You are probably familiar with the scenario of asking for advice about résumés. Asking more people means receiving lots of (different) answers. The same could be said about asking for suggestions regarding photography. Everyone has an opinion, so here are the opinions of five photographers—Devon Cass, Arielle Doneson, Rosetta Greek, Kristin Hoebermann, and Simon Pauly—whose expertise includes shooting singers. Even though the topic is subjective, and much depends on your tastes, these questions represent ideas to keep in mind.
Should singers think of their portrait as “a picture sending a message”?
Devon Cass: Singers should think of their picture as their calling card. It may be the first thing potential agents and directors see. It is what a singer leaves behind after an audition. The agent or casting person may pick the person with the better headshot simply because it appeals to them more.
Arielle Doneson: I ask my clients to think about the repertoire they sing and the brand they want to create within those characters and characteristics. A Zerbinetta should photograph differently than an Ariadne. If a singer does a lot of Carmens, there should be at least one series of photos that shows sultry intelligence.
Rosetta Greek: There has to be a connection that goes far beyond a smile or the snap of a photo. I often have singers consider a moment or scenario and then show me that moment with a facial expression. Singers are used to expressing with their voice. For me, it’s expression with a gesture. I ask them to tap into the acting that goes with being a singer.
Kristin Hoebermann: Every picture sends a message, and it’s up to the photographer to see who you are in order to help you bring out the most real, exciting, intriguing, and alluring images possible.
Simon Pauly: As a singer, you always present yourself to the public—with your voice, your interpretation of the music, your personality. You often show and share personal things onstage with your audience. The same thing happens in a portrait. It should show your personality and yourself.
When singers pose, what should they do with their arms and hands? For example, rest the chin in a hand?
DC: Hands, if placed correctly—like softly to the face or chin, or slightly under the chin—can sometimes be acceptable. But most of the time it’s best to keep them away from the face.
AD: It should look natural. I’ll suggest a pose—not so much because I want the pose to be executed perfectly, but more that I want to see how this individual interprets that pose. I don’t like a lot of hands in a headshot. In a portfolio/editorial shot for a magazine or the home page of a website, hands can be glorious. I love when a person’s hands have an activity, because this makes them more relaxed in general. Hands can be so communicative. In full-body shots, I like to give the hands something to do. “Chin in hand” is nice in an editorial shot, but not a headshot.
RG: The singer needs to be relaxed. It is better to get comfortable, because you can always create tension. For me, resting the chin in the hand is boring. It can be a good shot, it’s a safe shot—but there can be more to it.
KH: I like trying everything, including hands and different arm positions. You don’t want anything too posed, so moving around is the key to freshness and spontaneity.
SP: Every “pose” which seems “posed” is not as good as something that seems natural and organic—hands and arms in the picture or not.
What are your thoughts about facial expression?
DC: A slight smile is the best option because a full smile can often make a photo look like a commercial headshot. A slight smile can still be approachable but more alluring—and always make sure your eyes are engaged. I ask my subject to breathe as they feel the expression they want to convey. If you smile slightly, breathe with a little giggle in your stomach, the same place where you produce emotion in your singing, this will give the eyes more expression. If you decide to smile bigger and giggle as though you are laughing, it will also engage the eyes. For a serious shot, think of something warm and loving as you breathe.
AD: I’m a big fan of slightly parted lips. It reads to the viewer as a person who is more open and easier to work with—a bit more inviting.
RG: The smile must be genuine. You can tell the difference, and it’s in the eyes. I like to have the singer think about a moment and produce a natural, honest reaction.
SP: A genuine expression is the most important. I often think that emotions transpose into pictures. For singers, musicians, and actors, that is something very familiar because they have to transpose emotions into their art. In a similar way, they need to do the same thing in their portraits.
Should eyes look at the camera or away from the camera?
DC: Unless they are shooting an image for a poster, website, or CD, a person should always look at the camera because you want to have a more engaged shot in which the eyes penetrate the potential casting director, manager, or agent.
AD: For a headshot, it’s important to look at the camera because the headshot should be a conversation starter—when you’re talking to someone, you look at them, and your eyes are bright and engaged, like when you introduce yourself. For other photos, I love a dramatic look away—the idea is that they don’t know they’re being photographed. You are catching them in the moment.
RG: Look straight down the lens for a connection. For a 3/4 profile, you could be looking off into the distance.
