As a brand photographer, I’m often hired to take headshots. The word “headshots” may put you in mind of your dad’s LinkedIn photo: suit and tie, looking directly into the camera, solid white or gray backdrop behind him. But, sister, it’s 2019 and these aren’t your daddy’s headshots!
My specialty is non-boring headshots and branding lifestyle images. These portraits can be styled in any way that tells the story of the person I’m photographing. They’re popular with entrepreneurs, small business owners, and creatives, because they’re a way to showcase their personal brand identity. For clients seeking more traditional headshots, I can still inject their personality with just a touch of charisma and a splash of professionalism to make the standard chest-up portrait interesting.
I work with all my clients to form a game plan for the shoot. The more prepared I am, the better the product I deliver. Plus, I’ve found that clients are more likely to relax and trust my direction during the session if I’ve included them in the process ahead of time. Here’s how I work with my clients to plan a shoot they’re excited for:
Before the photo session
1. Ask the right questions.
My clients all have different needs, so I use a questionnaire to learn more about those needs. How do they plan to use the images? What vibe do they want to convey? What are their brand colors? Do they prefer a certain photo orientation? Do they like the feeling of negative space? I find such questions incredibly helpful in fulfilling the client’s vision. It also helps the client feel involved in the planning and session direction, not simply being told what to do.
2. Choose an interesting location.
Headshots or any portraits need not be confined to a sterile environment to be professional. In fact, when clients are in a location where they feel at ease, they’re more likely to relax and look confident in their images. Using the questionnaire responses, I find and suggest locations to support their usage needs and preferences.
Entrepreneurs and creatives often hire me for social media images, and we work together to find an environment that feels true to their brand. Some of my favorite spots are rented studio spaces, unique hotels, and coffee shops. I once photographed an interior designer in the middle of a room being renovated, and that was her favorite shot of the entire gallery. Don’t be afraid to suggest a location that bucks tradition!
3. Consult on clothing.
Clients always appreciate tips on what photographs best. Entrepreneurs and personal brands have freedom to showcase their personality through their clothing style, so we choose colors and styles that fit their brand. A typical hour-long session can accommodate three outfit changes, and I often recommend one casual, one professional, and one fancy or fun, depending on their preference. The final outfit decisions depend on the location and weather, so they’ll often bring along a few extra options, just in case.
4. Review the shoot plan.
My shoot plans include an overview of the client’s vision and such details as the location and a basic timeline for the session. Clients appreciate this attention to detail and start to relax once they realize we’re on the same page.
During the photo session
A quick scroll through Instagram might persuade you that every woman is comfortable in front of the camera, but I’ve found usually the opposite is true. Subjects initially feel vulnerable and intimidated, and these emotions will show in the photos if not corrected. I approach my role as photographer carefully, using the following tips to help my clients feel comfortable.
5. Create an atmosphere of fun.
My shoots are all about bringing forth joy, laughter, and one’s inner dork, so I have to provide the right atmosphere for that mindset. Having a playlist at the ready, whether it’s one my client created or my own mood-boosting, go-to (Spotify’s ’90s playlist works wonders!) helps subjects relax during their photo session. I often encourage my clients to move during the session, and hearing their favorite song helps them loosen up. The more a client can feel like herself during the session, the more she’ll look like herself in the final images.
6. Give them a task.
One of the best ways to get a subject to relax is to have them focus on a given task. This can entail typing on their laptop, jotting down notes on a pad, or grabbing a prop and using it in any way except how it’s meant to be used. Images like this are great for social media, and are often the sort of photos I’m hired to shoot.
7. Use prompts for authentic expressions.
Once a client is in a flattering position, I give a few prompts to elicit different reactions and expressions. For example, I might have the subject imagine that her celebrity crush just walked in the door— completely naked. The prompt isn’t always a flash of genius, but whenever I say something unexpected, it breaks the subject’s self-conscious concentration and lets them react naturally. Some of the best smiles and laughs have come from these unscripted prompts.
My natural tendency as an introvert is to keep quiet while I shoot, but clients appreciate direction and encouragement so they know what to do and that they’re doing it well. When I’m shooting a more traditional headshot, I keep the poses simple and flattering, and use conversation, coaching, and humor to elicit authentic expressions.
With brand lifestyle shoots, I’ve found that making myself vulnerable (either by singing or dancing), helps my client feel at ease, because they’re no longer alone in awkwardness. Joke around, quote movies, or ask questions about something you know the subject loves; it’s not the answer you’re after, but how their eyes light up when they give you a real laugh — this is when you snap the photo.
9. Encourage playfulness.
Before working with me, clients often think there is a hard-and-fast rule for the look of a brand portrait. To change that perception, I show them how rules are made to be broken by including some fun images that they could use for social media. To that end, I encourage my subjects to play. Dancing and tossing confetti are two of my favorite ways for subjects to get playful. Use the questionnaire answers and the vibe during the session to sense how playful your client is comfortable being. Some of my clients have no problem jumping on a bed or kicking up their bare feet from their chair, while others require a little coaxing to show their silly side (cue the ’90s playlist!).
10. Encourage positivity.
Whether it’s basic headshots or a full brand lifestyle session, I always focus on my clients’ positive aspects. Being in front of the camera often makes a person feel like they’re on display, so the shoulders tense up, the jaw clenches, and the smiles seem forced. The more I can assure them they’re doing a fantastic job, the more they’ll begin to relax. Just be sure to do so honestly — don’t be fake!
My clients love that I’ll show them the back of the camera after taking a shot. This gives them the opportunity to see how good they look and to know they can trust me to get the best shot. It also gives them a chance to correct anything I may have overlooked or address something they forgot to mention in the questionnaire. For example, I might think a unique scar is endearing and distinctive, but they might be self-conscious and want to hide it.
If there’s any one piece of advice I’d give a photographer just starting out in headshot and brand photography, it’s to treat each job as a partnership with the client. Use your experience as a photographer to guide them through the process because you are the expert, but definitely let them be a part of it. This one step has led me to working with clients who completely trust me during the process, allowing them to relax and enjoy their time in front of the camera. Together we create light and fun brand imagery that they can feel good about sharing because it completely represents their true selves.
All photos by Alicia Bruce.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Click Magazine. For more fab content like this, subscribe here.