Posing pictures thoughtfully

by Nick Kelsh

posted Tuesday, April 28, 2015 at 9:14 AM EST

I asked Sarah to put her arm around her sister, Amanda, and then asked both of them to look at the tree in the distance and smile. It was such a silly, fakey moment they both responded naturally—they laughed. I pushed the button.

There are various kinds of staged or setup photographs. There are the ones that families treasure and frame and put on Christmas cards. And then there’s the kind that newspaper photographers get fired for. That’s a big range.

Newspaper and magazine photographers are photojournalists. That means their pictures need credibility. They are being presented as truth. Despite the best intentions of the photographer, a posed picture is always going to be someone’s idea of what reality is or what they want it to be, but it is not reality.

When The New York Times fires a photographer for manipulating a real life situation and passing it off as a found moment, they are doing the right thing—The New York Times needs credibility. A photographer who has lost his of hers cannot represent them without it. But…

When a mom — or anyone else photographing their family – stages a photograph, they are merely trying to recreate what’s in their hearts.

This picture is totally posed, but it’s my two boys so who cares? We were riding in a truck on the farm of a friend and I stopped and asked the two of them to go for a walk down this path. Posed or not, it says something about their relationship and I love it. And in this situation, I’m the only one who counts.

They are trying to photograph the world as they wish it were and there is nothing wrong with that. (Sadly, there are moms who should be fired, but not for staging photographs.)

When I’m photographing two people who love each other I have a standard approach. Whether it’s a grandmother and a grandchild or a husband and a wife I often do the same thing. I ask them to put their heads together until they’re touching and put their arms over each others shoulders.

I will often position their hands and fingers to get it exactly the way I want it. Sometimes I will tell them that this may feel a little artificial or odd but, trust me, it’s going to look great. (It usually does, if I do say so myself.) It’s a completely faked, posed situation and yet, I believe, represents at least part of their world as it really is. They love each other and that’s what the photograph says.

So if you need to create or even recreate a scene to capture something precious for posterity, I say go for it—unless you work for The New York Times. I’ve found the best way to make posed shots look natural is to set it up, step back and let reality takes it course. Viewers can smell an over-directed posed photograph a mile away.