For me, photography is as much about establishing a personal connection as it is about actually taking pictures. The chemistry between a photographer and subject always shows in the final image – mostly in the eyes. There is no way to fake that comfort level.
I try to create a relaxed and uplifting environment; because when you feel comfortable, your energy, warmth and confidence will shine through naturally.
I generally like to meet a person – usually for coffee – before we shoot just to get to know each other. We discuss some of the particulars, but the conversation often turns to life in general.
The point of the meeting is to help you to feel comfortable with me (which will show in the pictures) and to allow me to know you better as well. The better I know you, the better I am able to capture your unique qualities.
The sessions are fairly organic. I don’t rely on specific formulas. Each person is different so I always want to remain open to the possibilities. This is why the pictures all tend to look different. There is no formula to making it work.
I don’t tell people to “smile,” “feel happy,” or “feel good inside,” because it doesn’t create something authentic or real. The mouth might be smiling, but the eyes really aren’t; it looks posed. There’s lots of interaction between us when we shoot, rather than me just spouting directions like, “turn to the side a bit,” or “think happy thoughts.” I give directions sometimes, but most of the time it just flows naturally. In most sessions we’re just talking about life in general and taking pictures as we go.
If you feel like we are connecting, the eyes will be truthful and engaged.
The whole key to good shots lies in feeling good in your own skin. That can only happen if you feel at ease and are having a good time. This is why we meet for coffee before we even decide if we want to shoot together. It’s why we take our time when we work, and it’s what we’re really focused on. It comes from the inside out. Making you look good is easy. Making you feel comfortable is the key to letting the best you come forth.
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Those that have shot with me or even met for coffee have probably heard me say how we are trying to work from the inside out. That what you are feeling on the inside is a big part of what the camera sees on the outside. I usually mention, “being connected,” which I suppose means something different to different people.
There are some philosophies that believe that we are all connected with one another and with the world around us, and I can definitely see the truth in that. But for me it’s a little less esoteric. For me it means being in a place that is completely genuine and being totally present in the moment. In a shoot yesterday I learned to see this phenomenon from a new perspective.
I was shooting headshots with an actress that has made a living as a fashion model. Her true passion is acting, but her training as a model is strong and her experience vast. The question on both our minds was how we would successfully break away from her model training, which is all about creating a façade, and get to something that runs deeper.
I should give a bit more background.
I’ve shot quite a lot of fashion and commercial photography over the years, and it’s the exact opposite of headshots. In a commercial shoot, you want the model to seem like they are having more fun and are more excited about whatever the product is than they have ever been in their entire life. But how excited could you really be about toothpaste? They are faking it big time. In the case of fashion, it’s a step further removed. In fashion we want the model to seem unapproachable and distant. We put them on a pedestal. In both cases, we’re not interested in what kind of person is in the photograph. We don’t want to know them well. They are the embodiment of an idea; the personification of happy or cool, and that’s it. A successful model can produce this on command, and they can sustain it for as long as it takes to get the shot. Talk about a façade!
But if an actor tries to pose a smile in their headshot, it comes across as totally fake because it’s the person behind the smile that we are interested in. We want the total truth about this person. I’ve shot actor’s headshots for models before and I had an idea of how to go about getting beyond the façade and capturing something that’s real, but it was in the shoot yesterday that I gained a deeper understanding about what it was that we were really doing.
The girl never really was able to shed her model training, yet throughout the shoot, I felt like she was completely present. She was 100% the real article, never faking something she didn’t feel. And it hit me. There was no disconnect between what was on the inside and what was on the outside. She was connected.
It takes a certain amount of self-awareness for anyone—model or not—to allow themselves to simply be without any pretention, and without trying to show the world what we think it wants to see. So maybe being connected is at least partly about connecting with ourselves. And this is the work of an actor, regardless of what their “day job” might be. The connection is about honesty and being true to yourself. If you allow yourself that, the rest of it takes care of itself. From that genuine place all the intangibles magically fall into place. It’s what makes a good headshot, and I think maybe it’s what makes a good life too.
