How to Prepare for Headshot Photography

I make people look good. Maybe one day when I’m a vintage woman that will be my tagline: 

I make people look good. 

It’s a bit more prideful than I strive to be, even in business. And, honestly, I don’t really know if I make people look good. It is what people tell me though over and over, almost every day that I work. “Wow, you made me look good!” Or, a close favorite, “I don’t usually like pictures of myself, but I love these.” It doesn’t get old to hear that even after over 10 years. I believe how we see ourselves is enough to change how we feel and that is enough to amplify the ways in which we show up and share our talents in the world. I work with you to bring out the best in you. I believe that’s my job as a portrait photographer. 

Here are some things I wish clients knew about being photographed, before they come in to be photographed:

I don’t expect you to know what to do. Your formal training around what to do in front of the camera may be limited to “smile” or “say cheese.” I try not to say either of those things. I’m going to tell you exactly what to do with your eyes and chin and mouth and shoulders and hands and feet. When you’re standing in front of the camera, your brain will attempt to tell you what to do with your face. The truth is: it doesn’t really even know. You don’t need to apologize for being awkward in front of the camera or not knowing what to do. I won’t be giving you a grade on your performance. I teach people what to do with their face to appear most engaging. The prize is in the portrait. You get a gold star just for showing up. And, I have a number of methods through which I elicit natural, genuine expressions from people, so I’ve got you. We’ve got this. I promise. 

Be teachable. I remember at my little sister’s wedding, I was photographing her and telling her what to do with her face, and she said, “You’re messing with me!” In her defense, I did mess with her a bunch when we were growing up. Then, she saw the photos, and was like, “Well, ok then, carry on.” Often, people who come in for headshots are stiff and afraid to lift an eyebrow or narrow their eyes or fake laugh. And, everything is a suggestion. Let me tell you though, lifting your eyebrows prevents your eyes from freezing up. We narrow our eyes all the time when we see something that touches our heart. And after a good laugh, the muscles in our face relax. Together we are going to select the best images, and I’m going to delete anything embarrassing or unflattering.

You’re nervous. Almost universally, people are. Standing in front of a stranger’s camera (for most of us) is a novel experience. The novelty elicits a fear response, hence nerves. Occasionally, I photograph a model who has experience in front of the camera. However, 99.9% of my clients are “ordinary” people with lots of stories about how they look based on what people have told them. I say “ordinary” in quotes to distinguish between paid models and people with no modeling experience. I truly believe everyone is extraordinary, including you. 

You may need me to be your hype girl and pump you up; or, you may need me to use every ounce of training I have to settle myself so you receive some of my chill vibes via osmosis. I’ll take my cues from you. You won’t have to tell me. I’ll know. It’s not because I’m psychic or empathic or anything. It’s just that I’ve been doing this a long time now. I have a trained eye to view portraits and determine what the person is feeling or thinking. I can sense from your body language and eyes what you might be experiencing. 

If you have hair, please fix it. Honestly, if your hair has a style, style it. A portrait is a great time to have someone else style your hair. Fixing your hair in Photoshop is tedious. Hours of our lives, my editors and I lose in the process each week. What creates the best portrait is for your hair to be “photo ready.” That means it stays in place, which may require more product than normal. It’s a great idea to get a blowout from a professional. Or, schedule your hair appointments according to when it looks best. 

If you wear makeup, lipstick is never a bad idea. People ask if matte or gloss is better, and it depends on the look you’re going for. High gloss can reflect off of the studio lighting in a way that sometimes appears distracting (similar to super shiny skin) unless you’re creating a beauty portrait for a makeup line. A little shine is fine. Even if you’re a light makeup wearer, it’s almost like the camera eats makeup. You may think you have makeup on, but you see an image of yourself, and you look a bit flat or tired. For reference, on the daily, I wear a tinted moisturizer, some concealer under my eyes (tired mom), mascara and lip gloss. When I am photographed for an image on my website, I go to a professional makeup artist who airbrushes my face in foundation and applies lashes and when I leave, I do feel as if I have on a ton of makeup. I do. It’s more than I truly ever put on my face. And, it looks great on camera. Let me know if you want me to arrange hair and makeup on-location at my studio for you or for someone to come to you. I also work frequently with Kari Does Makeup and Kayden Grey Hair at Phenix Suites. I can tell you who might be the best fit based on your skin tone and hair type and texture.  If you don’t wear makeup, please don’t cave to the pressure to be something you’re not. Writer Anne Lamott says, “Joy is the best makeup.” Be you. 

