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Hand Modeling and Photography

Updated on April 9, 2011

A hand is a very human and live thing and a photograph must reveal these qualities or it will fail in its purpose. A great deal can be learned about the character of people by watching how they use their hands in everyday activities such as picking up a cup of tea, doing up a parcel and striking a match. The correct technique in photographing hands is to avoid a deliberate pose; the hands must be allowed to fall naturally into a relaxed position in character with the sitter. Hands are an essential part of a portrait, and must be made to fit into the composition in such a way that the eye sees the picture as a whole. A picture of a pianist, for example, should never give the impression that the hands were "placed".

While men are rarely conscious of their hands, women are more likely to be.


Point source lighting (e.g: one or two 500 watt spots) is needed to bring out the contours and the texture of both men's and women's hands. The key light must be oblique and the shadow side filled in, e.g: with a diffused 500 watt flood. One spot and one flood are the minimum necessary. The fill-in light must be just strong enough to soften the hard shadows thrown by the key light, and no more. Where there is strong back lighting, care must be taken in balancing the lights or flare will occur on the edges of the fingers causing loss of texture.

When photographing men's hands the fill-in light should be only just strong enough to reveal detail in the shadows, while allowing sufficient contrast to produce a texture effect and perhaps even allow the hairs to stand out. With women's hands the fill-in light should be somewhat stronger so as to give a softer effect.

Special attention must be given to the background. Any surface that reflects highlights must be avoided unless the hands are actually engaged in working on a polished object, where such reflections are unavoidable.


The first and main aim in photographing hands must be to avoid distortion. This calls for a long focus lens and if possible a camera with swing back. The swing back is used to bring the plane of the hand as near as possible to the focal plane of the camera.


Great care must be taken to avoid awkward shadows cast by the fingers, which in extreme cases may give the impression that the sitter has four hands. In order to avoid shadows on the background the hands should be an appreciable distance away from it. With a back-lighted subject, the frontal fill-in light must be strong enough to kill the shadows cast towards the camera by the key lighting. There could, for example, be heavy shadows cast where a hand is resting on a book, which has been strongly back-lighted to bring out texture and provide modeling. Here the fill-in light could conveniently be improvised by using a small mirror to reflect some of the back light.

Hand Position and Camera Angle

Where hands are included in portraits they must never look posed, but at the same time it is necessary to pay attention to their angle in relation to the camera. The hands must be relaxed, with the fingers extended naturally. A view of the back of the hand with the fingers folding into the palm is ugly and meaningless. Hands should also neither be photographed with fingers extended towards the lens, nor so placed that the wrist is nearest the lens while the fingers point away from it.

It follows from the foregoing that unless a deliberately distorted view is required, unusual camera angles should be avoided.

Special Cases

When photographing a broad hand with the back presented to the camera, it is a good plan to place the index finger and the second finger so that they meet, making a division between these and the third finger - the third and fourth being slightly parted. This arrangement gives an impression of length. The lighting should fall at an oblique angle - at least 45° to the flat surface of the hand.

Where hands are to be clasped, intertwined fingers must be avoided at all costs. Occasionally the clasped hand is essential for certain effects, e.g: in dramatic poses. In such in stances the technique is to take the left hand upraised, e.g: to the level of the chin - with the tips of the fingers of the other hand resting lightly in the palm, or vice versa. In lighting this arrangement, the key light for the face will provide adequate modeling without any additional lighting from the front, while the spread of the back-light, e.g: a 1,000 watt spot - will cover both head and hands, producing a strong feeling of depth.

Choice of Film and Paper

Medium speed panchromatic film is preferable for this work; processed in a fine grain developer it gives the desired amount of contrast. For printing, a glossy surface is preferable to the usual art paper, as a smooth surface does not conflict with the texture of the hands. Men's hands should be printed somewhat darker than women's.


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    • RenePogel profile image

      RenePogel 6 years ago from behind the camera

      And not just in photography. Some famous actors also have hand doubles come in for their close up scenes.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      I will never forget the first time I met a professional hand model. What an interesting niche in the modeling/photography world! Cool Hub :D