Full body portraits - posing, composition, camera angles and lenses

Full body portraits – posing, composition, camera angles and lenses

Full body portrait photography techniques

To be a better photographer, when photographing anyone who isn’t a model, you need to remember what it feels like to stand in front of a camera. It’s important to make your subject feel comfortable, especially for full body portraits, regardless of whether it’s an individual, a couple or a group of people.

The more of a person that’s included in a photo, the more vulnerable they’ll feel.

The first question most people ask is “What should I do with my hands?”, followed by “Where should I look?”

So you need to pre-empt their questions by giving clear, confident direction. Don’t give them a chance to have to ask the question. Before you even pick up your camera let them know that you’ll direct them and they don’t have to think about a thing.

With headshots or three quarter photographs there’s less of a person to pose. Much easier! With full body photography, not only do you need to work on making your subject feel comfortable, you also have to pay attention to their whole body, so it’s more work for you.

This includes:

  • Posing
  • Hair and clothing
  • Camera angle
  • Background
  • Camera settings
  • Lens choice

Let’s first focus on the subject before we move onto your position, camera angle and the technical aspects of how to take full body pictures.

Posing for full body photography

Portrait photography requires more detailed attention on your subject than lifestyle photography.

While both styles of photography apply to full body portraits, the difference is that lifestyle photography is more about conveying emotion and there’s always a lot of movement involved. Portrait photography on the other hand is about showing a person at their best, so it’s more focused on posing and camera angles.

This applies to both indoor photography and outdoor photography. Neither one is better than the other – they’re just different and they both have their place.

So the following full body posing tips are mainly portrait photography techniques, rather than lifestyle photography techniques.

Posing the full body from the feet up

When I pose a subject I start from the feet up, because I find people are less likely to move their feet while concentrating on, for example, hand placement, than the other way around. To be honest, I do this for three quarter shots, as well as headshots, because feet placement makes a difference to a person’s shape and appearance.

Rotating to a 45 degree angle to the camera is slimming and less confrontational than facing full on to the camera.

How to change a pose with hand positions

Focal length 55mm, aperture f2.8. Notice how the pose is changed simply by changed the hand placement. The upward tilt of her chin in the image of the left conveys more confidence that the softer look of the downward tilt of the image on the right (more on this further down).

Place weight on the back foot

When weight is shifted to one foot, as opposed to being equally on both feet, it creates shape and the subject appears more relaxed than if they were standing firmly planted on both feet.

To make this look as natural as possible I always ask women which is their shopping queue leg. In other words, if they’re standing in a queue at the till, which is the leg they stand on. Whichever they say is their usual load bearing leg is the one that should be the “back leg”.

That said, not everybody shifts their weight to one leg. Some people do stand with their weight on both feet.

Bend one knee

Again, bending one knee creates shape. For women this is a great way to start creating a flattering S shape, which is both flattering for women and more interesting from a composition point of view.

Further reading: Curves and S curve photography composition

Let the hips fall to one side

Obviously, which it comes to hip placement it’s different for men and women. Popping the hip to one side is another essential technique for creating the S curve for full body portraits of women.

This should simply be a slight exaggeration of their normal way of standing “in a shopping queue”.

A masculine pose doesn’t require “popping the hip”.

Further reading: Female poses – 9 tips for photographing women

Posing variety for full length portraits

Focal length 78mm, aperture F4. Photographed from the other side of a narrow street. Notice the asymmetrical hand placement.

Asymmetrical shoulders look great

Again, this should feel natural. Your subject shouldn’t feel contorted as their discomfort will show very clearly in a full length portrait.

Try this – stand up now and relax your posture as though waiting for the bus, or standing in a queue.

You’ll notice how your shoulder on the load bearing side drops slightly, making your pose asymmetrical. Exaggerate this slightly, maybe raise the other shoulder slightly and you’ve got the basis of a good full length pose.

Arms and hands in photos

Now we’re at the part that concerns so many subjects posing for full body pictures. Men in particular need something to do with their hands when posing for photos.

Think asymmetrically again. You can achieve so many full body pose variations simply by moving the arms around.

