“Photogenic”. Ain’t no such thing.

3 05 2010

I’m gonna say that again. There’s no such thing.

Few people are accustomed to being analyzed by a lens-wielding stranger. Yet we photographers often get impatient with subjects who pull faces and wear contorted expressions, and wonder why they can’t just look “normal”. An answer in the form of a question: Why don’t we all have natural, comfortable looking images of ourselves on our driver’s license? Because we aren’t comfortable, and we have no idea what “natural” looks like.

The camera does not “love” some people and hate others. The camera only does what the photographer tells it to do, whether intentionally or otherwise.

I find that people who consider themselves “unphotogenic” generally fall into two groups.

There’s the shy, observer types who are used to being the watcher, not the watched. Add in the permanence of a photograph, and it can be a bit off-putting. It’s not necessarily a matter of being self-conscious, but rather a matter of not enjoying being put into the spotlight. It’s the photographer’s job to forge a connection strong enough to make the photograph secondary. The subject is not going to forget he or she is being photographed, but a skilled people person (with a camera) can take the focus away from the outcome and help the subject enjoy the process.

The second group are those who, like me, tend to be very animated with their facial expressions. The more expressive the face, the easier it is to catch it between expressions, resulting in all kinds of awkward shots. This is particularly a problem when a photographer is intent on getting a dynamic subject to talk. Ugh. You might as well photograph me eating. It may make the photographer more comfortable to getting the subject talking, but some people are much better photographed listening. Most anything that calms a dynamic subject will tone down the range and rate of expressions, producing a more flattering shot. Calm voices, soft light, and even a little bit of (gasp) silence can do wonders for us Super Expressers.

I present to you as evidence the following image of Erika, a self-proclaimed unphotogenic person. Whatever.


photogenic schmotogenic.

Photographers, I preach it all the time and will have to do it again here. Make it a point of putting yourself in front of someone else’s lens, at least a few times a year. Empathize with your subjects. It is not easy to be photographed, and it takes a lot of skill, and a lot of tools in the toolbox, to learn how to catch your subjects at their best. Suck it up, do it, and embrace the pain. It’ll make you a better photographer.

CJ out.




16 responses

3 05 2010

You’re right..it’s not easy being photographed. It’s always more comfortable for me behind the lens..what better tool than learning it from the inside.

3 05 2010
Ed Hamlin

LOVE IT! It is So True.

I learned the hard way, when I rushed a session the results were embarressing to say the least. Now, I like to take my time and really start everything off with a get to know you session on neutral territory with a camera with me. Sometimes I will take a couple of shots just saying that I am checking skin tone, lighting so I can advise on make up, and color of clothes that will help accentuate theri eyes or hair style etc.

I save them until I can make some notes on how to get them comfortable and then dump them in the bin. There are times I don’t and wait until the actual session. Part of the idea is that they see my camera and the big lenses. etc. it doesn’t hit them like a brick on the head when we get situated for their session.

I think I take horrible pictures becasue non one every shoots me like I want to be shot, form the good side, which is from behind LOL.
By the way I think you’re awesome.

4 05 2010

You are an awesome person! The way You write nd stuff

4 05 2010
Bob Nicolai

The best exercise I’ve under taken is being photographed and understanding how to communicate with my subjects and understand what they’re going through. As I shoot mostly art nudes and pinup, turning my camera over to one of my models (quite and accomplished photographer as well) was damn near scary. But the work I’ve produced since that exercise has been some of the best I’ve ever done.

Try it. It’ll suck at first, but you might just like it. And your work will get better.

Keep up the preachin’ Cheryl, and be ready to undergo your exercise sometime soon.

4 05 2010
Andrea C.

What you say is so true; thank you for the reminder.

4 05 2010
Jeanette Verster

Awesome post!! You’re so very right… I should have a shoot done… the problem is choosing a photographer now that I know what I’m doing

4 05 2010
Anthony Cronin

Wonderfully put, this will always serve as a note to myself, being one of those who hate being in front of the lens, to engage more fully the subject to seek to get their ‘normal’ face.

5 05 2010
Stephen S. Mack

I’ve been wondering about photographing other people (including family, excluding babies); they seem to be uncomfortable about being in front of the camera, and I feel really uncomfortable if I try to take their picture. I am always amazed at people who engage in “street photography” (read: sticking a camera in a stranger’s face and firing away.) I am aware that it is an oversimplification, but not by much. I carry a camera everywhere I go; the patrons at the local eatery are so used to seeing me WITH a camera that they remark on it when I DON’T have a camera. But I would still hesitate to just pick up the camera and fire away. I really need consent to take a person’s picture.

An aside about having one’s own picture taken: it doesn’t bother me, for some reason. My family’s opinion is that I always look good (well, OK) in a photo. My late son’s opinion was that I would look good even if I were photographed lying unconscious in a pool of my own barf, but I think that’s pushing it…)

10 05 2010
Diana Foster

Love music photos! Very nice and thanks for sharing. Happy Monday in May!

20 05 2010

one of my best ever photo memories is of a couple who said flat out they don’t photograph well. called about two weeks before their wedding, which they were having in thier apartment, just them, the officiant, two witnesses, and me.

was a joy to deliver the first photos of themselves they loved.

21 05 2010

I was photographing a family event and every time the husband noticed that I was about to shoot he screwed up his face and stuck his tongue out. I took him aside and asked if he was comfortable having the event captured… he said he was great with it – but that no one had ever taken a decent picture of him – ever and that frustrated him.

I pointed out that if he didn’t stop screwing up his face that no one ever would. 5 minutes later I took what his wife claims to the best photo ever taken of her husband….

21 05 2010

ps – love your work

2 04 2011
Ruben Rubert

This B/W photo is far expressive then the color

9 04 2011
donna good

great thoughts….all.

27 06 2011
being in front of the lens for a change » Little Starling Photography

[…] like how goofy I felt!   Over half the images got deleted. And then I read this article “Photogenic- Ain’t no Such Thing” and it made me feel a little […]

11 08 2011

I really like the way you broke down the two {formerly ‘un-photogenic’} groups. It is easy to say “Oh, you’re not photogenic”, but you’re a much better photographer if you can work from the knowledge of what ‘type’ of person you’re photographing – and engage them accordingly.

I’ve definitely notice what it’s like photographing “expressor’s” – my case, it’s been musician’s. The difference between when they are off stage and relaxed to being on stage and fully engaged and expressing, is miles. When performing, you really have to observe and learn their expressions and then shoot at the right moments.

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