While most professional models know how to pose and are very aware of their surroundings and the lighting, many amateur models are unaware of their bodies and have problems finding a pose that goes with their body type and your concept. Ideally, the model will pose on her own until you tell her to hold a pose for some minor adjustments.
The thing about posing is, we want it to look natural, which is somewhat of an oxymoron. Several books have been written about how to pose models and a few little tips and tricks. I will not concern myself or you with that now, but will cover some simple basics that are very often not covered in these books. If you have problems posing your models, I would recommend you to have a look at these books. At the end of this article, I will give you some personal recommendations on books. If you work with an experienced model, your job as a photographer will be significantly easier, but you still need to pay attention to some details. I realized that many experienced- and professional models while being able to move into astounding natural looking poses from one click of the shutter to the other, they often fail to pay attention to their hands. Sometimes you have a composition and a pose that really flows and when you look at the final image, you realize that her hand looks like she had a cramp. Look out for such details.
During a shoot it is always helpful to rest for a few moments and have a look at the images if you shoot digital. Let the model see the images as well and ask her what she would improve. Sometimes models have good ideas and they are often more conscious about their body and their pose than you would be. This way, the model will pay more attention to what she did wrong and improve herself as well as your images. If you can, transfer the images to your laptop or another medium that has a bigger screen than your camera.
When working with an inexperienced model, the models’ expressions will often look forced and unnatural. Simply ask them to close their eyes, breathe deeply for a few seconds, and then open their eyes.
Models that are completely unable to pose themselves are a pain. Avoid them if you can, which is easier said than done. Just because a model is experienced does not mean she knows how to pose, it just means that the photographers might have been able to pose her properly. Exactly that will be your job and be blunt about it: “Arch your back, chin up, stop pouting!”
If that does not work out, show the model pictures of poses that you would like him or her to do and adjust as needed. I always carry a small folder with some sample images for that purpose. Some models are better at following directions, others are better at copying. Be prepared for any of those cases. For the folder, you can use pictures you find in magazines or photos you have taken yourself. Just have the model look at them and point your finger at the one you want her to do. If you don’t have a pose in your book that you want the model to do, choose the one that is closest to it and go from there. Showing a picture can be the starting point to a photographic conversation.
If you don’t have any pictures or something completely different from the ones you have, pose yourself and show the model what you want. If you are a 50 year old dude with a beer belly, expect to be laughed at, when you show the model how to pose in a Bikini (PS: you wearing the bikini is not necessary but certainly good for grins and giggles).
When you pose a model, break the symmetry. Poses generally look better and more natural when arms and legs are uneven and the model’s body is tilted (hips pointing into different direction than chest). Breaking the symmetry gives your photos the impression of movement and action, as it will seem like the model is moving either away or towards the camera.
To improve her facial expression, have her look at a mirror and tell her what kind of look and emotion you want. This practice will help the model see what she is doing and if what she is doing really looks like she thinks it is.
If you are looking for an unnatural pose or a pose that is hard to hold, have the model stretch before the shoot. This way you avoid injuries and the pose tends to look more natural.
As mentioned before, there are several books on posing out there. Some of them are real crap while others can help you improve your images significantly. Personally, I can recommend Jeff Smith’ Posing for Portrait Photography: A Head-to-Toe Guide, Michelle Perkins’ Professional Portrait Posing: Techniques and Images from Master Photographers, Bill Hurter’s The Portrait Photographer’s Guide to Posing, and Billy Pegram’s Posing Techniques for Photographing Model Portfolios. If you buy these books using my links, you will help me sustain this website and keep offering you advice on photography issues.