  • If one hand is in a pocket, or on the hip let the other hand loosely.
  • For a woman let one hand come up to the collar bone or jawline or rest on the thigh of the bent leg while the other is on the hip, or folded across the body.
  • If wearing a jacket they can hold onto the lapels, but make sure that one hand is higher than the other.

You don’t have to be a stickler for asymmetry though.

For men, folded arms work great, clasping hands in front, adjusting cuffs, or resting both hands in pockets or on hips.

Just think about what the body language is saying and if it matches the intended message of the photograph.

Just one word of warning on posing before we move on. Watch out for foreshortening when posing as this can cause a subject’s body or limbs to look shorter than they are.

Further reading: 8 tips for posing hands in photography – posing mistakes to avoid

Head position in portraits

The angle of your subject’s head makes a big difference in portrait photography. I say this from two points of view:

  • The one being body language and how the tilt of a head can affect the message. Tilt a chin up slightly for a more confident pose and tilt it up even further for a more challenging pose.
  • The other is an aesthetic consideration, because whatever is closest to the camera will appear larger. For someone with a large forehead that they want to de-emphasize, even in full body pictures if they lift their chin slightly it moves the forehead slightly further way from the camera, which makes it smaller. Likewise for chins – tilt the chin up to make it bigger and tilt it down to make it smaller.

Position the head at an angle to the camera that’s not fully face on to camera is slimming, but also more friendly.

Full length portrait poses from the side

Hair and clothing in full length pictures

As I mentioned at the beginning, with full body portraits there’s a lot more work for the photographer, and that includes scanning your subject for anything out of place.

I once spent a ridiculous amount of time closing a best man’s zipper in Photoshop. Obviously, when photographing a wedding you can’t stop the speech to tell the person their zipper is down, but during a portrait shoot, you absolutely can and should.

But clothing fails aren’t always as significant as that.

It’s all the little details that count. As people move their clothing shifts and while we don’t notice these things in normal life, when you take a photo it freezes the moment. A rucked up shirt can be very unflattering and also distracting.

So once your subject is in position, you could simply give the shirt a little tug to even out the folds. Ask them first – never touch a person in front of your lens without their permission. If it’s your family, that’s different of course.

Clothing hiccups to watch out for:

  • Buttons – are they meant to be done up or not?
  • Tie – is it straight?
  • Dresses, shirts, jerseys and jackets – are they hanging correctly?
  • Are trousers hanging correctly, or is one leg maybe rucked up a little?
  • Any loose threads?

The list goes on, but you get the picture (haha).

Hair can be particularly difficult, especially when somebody is nervous as nervous people shift a lot. You might have got them into the perfect pose and you’re ready to go and they look down and back up at you and then their hair is all out of place. Or a gust of wind wafts up a tuft of hair.

This again is why, just like with posing, I start at the feet and move my way up.

Don’t take too long posing subjects

That’s a lot of stuff to get right before you take the shot, but you can’t take too long. So, no pressure, but get it all right and do it fast. Seconds pass very slowly for anyone in front of the lens so you have to keep a shoot moving to keep the energy up for good photos.

As always, practice is key.

Further reading: Photographing models – how to find and approach models for photoshoots

My family tease me that they don’t need to worry about something being out of place, because I’ll point it out before they’ve had a chance to notice. They have no idea how often I don’t actually say anything. This is the downside of doing portrait photography for years – I never stop scanning!

So that’s your subject covered. Now let’s look at what you can do to take better full length pictures, particularly:

  • Camera angle
  • Background and foreground
  • Camera settings
  • Lens choice

Full body poses for women

I really like photographing women in strong poses. When you take up space with your pose, you project confidence. So in all but one of these photos their weight is on both feet. Popping a hip out to the side adds shape. You’ll notice too that some of the photos are square on to camera… because posing guides are just that. Guides, not unbreakable rules.

Camera angle for full body portraits

I’m standard height for a woman, which I think puts me at an advantage for capturing full body photos. If you’re tall, full length photography becomes a bit of a workout for your thighs, because camera angle plays a big role in the appearance of your subject.

I do bend my knees, but not as much as a tall man would need to.

That said, I tend to shoot from a kneeling position most of the time, because this puts my camera at my subject’s waist height, which is a flattering camera angle for full body photography.

This is why waist height is the most common camera angle for full body portraits. So, make sure you change it up a bit to incorporate other angles for variety.

