Find the Right Photographer by Being Yourself

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Photo Source: Caroline White
In a few remote tribelike cultures, there is a deep and very real fear that having your photograph taken will actually steal your soul. This truly fascinates me, because when I lift my camera to take your picture, there's a tiny voice in the back of my head whispering, "Psst, Caroline, how are you going to capture their soul?"

Casting is easy. With some Googling, a bit of peer surveying, and a dash of online clothes shopping, you've pretty much got it down. You've cut and pasted the breakdowns into a neat spreadsheet. You could almost take your wide range of romantic leads, villains, and characters and make it into a line graph or color-coded pie chart. You can rattle off your list of representative roles from the latest Broadway hits, Oscar films, and Emmy-winning series. You've done all your homework and even the extra credit.

Now it's time to choose your photographer. The Internet is rife with lists of questions you should ask prospective ones: Film or digital? Studio or natural light? Retouching? How many people shot per day?

But if you can't meet the photographer beforehand, beware! Think about it this way: You know how much more comfortable you can be once you've gotten that nerve-racking first day of shooting or rehearsals under your belt? This is why it is so important to meet with your photographer beforehand, or at least have a very good quality phone conversation.

But what are the questions you should ask yourself before choosing among them?

1) Do you feel inspired? Do you feel they're inspired by you?

I wasn't too surprised when headshots I'd gotten of myself turned out just so-so. See, the photographer used to be an actor, who'd quit the business decades ago. It was pretty apparent he was bitter and cynical about acting, and wasn't really excited about doing headshots anymore. Ask prospective photographers why they like taking headshots. If their face doesn't light up, then the truth is they just ain't that into it. If they're more into their big weddings and book deals, this will be reflected in your headshots. As you are talking to them, observe how you feel with them.

There's a little sandwich shop in West Hollywood called Shoop's Deli, and this guy Mike makes the best sandwiches, like, ever, and I swear he is so in love with and passionate about making sandwiches, it's no wonder those puppies are so inspiringly delicious. Look carefully, and beware the Subway-like giants. I love taking headshots. I fall asleep at night thinking about headshots. (And those sandwiches.) Ninety percent of my business is headshots, both timewise and moneywise. It is my passion. Since 1999, when my job was to open four gigantic bags of mail for the "Sopranos" casting directors in New York, I've been fascinated and obsessed.

2) Do you feel believed in? Listened to?

It's almost like dating. You want them to like you, of course, but if you can't truly be yourself in their presence, then it may not be an ideal pairing. Do you feel intimidated by this person? I once had a photographer take my picture who I actually was in love with, and in every picture I looked kinda sad. I cared too much what he thought, and it totally inhibited me. I even held back from asking him to photograph me a certain way. (I wanted more off-center shots, to help slim my broad shoulders.) I then asked another photographer friend to take my picture, and I felt comfortable enough with her to allow my inner control freak out. I was ecstatic with the results, and I didn't care that she thought I was a little nuts. You're the customer giving your hard-earned dollars. You should get what you want, and you shouldn't be afraid to ask for it.

3) Do you feel the photographer can relate to you?

If you're a model type, congratulations! You'll probably look great no matter who you go with. But for those of us who aren't Barbie or Ken, we'd still like to look, well, hot. Or at least our own personal brand of hot. It's amazing how a photograph of ourselves can make us feel either awful or amazing, and a lot of this has to do with a few almost sciencelike photography tricks. Granted, no photographer should want to "fix" or erase your quirks and imperfections, but headshots are about showing you at your best, so make sure your photographer understands how to frame your specific body type or facial structure to flatter you the most while not distorting what you actually look like. Look for people in the photographer's portfolio who are like you.

4) Do you simply feel comfortable?

Observe and notice if this person makes you feel like you want to hold your breath, or if you feel afraid to say or do something stupid. Acting is playing. You should feel encouraged to have fun, especially once you've done your homework and have your photographer on the same page as you. It's time to just let it all go. Play. Connect. Breathe. Stay open, and magic will happen. Your soul will come through. Your job is to just allow it.

In addition, don't buy into these great myths about photographers:

Myth 1: It's about the photographer.

Wrong. It should be about you, not them. I once paid top dollar for a shoot with a "top" photographer who doesn't meet with anyone beforehand. I brought a single carefully thought-out sheet of paper that had my essences, roles, and sensibilities on it, as well as a couple of semi-important background-color requests from my agent. The photographer took one look at my concise list and became totally defensive. She took a big step back, threw her hands up, and declared, "This isn't the way I work!" Fortunately, I was still able to roll with it and be a professional, but it became clear to me at that moment that the shoot was more about her than me. I probably should've just said, "Ya know what? Maybe this isn't going to work." And forfeited my deposit. If I'd been saving my pennies, I probably would've ended up in tears. So if you are seriously stressing about the cost of the shoot, that anxiety will show up in the pictures in some way. Try to get the best you can get while still feeling comfortable with what you are paying.

Myth 2: If it's good enough for a celebrity, it's good enough for me.

Beware of being drawn to photographers based on their celebrity work. I was shot by a famous photographer known for his work with a certain "Baywatch" babe. The shoot made me feel very small, and the results were totally unusable. Ask to see proofs of a recent shoot of someone similar to you. This is your best gauge for predicting what your proofs will look like.

One last thing on picking your photographer, but especially a bit of advice for during your shoot. One of my personal favorite mantras is: Your first instinct can never be wrong. (Thank you, Oprah.) I live by it. By definition, your first true gut instincts cannot be wrong because they are yours, totally unique to you. I tell this to people during shoots when they aren't sure what they're supposed to "do," and the truth is you don't really have to "do" anything. Just "be," and moments will happen, I promise. It's not logic. It's magic. Just as inexplicable as your soul. So follow your soul, your gut, your instinct. Isn't that why you became an actor in the first place? That bewitching "bug" that bit you, what was its name?

Caroline White has been selected by Back Stage's L.A. readers as one of their favorite headshot photographers the past three years. She is based in Los Angeles but travels to NYC a few times each year to do headshots. White is an actor and recently won the best actress award at the Houston Comedy Film Festival. She also does one-on-one goal-focused career coaching for actors. Upcoming: Look for her onscreen in "Freight," a film she co-produced, also starring Taylor Negron. (917) 592-8685.