Monday, February 24, 2014

How To Capture a Dynamic Portrait

How To Capture a Dynamic Portrait


This week’s Blog Post is directed to the photographer in all of us.

Have you ever found yourself browsing through some material that is loaded with images of people and discover that some of those shots keep pulling you back to look at them again and again? What’s so magical about those pictures? What do they have that the other photos lack? Well, those images are where the photographer went beyond just taking a picture of someone standing in front of them.  These photographers went deeper than seeing what was just on the surface.  These photographers went for the “essence” of their subject - and were able to capture it for all time.

So, how did they do that you ask.

Let’s first start with this disclaimer: not all photographers approach their subjects in the same manner and with the same intent in mind. I can only relate what I have experienced in this process and what I have gleamed from other successful photographers that I have had the pleasure of knowing and sometimes working next to.

For me it all starts with this simple concept:

Who is this sitting in front of my camera? What makes them tick, what is behind those eyes, what secrets are hidden behind that smile, what life’s experiences do they have that we share in common and what is unique to them?

A good many questions, I admit …. The answers to which are what makes this person quite different from any other person. It is the combination of all the above(and more), blended in their own way, that makes this person who they are. And as a portrait photographer it is your task to capture in your camera this one-of-a-kind blend sitting before you.

I can say without any doubt what a true portrait is not: It is NOT “A Likeness”.

If all that was needed was a likeness of the person in front of your lens, then a driver’s license type photo would do the trick. That is “a likeness” (and often times not a very good one).

You, as the photographer who has been selected to create a memorable portrait of a subject in your studio (or location), need to know – really know – who this person is. And, the only way to really do this is to take some time to get to know them. Ask them questions, chat with them about life in general, and get them to smile, to laugh and to be at ease with you. And all the while you should be taking notes on how they truly look when they are laughing, smiling, talking about a topic they are passionate about and are in “the moment”. Make mental pictures of this person… study their movements, their eyes and mouth.  It is during this little informal session that they will be more relaxed – being themselves - and will be revealing to you who they are really are by way of their body language.

Then when the day and time comes for the actual photo session, you’ll know what you are looking for – the true them. You will be able to recognize the genuine smile, the natural look in their eye, the turn of the mouth and the body posture. When you see that in front of you again, you will know you are about to begin to capture the essence of this subject.

Now, does this mean you should just let this person sit and gesture in any way they feel like? The simple answer is: No. You should suggest and make slight adjustments to their posture – adjustments that should to be made that will be more flattering for your particular camera angle. But it needs to still be a position that feels natural and comfortable to them. If they are relaxed and comfortable then they will project that to the camera. If on the other hand you force them to sit the way you want them to, pose the way you like and gesture in a way that is pleasing to you – then what you will get is them imitating you.

When I teach classes in portrait photography and studio lighting I often turn the reigns of the shooting part over to them and watch their interaction with the model. I notice quite often a lot of “direction” coming from the student photographer. I also notice a very uncomfortable look emanating from the subject. When we review the final shots from all the students, some observed that the resulting images where the photographer let the model be themselves, the subject looked more believable and natural. The shots where the subject was overly directed appeared “posed” and un-natural. The lesson these students took away from the session was: let your subjects be themselves and only make minor adjustments to tweak what is natural for them; if they are comfortable then they will look comfortable.

Now, all that has been talked about up to this point is about making portraits of your clients. These are not about images that you are creating for a model/actor or for your portfolio. Where you are the creative force for your own concept, you can be as creative as you like; twist and shape your subjects anyway you like – it is your vision of a subject, so create to your heart’s content. In portraits the rule is: keep it real and authentic. In fashion, glamour, fantasy or fiction the rules are: there are no rules. Go for it.

As to the element of wardrobe and accessories, here is my suggestion:

Let the subject wear what they normally wear that makes them feel comfortable and at ease. Case in point:

I had a student bring me in a portrait she had made of a friend of her family who lived South Georgia. She was very proud of the image she made of the family “Grandpa”. He was in his 80’s and the family wanted a nice professional portrait to remember him by since he was in the “autumn” of his years. She had him put on his only suit and tie and brush his hair and all the fixings. She thought he looked the best he ever had since she had known him. (I felt he looked rather uncomfortable in this image, but didn’t say anything as I wanted to see what her point was of showing it to me.) She stated the family didn’t care for it – they felt he looked “stiff” and “unnatural” and her feelings were hurt. I asked what Grandpa had done for a living in South Georgia. She stated he was a farmer. I asked did he farm in a suit and tie. “Don’t be silly,” she responded, “he’s a farmer and worked in the fields”. So I had to ask, “Then why did you make him wear a suit and tie?” From the look on Grandpa’s face, I would think the only two times he would agree to wear the suit and tie would be: 1) at his wedding and 2) at his funeral.  She had forced him into wearing something she liked and not what he would normally wear. And the resulting image was a nice picture of who she wanted him to be and not who he really was. The family could see this picture did not reflect the “Grandpa” they knew and loved. She simply missed the essence of the man. I suggested that she should have let him wear his bib overalls and red flannel shirt and let him be who he really was and not who she wanted him to be.

