This article is based on concepts from The Art of Portrait Photography if you want to dig deeper for further training. It is currently over 82% off for Cyber Monday if you use the discount coupon picturecorrect at checkout.
There are three modes of non-verbal communication in humans.
The first and most apparent is facial expression, including using our eyes and mouths.
The second is body language—how we position ourselves.
The third is our hands.
Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German philosopher, has an excellent quote about hands. “The hand is the visible part of the brain,” he said. This phrase should be on the mind of every photographer who takes pictures of people.
Pay Attention to the Hands
Photographers tend to pay a lot of attention to the face, but sometimes pay little attention to body language, and even less toward their subject’s hands.
Here are some photography tips for shooting people in such a way that incorporates their hands, including do’s and don’ts.
Don’t place a subject’s hand close to the face, unless it frames the face or provides context to the expression.
In the example photo above, the subject’s hand attracts as much visual attention as the face itself, if not more. This may have been a jewelry shoot to showcase her rings, but if the prominence of her hands was not intentional, then the effect is often distracting.
When appropriately positioned, and with good lighting, hands can accentuate a face. They can provide an eye-catching frame that forces a viewer’s eyes right toward the subject of the portrait.
Keep the hands close to, or parallel to, the body. Placing one or both hands closer to the camera than the rest of the body rarely works out—unless you’re going for a unique effect.
It is equally important not to let your subject push their hands all the way into their pockets—they will simply disappear.
An old trick used by wedding photographers is to have a subject hook just their thumbs into their pockets, while leaving the rest of their hands hanging on the outside of their pants. Another option is to have the subject slide the last three fingers into the pocket while keeping the thumb and forefinger exposed.
You may be wondering, why place their hands in their pockets at all?
The reason is simple and mostly psychological: when photographing subjects who are uneasy or not used to being in front of the camera, giving them something to do with their hands will often relax them.
When posing the hands, you must also take into account the framing of your picture. Is it a headshot? Is it a half body shot? Maybe it is a full-figure shot? The placement of the hands will change based upon the amount of body you include in your picture.
This last example photo is a perfect use of hands in a portrait. Here’s why:
- They don’t distract from the subject’s face.
- The hand placement provides a balance to the composition by giving some shape and contrast against the dark coat in the lower part of the frame.
- The body language of the arms and hands matches the expression of the subject’s face.
- Her ring becomes a small focal point, helping to tell a story about the subject’s sense of style and perhaps her personality.
About the Author:
Kent DuFault is an author and photographer with over 35 years of experience. He’s currently the director of content at the online photography school, Photzy.com
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