6 Tips for Safely Posing Portrait Models in a Time of Social Distancing

(Editor’s Note: Exploring Light is a monthly Shutterbug column featuring tips, tricks, and photo advice from professional photographers in Canon's Explorers of Light education program. This month's column is by Michele Celentano on how to safely pose models in our time of social distancing.)

The Coronavirus pandemic has changed the way portrait photographers must interact with their subjects for the foreseeable future. To be safe, we now need a touchless way of posing and directing models. From single subjects to group portraits, new posing tools are in order.

I developed the following six tips for working with models in a new socially distanced touch-free environment. 

1. Use a Tripod

Now more than ever you’ll need to use your voice, hands, body, and facial expressions to get clients to pose the way you want them to. Using a tripod frees you from holding the camera and enables to better communicate with clients from a distance. 

This is truly social distanced. I am using the Canon 70-200mm 2.8L on a tripod and directing my subjects from behind the camera. The setting is Sedona Arizona and is one of my favorite places to photograph families. © Michele Celentano

2. Use a Long Lens Whenever Possible

Wearing a face covering is a real problem when trying to communicate with clients. For this reason, I have been relying on my Canon 85mm and 70-200mm lenses. These lenses give me the social distance I need to remove my face covering while photographing clients. When shooting in small spaces this may be impossible, and a face covering should be used to protect yourself and your client.

For obvious reasons, the subjects are not wearing masks. If you feel like you can’t social distance, consider bringing the studio outside. Find the side of a building or a client’s house where you can set up a background and be far enough away from your subjects. Consider outdoor locations where social distancing is more feasible. 

This session happened before the big shut down but all my suggestions were used during this session as well. I am shooting on a tripod so I can communicate more effectively from a distance and using the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L lens. The snow was perfect and I wanted to capture the overall scene. © Michele Celentano

3 Have a Household Family Member Present

Take advantage of someone who lives with your model who can touch the subject and adjust things like clothing and hair, instead of jumping in and adjusting things like hair and clothing yourself. In some cases, there may be a hair stylist you work with who can make these minor adjustments.

Keep in mind that any assistants or hair and makeup persons should wear face coverings and use hand sanitizer when touching clients. For this reason, I recommend a person who lives with the client. You can direct the family member to adjust hair, makeup, and clothing. 

Shelby was one of my favorite portraits. Her grandmother brought her to the studio so she could help me pose and adjust Shelby’s hair. Shelby was amazing at following my directions and made small movements which is unusual for a child of this age. I believe that my mirroring and showing her exactly what I wanted her to do helped tremendously. © Michele Celentano

4. Brush up on Your Posing Language

Be clear and precise when giving directions. First start with body mirroring. Show the subject how you want them to pose their body by using your own to demonstrate. Since you are more than likely 8-10 feet from your subjects, use a clear loud voice to communicate. Use correct anatomical body names for clarity. Here are some of the phrases I use when posing subjects:

—Lift the tailbone to the background.

—Drop your left or right shoulder.

—Roll the shoulder blades down and back. 

—Roll the shoulders forward toward the camera.

—Pull up from the top of your head.

—Push your nose toward the camera a touch.

—Drop your chin a little bit.

—Slightly turn your head to the right.

—Cross your right ankle over your left.

Many times, while giving the above directions, I use my hands to direct the subjects face. I will often say- “Follow my fingers with your nose.” 

This mother and daughter portrait was created in my studio just after Arizona relaxed restrictions. It’s easy to pose the girls this close because they have been living in the same house for months. My studio is longer than it is wide so I was able to back up using my Canon 85mm 1.4L in order to maintain social distancing between myself and the subjects. I would have them move or adjust hair on each other rather than me touching them.© Michele Celentano

5. Know Everyone’s Name

When working with groups, be sure to know the name of everyone on set so you can give clear instructions to each person without having people wondering if you are speaking to them. I personally don’t recommend using “Mom, Dad, Grandma…etc. It’s much more professional to say “Judy, please lean forward to the camera from the sternum or the center of your chest and keep your shoulders relaxed.” Saying “Mom, lean to the camera” is vague and unprofessional in my opinion. Your session will go more smoothly and quicker by using subjects’ names and very specific language.    

6. Smile and reassure your clients

Let your models know they are doing a great job. Having subjects react to your expressions and positive reinforcement is key to getting great expressions. Let’s face it, we all know that great expressions are what sells photographs. Your posing and lighting might not be perfect but when you have the perfect expression that will always sell. So back away from your subjects, use a tripod, a longer lens, remove your face covering and interact with your subjects so they can respond to your voice, facial expressions, and directions. 

I wanted to create this image to celebrate the jobs of first responders. This portrait was taken only a short time after restrictions lifted (Full disclosure. This is my husband so social distancing was not necessary, but was created with this in mind). © Michele Celentano


After nearly 30 years of experience, Michele Celetano’s passion for transforming photographs into treasured memories for families only continues to grow. 

She is the author of “Photographing Families - Tips for Capturing Timeless Images.” She has appeared on CreativeLive.com for a three-day workshop about photographing families that was viewed globally by more than 30,000 photographers. Most recently, Michele released on online course dedicated to family portraits. She has also served as a judge and chairman for the WPPI International Print competition.

Michele is one of an elite group of photographers to be sought out by Canon USA to represent their company as an Explorer of Light. Only 33 photographers nationwide hold this honor. Michele and her images have been featured in numerous advertisements for Canon and their professional line of cameras. She is a regular and popular presenter for Canon at trade shows throughout the county.

Michele was awarded her Craftsmen Degree from the Professional Photographers of America and the Accolade of Photographic Mastery from Wedding and Portrait Photographers International. Her artwork has been featured in publications such as Rangefinder, American Photographer, Shutterbug, Studio Photography as well as numerous books on the art of photography. In addition to running her portrait business, Michele continues to travel internationally to teach and lecture on the subject of portrait photography.

You can find more from Michele at her websites and on social media: