“I hate having my picture taken!” Yep. We all feel that way from time to time. And it’s well understood on my end that headshots can be a stressful experience. I’ve photographed hundreds of people over the years, and so often the first phrase I hear after our initial hellos is “I hate having my picture taken, I’m so bad at it.”
I’ve been on both sides of the camera many times in my career as an actor and photographer and yes, it's sometimes really intimidating to simply “be yourself on a really great day" when you're staring down a 200mm lens that seems as if it can see into your very soul. I get it.
With a bit of thought and planning and doing some pre-shoot homework, you can alleviate the nerves and pressure that comes with your next headshot session and walk into the experience with confidence and, dare I say, even excitement.
So. Here's what you want to convey and some tips on how to get there:
Take yourself seriously and put yourself together. Sounds easy and we all know what it means, but here are a few things worth paying attention to:
- Try everything on before you show up to your shoot. Then look in a mirror and ask yourself “does it fit and do I love the way it looks on me?” Do you really love it? If not, try something else. Go shopping if you have to.
- Is there a shirt or top that you wear that seems to prompt compliments? Try it on!
- Pick classic cuts and consider tailored shapes. Things that are popular and trendy now might not be by next summer. Some looks never go out of style.
- Tailored tops are slimming.
- Black, gray, and navy suits are classic and sophisticated.
- Colors. Pick colors that look good on you. Keep things darker than your skin tone. If you think it might wash you out, it probably will.
- Keep patterns to a minimum. They can be distracting, and when you view them online, tight patterns can appear to strobe and take on a moiré pattern on certain screens. This goes for jackets, suits, ties, and shirts.
- Iron your stuff. It can make or break a photo.
- Ladies… Be careful about tanks/camis with lace. They can work great as a layer, but check that they don’t read too much like lingerie.
- Check to see if your top is see-through. Hold it up to a light and check. If it is, check that you have an appropriate layer to wear below it.
- Do you have a pet? Use a lint roller on your clothes before you arrive. Show me pics of your animal friends but let's leave their fur at home.
- Whether you do it yourself or hire a professional, men and women alike will benefit from a little bit of makeup and powder in a photograph.
- I want your makeup to look like you’re not wearing any. Fresh, light, natural, even, clean, and crisp. We can afford a little drama on the eyes, ladies, but don’t go too far.
- Get up close with your mirror and do a check for stray eyebrows or unruly ear and nose hair. If you can see it, the camera can, too.
- Teeth! Maybe spend a little time with a white strip. Brush (and floss) them if you ate prior to the shoot, and check for lipstick, ladies.
- Also, if you shave on the day, use a fresh razor and hot water, and go slow. Avoid that razor burn.
- If you wake up with a huge pimple on the day, don’t mess with it! It’s much easier to Photoshop out a zit than to correct for swollen, red, irritated skin.
- If you need a facial or a wax, got for it! But try to do it at least a week beforehand so any irritation from the procedure has time to fade. Don’t do it the day of or the day prior.
- As the day approaches, take it easy on the caffeine, alcohol, and salty snacks.
- Try to drink mostly water 48 hours in advance of your shoot.
Feeling and looking confident is often easier said than done when there's a camera in your face. And a great shot requires a bit more than just standing in front of the lens while the photographer clicks away. Portraying confidence is both a physical and mental game. Think of your photographer as your coach and trust that they will direct you throughout the process to find the best angles and lighting for your face and body.
Confide in your photographer
Yep. Trust your new stranger-coach. It's worth sharing your physical insecurities with your photographer and letting them know what you're self conscious about or what you want to hide. "I have a lazy eye, I hate my double chin, I don't like my teeth, my nose always looks crooked in photos, I used to be 30, my eyes get scrunchy when I smile..." Whatever it is, tell your photographer.
I always appreciate it when my clients let me know what what they are self conscious about so I can tweak the lighting and work with them on body positioning and head angles to bring their best features forward. Let me worry about the stuff that makes you anxious so you don't have to. It saves us time right off the bat.
Remember, your photographer wants your shot to look just as amazing as you do.
