How to pose and direct an authentic headshot

Above: Image by Gina Milicia Fuji X100f

Have you ever noticed that whenever you point a camera at someone they will go to one of three default settings.

  1. Photo face with cheesy smile and dead eyes
  2. No smile and a look of sheer terror
  3. Duck face or pouty lips

Sometimes you might get lucky and photograph someone who has an authentic smile and looks relaxed and comfortable in front of the camera.

Unfortunately this usually only happens in about 10% of cases so how do you get rid of duck face, cheesy smiles or looks of terror in the remaining 90% of portraits?

Asking your model to say any word starting with ‘ch’ and ending in ‘y’ or ‘e’ when you photograph them will show both top and bottom teeth. This is a great idea in theory, but always ends up looking fake on models. The reason for this is that nobody really smiles with his or her top and bottom teeth showing. Go have a look in the mirror now and smile. If you can see both top and bottom teeth you are probably a Miss Universe contestant, a game show host, or a horse.

A real smile that is warm and genuine will show in your model’s eyes. There will be a light or sparkle in the eyes and the area around the eyes will wrinkle slightly.

Creating warmth and connection in the eyes is the secret to a great headshot.

If a model feels really comfortable in front of a camera then this is easily achieved. Supermodel Tyra Banks claims she can do 275 different smiles including flirty, angry, surprised and the fashion smile.

Unfortunately very few people have the experience of Tyra Banks or the confidence of Kim Kardashian and will go to the default setting of photo face with dead, cold, scared looking eyes and a fake smile.

Photo face – When the model looks like a stunned mullet or rabbit in the spotlight. The eyes are dead and lack any emotion and the smile is fake and often forced by saying the word “cheese”.

So what’s the best way to get rid of photo face and create a killer headshot? Here are my three favorite tips:

  1.   Check your energy. If you are feeling anxious or uptight, angry or sad then your model will pick up on it. Energy is contagious. Do everything you can to ensure your energy is positive and up before a shoot. Listen to great music, exercise, cuddle a puppy, eat Nutella, whatever works.

  1.   Ask your model to move their eyes. This is a great tip I learnt as an assistant from Melbourne photographer, Andy Tavares. A great way to avoid “rabbit in the spotlight” eyes is to ask your model to look away and back to camera with their eyes only after each frame.

There are thousands of thoughts (mostly negative) going through their mind as they pose for you.

  1.   Visualization. It’s very natural for most models to be overthinking when they are posing for a photo. Often there are thousands of thoughts (mostly negative) going through their mind as they pose for you. “Does my hair look good?” “Does my bum look big in this?” “Did I leave the iron on?” These negative thoughts are reflected in the models eyes and are the main cause of photo face.

Asking your model to visualize a positive scenario really helps to block the negative thoughts and bring a light and warmth into the eyes.

My visualization prompts vary depending on my model. If it’s an actor I might ask them to visualize their dream acting gig or winning an Academy Award. If it’s an overworked executive I might ask them to visualize their dream vacation.

Great headshots shouldn’t just be left to chance. Take a few extra minutes to work with your models and ditch photo face forever.

Do you have any other techniques that work for you? I’d love to hear about them.

How to direct and pose like a pro

About Gina

About Gina

Gina Milicia is one of the most widely known and respected photographers in Australia. She is the master of capturing that ‘magical moment’... READ MORE

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