This may seem random placed here, and it’s not a sponsored blog, but Visine works wonders for red eyes and allergies. Sometimes people want to know if they can have a drink before their session, and I used to oblige. What I’ve found is that alcohol does strange things to your pupils, and it makes many skin tones blotchy. There’s a point in a wedding reception when I know that nobody really wants a close-up any more. The wedding party may be feeling themself and hanging all over me saying “Taaaakkeee my pitcherrr.” Those jpg files go straight to a digital death of oblivion. If you go heavy on the sauce the night before your photos, I’m going to need you to hydrate all morning. 

Moisturize your skin. For your photos. And for your life. Drink water. If you’re shiny, I’ve got blotting papers, or use a paper towel to dab. 

What you wear is not as important as you think. Unless it’s a fashion ad, the focus is your face, specifically your eyes and expression. I’m not a big fan of stripes or plaids. I am either detail-oriented or a tad neurotic depending on who you ask, and I don’t like how the lines wrinkle and don’t line up. It reminds me of when a seamstress doesn’t align the fabric pattern at the seam. That brings me to ironing. Please iron your clothes. Or steam them. I’ve got one at the studio. Get your clothes dry cleaned or pressed. If you’re choosing a linen shirt, don’t let the seat belt ruin it. Put it on a hanger and change at the studio. I’ve got a lint roller. I’m a mom and have pets who seemingly have no home training. I know the struggle is real. When it comes to color, what is the color that you wear and your friend or spouse or parent says, “Wow, that’s a great color on you!” There are a couple of articles HERE and HERE about dressing for your skin tone. I don’t quite understand it completely, but as a general rule, jewel tones are great for most all skin tones. I get bored with it because it’s so common in my corporate work, but blue is beautiful, too. Please wear clothes that fit you well. I know we’re two plus years into a pandemic, and almost universally, without exception, we are different in mind and especially body. If you used your time at home to develop a workout regimen and now all of your clothes hang on you, find a tailor. If you have grown, buy something new. Wear something in which you feel powerful and confident. Maybe it’s the texture or the color that creates that feeling for you. Only you know. When in doubt, I say select something timeless. It will add longevity to your photos. Whew, I’m getting longwinded about what to wear, and I said it wasn’t that big of a deal. One final note: I understand that many of us who are middle-aged or more don’t particularly love our necks, so sometimes people will come in wearing a turtleneck. And, I like an interesting neckline. Mock-neck, alright. But, if you wear a turtleneck that goes up to your jawline, you may look as if your head is floating in space. This is my opinion, and my opinion is just one of many, and perhaps not even the most important one, so if a turtleneck is on-brand for you, let’s go. If you’re just wearing it to hide, can I just say that I am going to light you and position you in a way that your neck will look younger? And, if not, that’s what Photoshop is for. People ask me what my style is for editing, and I’m a fan of Photoshop. I feel as if I live in 2022, with all sorts of flattering light sources and editing software, so why not use it?! With that said, sometimes a vintage man or woman will say, “Don’t you dare retouch my images. I’ve earned these wrinkles.” Mad respect for this perspective, too. My editors and I (there’s a team of us now because I have learned that I like to sleep at night) spend on average 15-30 minutes on each image that is published in print or on the web. We stare at your face at 400% and brighten your eyes to make it look as if you just had one of those vacations where a chef arranged all of your meals and the only choices you had to make all week were which spa treatments to select. We whiten your teeth. We eliminate any spots where the lights might have hit your skin a bit too hot. We remove blemishes and resurface skin. As mentioned, we fix stray hairs. One time several years ago, a client requested that I remove every wrinkle from their face. I edited the image as I normally do and sent it. They requested more. I obliged. The folks at corporate headquarters called because this isn’t a conversation you want to have in writing with a paper trail and said, “Who is this person? It doesn’t even look like them.” My philosophy with wrinkles is to soften and blur and occasionally add a few fillers. After all, you don’t want to look like THIS

