“Do you want me to smile?” | headshot photography
Based on a conversation I’ve had with several people in the past couple of weeks, I thought I’d write a few words about one of the most common things I get asked about when shooting headshots for clients. A day won’t go by when I’m not asked the question, “do you want me to smile?”
The answer I give is always the same. It’s not up to me. It’s your headshot, representing you, your brand, your values and beliefs. It’s going to show off your personality to potential business connections, colleagues and clients. And it’s going to do that for, probably, a couple of years before you decide to update it. So the decision of whether to smile or not is yours, not mine. Because it’s up to you how you wish to be seen.
When I’m asked the question about whether to smile or not I often respond by telling people to think of a scale of one to ten. When I first raise the camera to my eye, people put on their ‘photo smile’. That’s usually around an eight or nine. That’s fine for parties, New Year’s parties, the birth of a child, etc. ……. but can look a bit forced or, worse, maniacal. I tell people that we’re probably looking to hit somewhere around six or seven.
Actually, there’s more to it than that, but that’s a good starting point and, more importantly, it’s a way of explaining it that people can immediately grasp. Where you actually want to be on the scale is up to you balanced against the kind of job that you do. A lot of professionals that I work with want to walk the line between serious and approachable. For them, 6.5 is ideal. If you’re an event planner, or in PR, you might want to aim for closer to 7.5 or 8. If you deal with very serious matters in your working life – a grief counsellor, for example – you might want to scale down a little to around 5. A children’s entertainer wouldn’t want anything below 9 (nor to be photographed out of stage make up, but that’s another blog post). Of course there are exceptions to this, but as a general principle it gets you started and, more importantly, helps us both to get the right kind of shot for you. Because in a headshot, like in the examples below, you have to get the expression dead right. Because it’s a completely pared down photo – just your head and shoulders, and no distracting background – all the attention is on your face. I might take a handful of shots to get that right one, I might take dozens. It really doesn’t matter, but I’ll know when we’ve got the right one.
One final thing. The smile and the number scale is only part of it. What I’m really looking for when shooting a headshot is sincerity in your expression. Personally, I don’t mind if you smile or not in your portrait. But I do want the real you to come across in the image. Whether that’s warm and approachable, knowledgeable, smiley, giggly, curious, slightly serious ….. it really doesn’t matter. My job is to catch that aspect of you in a sixtieth of a second. And here’s another little thing you might not know. If you’re putting on that ‘photo smile’ it looks fake not because you’re grinning like a Cheshire Cat, but because it doesn’t show in your eyes. That’s where the sincerity shines. My job is to identify the ‘you’ that you want to project, tease it out of you and capture it. Sounds painful, but trust me it’s not!
Here are just a few headshots picked at random from the hundreds that I’ve shot over the last year or so. Have a look at them. Try to work out in which sectors these people work. Ask yourself, what are they telling you about themselves?
Now look at your own headshot, and ask yourself the same question.
I hope you’ve found this useful. Despite it being a seemingly simple thing, a headshot is actually a tricky thing to get right. If you want to talk more about this (I could go on for hours, you have been warned …), or are interested in discussing commissioning a new portrait for yourself or your colleagues, please drop me an email or give me a call.