Any actor will tell you headshots are the worst. It is an almost mythical two-dimensional piece of glossy possibility. A good one will not only convey the actor’s personality as a human, but also the varying molds into which he can contort his emotional state so as to breathe life into a character.
The photo itself isn’t mythical. Just the accomplishment of aforementioned goals.
99% of the time headshots (or, more generally, portraits) don’t turn out how they’re supposed to.
People are awkward.
We don’t know how to present ourselves. We just are. Even with all of our overanalyzing, image-creation, and idealized-perceptions, we cannot help being slightly clumsy, asymmetrical, and just plain goofy. Our natural imperfections make us relatable, and they go deeper than the zits on our noses. Photoshop can’t fix humanity.
People are three-dimensional.
We are creatures of motion. We are not flat. We are not posed. We are defined by what we do and how we adapt to our ever-changing circumstances. A photo cannot capture that scope of possibility. It can only display one possible scenario.
People are afraid of cameras.
It’s not a conscious fear but rather a discomfort when faced with a dimensionless chasm of infinite space (ahem, the lens). We are designed and trained throughout childhood development to associate human faces with safety, love, conversation — relation.
In order to create a image that communicates a richness of personality, the subject must approach the camera as if it were a person. This creates a dynamic 2D image that will hopefully communicate to the 3D observer (another human), simulating a face to face interaction (minus verbal exchange).
Thus, when someone is asked to bundle up all the complex emotion, expression, curiosity, and expectation that a normal conversation would generate and present it to a camera . . . he feels like you asked him to flirt with a wall.
In fact, negative chemistry. He’s going to shut down. No one wants to put themselves out there when they’re not sure they’ll be accepted; a camera physically cannot accept you.
This is why photographers were invented: to place a face behind the lens.
However, there’s a problem: you’re still behind the lens. How do you relax your subject so they forget about the expressionless vortex between the two of you? And, oh, by the way, most of them are strangers and aren’t comfortable around you anyway!
People don’t love new situations. They brace, shut down, and observe until they feel it is safe to interact with the environment. This is basic survival code, People.
Your job as a photographer is to reboot that.
Learn To Read People
Some people don’t need your help; they’re best at ease when left alone. I took photos of a guitar player once, and all I had to do was be invisible. He had his guitar, he had his amp — he was happy. As an introvert, he had no interest in hearing me babble for an hour. That would have been uncomfortable. He needed silence and to do what he loved: play guitar. By allowing him to do that, I captured the most honest representation of his art.
The visibly and verbally nervous ones need more help. If they’re filling more air time than you are, they’re going to use your empty voice space and fill it with their own anxiety. Tell them stories about silly things you’ve seen. Ask them about what they’re up to today. Bend their energy into a conversation to distract them from their anticipation.
Show Your Face
You’re a person. You have expressions. Your camera doesn’t. It’s okay to pop out from behind the viewfinder and pause for a moment to give feedback or react to something the subject has said or done. That helps. Then when they’re staring at your body with a camera-shaped face, their brain remembers what you look like on the other side; they see less of the lens. Furthermore, they get to know you. When they know you, they trust you. When they trust you, they relax.
Give Them Somewhere To Look
Your ear. That tree. The walrus-shaped cloud. Something other than the lens. Later in the shoot, if you want a stare down, you can try one. By then, hopefully they’ll have begun to feel relaxed and recognize that you’re behind that lens (not the whole of time and space). Until them, don’t let them look at it!
At the start of the photoshoot, giving an alternative line of sight is part of the distraction. As they study an alternative object, they’ll begin to examine it, engaging they’re brain and forgetting about the strange, unnatural situation that is having one’s photo taken.
Keep Them Thinking
Tell them stories. Ask them questions. Have them pretend they’re something/someone else. Make them remember a ridiculous name with 7 parts (Arpeggio Bonaparte Ferdinand Cornelius Violet Ham III). Whatever you do, do not let them think about where they are and what they’re doing.
People naturally get incredibly awkward when they start to analyze what they’re doing instead of simply doing it. We trip over the same feet we’ve walked in for 20+ years in. We miss the mouth we just spooned a bite into 10 seconds ago. We forget how to spell a three-letter word. We’re awkward. Keep the mind moving so as to not allow them to remember that they’re in front of a plain backdrop with hot lights shinning on them and a strange telescope in their face as they try to “act natural”. That scenario is anything but natural. It is your job to make it feel like sitting in a cozy recliner. How? Let them think about everything but where they are and what they’re doing.
(Never tell someone to “act natural”. That’s probably one of the biggest philosophical questions in the world — who am I? — so don’t go there. It’s unanswerable and might instill instant panic).
As you provide content for their hyperaware cognition, taper your stories to the emotion you’re trying to elicit. Contemplative picture? Throw them a tricky moral question. Need a relaxed smile? Tell them about the one time your April Fool’s prank backfired you.
Keep shooting so they get used to that rhythm. Or, if they’re a bit tense, take them sporadically and add a prompt count down from 3 so they don’t feel like they’re at the dentist where people keep poking them without any warning. Don’t let them have a chance to brace, but give them a polite heads up.
Most of the population in this digital age is not “camera shy” by definition. You could approach them, tell them to smile, and snap a decent photo. But we’re talking about capturing the essence of that person’s personality and bringing them to life in a 2D medium. The secret to that is learning to read people and interact with them in a way that makes them forget that they have to present themselves.
If you go the sterile, medical approach, your photos will turn out that way. The best photos are made by spontaneity and human interaction. Photography is not about posing. It’s about capturing a moment where humanity reveals itself in all its beautiful, flawed complexity.
Hint: Some of the best photos are when you ask people to do a Beyoncé impression.