In today’s article we discuss hand positioning in portrait photography.
The hands speak
The expression on the face of the subject can tell us a lot about the person portrayed but the hands, and especially the fingers, can provide some additional but important information. Most of us have gestures that we typically make with our hands that transmit the emotions we feel. Hand positioning can even tell us something about our character and personality.
Whilst hands are able to ‘talk’ about our temperament, age or profession; in portraits gestures, both relaxed and tense, can also really reflect the state of the model.
In real life the position of the hands is directed by our inner state which is normally expressed through a movement or gesture of the hands. In other words, the gesticulation is the external reflection of what is happening inside us. A hand gesture is natural when it coincides with the emotion felt inside.
If there is no synchronization between the internal and the external, the expressiveness of the portrait is lost. The gesture can also be too theatrical or very unnatural.
What types of hand movements can we highlight?
The hand on which the head rests.
The hand that rests on the cheek.
The hand on which the chin rests.
The hands that serve as a support point.
The hands that hold an object.
Naturalness of the gesture
The position of hands has to follow the emotion expressed by the face of the portrayed person. The credibility of a gesture is very easy to check. It must be a gesture that is often repeated in the real life of the person portrayed. For example, a person touching their glasses, taking them off, holding the glasses by their chin, then moving their hands and glasses down to their chest before finally resting their relaxed hands on the table. The hand movement is complete. This movement can be divided into several stages or phases.
The best time to take a photo is when the hand comes out in an aesthetically acceptable position that is easy for the viewer to understand. The talent of the photographer lies in knowing how to organize the natural movement of the hands and choosing the most expressive phase of the given gesture.
What are the correct positions for the representation of the hands in a picture?
It is recommended that the picture encapsulates all of the fingers of the subject, avoiding certain fingers not being visible or cutting them off at the top. (For those who don’t follow this rule, there is a tendency for the little finger or a ring to disappear).
The most helpful parts of the hand for a photograph are: the external profile of the hand seen from the little finger, the back, and the profile seen from the thumb (avoiding the “dipper” position), extending and opening the fingers so that they all “read” well, as it appears in the drawings or in the central photo of the examples below.
The palms are not usually photographed completely open because, as they are flat, it is difficult to play with the contrast, shapes and lines. If the palm is photographed, it is advisable to close the hand slightly, as we can see in the first three photos above.
When the model rests the face on their hand, it is necessary to avoid pressure on it, otherwise wrinkle-like deformations could be created on the face. Although we can also find an examples this, it is not commonly used. In this case Irving Penn did it deliberately expressing the character’s personality.
It is advisable to avoid symmetrical gestures. It is better to use only one hand. If you want to photograph both hands, try not to have them in the same position. If, however, symmetry is unavoidable try to break it with other means: lighting, angle of capture, different position of the fingers etc.
Clearly, if total symmetry within the image is the intention, then go for it.
When hands are necessary?
How can we check if we need to use hands in the portrait we are making? One helpful tip is to simply cover the hands of the person in the picture. If nothing has changed or the absence of the hands satisfies you, then the hands have not worked well and do not transmit anything to the observer, and what you wanted to tell has been expressed well without the use of the hands.
Hands like a ‘garnish’
Sometimes you don’t need to express anything special with hands in the portrait. They can simply look beautiful and serve as a garnish to the portrait. Where the only intention is to draw the viewer’s attention to the appearance of the portrayed person’s hands, the key is to simply find a natural and suitable position for the wrist and fingers.
The hands can tell us about the strength of the portrayed person or, on the contrary, about his or her weakness. They can tell us about the subject’s tranquillity or nervousness, their will power or absence… All of this must be taken into account, not only when the hands are in movement, but also when they are relaxed.
Be careful with the post-touching!
You have to be careful with the post-touching of the hands. For example, strong hands with pronounced veins and wrinkled skin can tell us a lot about the person portrayed.
If you use a telephoto lens with an open aperture for your portraits or a normal lens with lower aperture numbers, it is very important that a model keeps his hands close to his face so that they stay in the same focus area.
No abuse of the rules
For a classic studio portrait, moving too abruptly or quickly is problematic. Paced gestures that allow us to follow the expressiveness of the hands are recommended. It is not necessary to be too strict with the position of the hands, any rule can limit us in our work. Each model is different: some usually support their head with one hand when they are thinking, others touch their chin, some support their head with both hands.
The use of the hands in the portrait serves to transmit more life and dynamism, but it is not obligatory. It’s important to experiment, especially with people who have a particular characteristic gesture.
If you like to experiment with wide-angle distortions you can play with the use of hands in the manner of Platon’s photography where hands often play an important role.
Now it’s time to create magic with your use of hands!