A portrait reveals something about a person. When I see a portrait of myself, I see myself in terms of my history. I see how my facial features are sinking, and I’m starting to resemble my mother when she was my age and so on, I could go on and on, and honestly, I feel as if I have rejected beauty culture and have acquired average self esteem. Meanwhile, you might not see any of that. Seeing is subjective. When another person sees (a quality, effective) portrait of me, they instantly feel aversion, neutrality, or affinity. In a split second, they make a decision about whether I’m friend or foe. They get a felt sense of who I am as a human. This person seems kind and approachable, like a friendly confidant, someone I’d trust. Or, not. Likewise, when you see a portrait of yourself, you will have all sorts of ideas and opinions about how it looks. And, when I see that same image, I might not see any of that; I simply know what I feel inside when I see it. I hope what I’m explaining here makes sense because I’m speaking in terms of the primitive brain who lives in sensation, not logic, so it’s not so easy to put into words.  

I believe this is the reason that the process of reviewing images in real time at the session is important. As I said, my opinion is just one, and I don’t have much ego in the game here. However, I believe there’s value though in both of our opinions. If you’re a yes on an image and I’m a yes on an image, it’s a YES. If one of us is a no, we’ve got to figure out what we’re seeing or not seeing.  

I know what your good side is. Another arguably arrogant tagline. Maybe you’re ambifacial (this is a word termed by NYC headshot photographer Peter Hurley) and don’t have a “bad” side. Psychologically speaking, most of us have a more friendly side. You have a preference of where you sit in relation to a friend or partner, which side of the bed you sleep on, etc. If I stand on one side of you and then the other, I’ll get a sense of where I want to be in relation to you as well as where I want you to be in relation to me. (I’d prefer most people to my right). The brain enervates the face. Right brain controls the left side of the face, and for most of the people I photograph, I prefer the left side. It’s not universal though. Sometimes people have had extensive dental work on the left side or an accident that created scarring. People will part their hair in a way that makes the right side feel friendlier. In a few minutes, I’m determined to figure it out. 

I’m going to chat with you about what you do for fun. I’ll attempt to seek some common ground or interest between us so you realize I’m not a threat–  just an ordinary middle aged lady with a fancy camera and the best lighting in the industry. I do this to put you at ease, and it’s not because I’m codependent or anything, it’s because that translates in the photos. When we speak about something we feel passionate about, our eyes light up. Even our skin tone changes. I don’t quite understand all of the science of how the mind and body work, but I know that it works. Sometimes our passion emanates from our pain, and people open up about that, and at some point, I’ll shift the conversation back to the passion because that’s what I want to capture: your essence and what makes you extraordinary to everyone who knows you.  

Lastly, at least for now, it’s just a photo. There’s no need to be afraid of a 5 lb inanimate object. Relax and lighten up. Use the experience as an opportunity to learn how to pose in a way that’s most flattering. I was in NYC at the end of the year doing company headshots and while I was there, I photographed their company holiday party, and I was cracking up because they were mimicking me and telling each other what to do with their chin and eyes. My girlfriends razz me all the time when we take selfies at coffee. My 4 yr old son has perfected the squinch, which is similar to the smize. I’m well aware that people usually would rather go to the dentist than be photographed. When I go to my dentist, we commiserate that few people are ever happy to see us. At the end of your session, you’re probably going to say, “That’s it? That was easy!” I think Staples already has that tagline, but I do love to hear it.

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