All too often I listen to photographers talk about how they control every aspect of their photo sessions – from the location to the lighting, from the poses to the wardrobe and countless other elements of their creation. Some of this you are responsible for and should handle those components. Other elements – like their personality and their very being – you should let them control. They know who they are better than you, so give up the power grab just this once. I think you will see portraits that better portray your subjects – and your clients will be much happier with the results.

The simple thing to remember here is this:

Know them and show them – as they really are.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The All Important, Must Have, Ever Evolving Headshot

The All Important, Must Have, Ever Evolving Headshot


I am often asked:

”… how should my headshot look in order to really be competitive in this market?”

This is a great question, and one that strikes at the core:

Being Competitive.

You have to first ask yourself the following question:

“What is the purpose of my headshot?”

Well, from my point of view having done these for a good number of years for both professional talent and new emerging talent, it is to “sell” you to a client: film, television, and commercial, corporate – whoever can utilize your services.

You are in essence a “product” not very different from any other product that is offered to any market on any given day. You have a service that you offer and your headshot is the visual element used to convey that message. First impressions rule the day…remember that.

So your picture needs to tell a story, convey a feeling, and/or show an emotion that will capture the attention of the intended client. A “nice image” of you is just that: a nice image of you; something your mom would have on her nightstand. But what does it say about your ability to project a character, an emotion, a feeling or simply the energy that your client needs to see to know that you can do their performance or product justice?

Well,” you ask, “wouldn’t I need several photos to cover the range that I have?”

And the simple answer is: Yes.

The trick is to know which one to present to the casting director or director. Find out as much as you can about the part you are auditioning for and use an image that best matches the needs of the project. Do not expect a “nice guy look” to work where they are looking for a “heavy”. Show the client what he/she is looking for … make their choice simple and easy for them. If they see a “heavy” and they are casting for a “heavy”… it’s pretty much a slam-dunk. If you present a “nice guy look” for the “heavy” role - and they have to imagine or guess if you can pull off the heavy - not so easy of a sale to close.

Bottom line: you should have different looks for different assignments. Does this mean multiple photo sessions? No, not if you plan smart.  Schedule one session that allows for different looks to be captured.

“How many looks should I start with?”  This all depends on what sector of the business you are trying to get involved with. For most, two shots can get you in the game. 

The first being a commercial headshot. This shot is the one used by your agent to get you in the door for most commercial shoots. It is the photo that has a high energy feel to it. Something that Coca Cola would use to promote their product. Think warm, friendly and trustworthy. Have a smile and keep it light and easy. Be the “every person” in this image.  The feel of the lighting is a bit on the brighter side and not so dramatic.

The second being a theatrical headshot. This is the photo used by your agent to get you booked for film/television/theatre productions. It is the shot used to show a character, a look, or a personality. Often a bit more serious in tone and feel. Lighting can be more stylized to add to the feeling/emotion of the image you are trying to project. Here you have wider latitude in design. Work with your photographer to achieve the end result you are working towards.


The style of the shot various depending on a few factors. The market you are competing in for one – local vs national. What is trendy in Atlanta, might not be what is “industry standard” in L.A. and vice versa. I’ve heard of a few talent that were told by their agent to “re-shoot” their headshot as “it is not the style of shot we show at this agency”. It might be that the photographer was more interested in showing off his/her talent than showing off his client’s talent. Make sure your photographer understands what you need and the market you are appealing to. Otherwise you were a model for their portfolio …and you paid them to do what exactly? Make sure the photographer is familiar with what is acceptable and what is not – and has some solid experience in this arena. More and more we are seeing people with a nice camera putting themselves out there as a “professional photographer”. A nice camera doesn’t make them a professional… check them out. Look at their website, check them out on Google … and if they are who they say they are, they will have the credentials and you’ll find evidence of it in your search. And remember, you are paying the shooter to make images for you – not for their book.