Lately I have had several people ask me about looks. They want to know if there are limits to how many clothing changes they get when we shoot. The quick answer is that there is no limit. We change as often as we like.
I think the origins of this question come from the world of model test shoots, where a photographer would allow the model several “looks” which involved a wardrobe change, possible makeup and hair changes and possibly a different scene or lighting scheme. For the price the photographer would do a certain number (4 was fairly common) and it also meant a certain amount of time on each “look” and no more.
Headshots are nothing like this. We change location, background, lighting, whatever, as often as we like. I don’t really like to have limits. We spend the time we want to spend, and shoot as many pictures as we want to shoot in order to get what we came to get. And how often we change clothes is the kind of the same thing.
But it also serves a purpose.
Sometimes changing an outfit can make a person feel different and it might really help us to get the shot. There is a definite connection between what we feel on the inside and what the camera sees on the outside. Putting on clothing that makes you feel a certain way makes a huge difference. But also, changing clothes is a great way to refresh the energy. No matter how well things are flowing, every shoot has it’s peaks and valleys. It’s impossible to sustain the magic the entire time, no matter how connected we are feeling. Changing a shirt only takes a moment, and it’s a way of refreshing the energy.
Also, there’s really no such thing as too many clothes. We want lots of options! So go shopping. Pack heavy. Bring a lot of stuff. Who knows how much we’ll use, but lots of “looks” is a good thing.
Well, after mad scrambling to get in as many shoots as I could – and then try to finish everybody’s retouching before I was to be out, the day came.
What day? Well, those of you who haven’t spoken with me for a while may be surprised to hear that I had surgery recently to have a brain tumor removed. This June 24th was the big day. The recovery was a bit bumpy for a spell, but now things are going well. It’s too early to know if they got the entire tumor, but it looks as if the surgery was a success. My wife always said that I have rocks in my head. Perhaps now she’ll change her tune!
I’m now recovered enough to sit up and do stuff on the computer. It’ll be a bit before I can shoot again – no lifting anything over 5 pounds for a few more weeks at least. (My cameras are all beasts – and the lighting weighs even more.) But after a couple of weeks of not answering emails, I’m back.
My next task is to send a couple of emails to apologize for not getting back to people faster, and for failing to get all the retouching done before I went out for surgery. I got almost everybody’s pictures done, but there were just SO MANY last minute requests that I didn’t have time to finish them all. Sorry! But laying in the bed with my Wacom tablet and my laptop is actually a pretty enjoyable way to do the work!
So I’m reaching out to the people waiting for pictures to apologize for the delay, and letting the world at large (at least as much of the world reads this blog) that I’m doing ok and will be back behind the camera before you know it.
I’m missing the work and especially missing hanging out with the people that come into my life. It’s always been my view that the key to good pictures lies in really connecting with what’s awesome about a person. If I didn’t feel that way about the people I shoot, it would probably show in the pictures – and ultimately I wouldn’t feel passionate about the work. So I feel blessed to shoot such talented and kind people. Having had what amounted to a brush with mortality has reinforced how vital this is to my way of working and to my view of the world. I get truly jazzed about the people I get to work with. Life is too short to have it be any other way.
And if you’re waiting for pictures, I’ll have them soon!
We’re still unpacking, we still don’t have gas, and are still using a temporary kitchen. Oh, and the backyard is a disaster, but we moved into our new brownstone!
We had the first shoot in the new space yesterday with Alexandra, and she brought it. It was magical from the first frame. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to work with for the first time in our new place. Also, I am crazy about the high ceilings and the flexibility the space offers. It all felt very comfortable and just flowed like water. When things are working the way they are supposed to, you don’t have to push; it all just comes together.
Thanks to Anna, our makeup artist, and to Alexandra for allowing her spirit to shine through. I’m going to try to post some pictures later, but for now I have to go unpack some more.