In full disclosure, I have never been formally trained on how to pose. I can’t even tell you basic posing rules. Posing is something that has always come very naturally for me, so I haven’t spent any time learning from other photographers and teachers. My answers below are simply what I practice, not necessarily what the photography world deems to be true or “right.”
Do you have a posing workflow you stick to for every session (if so, what does it normally look like?) Or do you just play it by ear?
I rarely arrive at a shoot with a premeditated plan on posing. In all honesty, I am at the mercy of the horse for my poses. The more cooperative the horse is, the easier it is for me to get creative with posing. And the only way for me to determine the level of cooperation that day is to just start shooting. Before we start, I ask all parties what they need (client, parents, trainers, etc). I want to know at the beginning any poses or images they expect. In most situations, I start the session by shooting in a barn aisle so the horse is in a (somewhat) contained area next to his friends. This is the calmest he will be — so it is a good indicator of what I’ll be dealing with from here forward. Safety is my biggest priority, so I would never ask a girl to sit down or be barefoot next to a horse that is fidgeting or squirmy.
A strong headshot is my signature deliverable. I often start the session by trying to get an excellent headshot of the girl smiling and her horse looking relaxed, yet interested. Then, I will step back and get a full body shot there. If the horse is squirming or my girl is tense, we might go straight to walking around in a pasture or down the driveway to loosen up. I will usually come back to the head shot every time we change outfits/locations — so I will come back to that ‘signature’ pose about 3-5 times per session to make sure I nail it.
From there, I am truly at the mercy of the horse. If he is uncooperative, I am pretty limited. I can usually get excellent walking and interaction images. With enough patience (and a wicked fast shutter) we can get him standing square and looking great. If he is being cooperative, I like to test my limits — always keeping safety as my #1 priority. I might try to take his halter/headstall off, have her sit by his feet, have her sit on him bareback, and so on. I always ask my girl (or her parent, when applicable) if they are comfortable doing it first.
Lastly, I always ask to make sure we got everything they had in mind. Sometimes my clients have something specific they hoped for and I want to make sure I deliver on this.
Who do you pose first the horse or client?
It depends. If it is easy for the girl to move, I pose the horse first and bring her in later. I would say that happens about 80% of the time. But sometimes she is sitting in a chair, or leaning on something and I’ve instructed her very specifically. In that case, I have someone hold her horse while I work with her, and then I walk the horse into the frame myself and make sure he is positioned and posed how I need him to be.
What are some poses you do with every client?
For every client, I strive to deliver a stunning headshot and a great full body shot. Most people receive walking images, too, if their horse wasn’t a being a dragon. Additionally, I like to make sure I get a few images of only the horse.
How do you simply describe your subject how to pose? What type of words are most generally understood?
The first time I describe a pose, I always show them. I jump in to re-position my girl, or I will grab her horse and demonstrate something as I describe it. From there, I can usually reference what we did before and she will understand.
As far as hand placement goes, I usually grab her hand (after asking for permission) and place it where I want it. If her hand is tense, I tell her to think of graceful ballet fingers and show her the difference using my hands.
For her eyes, I tell her where to look specifically. If I want her to look down, I point to the spot on the ground. If I want her to look at me, I say so. I will also prompt for things like “look at your horse’s eye, look at his nose, look back at me, now look over this shoulder (point), look at your mom,” etc.
If I want her to have a serious expression, I have her start by looking at the ground with relaxed lips. I will shoot a few images of her looking down and then ask her to bring her gaze up to my lens. If I need her to laugh, I tell her silly jokes or ask the people around us to make her giggle. Otherwise, I am indicating that I want a “smile, soft smile, huge smile, smile with no teeth, crack up laughing,” etc.
I try to talk a lot so that she is focused on me and my directions, and not being self-conscious. I also give a lot of positive reinforcement so that she knows she looks like a rockstar.
How do you make your sessions “flow” with posing (do you have certain poses you do in a certain order?)
Once my horse and girl are in a position that I like, I try to create as much variety there as possible before the horsey starts moving around. This includes giving instructions like: “put your hands under his chin, now on his neck, look at his eye, look at me, smile at his muzzle, laugh right here, look over your left shoulder, serious face over to your mom, serious face right here, now crack up laughing…”
In about two minutes, I was able to get probably 20 different images even though her feet never moved. But the key here is that I don’t follow a formula. I want to look for what flatters this girl and horse the most. I am looking for the angles and poses that make both the horse and the girl look their very best. And that is different for everyone! Some horses should hold their neck low, some level, and some higher. Some girls look amazing straight toward the camera, and others rock a 45-degree angle. Some girls honestly have a side that is better (usually where the bangs open up). I want to find the poses that make them look their very best!
