Photo by: Tristan Jilson

December 10, 2014 / Fall 2014 / Photography / Picture This

Saving Face: Revealing personality, not just appearance, in portraits

Written by Tiffany Kopcak

More than half of your yearbook is devoted to reference – the recording and preserving of the random mixture of people brought together solely by birthday and address and presented in panels of the same lighting, same angle and same expression. This also includes team photos, club photos and the index. That’s a lot of faces smiling for the camera.

Yearbooks have come a long way from the days of being limited to class photos, as we strive to tell stories about the people and moments that make each year unique. But headshots are still part of that process, appearing in profiles and secondary coverage. What do your mug shots look like? Are they helping you to tell the story?

The technical stuff

Part of your style guide should include a uniform way to take your headshots, specifically where you want them taken. Backgrounds can create terrible distractors that take away from your subject.

  • NEVER take headshots in the hallway, in front of lockers, in front of windows, or in the cafeteria. Make this a rule.

Try a bookcase in the yearbook room, decorate a bulletin board in a well-lit hallway, or create your own portable backdrop using anything from a sheet of foam board to a fabric backdrop.  Keep it simple; although this may be a chance to reinforce your theme.

  • Move your subject away from the backdrop by at least 2 feet, especially if you are using a flash.

They’ll be more comfortable and you’ll avoid awkward shadows.

  • Use aperture to control depth of field and focus on your subject.

Being consistent with backgrounds can be tough. If you can’t go to the same location each time, let your camera control the background for you. Use a small aperture (portrait lenses get down to f/2.8, but f/3.5 or f/4.8 should work just fine) to blur out the background and bring attention to your subject.

  • Remember the rules of composition when taking headshots.

Apply the rule of thirds, framing, and leading lines to keep your photos dynamic. Try close cropping. This is where the top of the head and side of the face are cropped out (not the chin, not both sides of the face). It can bring more attention to the eyes and expression on your subject’s face.

  • Avoid using on-camera flash.

The camera’s flash makes people’s faces shiny, shows off every imperfection, and discolors them. Use natural light or more controlled light sources whenever possible. Avoid harsh midday light as it creates severe shadows.

Telling a story even with a headshot

Headshots and mug shots should not be the same thing. Mug shots should show what they look like. Head shots with quotes should show you who they are.

  • Never point a camera at someone and tell him 
or her to smile.

She’ll freeze, afraid of looking bad, and revert back to the fake smile that she’s been trained to do since kindergarten. There is nothing about her in that expression.

  • The photographer is in charge of the model – not the other way around.

The photographer is the expert and, more importantly, knows what the subject looks like in the camera. As the photographer, don’t be afraid to take charge, tell your subject to turn, to look up, to fix a stray hair. You noticing will help them to relax, to trust you, and show the camera who they really are.

  • Subjects don’t need to smile in photos. They 
need to look like themselves and fit their quote 
or story.

Here’s my favorite tip when it comes to portrait photography. You ready? OK. Go.

  • Use a distractor.

While the photographer is taking the head shot, the distractor is just behind or to the side of the photographer. It’s her job to encourage the subject, to laugh, to talk, to joke, to make faces, to do whatever it takes to let the subject forget about the camera and relax.

This is also an amazing opportunity to ask follow-up questions and get even better quotes or clarify content.

Have them tell a story. Talk. Take 15 photos while they’re talking. A lot will be awkward but there will be that one that is vibrant and engaging, and makes you want to hear what the subject has to say.

  • Avoid having your subject hold a prop.

Instead, accessorize – use materials to help tell your story.

This photo, used as the staff divider, shows not just a smile, but a true laugh and personality. The staff used a distractor to bring out the natural reaction. Photo by Tiffany Kopcak

The amount of time you put into a headshot should directly correlate to how big it’s going to be printed in the yearbook. For a simple headshot/quote package, keep presentation of headshots small. Get them taken and move on to the next task. For personality profiles or longer storytelling quotes, take your time.

For full-spread profiles, make them amazing. Craft your portrait like an artist does a painting, paying particular attention to lighting.

Whenever possible, branch out and allow the headshot photographer to go on assignment and get an environmental portrait.

Environmental portraits

A good portrait is more than a representation of a person’s physical appearance. An environmental portrait should tell you who they are, what they’re into, what they value, what they excel at, or where they come from. There is a difference between a pretty picture with a pretty background and an interesting portrait with a storytelling background.

Environmental portraits take time. You need to know your subject and environment. You need to plan at least one hour to take the photo. You may want more time to cover more before, during and after depending on which style of environmental portrait you’re doing.

Environmental portrait styles

  • Photojournalistic – The photographer spends  time with the subject, capturing the subject while the subject is in motion and at home in a candid photograph.
  • Posed – Also takes place in the subject’s natural environment but is more traditionally posed, with the subject’s action frozen and noticeably aware of the camera.
  • Editorial – The photographer stages the environment, including accessories, to create the atmosphere he or she wants to tell her story. This type of environmental photography is most often used in advertising.

Every effort should be made to use candid shots. Do not use posed shots, even beautiful portraits, if there’s a quality candid shot available, and do not rely on headshots and quotes to tell your stories.

Make sure the photos you take, that are not part of the reference section, tell a story and are not just reproductions of someone’s face.

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Tiffany Kopcak

Tiffany Kopcak, M.Ed., is the photojournalism teacher and adviser of the Apollo yearbook at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford, Va. Her staffs have earned CSPA Gold Medals and been included in NSPA’s Best of the High School Press, in addition to state recognition and individual awards in photography and design. Kopcak also teaches at the Walsworth East summer workshop.