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Snap a Winning Headshot, Part 2: It’s a Physical and Mental Game

By Clinton Brandhagen

In Part One of “Snap a Winning Headshot,” we talked about planning for your photo session — choosing what to wear, and how to look your best for the camera. But a great shot requires a bit more than just standing in front of the lens while the photographer clicks away. Portraying confidence is both a physical and mental game.

Confide in Your Photographer

Think of your photographer as your coach, and trust the person to direct you throughout the process to find the best angles and lighting for your face and body. Confiding in a photographer is tough for many lawyers — but what’s said in the headshot room stays in the headshot room. It’s worth sharing your physical insecurities and letting your photographer know what makes you self-conscious or what you want to hide. “I have a lazy eye, I hate my double chin, I don’t like my teeth, my nose always looks crooked in photos, I used to be 30, my eyes get scrunchy when I smile …”

Whatever it is, tell your photographer.

Remember, your photographer wants your shot to look just as amazing as you do. I appreciate it when my clients can be candid with me so I can tweak the lighting and work with them on body positioning and head angles to bring their best features forward. Let me worry about the stuff that makes you anxious so you don’t have to. Plus, it will save time!

The Physical Game (The Easy Part)

Your goal is to have an authentic connection with the camera, and it all starts with your eyes.

  • Look right through the lens.
  • Keep breathing! The camera picks up everything from tension to breath. (Seriously, I can tell when a person’s not breathing in a photo.)
  • Like most physical activities, keep your knees soft and your shoulders square. Get grounded. Take a deep breath and then …
  • Listen to your photographer’s directions and follow them as best you can. If they ask you to do something that feels silly, go for it. Chances are, it looks good through the lens.
  • It’s best to move slowly. I always say “slo-mo/half inches” when I’m asking people to move their head. I’m often aiming for a subtle tweak of the light or head tilt, and when people go too far or too fast we can miss it.
  • Chin way up? It says “I’m too good for this job.” Chin way down? Says “Please, sir, can I have a job?” We try to avoid these. Chin slightly down, however, can make your eyes seem bigger and more engaged.
  • A slight turn or twist of the body is slimming and provides a sense of movement. But a body turned too far away says “I’m hiding something” or “I’m already out the door.”
  • A slight tilt of the head can say “I’m listening” or “I understand.”
  • Try the chicken. If you push your face slightly toward the camera when you’re facing it straight on, you can define that jaw line just a little bit more. Feels weird, but looks great.
  • Smile! Smiles are hard for some people. Smiles look best on their way down. Don’t be afraid to go too far or too big and then let it fade or even laugh it up a bit when you’re going for the warm, friendly shot — just keep your eyes on the camera. You’re bound to get something good.
  • If you have a habit of putting your tongue between your teeth when you smile, don’t. It looks weird.
  • No gum or mints.
  • Don’t wanna show your teeth? You might take a tip from Tyra Banks and “smize” with your eyes.

You can (and should) practice this stuff in a mirror.

The Mental Game (The Hard Part)

Forgive me if I start to sound a bit like a self-help book here, but this stuff really helps.

  • Try to keep a sense of humor about the whole experience. Relax. Nobody’s gonna get hurt.
  • Come to your shoot ready to play and trust that your photographer is going to look after you. Leave your ego at the door and allow yourself to be vulnerable.
  • Anxious? Get out of your head and stay positive. 
  • Have a nonverbal conversation with the camera. Keep it warm, curious, upbeat, friendly, flirty and engaging and let your face follow your thoughts. (There’s no crying in headshots.)
  • Be patient with yourself and with your photographer. A great shot doesn’t always happen with the first click. And not every shot has to count. It’s all digital nowadays and you only need one great one.
  • If you feel stuck or like you’re just staring at the camera, take a second to regroup and then get back in the game!

That said, I’ve seen how stressed and busy a lawyer can get. Most photographers are really accommodating. If you’re truly having a crappy day (and it isn’t “headshot anxiety” related), and honestly feel like you won’t be able to put your best self out there, see if you can adjust your time slot or trade with someone. It won’t get you out of it, but there’s no sense in wasting time if you’re not ready to go.

Make Sure Your Personality Shows Up

A great headshot tells a story. Tell your photographer about your practice and how you want to be perceived. Think about breaking the lawyer stereotypes — or play to them. A family lawyer probably doesn’t want the look and intensity of a pit bull litigator … or maybe she does.

Unless your firm has strict requirements for how you dress for headshots, bring a bit of your own personality and style to the shoot. Some of my clients like to wear ties from their alma mater whenever they update their photos, and others are always in a bow tie, or no tie, or a unique pair of glasses. I love that.

Using your own space is another way to show your personality. Work with your photographer to find cool places or backgrounds around your office — but please, no more bookcases in the background!

Headshots - CorporateExamples2

Examples of corporate headshots.

Take Advantage of Your Time with Your Photographer

I always ask for at least 15 minutes with each of a firm’s attorneys. Plan to use the entire time you have allotted. Try to get as many looks and shots as you can muster. The photographer will likely ask you to vary your expressions and positioning. But why not squeeze in a quick costume change, too? Take some with and without your glasses. With and without your tie. With and without your jacket. Whatever. Options are awesome. You only need one or two great shots in the end, but you might feel like a change down the road. Or maybe you want to use one expression on your firm’s site and something different on LinkedIn or AVVO.

Always Make This One Technical Request

Most photographers are trained to crop as they shoot. I certainly was. Without stepping on your photographer’s toes — let them do their thing — ask that they do several shots in landscape orientation and leave you a bit of headroom. Why? Websites are responsive and the crops of photos will adjust according to various screen sizes. It’ll also give your marketing team more to work with for various mediums. Plus, with a landscape photo, you can always crop it vertically later. It doesn’t work the other way around, I’m sad to say.

Final Two Cents

With your headshot, you’ve got a split-second chance to show the world how polished, skilled and approachable you are. It’s worth your attention. Do your homework. Take a deep breath. Arrive with a sense of play and collaboration.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com; headshot examples, ClintonBPhotography

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Clinton Brandhagen Clinton Brandhagen

Clinton Brandhagen is a professional headshot and production photographer based in New York City. ClintonBPhotography shoots headshots for lawyers, actors, executives and business professionals. Clinton’s photos have been published in Law360, New York Law Journal, The National Law Journal, American Theatre Magazine, The Washingtonian, The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post. Follow his PhotoFacts on Twitter @ClintonBPhoto.

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