3 Body language cues that can make or break a portrait

January 2016 issue

These days the first impression we make isn't the handshake; it's the profile photo we've posted to our social media and professional websites. And unfortunately people tend to judge an online photo more harshly than an in-person first impression, according to photographer and body language trainer Danielle Libine, author of "A Photographer's Guide to Body Language." 

That's why it's so important that the portrait photographer pay close attention to the body language of a subject during a session, especially if that portrait is intended for professional purposes.

Here are three body language cues, what they communicate, and how Libine tweaked them to the client's advantage:  

© Danielle Libine

head tilt

What it says: Open, friendly, approachable, good listener

Drawbacks: While the head tilt communicates a happy and relaxed attitude, it can also be read as submissive.

Lessons:  The client wanted some not-so-serious business portraits that would make her appear friendly and approachable. But Libine didn’t want her to appear too low power, so she balanced out the friendly head tilt cue with higher power cues: The subject wore a bold red shirt and faced the camera with arms akimbo.

Best use for the portrait: It works well for a personal or business profile as long as the brand is friendly and open. It’s too soft for a high-power corporate profile photo.

© Danielle Libine

Crossed arms

What it says:  Defensive, defiant, uncomfortable, not open to discussion

Lessons: Any pose can work depending on the client’s needs, but to communicate confidence and openness, crossing the arms isn’t best. That said, the pose can be tweaked to tell a softer story. In this portrait, Libine had the subject look away from the camera and flash a friendly smile. “It fit his personality,” she says. “He’s a very friendly and smart young man with a defiant streak.”

Best use for the portrait: A social, not professional, profile, since the pose could be perceived as cocky by a prospective employer.

© Danielle Libine


What it says: Approachable, honest, attractive

Drawbacks: While women perceive a genuine smile as a positive—a way of creating rapport and a sign of appeasement—men perceive smiling as submissive.

Lessons: You don’t just need a smile, you need a real smile. With a fake smile (left), the cheeks and eyes are static. It communicates less confidence than a real smile. A real smile (right) is characterized by raised cheeks and smiling eyes (indicated by wrinkling at the sides of the eyes).

Best use for the portrait: A portrait with a genuine smile is best for a personal profile or for a professional profile for which a bubbly persona is a plus. 

Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professional Photographer. 

Tags: portrait photographyposing

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