In an era when most people carry a camera in their pockets, and a large amount of the pictures taken of us will eventually be posted on the internet forever, posing properly for a photo is an important skill everyone should have. You don’t have to look like a runway model, you just have to make sure you portray yourself in a flattering light. Posing is not hard, but if you haven’t practiced it, you’re probably doing something wrong. Don’t worry—we can fix that.
How not to pose
To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, good photo poses are all alike, but every bad photo pose is bad in its own way. There are essentially unlimited ways to look awful or unintentionally ridiculous in a photo, and it’s possible you’re doing some of them whenever a camera is pointed at you. These are a few of the classic mistakes.
The forced grin
What we have here is the overeager forced grin. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you don’t know what to do with your face, so you just figure a huge smile will do the trick (it won’t). Here, all the muscles in my face are being violently pulled in opposite directions. It looks like I’m being electrocuted and honestly, if this photo resurfaces somewhere, I’ll wish I was.
The deer in headlights
Is a huge truck coming towards you with earthshaking force? Did you just hear a thunderously loud noise? Apparently I did—my eyes are so wide I look startled. Some consider big eyes a beautiful feature, but forcing them open will certainly not make you look better. Unless “utterly surprised” is the vibe you’re aiming for.
The multiple chins
Oh god, even with my beard I’ve got a treble chin. My head is not in a good place in this photo; or after looking at it. We all have necks, so we might as well just use them.
Somebody call a model agency—Blue Steel is back! Being told you look like a model in photographs can definitely be a compliment, just as long as they don’t mean top American supermodel, Derek Zoolander. As we’ll see later, a slight pout can actually work well, but even a 13-year-old Instagram-fanatic can see this is seriously overdone.
Whoops! I was chatting to whoever took the photo—well, myself—and now I look deranged. When you have a camera aimed at you, it is a good idea to shut up and concentrate on the possibility of your image being immortalized for posterity. You know, just in case this is the picture the world remembers you by. Alright, that’s enough masochism for now. I’m sure you get the idea, and you probably have a couple photos that prove you’ve made the same mistakes. All of these stem from the same problem: not knowing how to pose well.
Learn to pose your face
When it comes to photos, your face is the most important part of you. It doesn’t matter if you have the body of Adonis—if you smile like a beagle eyeing up dinner, any photos you’re in will look ridiculous.
The good news is posing your face is actually really simple. It’s mainly all about not making any of the big mistakes above, but also doing three key things that look really good in photos: one with your eyes, one with your mouth, and one with your jaw.
Work those eyes
Using your eyes only, you want to make it look like you’re smiling naturally, even if you’re not. This technique is called the “squinch” or “smizing.” Models and actors use it all the time, but regular mortals can rock it too. It generally makes you look confident, self-assured, and sexy.
The trick to the squinch is to squint slightly, but mostly with your lower eyelids. Your top eyelids will come down a little, but not so much you’ll look like you’re squinting and need glasses. Peter Hurley, the portrait photographer who coined the term “squinch,” has a video walkthrough if you need it, but the move is pretty simple to master.
Squinching will feel a little unnatural at first but it looks stellar in photos. A good idea is to practice in a mirror until you feel comfortable, then keep at it until you have it down.
Work that pout (but not too much)
Since there’s not a lot you can do with your nose or ears, your mouth is, by default, an important posing tool. The first step to posing your mouth is to not do anything else with it. That means no talking, no big say-cheese photo grins, and no over-the-top pouting. Avoiding those three mistakes will instantly make you look better in photos.
Next, you’ll want to give the appearance of a natural and flattering smile. To do this, lightly press your lips together, then pull the edges of your mouth up into a half-smile. If you want to go for a more mischievous or mysterious look, you can try subtly pulling up only one side of your mouth.
Combine this with the squinch, and it’ll look like you’re properly smiling. No forced rictus grins here.
Square that jaw
A strong jawline looks great in photos, but the way most people normally stand while posing for pictures doesn’t show it off.
Instead, to get a strong photo-jawline, you need to exaggerate it by extending your neck and leaning your head slightly forward, pointing the tip of your nose at the camera—a bit like the chestburster in Alien.
Again, this will feel a tad unnatural at first, but it really works. Maybe it goes without saying, but this technique will only look good as long as you’re posing front on—any other angle and you’ll look like you’re waiting for someone to repeat something you couldn’t hear. Peter Hurley also has a full video walking through this move.
Pulling it all together
Okay, now you have the three components of a good photo pose; it’s time to put them all together.
Don’t forget your body
Posing your face is enough for most photos, but sometimes, especially in group shots, you’ll also need to pose your body. Since you’re often at the mercy of what other people are doing around you, you won’t have much control over the situation, but there are some things you can do.
- Angle your body at 30-45 degrees towards the camera. It will make you look slimmer.
- Don’t lock your arms out straight or hold them stiff beside your body—they’ll look unnatural or bigger than they are. Slightly bend them. Also, keep your legs slightly bent—it’ll make your posture look more natural.
- If you’re not holding anything (or putting your arm around someone), clasp one wrist with your hand and let them hang at your waist. Do it casually, otherwise it’ll look like you’re taking your own pulse. You can also cross your arms, but make sure you do it in a relaxed way, since it can look a bit stern. The higher your forearms when crossed, the stiffer you’ll look.
On the left, I’m doing everything wrong. On the right, I’m applying all the tips combined.
Other tips and tricks
As I said at the very top, posing is a skill—you have to practice it. You could go to the effort of hiring a photographer, but it’s much easier to just spend 10 minutes in front of a mirror playing around with the different techniques and discovering what angles work best for your face and body. When you get a feel for them, try to repeat them and build some muscle memory. That way, whenever you see a camera pointed at you, your body will know what to do.
Unless you’re specifically going for a dreamy vibe, look directly down the lens of the camera, and though it may be one of the hardest things to do, try to ignore the person taking the picture and any distractions around you. Eye contact with the lens means eye contact in the photo, so all your attention should be on it.If you can, try to be either at eye level with the camera or slightly below it. It’s just a more flattering angle for everyone.
It goes without saying, but if you want to look good in a photo, make sure you look good out of it. Fix your hair, make sure your clothes are on straight, and touch up any makeup if you’re wearing it. A quick look in the mirror before you face a camera is always a good idea, for no amount of posing will help if your hair is pointing in all directions at once.
With these tips and a little practice, you should now be able to bust out an America’s Next Top Model-worthy pose whenever you need it. It’s a super-handy skill to have because it guarantees you will (almost) always look good in photos. Whenever a camera is pointed at me, I know that even if everyone else in a picture looks like a gremlin, I look hot as hell.
Is your head constantly spinning with outlandish, mind-burning questions? If you’ve ever wondered what the universe is made of, what would happen if you fell into a black hole, or even why not everyone can touch their toes, then you should be sure to listen and subscribe to Ask Us Anything, a podcast from the editors of Popular Science. Ask Us Anything hits Apple, Anchor, Spotify, and everywhere else you listen to podcasts every Tuesday and Thursday. Each episode takes a deep dive into a single query we know you’ll want to stick around for.