Thursday, April 28, 2022

30+ Tips to help you prepare for your professional portrait


Hi everyone!


Starting a few weeks ago I launched my one tip per week campaign on LinkedIn to help you prepare for and get the most out of a professional portrait session. And all I said was: There are so many little things that can impact the success of a portrait. I hope these help.


I am going to expand a bit on that. I just want to add that everything I suggest is a guideline I’m proposing for your consideration based on things I’ve observed and encountered over many years as a photographer and retoucher. I am sure I’ll suggest things that give people pause and that seem (and in fact are) relevant only to some. I hope nobody feels excluded or offended.


I also anticipate some reacting with the assertion that many things can be fixed in post-production/Photoshop. For the record it is true that almost anything can be done in Photoshop, with the commensurate budget. But not only is that budget rarely available for difficult problems (in corporate portrait-land), it would just be a waste of time and money to fix something that could have been avoided in the first place with some care and planning. Another way of putting it is that there are ways to avoid putting you the client, and your photographer in the position of having to deal with a compromised image that could have been better, especially if the photographer can’t bear to let the image see the light of day without fixing it whether she is getting paid to fix it or not. 


Another thing I want to mention, and this has occurred to me over and over again across the years whenever I have stood in for my own corporate photo examples, when I was hunting for clothes to wear for my Tips photos I was reminded how tricky it can be to wear the right thing, that looks good. I don’t know about you but I have tons of clothes that I think may not fit absolutely perfectly but I think they fit well enough, until I see them in my test shots. I may still wear them IRL, but I can’t wear them for the example shots because there is a deal breaker in so many of the garments I own (you'll see what I mean as I add to the tips below)…mind you I am trying to look sort of corporate in these shots, while I'm not corporate, and like many photographers no matter who the client is I wear a lot of black, which I keep telling people not to do for photos. The point is I feel you. Take a deep breath. And if you are not sure bring options (if that's an option...time allowing etc.) for your shoot. 


Don't worry! Good luck! I know you will look great for your next shoot (especially if you follow all of my suggestions).


Just FYI, while I will create and post tips in no particular order on LinkedIn, I will add them here in order because...of course...



Tip #1 Breathe


Once you arrive at your photo session, breathe. Why would I say this? Because people filled with dread hold their breaths. I work with people all the time who come to portrait shoots geared up for what they anticipate will be a fairly short but painful nightmare, “knowing” they are unphotogenic and they will probably hate the results. They listen hard determined to get this thing over with and make it count! And they stop breathing.




While I photograph people all the time who hate having their pictures taken, I have literally spent an entire week, myself, at a retreat learning to breathe, so I know that we are not alone, those of us who stop breathing when concentrating and/or stressing.


With the right photographer I encourage you to embrace the idea that you are in good hands, take a deep breath or twenty, and keep breathing. Slow down, listen and trust. When people stop breathing they tend to tense up, their shoulders go up, their neck tendons flex, and they positively, silently scream “uncomfortable!”. Nothing can suck the power out of a portrait faster than the appearance of overwhelming and unmitigable discomfort.


Remember it’s your photographer’s job to help you find your way through and past this first and very real obstacle. You can help by just breathing. Drop those shoulders back down, and as numerous characters in the super fun TV show Jane the Virgin say repeatedly “inhala... exhala...” (read with a Spanish accent). 



Tip #2 Avoid wrinkles. 


We want smooth and flat. Not you, not your hair, your fabric. (Unless it is textured fabric which is fine, even good, for example ruched fabric which can be very flattering and not easily wrinkled in a bad wrinkle way.)


You may be thinking “Really? You think you need to tell people not to wear wrinkled clothing?” Of course not, except, I see this ALL the time…tops or shirts that have small tough to get out wrinkles, shirts that were the victims of little ironing accidents, and lovely tops made of notoriously wrinklable fabric, like silk, which practically wrinkles when you look at it. 