KH: For a real, true headshot, looking at the lens and engaging with the person on the other side is what you need.
How much makeup should singers wear, especially considering that makeup can look brighter or more reflective under the lights?
DC: As much as they like, but just make sure they can re-create the look. I suggest using more of a matte foundation so that the lights don’t reflect off the face, making you look greasy. During my sessions, I do the makeup and hair myself, included in the price. This is good for potential clients to know because they are assured to get the same quality makeup in their headshot as what they see on my website. Most photographers use a variety of makeup artists and, due to that, your photo might not have the same impact and professionalism as ones you were impressed with from the start. For men, I do a very light makeup so it’s undetectable but still makes them pop. For women, I do three to four different styles from natural to glamorous.
AD: With men, it’s such a slippery slope. I don’t want to be able to see that a man is wearing makeup. With women, more of a matte finish for the skin is better. Makeup should look like you on your very best day and, based on the photo, you should be recognizable in person. Makeup artists use their own products, but they will ask what lip color you usually wear. Lip gloss can be very distracting, so a subtle finish is better.
KH: A professional makeup/hair stylist is a must for ladies. You need to look beautiful and put together. I like to start out a little fresher with the first look, which is nice for an audition headshot, then have the makeup artist escalate the makeup—smoky eye/pale lip, dark eye/red lip, and so on.
SP: I prefer a more natural look simply because I think people look more like themselves. However, if you want a more dramatic or extreme look, makeup is absolutely important. I know artists who love to do their own makeup and hair. If you are not one of those people, hire someone to do it for you.
What about glare from eyeglasses?
DC: I have to change the lighting to get rid of reflection. I always prefer headshots without glasses unless you absolutely always wear them and it is your image. Glasses can distort the natural beauty of your eyes. Image is important, and a headshot needs to be competitive—so if glasses take away your allure, it’s best not to use them.
AD: I offer the chance to do the shot without glasses. Those with glasses should lift the earpiece just a couple of millimeters, which changes the angle enough to eliminate glare.
RG: Move around. Lower the head and shoulders. Move slowly, so you can see what’s happening in the glasses.
KH: Even those who wear glasses regularly should do some shots without them. But if you feel like yourself only in glasses, you should get either non-glare lenses—more expensive, but important for these situations—or a pair of frames without lenses. Non-glare lenses are still made of glass and will still create some type of glare, but you will have success.
SP: It is all about the angles. Sometimes it is enough to just take the chin down a notch.
What attire do you recommend?
DC: My packages include three or four changes, so I ask my clients to bring a variety of options and then I help to select the clothes and accessories. I am always thinking of what backgrounds I will use to coordinate with the clothing so the shot looks professional and beautiful, as well as what styles look right for the client’s body type. I prefer V-necks to boat necks because showing more skin gives a more sensual feel. Never use bold prints, because it distracts. And always dress in a more classical style so the photo doesn’t become dated in a year.
AD: No strapless in a headshot. The person looks naked and it is very distracting. Find colors that flatter and clothing that lays flat.
KH: I don’t recommend much casual clothing. I want my clients to look like stars. For men, I always recommend a tux and/or a suit or blazer with a dress shirt to look mature, successful, and confident. “Sex appeal” also grabs attention and works in the realm of singing, so I also like a “bad boy” look such as a leather jacket or other layered look in a dark color or black. It’s not formal, but it also doesn’t look like you are headed to the gym. For women, it’s most important to bring a variety of tops, dresses, or gowns with great necklines, cool fabrics, and gorgeous colors. Black is always great, so bring something terrific in black. Dresses with embellishments are great, too, such as lace or what I call “built-in jewelry” like sparkles and other details. Ladies should bring a selection of jewelry as well. Bring clothes you love even if you think they aren’t marketable—we often work something different and unexpected into the shoot.
SP: I like taking the time with an artist to decide on wardrobe. Most of the time, it is around three different outfits, ranging from casual to formal. If you are not sure which way to go, try something simple and in-between casual and formal.
In addition, here are a few common points: you need a creative photographer, one who knows the elements of a memorable and eye-catching photo, understands the industry, can collaborate with you and direct you in order to capture your best expressions, and knows how to retouch. To find a photographer, you can use the same methods you might use to choose any other product or service (in this case, both!): recommendations from colleagues, reviews, and websites. Perhaps most importantly, do whatever you can to be comfortable and confident on the day of the shoot—that will produce the best results.