Being Photogenic

I’m writing this post because several friends of mine who are writers asked me to. I feel a bit awkward about it? In part because I’ll be posting pictures of me, and one is always criticized for that, and in part because I suppose it’s a frivolous topic, although how we appear to the world is usually important to us. And particularly important to writers, who are in a strange position, nowadays: they are photographed a lot, and those photos are used for publicity or posted online. And yet, they’re not performers, not actors or singers who are used to appearing in front of people. They are usually introverts, whose deepest relationships can be with imaginary characters.

Anyway. In the last couple of years, I’ve been getting a compliment that’s new to me, and surprises me: “you’re so photogenic.” Usually I say “thank you,” but if the person giving the compliment is also a writer, I say, “I’m not, actually. I’ve just learned how to be photographed, most of the time.” I suspect that no one is actually photogenic after the age of twelve. Children are photogenic, but adults . . . we’re too self-conscious, too aware of what the photograph might look like. So this is a blog post on being photogenic. I’m sure you’ve heard that “pretty is a set of skills”? Well, so is photogenic. I write this with a caveat: I’m not a photographer or a makeup artist, and I’m sure someone who is could do this much better than I can. The below is simply what I’ve learned as a writer, so that when I look at photos of myself online, I mostly don’t groan. (There are plenty of older photos of me online at which I do groan. Oh well.)

Everything I’ve learned has come from doing a professional photo shoot and being on video of various sorts, including a television show. There’s nothing quite like seeing yourself on early-morning television in Little Rock . . . And I should add that I took the pictures below in the worst possible conditions: mostly in the terrible lighting of my tiny pink bathroom, while recovering from quite a lot of traveling. All right, I think that’s enough with the caveats. On to what I’ve learned.

So, what is involved in being photogenic?

1. Attitude.

You must believe you are beautiful. Don’t laugh: you know what I mean. There you are, having your picture taken. You smile, wait for the click of the camera, and just at the moment it clicks, you think, “But I’m not beautiful. My pictures always turn out terribly, and this one will probably turn out terribly as well.” At that moment, your face takes on an expression of fear, apprehension, doubt. And that’s what makes it into the picture. So, you don’t have to believe you’re beautiful all the time. But at that moment, the moment the picture is taken, you must believe that you are worthy of being photographed.

How do you get attitude? Having your picture taken is like everything else: it’s a skill, and you get better at it with practice. So take your own picture. Take it a lot. You probably have a digital camera? Discard the photos you don’t like, keep the ones you do. Think about why you like them, what makes them work for you. Think about how you like to be photographed. This is me, with attitude:

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At least, I think it’s attitude. Nothing about this picture says “I don’t think I’m worth photographing.” (Remember what I said about the terrible lighting and my tiny pink bathroom? Yeah, sorry. But if I can produce a picture I feel good about under those conditions, then I can produce a good picture anywhere.)

2. Makeup.

Sorry, this won’t help most male writers, who tend not to wear makeup. (Male actors and many male singers do, of course.) But the standards by which men judge their appearance tend to be looser, more lenient, anyway. They cut themselves more slack. This section is mostly for women, although if you’re male and doing a professional photo shoot, or if you’re on television, you may well use foundation of some sort. Or have it used on you!

So, here’s the thing: the camera isn’t taking a picture of you. The camera doesn’t know you, the wonderful scintillating person you are. The camera is taking a picture of certain planes and angles, in certain lighting. Makeup helps you control how the lighting falls on those planes and angles.

This is me, with nothing on my face except moisturizer. (And by moisturizer, I mean Proactive, because I have what is called “problem skin,” meaning that it breaks out if you say Boo! to it.) I happen to think it’s a perfectly nice face, but like this, it’s difficult to photograph.

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This is my face with the most important step in the makeup process, which is foundation. Here, I’ve started with a thin layer of Garnier BB Cream, then MAC Studio Fix, and then MAC Studio Fix pressed powder. That sounds as though it would be heavy, but it’s not: modern cosmetics are designed to feel light. Foundation gives me a lot more control over how light will fall on the planes and angles that are my face. (Reminder: the camera isn’t taking a picture of you. You may as well be a mountain range, as far as it’s concerned.)