The thing is, little wrinkles that aren’t too noticeable IRL can show up noticeably and distractingly (especially with certain kinds of lighting) in photos where they are captured and frozen forever. Same with bigger wrinkles caused by excess fabric and stress, ie. the bumps that happen when fabric gets pulled out of shape at stress points, beside buttons for example, around body curves, under arms, where tops tuck into pant waists, etc. These are bumps that naturally appear and disappear as you move, but are frozen in one position forever in a photo. Sometimes they can be retouched out but sometimes they can’t.


Consider that the goal is to appear “tidy” in general. Some fabrics and some tops are just not conducive to sitting tidily; the crisper the fabric the more this can be an issue as it tries to sit flatly on human beings’ unavoidably and uniquely not flat bodies.


Whatever kind of wrinkle any particular piece of wardrobe is prone to, be aware, and try to wear something that fits well, and is nicely pressed, and if there’s just no way to mitigate the wrinkles and bumps, consider putting a jacket over it. 



Tip #3. If you are wearing a shirt and tie, try to wear a well fitted shirt. 



I am trusting readers to have sense of humour about my photo illustrations, so thank-you! The reality is that sometimes we can mitigate these particular shirt wrinkles by tugging on the fabric, but depending on the shirt and how much extra fabric there is those wrinkles can reform pretty quickly and they just do not look good. Yes, sometimes there’s a budget for retouching to take care of these eye sores, post-shoot, but sometimes there isn’t. (I see these ALL the time in people’s business portraits and they do not contribute to the message the subjects are meaning to broadcast unless the message is that they don’t care about details.)


I understand that business fashion trends are changing and there is a move away from the long established shirt and tie uniform. So maybe this will be less and less of a thing going forward. But whether you wear a tie or not, if you have the choice of a shirt that sits flat, wear that one!


Tip #4. If you are wearing a shirt and tie, wear a plain, not patterned shirt. 


Once again, please view my photo illustration with a grain of humour as I demonstrate this tip wearing my husband’s clothes, again. The preamble for this one can be found in last week’s Tip #3. The gist of last week’s tip was to avoid wearing shirts that bunch around the tie and collar. But sometimes it is just not possible to avoid some wrinklage and bunching that area. In which case, as long as there is some retouching budget those wrinkles can be retouched out, UNLESS the shirt is patterned in which case they will remain there in that photo FOREVER.



I cannot tell you how many times I have found myself during a shoot struggling to flatten out a patterned shirt and it is just not happening. Somehow the subject did not get the memo to avoid patterned shirts or maybe they thought I was overstepping my bounds and trying to dictate their style. Regardless, they end up with a portrait that features a wrinkled shirt. I challenge you not to see these wrinkles now that I’ve helped bring them to your attention! You may not even consciously realize why a portrait feels just not quite excellent when you view it when all along it’s those pesky wrinkles.


We can stop this! If you want your shirt to be retouchable just wear a plain one. And BTW, when I say plain I mean PLAIN, not a solid colour with a beautiful highly textured weave because that is effectively a pattern, too. If there is one day in the year you are willing and able to wear a plain white or coloured, tightly woven, texture free shirt, make it your portrait day. 


Tip # 5 Wear a suit that fits.

Again, I can just hear the sarcastic chorus of “thanks for that obvious tidbit, Kathryn!”. 


Please bear with me. The thing is for many of us, especially those of us with curvy bodies, it can be incredibly difficult to find a jacket that fits properly and doesn’t somehow bunch and pull in various spots. I have, for years now, photographed myself to illustrate blog posts and articles and it seems like every single time I start with a jacket I was pretty sure looked and fit fine only to discover it does something in a photograph that I consider distracting and unacceptably imperfect. And then I go through jacket after jacket finding the same thing. It can be one little area that no matter what I do I cannot make sit smoothly on my body so I acknowledge, this is not an easy ask.


Men’s suits do weird things, too, especially when the wearer has changed shape since they bought their suit, or it was just never a well fitted suit in the first place. So many lumpy suits I have seen. Even if we can get all the bumps pretty much smoothed out, especially with an ill-fitting or just not well made suit, as soon as the subject moves those unsightly bumps appear again. 


