So you know you need photos, and you know don't want to look like some cookie cutter version of you. Great. But where do you begin? I'm photographer and life coach Michael Wilson, and I've written this guide for you.
1. Dance with your fears
Getting photographed stirs up demons. Will I look ugly? Will I look stupid? Will I look too brown? Too white? Too sexy? Too prim and proper? Will my mom hate them? Will my eyes look too intense? Will I look fat? Will I look wrinkly and old? Will I look fake? Will people ignore me? ...you know.
Instead of resisting these fears, take them out to dance.
One client shared early in our process that she was disturbed by the maelstrom of images of beautiful women in advertising. She didn’t want to conform to the images, but she didn’t want to get written off as ugly, or feel ugly, either. From there, we got to talk about her definition of beauty. This lead her to take a field trip to Sephora and create her own lavender look.
Another client dared to work with the discomfort of straddling white and Latino worlds and straight and queer worlds in New York, and transmuted that discomfort into joyful images.
How do you dance with your fears? You trust that you’re big enough to handle them and you consciously bring them into dialogue. You could journal, draw, dance, or talk it out with someone you trust. In coaching, this work is called embracing the shadow.
2. Embrace your strengths and passions
Okay enough about fears. What are you just plain great at? What gives you joy? Your spirituality, your art work, your family, cooking, the beach, your anarchic sense of humor, your activism? Your listening, your Reiki practice, your green thumb, your love of colors?
The strengths and passions you identify can make their way into the photos in many ways. A client who loves to travel literally created a photo shoot on the train platform; a client who loves spirituality literally set the shoot in a cathedral. On the other hand, a client who loves her family brought in an old photo of her family to the studio, to keep her anchored; a client who is a story teller told me stories during the shoot, and we captured the way the story telling brought her face and body to life.
Putting your strengths and passions into language invites them to weave their way into your photos, in literal and in unexpected ways.
3. Trust and share your visual thinking
Do you already have a clear idea for your images? Share it! Coach Ariana Seigel knew she wanted a confetti explosion on her femme James Dean look in a white box studio. That is what we created. Another client wanted black and white shots of her body, evoking dance and fashion. That is what we created.
Do you know some of the elements you want in your images? Share them! Midwife and coach Annique Sampson knew she wanted images of nature, women, and facilitation, and a wide shot that she could use for a website or email header. We created that. Couple Stephanie and Conrad wanted city and country in their engagement photos, so we kept both in the frame in images we made on the High Line.
It's the photographer’s job to translate the visual elements into a successful photograph.
4. Know your audience, engage your audience
An engagement photo is for your family and friends. A professional portrait is for potential clients. A headshot is for casting directors. A lifestyle portrait is for your family or social media or dating apps. And so on.
Who are you going to put your photos in front of? What will they expect? Do you want to meet their expectations? Do you want to challenge them?
Thomas Garbarino is an acupuncturist, Chinese herbalist, and Qigong practitioner. By default, his audience would expect him to be clinical and reserved in his portraits. However, Thomas is also a down-to-earth Vermonter. He isn’t about staid formality. As a result, we walked a delicious line of showing both expertise and delight in his photos, which you can soak up on his website.
Additionally, the photographer is responsible for knowing the stylistic conventions of the type of photo you are creating. For example, not only are casting directors looking to see an actor's personality, they expect a particular frame and angle for the images. You need to be sure that your photographer understands and can reproduce--or intentionally disrupt--the conventions your audience expects.
Finally, include yourself in your target audience. Anticipate looking at your photos ten years from now. What do you want to see? Who do you want your photos to remind you to be?
5. Name what it is you want to communicate
If you're not in charge of what you want to communicate, your audience members won’t have a clue who you are, or they might make up their own story about you. On the other hand, when you know your mission and purpose, you can telegraph that through your images, with no words, and little effort.
Thomas Garbarino wanted to communicate expertise in his traditions, fun, and approachability, as mentioned above. We did that.
May Flam wanted to communicate standing out as a woman and embracing your "inner weirdo." We did that, big time (see May's website and you'll understand).
Belinda Mello wanted to communicate mastery, power, confidence, and ease in her Alexander Technique lessons. We did that, as you can see on her site.
This question matters for engagement photos, family photos, and other lifestyle photos, too. The more you lean in to your personality and values as a person/people, the more distinct your images will be.
There are no shortcuts to claiming what it is you want to communicate. It's helpful, though, to acknowledge that it’s not always intellectual. Sometimes the body and soul know before the mind does.
6. Develop your vision with your photographer
None of this exploration counts for anything if you and your photographer aren't on the same page. You've got to find someone with whom you communicate well, and you've got to ask for what you want.
The photographer is also responsible to tell you when something won't work. This is a skill I've developed by wasting time trying to come off as nice with photo clients. For example, if you want a tall building in the background of a head shot, I know that means I'll be pointing the camera up your nose, so it won't work, unless you're in to nostril portraiture. I've got to say, nope, if we want that building in there, we've got to get higher or you've got to appear full body.
The goal for the relationship is that you are confident to express your ideas, because you'll know that they'll be heard and you'll negotiate together toward a productive session.
7. Choose a killer location
Coney Island in February. Gowanus at night. Putney Mountain at sunset. Daytime in your art studio. Sometimes, a clean studio look is just the thing, to create a particular stylized look, as well.
Go where your magic lives, and the location will tell much of your story for you.
Note: some people get stopped because the production logistics seem daunting. Dream big and then figure out the logistics from there. Keep your creativity free.
8. Choose killer wardrobe, makeup, and hair
Make choices that flow from your exploration so far: that speak to who you are and what you want to say, in a way that will draw your audience in to learn more.
Draw on your strengths, draw on your friends. If you want a particular look but you don’t have the skills to pull it off, teach yourself or hire a stylist. I’ve got people I can recommend.
Also, conventional wisdom says to use bold, solid colors for publicity photos, because they stand up next to other designs and don’t distract from your face. I say, sure, if that’s you. But if you’re a leopard print kinda queen, rock the leopard print front and center.
9. Pack some magic
Bring a little something with you on the day of the shoot to keep you inspired and connected to what you love. As I’ve mentioned here, clients have brought family photos. They’ve also bought prayer beads and a favorite backpack and favorite playlists to keep the spark alive.
10. let it all go
It's photo day. You’ve danced with your fears. You’ve embraced your strengths. You’ve thought about your audience and what you want to say to them, and you’ve developed a solid plan with your photographer. Now there’s nothing left to do but show up and experience the delight of being seen.