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Tell Me Sweet Little Lies: The Art of Getting a Good Portrait

the art of getting a good portrait

Tell Me Sweet Little Lies: The Art of Getting a Good Portrait

When John Coyle shoots a portrait, he yells sweet nothings like:

“You’ve got the look.”

“Oh yeah. I wish you were here earlier. You could’ve shown (Insert name here) a thing or two.”

“Best. Smile. Ever!”

“Keep that smile big. Keep that smile bright. There you go! You’re doing great!”

“You look amazing!”

John and I were on a shoot last week where a gentleman overheard John coaching one of his co-workers. This guy said, “Oh, man. What kind of bullshit is this guy going to throw at me when I get up there?”



So much “bullshit.”


Embrace the bullshit. Why? Because most people are uncomfortable when it is time to get their portraits taken. It is awkward and hard to stand in front of a camera alone and know that this photo will end up on the internet. People are going to look at this photo and your resume or website to see if you are worthy of their time. It’s intimidating. It’s awkward. It makes you feel like you need a beer.

Why do people get like this? I don’t know. I work with artists, not therapists. If you want to know why, the folks at Wistia pulled some science together for their blog.

What I do know is that there are a few things you can do to to help make yourself comfortable and possibly enjoy the process. 

  • Know that your photographer is there to make you look good, not embarrass you. Photographers may ask you do things that feel weird, but they are trying to get you look natural and at your best. When John asks you to turn your shoulders, put your arm behind your back, and tilt your head, you may feel like a human pretzel. Roll with it. Through the lens, you look fantastic.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Make sure your photographer knows about any “off-limits” items in advance. Worried about double chins, scars, hair lines (or lack thereof), or that pimple that popped up last night? Tell us. If we can’t minimize it with lighting, we’ll make it disappear in post-production.
  • Ask to see what’s going on. Feel free to ask to look at the back of your photographer’s camera or pull the images up on the computer (if time allows for it). You’ll be able to get a glimpse of what they are seeing and offer feedback on it. Speak up if something doesn’t look right or if you have a question. It’s easier to address something in the middle of the shoot rather than a week later.
  • Bring a trusted advisor. Have a friend, co-worker, stylist, or whoever else you trust come with you to your shoot. They can either sit in the corner and offer emotional support, or they can stand next to the photographer to help art direct the shoot.
  • Relax. You will leave feeling like a pro (and with a new appreciation for those folks on the magazines). The only people who hate their portraits are the people who are determined to hate it. As long as you communicate with your photographer and relax, you will walk away with a portrait you love.