Commercial shots are a bit tighter in the composition – it is all about the face. Again keep it light and breezy. Theatrical shots are a bit looser in composition and can be vertical or horizontal to capture the feel of a movie still image. You should instruct the photographer to shoot both while you are in front of the camera. Here you can get a bit more dramatic and edgy in tone and feel.

“How often do I need to re-do my headshots?”

Well some basic rules would be: if you have made a major hair change –long to short or short to long, if you have added or lost ten pounds or more, or if you have had your face “re-worked”. You really need to look like your photo when you walk in the agency or the casting call. It is never good to have the agent or director say “Gee, you don’t look at all like your picture” … that is a kiss of death.

Don’t have your images overly retouched. They will look retouched and are often an indication you have something you are trying to hide. Trust me, they know if a shot has been heavily edited. And they will feel like you are doing the “old bait and switch” and “what you see is not what you are getting.”

Another point to consider is this: the more someone sees the same photo the less impact it will have on them. Your audience will tune out after a while. Why do you think companies produce so many different ads for the same products and services if only one ad was needed? How many commercials have been created with the little green gecko telling you about ways to save 15% on car insurance? A lot more than one. And why? … Because they are trying to reach as many potential customers as they can and they know that people react to different ads in different ways. Same with your headshot – some agencies and clients will respond in a positive manner to certain headshots and negatively to others.   The advertising agencies know that they have to change up the presentation to get noticed again. And this, I feel, applies to your headshots and promotional material as well. Create a new interest in yourself. Approach the market from a slightly different angle this time. Show them there is more to you than what they have seen before.

I go back to what I said in a previous post:
If you want to be viewed and respected as a professional … then present yourself as a professional worthy of respect.

Monday, February 10, 2014

What's the big deal about selecting a photographer?

Is it a big deal? I would say "yes". Not because I am a photographer, and have been one for a good number of years, but because your reputation in the various industries depends on it!

That's right .... a lot rides on that image you use to promote and market yourself.

If you look and present yourself with a professional image, people will see you as a professional. If you present an image or brand for yourself that looks like you used a "selfie" or your friend used your cell phone camera to take a picture for you - well, then why be surprised when your phone doesn't ring or no one takes an interest in you?

First impressions - that is what it is all about. That very first feeling someone gets when they see your picture - and remember, this is the picture you choose that tells the world who you are. It wasn't picked by some random individual. You are telling everyone "yes, this is me". If it looks cheap and unprofessional, then this is what you are telling potential clients: " I do not think I am worth investing in myself, but if you are willing to invest in someone I am not, then please do". Are you serious? Obviously not.

If you are not willing to spend a few dollars to promote and market yourself with industry standards at a minimum, then you really don't need to be in this industry or any other for that matter.
Would you go to a surgeon who got their degree on-line? No. Would you use an attorney who studied the law on Google? Ah, no. So why would you leave your photo to anyone other than a true professional who trained, has the experience, the equipment and the reputation to do it right?

All photographers are not the same. And, if they are honest with you, and themselves, they will admit this. Some shoot great landscapes, some shoot great product, some shoot great live events and some shoot great people images. If they have strengths in one area that is their specialty. The other areas are secondary for them. Simple as that.

If you are seeking to be in the entertainment business, then a photographer who has experience working in that industry is where to begin looking for a photographer. They know what is expected, they have been there and done that. They know the standards and minimums that the industry will accept. Anything less then the expected standards will be passed over and thrown out. Why? Because to the industry, if you are not willing to do the homework required to work in the business, then you are not taken as a serious player.

Are the professional photographers expensive? That depends on what you consider expensive. The wrong photographer for the job you need accomplished will cost you getting that first door open. That could mean a fumble on the start of your new career right out of the gate. To me, that is a very costly price to pay for not hiring the right photographer to do the photo shoot.

Think about it for a minute: name me one profession where you can almost recoup your initial expense in a few days of work. I can't.  You spend a few hundred dollars on a photo session with good make-up and if you get a gig as a model, you make $100/hour and up .... do the math. Your photo session has been paid off with a few hours of work. You get booked as an extra on a film or television show ... $75/day or more, and the cost of your photos are paid off in a couple of days work.

So when considering who you trust with your image, think of the costs of hiring the wrong photographer. The sad fact is that just about anyone with a semi decent camera today thinks of themselves as a "professional photographer". Do your homework: check them out. Look at their website, look at their portfolios, Google them and see what, if anything comes up.  All the information you need to get the right shooter for your photo needs are out there - take advantage of it. Ask other professionals in the industry for recommendations, look at the photos they have - and are they getting work with those photos?

Do yourself the favor - make that first impression as strong as it can be. Professionals aren't always "cheap" but "cheap" is seldom professional.