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Ironically, skin with foundation on it looks more natural, more like your own skin, on camera than your own skin does. I don’t know why — I’m sure a photographer could tell us?

And here is my face with the color added: lipstick, blush, eyeliner, two kinds of eyeshadow (dark under the eyes and on the lids, light on the brow bone), and mascara. These are from MAC and Revlon, but I won’t give you specific names or colors, because you’ll need different ones anyway. We’re all different.

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(Oh, and by the way, any male readers who feel like telling me, at this point, that they prefer women without makeup? I don’t wear makeup for you. Both men and women have been wearing makeup since this thing we call civilization started. We wear it because we’re human, and like to play. Not wearing or liking makeup is perfectly fine, but doesn’t get you a moral cookie.)

So, why wear makeup if you’re going to be photographed? Obviously, you don’t have to. But I’ve found that it gives me more control over how a photograph will turn out. It combats the flattening and washing out that is an inevitable part of being photographed.

3. Angles.

Another reason to take photographs of yourself is so you’ll learn the angles of your face. Like all faces, yours will photograph differently depending on the angle from which the picture is taken. There’s a reason that, when I’m photographed by someone I don’t know, I turn my face to the right.

Here’s a shot of the left side of my face:

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And here’s a shot of the right side (I feel like I’m doing Dovima here, and if you don’t know who she is, Google her):

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In photos of the left side, I tend to look younger, more vulnerable. Also, strangely enough, more foreign. (Hmmm. Is that a picture of my shadow self? My writer brain starts to work on this concept . . .) The right side looks older, more sophisticated. Photographers talk about your “good side”? Well, it’s my more reliably photogenic side. And here I am head-on (which is a very hard shot to take, by the way, in a bathroom mirror). I almost never take a shot head-on because my features are asymmetrical, and the photo can come out looking strange.

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Oh, and by the way, I’ve been focused on faces. But here’s a picture of me in a full-length mirror. In this picture, I am dressed in a terrible outfit for being photographed in: loose black t-shirt, old jeans (you can see a paint splotch on them), Timberland boots for going out into the snow with. Which is actually what I did about five minutes later — go out into the snow. What makes this picture not terrible are the angles of my body. If you look at actresses on the red carpet, they all angle their bodies in a similar way to be photographed. And it’s not just because standing this way makes you look thinner (although it does). It’s because the angles add a sense of movement, and therefore visual interest.

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4. Lighting.

Lighting will make or crush and crumple up your picture. Lighting is all. That said, most of the time writers are photographed, it’s in the terrible lighting of a convention hotel. We can’t depend on good lighting.

What you need to do is work with the lighting you have. Figure out where it’s coming from, think about how it will hit your face, and turn so it’s as flattering as possible. Again, that’s something you learn from photographing yourself. That said, some lighting is never going to be pretty. For example, I went out in my Timberland boots and took some photos in the cold gray light of a winter day in Boston. Nothing you take in that light will be “pretty.” It’s just too harsh. So what do you do? If you want pretty but can’t get it, go for cool. Actually, that’s one of my principles: always go for cool. Pretty is boring. Cool has movement and impact. Cool is better.

This is the best picture I was able to take in that light, and I kind of love it:

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I love the red of that hat and the lipstick, against the cold white of the skin, the gray and black of the background. I don’t think this picture makes me look attractive, but who cares? The picture itself looks interesting.

Nevertheless, there are times when we want to look pretty. That’s when you want a soft, indirect light. My desk lamp is perfect for this. It almost always gives me a good picture, like this one:

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And that’s about it! If you’re at a convention and having your photograph taken, think: where’s my lighting, what’s my angle? And at the moment that picture is taken, think, “I’m beautiful.” Because, of course, you are. (The makeup, if you choose to use it, goes on beforehand.) I can’t guarantee the picture will turn out well, but once you’re “photogenic,” you should be able to look at most of the photos of you posted online and not groan.