Lying on the ground photographing up towards your subject puts your camera at roughly knee height of your subject. It creates a very dynamic photo, putting the subject in position of power over the viewer and changes the usual perspective.

The opposite angle is to get up high and shoot down on your subject. This places the viewer in a position of power, so completely changes the feeling of the photo. You won’t see politicians photographed from this camera angle.

To avoid an image feeling cramped, remember to include more space your subject’s head than below their feet.

Further reading: How to use camera angles to speak volumes and radically impact a photo

Full body portrait posing tips

Changing arm position will give you variety in each pose, which in turn creates more variety in your shoot without taking too long.
Focal length 70mm, aperture f2.8

Background & foreground in full length portraits

The more of a person you include in a photo, the more the background and foreground will feature. So you need to be careful when selecting a location, for outdoor photography, to avoid distractions in the background and foreground.

But more than that, add to the picture by actively thinking through your background and foreground. Use the space to make the image more interesting.

Further reading: 

5 background photography tips for better photos

4 hot tips for a dynamic foreground in photography – use the space!

Considering the background, naturally leads to thinking about what aperture to use.

Aperture for full body photography

A wide aperture works well to blur the background in full body pictures, which will reduce distractions in the background and isolate the subject.

Further reading:
4 ways to use isolation in photography composition
Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition

I don’t like to blur the background completely, so I don’t go for very wide apertures. Turns out I shoot at F4 a lot of the time. Nothing wrong with photographers that do use wide apertures, it’s just not my style.

Also, sometimes you want detail in the background of photos, especially if the background is relevant to the subject, like in an environmental portrait.

Aside from personal style, a blurry background isn’t solely dependent on wide apertures. So if you don’t have a lens that goes wider than f5.6, but you want a blurry background, don’t despair.

All you need to do is make sure that the distance between you and your subject is less than the distance between your subject and the background.

Another option is to use a longer focal length.

Further reading: The easy way to a beautifully blurry background

Using a long focal length for full body portraits

Focal length 100mm, aperture f5.6. This image is uncropped so you can see the full frame and the distance between me and the subject when photographing at 100mm.

Lens for full length portraits

The reason I mention lenses for full body portraits last is because the above considerations will impact your choice of lens focal length first. For example, if you want to blur the background, using a wide angle, like 35mm, won’t work well for you, especially at apertures narrower than F4.

I also believe that you should learn to work with what you have – it’s a great way to stretch your knowledge of portrait photography techniques.

So, with those camera setting considerations aside, the choice of focal length will impact the look of your subject.

35mm lens

If using a 35mm lens, make sure that the subject is towards the center of the of the image. Elements at the edge of the frame will be distorted by the wide angle lens.

Be careful about how you tilt the camera when using wide angles for full body portraits.

It can work to your advantage, because to lengthen legs, shoot from a lower point of view.

However, when photographing from a higher point fo view with a 35mm lens, angling the camera down will make the head seem larger than normal, especially in relation to the rest of the body – creating a lollipop effect.

50mm lens

A 50mm lens will give you the most normal view – i.e. the closest to how our eyes see a scene.

So, a 50mm would make a good lens for full body pictures, especially with a wide aperture of F1.4 or F1.8 if you want to blur the background.

Further reading: The big question – 50mm vs 85mm for portraits – which is better?

85mm and 105mm

The ideal focal lengths for portrait lenses are 85mm and 105mm, because they’re most flattering.

With a 105mm lens you’d have to be a fair bit away from your subject to capture a full length portrait, which makes directing more difficult and breaks the connection between you and your subject. It’s easily overcome, however, you just need to work a bit harder at your personal skills.

Further reading: 

What’s the best focal length for portraits?

What is focal length and how to use it in photography

Three different portrait lengths in photography

Focal length for full length was 50mm and for 3/4 and head and shoulders shots it was 62mm. The aperture for all three was f2.8

What are the three types of portrait lengths?

To finish off, if you’re wondering what three portrait lengths are used, they’re:

  • Head and shoulders
  • Three quarter length (from the top of the head to mid thigh or below the knee)
  • Full length

Any of these portrait lengths can be applied to posing somebody from the front, the side the back or an over the shoulder angle.

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If you have any questions about full body portraits, let us know in the comments.

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