The world is a complicated, messy place...but can we talk about how I look in pictures? There are people who are naturals in front of the camera and people who are not—and I am most definitely the latter. It is not a real problem, to be sure—but it’s also not not a problem? Social media demands a more personal touch these days, a photographic presence (#picsoritdidnthappen). Sure, you could post a photo of the Taj Mahal, but I’m guessing your followers would rather see you in front of it. I know my own engagement spikes when I put myself in the shot.
But the fear of posing solo—without the comfort of a partner or group to hide behind—is a hard one to overcome. Confidence is a big part it, obviously, but before that can enter the, er, picture, it helps to know what to do with your assorted limbs. I consulted a few successful influencers who can strike a mean pose and asked them to offer up specific advice. Herein lies a step-by-step guide to looking great on Instagram:
Acknowledge the Awkwardness
Let’s start by stating the obvious: posing for a photo is AWKWARD AF. If you are not a model or someone gifted with a natural presence and body awareness, posing is not easy and it’s often not fun. “Oh, it's really just a bucket full of awkward,” says Nell Diamond, founder of the luxury linen line Hill House Home, who has roughly 30,000 Instagram followers and regularly garners more than 1,000 likes on a pic. Her solution? “Lean into the awkwardness. Own it!” Acknowledging the awkwardness helps to alleviate it.
“The whole thing just feels super unnatural,” agrees Katie Sturino, the force behind plus-size fashion website The 12ish Style and the Megababe line of beauty products, for which she regularly stars in promotional photos. Fight through that discomfort, Sturino says, and recognize the learning process ahead of you. “It’s all about finding what works for your body,” she says.
Start by looking at pictures of yourself, both those you find flattering and—this is important—ones you don’t. Do a full-body scan and identify what went right or wrong. Did you love your facial expression? What were you doing with that right arm? Sturino went through a similar exercise when she started her blog three years ago, and then she began experimenting. “The pros are always doing tiny angles and shifts on their body to find their best look in their pose,” Sturino says. Now she knows exactly what works for her: popping her right hip forward, with her left knee out and her left shoulder up, lifting from her core and turning her face slightly away from the camera with her chin pointed down. That kind of posing specificity is definitely #goals.
Phone a Friend
No one is expecting you to have Annie Leibovitz on speed dial, but whenever possible, find someone who you like (and who likes you, too!) to be your photographer. Tyler McCall, deputy editor at Fashionista, looks for people who are “super encouraging” to lend a hand. “Who doesn’t love a cheerleader?” she says. A friendly photog will go a long way toward what McCall sees as the secret to a good picture: figuring out “how you feel your most comfortable.”
Even better, ask someone if they will take a minute to help you find a signature pose. “Have a friend who won’t shame you into embarrassment take a ton of photos of you until you settle on one look,” says Nikki Ogunnaike, style director at ELLE.com. “It takes practice!” Explain what you are after, ask for their input, and fill up your camera roll with options.
Ok, so what to do with your limbs? The default is to zip your legs together and stand at attention, but that results in a kind of mono-thigh—try some two-visible-legs tricks instead.
Kat Tanita, the influencer behind the popular site With Love From Kat, crosses one foot in front of the other or points one leg out at a 45-degree angle, putting her weight on the back leg. “This gives my body a slight curve and accentuates my waist—and looks a bit more relaxed than both feet pointing straight ahead, which can look stiff,” she explains. Another option is to do a walking shot, even a faux one, says Ogunnaike. Take a few steps back and start walking toward the camera. Do it slowly or even just rock back and forth in place to make things easier on your photographer.
Occupy Your Hands
Once your feet are squared away, buckle up, because now it’s time to deal with your hands. Hands are the hardest, IMHO, because they quickly convey the nervousness at...well, hand. A selfie is an easy out because you literally have to hold the phone, therefore utilizing at least one hand. Props, like a cup of coffee or a handbag, also relieve you of hand-awkwardness. A peace sign is a tried-and-true option, although it feels a little stale to me. I love a good Rocky-esque thrown-up V, but very few situations warrant it. If you find yourself in front of the Sydney Opera House or on a yacht in Cannes, by all means, go for it.
A more advanced move is to use your hands to touch your face or hair. (See: Markle, Meghan) “I like a casual ear touch with one hand,” says Diamond. It’s as if to say: Oh, you just caught me brushing my hair behind my ear; I didn't know this was happening.
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If you feel daring, you can make the hand a focal point. Diamond calls her signature move The Chin Shelf. It’s a seated position with one leg bent and the other outstretched. “I rest my elbow on my bent knee, and rest my chin on my hand.” And what about that other hand? “A real wild card,” she says. “Will I lay my hand flat on my right leg? Will I raise it in the air and wave like I just don't care? Who knows! Keep 'em guessing!”
I know what you’re thinking. Reel it in, Elizabeth. This is getting too advanced. What’s the default hand/arm position? My panel of experts was deeply divided as to the acceptability of the sorority sister hand-on-hip, elbow-out pose (a.k.a. “the skinny arm”). A natural hanging-by-the-side is preferable, to be sure. I’m going to go ahead and say that one hand on the hip is a-okay (but never two, this isn’t a pageant for goodness’ sake). Before you @ me, hear me out: The elbow out is the arm version of the aforementioned leg strategy, providing space between your arm and your torso. But! Do what you can to make it look relaxed—swing that elbow back (Ogunnaike calls it “casual chicken arm”).
And while we’re relaxing, take a deep breath and roll those shoulders back, too—regardless of what you’re doing with your hands and arms—says Tanita. “I read that before models waltz down a runway, they roll their shoulders back which instantly gives them better posture,” she says. “Laugh off those jitters, roll your shoulders back, think: power pose.” Stand as tall as possible, too, if for no other reason than to make your mother proud (but also, it looks better).
Literally! I recently had some headshots taken and the photographer kept telling me to lean forward. It feels weird. Really weird. But it looks good. Everything looks better when you hinge at the hips and pitch your top half towards the camera and your bottom half in the other direction, even ever-so-slightly. Models and actors do this all the time (à la Busy Philipps on the cover of Health). Try it and I promise the resulting shots will not look like you are about to fall face-first onto the pavement.
Sometimes you gotta stare straight at the camera, which okay, you do what you gotta do. The consensus for those occasions is to either 1) tip your chin slightly down and jut it out a bit or 2) go for the full head tilt. Neither are particularly satisfying to me. I prefer to alleviate the awkwardness by simply looking away. Camera? What camera? Stare off in the distance instead, without turning your head a full 90 degrees (unless you have a killer updo to show off).
My sister once told me that you should walk into a bar acting like you are having the best night of your life because that kind of energy is contagious. Turns out, the same is true for picture taking. Writer and editor Jane Larkworthy, a columnist for The Cut, The Coveteur, and Elle Decor, among others, pulls out what she calls the we-are-having-the-BEST-time smile (alternate title: we-are-laughing-our-asses-off-right-now). “But don’t lose your shit,” she cautions. She has played around with another expression, too, what she calls the holy-shit-surprise face. “I’m getting older and perhaps the dopey goofball surprise smile makes me feel younger,” she speculates.
So, to summarize: Foot out, hands up, shoulders back, chin down, lean forward, look away, and LAUGH. Got it? You totally got this. Happy snapping.
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Elizabeth Holmes is a writer based in the Bay Area and the author of the forthcoming book HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style. She spent more than a decade on staff at the Wall Street Journal, most recently as a senior style reporter and columnist; her work has also appeared in The New York Times, InStyle, Real Simple, and Town & Country.
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