I’m going to end with one of my favorite photographs, from a party I went to recently in New York City. The guests were mostly writers and editors, and of course there were going to be photos taken. This was taken before the party with my camera by Marco Palmieri, who takes wonderful photos anyway. But I think you can see all the elements I’ve been talking about in it. The writers in the picture are Nancy Hightower, Valya Dudycz Lupescu, Bo Bolander, and me. We are dressed differently, we have different makeup, we are all interacting with the camera in different ways. But each of us is doing what works for us individually, and I think the end result is terrific.

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10 thoughts on “Being Photogenic

  1. I will have to think about this. I’m the opposite of photogenic, and right now, taking lots of pictures of myself doesn’t help– I know I look better than I do in a still shot, but I don’t want to lose that sense after a few dozen pictures of me looking like a mole. It’s good to remember that being photographed is indeed a skill, so photogenic can be learned.

  2. Great advice! I do a lot of photography at cons, but I’m self-taught, and this helps me identify in a more systematic way some things (particularly methods of posing) that help make people look good for a camera.

  3. A really wonderful truthful post. Heads up, shy people. While it might not suit
    everyone, I found my love of theatre a great help in almost everything in my life, from
    pretending to be a good dedicated office worker to getting head shots for auditions.
    I think the best way I can get a good shot is to think I am in a play, and to mimic the
    feelings of that character.

    Most of my best shots are from on stage while reading poems or in a play. Or, to
    fix on a pleasant thought, close to meditation.

    And yes, to know you are beautiful. We all are. Some don’t think so, but look deeply
    into your features and let your soul peek through.

    • Phyllis, I think pretending to be a character is an excellent idea. It makes a lot of things easier! And it occurs to me that sometimes, when I’m taking a photo, I’m playing “Theodora Goss” . . . I did theater when I was a teenager, but what’s really helped me is teaching. Standing up in front of a classroom three days as a week is a bit like being in a Broadway show!

  4. As a subject you don’t always have control over it, but people also tend to look better when photographed from a high (or slightly high) angle & looking up (notice your outdoor photo in the red hat). I suspect part of the reason is it makes your eyes look bigger in relation to the rest of your face; you probably know that’s a factor in why young animals and babies look more attractive to us. (Sadly, I don’t always think of this when I’m photographing someone—seems I do my best work when “I” check out and let the “universal woo woo” take the photos, so “I” am not around to remember this point…. Oh well.)

    • This is why people also seem “more attractive” in eyeliner and mascara! I’ve seen eyeliner work that way on men too. Anything that makes eyes look bigger triggers that instinctive response.

  5. It all goes back to your number one, attitude. I totally agree. If you don’t like yourself and how you look, the best photographer in the world couldn’t take a photo of you that you would like. Too many times I have people barely look at the photo they are in and exclaim,” I look terrible!” They aren’t seeing themselves in the photo, they are seeing the mental image of themselves.

    The question is, how to move beyond that. How do you love how you look. That’s hugely vague and something a mere craftsman like myself couldn’t answer for everyone. I guess the thing to do is, stop comparing yourself to other people. They aren’t you. I fight with this personally all the time. It’s jealousy and a whole bunch of other personal emotions, none of which are really your aesthetic.

    As you say, “You must believe you are beautiful.” and that is so true. Confidence shines in photos.

    I rambled and didn’t make my point clear I am sure. Your blog post inspired me to write though, so I thank you with my rambling thoughts. Hope you don’t mind.

    PS: photos outside around noon on lightly overcast days in winter can be excellent in that there is light contrast and no harsh shadows on your face, making you look younger and makes colors pop. (see photo of Theodora in red cap for how this can enhance your beauty)

    • I’ve been surprised by how many women, after reading this post, have commented (usually on Facebook) that they aren’t photogenic. Gorgeous women! I think part of the problem is that people can’t get the camera to reproduce their mental image of what they want to look like. I can — in photos, I mostly look the way I want to. But I realize that’s not an image that just happens — it’s an image I consciously create.

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