How do you interact and instruct your clients on what to do?
Most of it is “show, don’t tell.” I am regularly jumping in to move their feet, hands, or hair. I will show them how I want their weight shifted, or where I want their shoulders. I often take the reins on their horse and let them watch me do the pose. Before they start walking, I show them how I want them to walk and where I want them to walk. I demonstrate facial expressions, gazes, you name it…
There isn’t a lot of commonly understood terminology for poses, so I find it is best to lead by example, and then tweak as necessary.
Do you worry more about perfection with one over the other?
I want them both to be perfect! I do my best to be patient enough to make sure they are both perfect. If the horse(s) are being very uncooperative, I will relax a bit and make sure I get amazing pictures of her. But my goal is to make sure she looks like a goddess, and he looks like a unicorn.
Do you pose differently for different types of sessions? For instance… Senior, show, memorial?
If there are horses and girls in my session, I don’t intentionally pose things differently. However, I want to keep everything natural and very flattering. What flatters a 16-year-old girl might not be the same as a 55-year-old. I also want to stay true to the context of the shoot — I do different things if she is bareback in a summer dress in a pasture than if she is in show clothes with her horse fully tacked up. The first lends itself to be casual, carefree and full of movement. The latter is more formal and restrictive (horsemanship tops are pretty much straight jackets).
Any suggestions for hyper horses? Do you have tips for horses that have a lot of energy or don’t want to put their ears forward?
Hyper horses are hard. I try to clearly communicate (about six times) in my welcome packet that horses should be ridden/lunged/worked down prior to my arrival. Additionally, some people try calming supplements and treats for their horses to help take off the edge. If we start shooting and I notice the reason for bad behavior is excess energy, I will have someone lunge their horse mid-session. It makes the horse more comfortable and the rest of the session more enjoyable for everyone! If the horse is naturally nervous, I try to keep them near the barns with friends in sight to help keep them calm.
Ears can also be tough. I always bring an assistant to help with ears so that I can focus on taking the portrait. First, we try to get ears up using motion (walking around, throwing things, waving something in the air, etc). When that wears out, we try using noise (whinneys, shaking rocks, etc). My last resort is food (hay, grain, treats). Sometimes having motion off in the distance can help, so my assistant will go open a gate or move around some horses to give our model something to intently look at.
Is there such thing as a wrong pose? Or do you have any guidelines to reduce awkward posing?
I think there can be flattering poses and… less flattering poses.
Not every idea I have works well for every person, so I am not afraid to step back, look at it through the lens, and reposition if I don’t like the look. Or, I will scrap the entire idea and start over with something fresh. The most important thing for me is that my clients looks and feels her best, and I take it as my job to make sure she does!
What are your favorite poses for men?
My go-to poses for men are crossed arms, leaning against something, crouching down, or standing tall and square. Anything that is simple, comfortable, and natural achieves the best results for me and my clients.
When you are doing a shoot both on the ground and mounted, which do you start with?
Typically I will start on the ground. I shoot in Texas, which means both the horse and the rider will be a sweaty mess once they start riding 🙂
Favourite way of posing a girl and her horse?
I love it when my girls look dainty, feminine, and completely trusting. This can be bareback, sitting by their feet, or standing directly in front of them. Strong connections can produce very powerful imagery.
What are some tips or tricks you use when posing clients with and without horses? (alternatively, where did you learn them, do you go by trial and error)
I have covered most of them here. I am not formally taught, and I haven’t studied this subject from other photographers. This far in my career, I have been able to see what is in front of me and get inspired by the light, lines, and composition.
I would consider myself self-taught and because of this I am not aware of any “posing rules” which probably means I break them all the time.
How do you know WHERE you want to pose people in a location you’ve never been…do you walk the grounds by yourself while they get ready or do you “play by ear” and walk with your client and stop at “good locations”?
I arrive to each shoot about 30 minutes early to scout all around and get a game plan. Then, I want to talk to my clients about their outfits with the location in mind so we know what outfit to shoot where, in what order.
I start with a plan but nothing is set in stone. If I spot a better location or better light mid-shoot I am quick to adjust on the fly.
When you first started did you ever get in a rut during a session where you couldn’t think of poses and how did you work through it?
Every time I get stuck, I go straight to details. It gives both the horse and the girl a quick break. I will photograph their hands, jewelry, interaction, their feet, some type of motion (walking or running towards or away from me). Or, try walking to a brand new location.
One of the best things I’ve done is to set up a pose, and then walk all the way around them to shoot the same pose from 360 degrees. It will really give a fresh perspective on what you are trying to do!