I spent years avoiding any camera pointed in my direction. Years. I couldn't help it. I simply looked awful whenever someone took a photo of me. I realized later, after learning all about photography, that you needed a few simple things to take a good photo of someone (or yourself). Turns out these five things really matter when taking a portrait.. and they truly determine whether you look amazing or not so good in the photos you appear in.
1. Beautiful Light
Light is everything. If you don't have beautiful light, you might as well pack up and go home right now, because no amount of posing and Photoshop is going to save your photograph. That's why I start every session with finding the best light, whether indoors or out. So before taking a photo of yourself or your loved ones, simply stop and look at what the light is doing. Are you putting your poor subjects into a super-sunny area causing them to squint and sweat? Are there bright hotspots on their faces because they're standing under a tree? Do they have raccoon eyes because the sun is right above them, casting all sorts of hard shadows? Light matters! The direction of it, the intensity, and the quality (feel free to look up "color casts"). If you want to start with something easy, simply stand in a room facing a window (one that has a semi-sheer white curtain) and take a selfie. Your face will look perfectly beautiful without much effort. This also works in restaurants, btw. So if you want to look amazing for your lunch date, simply pick the seat that faces the window.
2. Flattering Clothing
Clothes should fit really well and look flattering on your body. It seems like such a simple thing, but anything that doesn't fit well will look ten times worse in photos. It will bulge and pucker and make your body appear unattractive. Dark shades will make you look slimmer, of course. Textures photograph beautifully. Neutral colors are simple and timeless. Coordinating is way better than matching. And your personal style should always come through. Clothes also look different in photos then they do in real life (you heard that the camera adds 10 pounds, right?). Taking a phone pic of your outfit on you will give you a good idea of whether it's working or not. And remember, white draws a lot of attention in a photo.
3. Good Hair & Makeup
Have you ever seen a TV news broadcaster in person? If you ever have, you probably noticed that her entire face was a mask of makeup. Cameras have a tendency to tone down makeup colors quite a bit. With the super-high resolution we're sporting nowadays, makeup goes a long way to smooth out skin-tones. And if you want your hair to look good, you really have to take the time to wash, blow dry and style it. This takes time and effort, but the camera doesn't magically make you look beautiful out of nowhere. It doesn't make your hair look full and luscious if it's greasy and dull. Things simply do NOT work that way. And you don't need to look like a 1980's pop star with your makeup - you simply need to even out the color of your skin, have full lashes, a little bit of blush, and some color or gloss on your lips. The camera is not kind and you have to give it something to work with, right?
4. Natural-Looking Posing
Posing. My favorite subject! What does "posing" make you think of? Standing stiffly holding your partner's hand while the photographer takes your picture? Pretending to be a model by cradling your face with your ballerina hands? Natural-looking posing is different. It helps people look NORMAL in pictures. People who are being photographed tend to hold a lot of tension in their hands and lips. They don't know what to do with their legs (hint: put the weight on your back foot). And they simply forget how to be human the moment the camera makes the appearance (I speak from personal experience of course). This makes for really awkward-looking photos. Not having a straight spine will make you look like a hunchback without you even realizing it. Your claw-hands will distract from your beautiful face. And what you think is your natural laugh will give you a triple chin. There's a reason Mindy Kaling puts her hand on her hip in photos - she knows what looks good and what works for her. So the truth is, knowing how to pose is really really important! And if you don't know what works, you better hope the person taking your picture can tell you if you're looking awful so you can fix it.
5. A Relaxed or Happy Expression
I really struggle with this one. My relaxed expression looks like I'm a little grumpy. So I have to always remember to smile just a little bit with my eyes. For me, candid images are the worst - because if I'm really laughing, I simply don't look very good. For some people candid photos are the only time they look relaxed and posing in any way makes them freeze up with a truly horrified wide-eyed look. I try to do a little bit of both during my sessions. Parents are told where and how to sit, where to look, and what to do.. but the expressions are always genuine. And if you're quick enough, you can catch that split second when everyone is nice and relaxed. Your best bet is to take the photo before everyone realizes they have a camera pointed on them, so really, you have about a second before smiles start looking really strained. Don't wait!
And... 6. Photoshop
Photoshop is part of my workflow. It's what I use to enhance the images of the families I photograph, and it helps tremendously to elevate the look of a photograph. You don't NEED Photoshop. But if you're paying a professional photographer to capture memories that you will cherish forever, one should hope they're using the tools of the trade to make everything look impeccable.
And when kids are involved, it's really hard to perfectly cover all the bases. Someone will undoubtedly turn their face ever so slightly away from the perfect light. Your arm might end up in a position that doesn't slim you down as much as it should. You may have that double-chin from laughing as you tickle your 4-year old. Maybe you just had a baby and would rather not remember what a certain area of your body looks like postpartum. Photoshop is a magical tool that can remedy the distortions of the camera with a certain amount of skill. I use Photoshop to remove any distracting elements that either should not be there or would not be noticed if you were looking at that person in real life. Things like.. under-eye circles. Our brain glosses over the bags under the eyes and fills in color variations on the skin to make the person look just fine. In photographs, those things jump as the first things we notice. Photoshop can be used for good and for evil (just like any tool) and I choose to use it to enhance the image and make a photo look more like what our eyes and brain see everyday. It's not easy and it takes practice (I've had over 10 years worth).. but it can be a wonderful way to make an ordinary photograph into something that can easily grace the pages of a magazine.
It's amazing the difference the above 5 things make when taking a portrait. The camera you use doesn't matter as much as the light, the expression, and the pose. Taking the time to select the best clothing and actually style your hair pays off tenfold in the end. And hey, even Photoshop for that final touch makes a difference.
So what about you? Do you like yourself in photos? Or do you avoid cameras like I do? Have you found a certain trick that works really well? I would love to know what it is.. so please leave a comment and share! I would love to hear from you.