I have tried every way of posing and pinning to mitigate the wrinkles in the two gray jackets and have found it impossible to get rid of them. You can't see their textures in these small photos but at any larger resolution they are apparent, and they make successful retouching too difficult and time consuming to be practical. 



Yes, I am a hit of a wrinkle-phobe. But I can tell you that a portrait in which the suit fits perfectly will outshine a portrait featuring a lumpy suit every time.

And yes, as always, if there is a retouching budget some fixes may be possible, but often suit fabric is textured or patterned which can make retouching of bumps and wrinkles difficult or impossible.


Also, I’m just going to make brief mention of another little thing now (this’ll be its own official tip later) as I am always telling fair haired people like me to stay away from black if possible yet here I am in my photo in a black jacket…the caveat is that if the best fitting jacket you have is black, then fine, wear it.  



Tip #7 If you are wearing a jacket make sure you can comfortably do up a button. There are a number of reasons for this:


1.    You will feel more confident if you are comfortable.

2.    You will feel more confident if you know you look good (look good feel good!).

3.    Especially if your portrait will be cropped as a head and shoulders image your face will be nicely framed by the ‘v’ of the neckline.

4.    You will look more polished and pulled together with a neatly closed jacket. Ideally you want the fabric to sit smooth and flat, no stress pulling or buckling which can be difficult to impossible to retouch.


In case I haven’t made it clear enough in the photos the idea is that I needed to replace my pre-pandemic jacket with one that fits the new me. 


Tip #9. Higher necklines are always the safer option.



 My example is a bit obvious but “bare” with me. Get it? The point I want to illustrate is that ideally a neckline will be fully contained within the frame of a portrait. This way your wardrobe helps to frame your face and the viewers eyes aren’t pulled off the edge of the frame. It is not terribly unusual to find that the neckline of a top that seems business appropriate IRL disappears off the bottom edge of a typical head and shoulders portrait crop. This can catch people by surprise, as can the apparent disappearance of the top under a jacket when that jacket is closed; we generally want the jacket closed to make a nice ‘v’ to frame the face.


My advice is to play it safe and opt for a higher neckline, even if just for photo day. Nobody will ever be distracted by your neckline being too high. 



Tip #10 When looking for a neckline that works think beyond tops.



This is another tip that refers specifically to head and shoulders portraits. If you don’t have  a top with a suitable neckline but you have a dress that does, even if it’s one you’d never wear to work, or with a jacket, try wearing that. With a head and shoulders portrait nobody cares what’s going on below the crop.


Tip #14 Avoid short sleeves (for head and shoulders portraits).



Here’s a tip for anyone planning to wear a dress or top (no jacket): avoid short sleeves for head and shoulders portraits. Why? The crop is probably going to be somewhere above your elbow. As such, it can be a bit distracting for viewers if the bottom left and right corners feature the skin of your arms, especially if your skin is noticeably lighter or darker than your clothing. Instead wear long sleeves. They will almost always be the most flattering option. 


Funnily enough I realized after I posted this that I didn't even acknowledge sleeveless dresses or tops. I apologize for the oversight. I think I neglected to mention them because it has been pretty universally advised for a long time that sleevelessness be avoided in business portraits. Some companies' corporate photo guidelines expressly forbid them. While setting up my next tips shot I was reminded of the huge number of sleeveless tops I own due to my being pretty high energy photographer (who gets hot when shooting), and the uselessness of those tops for portraits. Unless you are a fitness coach your sleeved arms will probably look better, and simply more professional than unsleeved arms. 



Tip #17 Expect to be surprised. Especially if you don’t have a lot of experience being photographed professionally, or you hide every time you see a camera. 



