks for the links too!

I would LOVE to see an article about 40+ client beauty shots! Meaning how to shoot beautiful portraits of elder, amateur, client woman models. That is what I would love to do as my main niche. And please include some editing tips too. It is so much easier to shoot young women, but how about us middle-aged women?

Cathy, I have actually worked with a 60-year old client (very good looking 60-year old I must say) for over a year now, doing both shooting and retouching. So, I have some good experience, I'm just afraid it is not something thousands of Fstoppers readers would be interested in, unfortunately.

Then how about something like "10 no-nos of beauty photography"? You mentioned the side lighting that is not flattering with women. What else? What are the typical mistakes or problems? The same rules occur with all kind of women, and the more older or not model-like the more they show. What hides bad skin or wrinkles? How to make a round face look slimmer? This kind of things I'd love to read. We all have clients, and girlfriends, sisters and mothers that are not perfect looking - and quite few of us are... And they are dying for beauty-like images!

That's a great idea actually! Thank you Cathy! I'll think of this one today!

Cathy, thank you for the great idea! I hope you like this:

Great article, thanks!

Another great article Julia. Always new things to learn from you. Keep up the good work.

Hey Julia!!! This is non beauty related, but I think it is a great suggestion!!
It would be a great asset to the Fstopper site to add a frame of reference to the amazing articles you all write. Maybe you guys can create a downloadable version of the articles or even a favorite button where readers will be able to easily access or save the post they like the most!!!

@Julia awesome post. Best fstopper writer of 2013. And Happy New Year.