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Using Professional Photography on Your Website

One of the hallmarks of a good corporate website is having a great-looking About Us or Staff section, where the employees' photographs are consistent with the corporate profile, and look the absolute best they can. How do you achieve this? Time to call a professional photographer.

To get a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into professional portrait photography, we spoke with Karen Long, owner of Headshot Guru, a portrait photography studio in Vienna, Virginia. Her work calls for a blend of creativity, talent, and logistics – plus a deft hand when dealing with people and their appearance.

What is your background in photography?
I've been a photographer for over 30 years. Before launching Headshot Guru four years ago, I did a lot of food photography, but gravitated back to my passion: creating portraits – environmental and classic studio shots. My specialty in headshots arose when people started to want images specifically for social media. Even though they are called 'headshots', they really are portraits. I got hooked on portraiture when I was in school, photographing kids from the campus doing what they really like to do, and in unusual environments. 

What is the value of professional photography vs. amateur?
If you get really lucky, it's possible to take a good photo of yourself – at the right moment, with the right lighting. But the chances of getting that are so small . . . what you don't get when you work alone is the connection between the subject and the photographer. There's a connection in the eyes, the shoulders, the way you tilt your head. You can't do that with a selfie. And most people don’t realize what goes into a good photo: a lot of subtle nuances that you can only know about over time and can even see if you’re not the subject!

I always ask the client, "What would you like this photograph to say about you?" It's important to have intention, because it will come across in the photo.

After I've spent time with a person, there's a kind of bond that evolves, a one-of-a-kind thing for that one session. It takes time for people to let their guard down, time for me to be alone with the person, and help them get in touch with their intention so they can hold it in their head and heart while they're in front of the camera. The point of any art is to communicate, and photography can convey such personal meaning. I really work hard to get that trust going because I'm interested in the meaning behind the photo, not just making someone look good.

My other website, Karen Long Portrait Design, has a tagline that says, "It's all about the connection". That's exactly what you get the chance to capture in a photo. And you can't do that in one shot.

How long is a typical photo session?
I usually take about a hour for each session, sometimes more. Before the photo session, I’ve either met with or spent time talking to the client and getting them ready and getting to know them a little. During the shoot, we look at the shots as I take them. The first 10 shots are pretty good, nice. The next 10 look even better – after we've talked and shared some things – and as the photos go on, they start to look more natural in the 30th or 40th one. The last five tend to look the best, because of the momentum of the shoot. Once people see that I'm interested and willing to go to another level to make them comfortable, they see I'm on their side in kind of a joint venture. They'll see the proof in the photos.

After a session, I tell people to go out that evening because they feel so good about themselves, and are much more engaging and social when they know they look good. They can relax. A typical reaction is, "I was really dreading this, but wow, I had fun!" 

What is involved in a group shoot that includes a company's staff, say five to 50 people?
In those instances, I certainly need an assistant, if not two. The most important thing is to find the right setting, to achieve the right vantage point so you can see everyone's face. Usually the shot is onsite and they have something in mind. Walking around a company's office, I can usually find several spots that would work well. I always bring my own lighting, but there's nothing better than natural light, if it's available. 

How do you handle people who are reticent about having their photo taken? How do you put people at ease?
I think most people are reluctant, including me! And surprisingly, sometimes good-looking people can be the worst subjects; they're so concerned with perfection that they're not really authentic. And I'm interested in authenticity and the connection.

People really do like to talk about themselves, and I'm interested in that, too. Getting my subject to show their intention and connection with me is important in order to get that authenticity. Even friendly, self-confident people don't look that great on camera unless they let go of the "how do I look?" thing. If they're tense and it shows in their expression, I might have them do facial exercises to loosen up, or put on some of their favorite music.

The culture has changed, too, given today's celebrity and selfies. Everyone wants to look young and attractive. I will do a little photo touchup if someone looks tired, but if you look really different from your photo in person, it's very unnerving. Touching up extensively looks fake, plastic and ridiculous. It's important to show some laugh lines or frown lines – we've all earned them.

I recently started doing videos: short one- to two-minute clips of people introducing themselves and letting their audience know a little about them – it's a big change in that you can't retouch video: you can only go so far with lighting, but that's just the way it is. So there's less control in video.

Do you use a stylist?
If it's in the budget, I use a makeup artist and hairstylist. Most people don't need their hair done – they can have it done before work. A makeup artist can really make people look healthy, like they just came back from vacation. And people love being pampered and being fussed over. That 'spa treatment' for those few moments before getting in front of the camera is effective in relaxing them.

When I used to photograph food, I would photograph from a lower angle to give it more impact ( i.e., a forced perspective). But with people – that sometimes works well with men, but with women, it's just the opposite: it's better to be at a high vantage point when photographing women – it's a neck issue!

What advice do you give someone before the shoot? How can they best prepare?
Clothing can help to make the statement they're trying to make. I tell people to wear solid solids – neutrals or jewel colors. I photographed a woman the other day in a really rich red suit – it's rare that someone can get away with that color, but she could because of her coloring.

I give clients an advance checklist – when to color or cut their hair, shave a second time, what kind of jewelry to bring or not bring. It includes what to do so they look well-rested – drink enough water, get enough sleep. The day before, I send them a shorter checklist with reminders to bring a choice of clothing, extra lipstick, a brush, and so forth.

I also tell clients to leave enough time to find the studio. Don't be in a rush; that will definitely affect the photo. I had a very busy client who mistakenly went to my studio, while I was waiting at his office as planned. He finally arrived but was very frazzled!

What happens after the shoot? How many choices do you present to the client?
Most people are not used to looking at photos of themselves, so it's very hard for them to choose the best ones – so they'll tell me to choose. But other people, like art directors, will know what they want. I always edit out the obviously "wrong" ones (i.e., someone's not paying attention) and choose six to eight of the best. Sometimes one will stand out and we both know it – those are easy. I tell people to go for the best facial expression, because I can sometimes change their posture with Photoshop.

I assemble the choices into a slideshow and make a page of the best ones. They'll let me know if they want a touchup – a few stray hairs, lipstick bleeding. Sometimes they have a chipped tooth, and they'll want a new tooth!

What is the deeper value of portrait photography?
The older I get, the more precious time is, in certain relationships. People who live far away – I really want a photograph of them, or a video of them. I believe it's important to not be so concerned with how we look all the time, versus who we really are. When people are gone, it's really nice to have photos to remember them by. So those photos are so precious. A photograph has a power of communication that really transcends time. Something about them is different from sculpture or painting – it's almost real, but not real. One step away from real.

– Posted by Julie Young on June 17, 2015.