The Physical Game (the easy part)
Darlene Price, author of Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results, sums it up perfectly when she says that your eyes communicate "your level of involvement, interest and warmth." Just like in real life, direct eye contact suggests confidence. Your goal is to have an authentic connection with the camera and it all starts with your eyes.
- Look right through the lens.
- Keep breathing! The camera picks up everything from tension to breath. (Seriously. I can tell when a person's not breathing in a photo.)
- Like most physical activities, keep your knees soft and your shoulders square. Get grounded.
- Listen to your photographer's directions and follow them as best you can, even if they ask you to do something that feels silly. Chances are, it looks good through the lens.
- When I'm coaching and I ask someone to move, it's best when they go slow. I always say "slo-mo/half inches" when I'm asking people to move their head. I'm often aiming for a subtle tweak of the light or head tilt and when people go too far or too fast we can miss it.
- Chin way up? Says "I'm too good for this job." Chin way down? Says "Please, sir, can I have a job?" We try to avoid these.
- Chin slightly down, however, can make your eyes seem bigger and more engaged.
- A slight turn/twist of the body is slimming and provides a sense of movement. But a body turned too far away says "I'm hiding something" or "I'm already out the door."
- A slight tilt of the head can say "I'm listening" or "I understand."
- The Chicken. If you push your face slightly towards the camera when you're facing it straight on, you can define that jaw line just a little bit more. Feels weird, but it looks great.
- Smiles! Smiles are hard for some people. Smiles look best on their way down. Don't be afraid to go to far or too big and then let it fade or even laugh it up a bit when you're going for the warm, friendly shot - just keep your eyes on the camera. You're bound to get something good.
- If you have a habit of putting your tongue between your teeth when you smile, don't. It looks weird.
- No gum or mints.
- Don't wanna show your teeth? You might take a tip from Tyra and "smize" with your eyes.
- You can practice this stuff in a mirror if you want.
The Mental Game (the hard part)
- Come to your shoot ready to play and trust that your stranger-coach-photographer is going to look after you.
- Get out of your head and stay positive. Don't let those insecurities you might have get in your way.
- Have a nonverbal conversation with the camera. Keep it warm, curious, upbeat, friendly, flirty and engaging and let your face follow your thoughts. There's no crying in headshots.
- I like to keep it relaxed and easy. Nobody's gonna get hurt. Try to keep a sense of humor about the whole experience.
- Be patient with yourself and your photographer. A great shot doesn't always happen with the first click. And not every shot has to count. It's all digital nowadays and you only need one great one.
- If you feel stuck or like you're just staring at the camera, take a second to regroup and then get back in the game!
Tell your photographer what you do and how you want to be perceived. Think about breaking the stereotypes that accompany your profession or try to play into them. A marriage and family lawyer probably doesn’t want the look and intensity of a pit bull litigator...or maybe she does.
Unless your company or firm has strict requirements on how you dress for your headshots, bring a bit of your own personality and style to the shoot (but use your best judgment). I've shot clients who like to wear ties from their alma mater whenever they update their photos, and others who are always in a bow tie, or no tie, or a turtleneck, or a unique pair of glasses. I love that.
Some final thoughts
Once you get rolling and it seems like the photographer has got the lighting set, don't be shy about asking to see what they've captured (that is if they haven't shown you some of the winners already). Remember, headshots are a collaboration between you and the photographer and it'll build up that confidence when you can see you're on the same page.
Take advantage of your time with your photographer. Try to get as many shots as your time will allow. Vary your expressions. Make a costume change. Take some with and without your glasses. With and without your tie. With and without your jacket. Whatever. Options are awesome. You only need one or two great shots, but you might feel like a change down the road. Or maybe you want to use one expression on your company's site and something different on LinkedIn or AVVO.
It’s been proven that a great headshot is your first chance to make a great first impression. Studies have shown that in 40 milliseconds, we assess how polished, skilled and approachable people seem in their photos. Your photo is worth some attention.
With a bit of planning and simple preparation, some deep breaths and a sense of play, you're gonna nail your next headshot session. Promise.
Clinton Brandhagen (ClintonBPhotography) is a professional headshot and production photographer based in New York City. www.clintonbphotography.com