Hands and portraits

John Redwood MP, photographed during an interview in January 1994. © Neil Turner/Insight.

John Redwood MP, photographed during an interview in January 1994. © Neil Turner/Insight.

It’s January 2017 and like most photographers I am looking forward to the year with a mix of excitement and trepidation. What kinds of challenging and interesting projects are going to come my way in the next eleven and a half months? How is my work going to develop? Am I going to get enough work to pay the bills? Big questions that add to the roller-coaster of emotions that being freelance brings out.

One of the things that I always try to do is look back at some of last year’s work and compare it to older stuff and try to come up with some thoughts that help me to understand my own style better and to make sure that I don’t get tripped up by the same old mistakes. There’s a question that pops into my head about this time every year and it is one that I think that I am finally happy to answer:

What do you do with hands in editorial style portraits?

Almost every time that I shoot a portrait I try to give the client/editor as much choice as I can. Tight head and shoulders only portraits are one thing but what about wider compositions where the subject’s arms and hands start to feature? How should I get people, who don’t do it naturally, to pose? I quite like to keep some pictures as tight as I can and so folded arms are really useful because they bring the hands and arms higher up the body allowing me to frame the photographs that bit tighter. Nine times out of every ten that you ask someone to fold their arms you end up having a conversation about body language and lots of corporate types have been told by their PR people that folded arms look defensive. If only all things were that simple: folded arms bad/hands in pockets good just doesn’t work in photography. Folded arms in pictures can appear defensive but they can also appear as positives – they can be friendly, strong, loving, confident, feeling cold and so many other things. On the negative side they can appear aggressive, angry, lacking in confidence and forced. If you put “body language folded arms” into your favourite search engine you’ll get a few thousand articles written from a few hundred different perspectives telling you that folded arms can mean a number of different things and that context matters. Like so many things in life, it is a matter of judgement and skill and in the photographic portrait it is definitely a matter of getting the relationship between the folded arms, the composition and the facial expression right.

I can understand why PR people are wary of folded arms because they can go hideously wrong but you should never rule out a fantastic photographic tool just because it can be misused.

What about hands in pockets?

I’ve already mentioned hands in pockets. This, by the very fact that the hands are further away from the face, gives a wider composition and some people look great when relaxing hands in pockets whilst others look awkward. That’s where the skill of the portraitist comes into its own; working out who does what well and getting them to trust your judgement when photographing them that way. The difference between lazy and relaxed isn’t that great and you need to train yourself to distinguish between the two.

Over the last twelve months I have been asked to shoot a lot of pictures where the subject has their hand on their chin/lips/ears/hair (mirroring one of the least appealing ‘selfie’ trends appearing all over social media) or where they are cupping their face with their elbows on a table or the back of a chair. It isn’t something I would naturally ask someone to do but if they naturally do it themselves then I will often work with it and see if it makes the picture. Sometimes it comes off but it mostly looks contrived and, quite frankly, a bit naff. Did I say a bit naff? I meant a lot naff.

What else can you do?

One of the most useful ways to shoot portraits is to do it when the subject is talking to you or to someone else and gets a bit animated. Hands suddenly move away from being a potential problem to be a massive asset. Again you have to be a bit careful about what kind of gesture because we all know that pointing fingers, waving two fingers or forming a fist can be misinterpreted very quickly but, if you are in the business of portraying someone as they really are then their subconscious hand movements are a very useful way of getting there quickly.

Jacqueline Wilson receives up to 400 letters from young readers each week and does her best to answer as many of them personally as she can. © Neil Turner/TSL

Jacqueline Wilson receives up to 400 letters from young readers each week and does her best to answer as many of them personally as she can. © Neil Turner/TSL

Back in the mid 1990s I even shot just people’s hands on several occasions. Lots of people were exploring the same idea and several photographers did it far more assiduously and successfully than me. It is, however a great exercise for two reasons: the first is that it gets you notice that people have character in bits of their body other than their faces and the second is that shooting their hands can help to relax more nervous subjects.

Of course you can get the subject to clasp their hands gently on front of them or behind their backs. Hands on hips works about 2% of the time and almost always requires a smile

You may have noticed that I’ve used words like useful and often and sometimes a lot in this short post. That’s deliberate because there really are very few hard and fast rules in good portraiture. Getting people’s hands into the frame is something that I love to do (not a January 2017 revelation) and portraying people as themselves is a primary goal (probably a January 1987 thought). Great portraits rely on a number of factors working together and getting something that is a lot stronger than the sum of its parts.

My January 2017 goal for the year is to get better at the way hands appear in my portraits. I’m not going to shy away from folded arms, hands on hips or anything else but I’m not going to ask anyone to touch their lips or in any other way pose as if they were a teenager doing a selfie that they’ll regret in six months time.

Want to see more? My portraits portfolio can be seen here.

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