There are a number of reasons you may not look in your portrait(s) the way you think you look:



a.     Your face in the mirror and your face in a photograph will not match because one is a reflection. (I know…duh…but I think this disconnect can impact people’s perceptions.) So, for example, in the mirror while you see your left side parting on the left, people looking at you see that parting to the right in their field of view. You may also hear a photographer refer to “camera right” or “camera left” which means right or left side of the picture -- your left and right respectively.  Because most faces are asymmetrical, I think the more that is the case the more disconcerting it may be to see your face the other way around. Everyone who thinks they have a “good side” you know what I’m talking about!


b.     In a still photo you are looking at a 2 dimensional representation of yourself whereas in a mirror or video call you look more 3 dimensional largely due to movement which provides you constantly changing views of yourself supporting your perception of depth and shape.

c.     If you compare what you see in selfies and video calls with a professional photo you may notice that the shape of your face (and features) looks different. Lens length is a big reason for this. Webcams and smartphone cameras generally use wide angle lenses (eg. 24-35mm), human eyes are comparable to mid focal length lenses (50mm), and portraits are typically shot with longer lenses (eg. 85-200 mm). Different focal lengths can hugely affect the apparent shape, depth and perspective of objects. Longer lenses which compress objects have for a long time been considered (generally) the most flattering for portraits.

d.     The difference you perceive may also be because of lighting. The professional lighting a photographer chooses to use for your portrait may be different from what you are used to seeing, or from what another photographer may have used. Lighting is EVERYTHING and can hugely impact the way you look depending on the quality and angle of the light. 


e.     The camera angle may be different from what you are used to. 


f.     Your demeanour and expression may also not be what you’re used to seeing. How often do you really see your best, most confident, sh*t together self?

The bottom line is that it’s not really surprising that the combination of tools and techniques used by professional photographers may render you in such a way that you don’t fully recognize their version of yourself.


When I was contemplating the concept of “not looking like one’s self” in a photo I thought of an example of this happening in life. Have you ever come upon a mirror in a shopping mall or store somewhere and been surprised at the stranger you see reflected back you, and not in a good way? I have! It can be disconcerting and kind of depressing when you catch a glimpse of your dishevelled self schlepping through a store lit with grossly unflattering overhead fluorescent lights. That’s not me! Or at least I hope it’s not. Or maybe it is, on that day, in that light, in that place, and that’s kind of the point. How we look is not fixed.


I ask again, how often when you are looking at yourself in the mirror are you seeing the shining, confident, most powerful version of yourself? How many people have an accurate sense of how they show up to other people in the world, either visually or psychologically? Consider that to some extent everyone sees everyone differently because no two sets of eyes and brains will perceive anything or anyone exactly the same way.


The photographer’s job is to use their skill and experience to draw out of subjects their best selves from their professional point of view…to bring out their inner super-person. There are objective and subjective criteria they are looking for on the mental checklist they are using to determine when they’ve captured a winning shot based on their practised study of subtle cues that communicate traits and qualities such as confidence, happiness, intelligence, approachability, overall awesomeness, etc.


So ultimately, unless you always look like a million bucks, and somehow magically always look exactly the same, everywhere, all the time, please consider that it may not be a bad thing to be surprised by the you that you see in your professional portrait. Hopefully in a good way!



Tip #26 Lean in.


Yes, this one’s really simple. Particularly when someone is really not excited or is, more accurately, filled with dread at the idea of being photographed, but is also committed to doing their best to get through it, their default posture can be rigid, back straight up and down, chin sucked in, at attention! But this stance can make people looked timid, uptight and freaked out. We may be all these things, but we don’t want to look like it!



We can make great headway towards appearing to be the total opposite by merely leaning in. We want to look relaxed, confident and engaged, and step one to appearing to be those things is a bit of a tilt forward, back still straight, shoulders back, hinging from the hips, allowing the chin to come forward a wee bit so the angles of your jawline will be nicely defined above your tension-free and extra-chinless neck.


Tip #30 Try really hard to avoid getting a hair cut from a new stylist right before you get a new portrait done. If there is a make-up artist at your session they may be able to rescue you but if not, I think most people know the potential for distress and disappointment here. I have seen it!








#headshots, #corporateportraits, #corporatephotography, #personalbrandingphotography