The email from my editor’s assistant popped into my inbox, the subject line glaring at me: Author Photo… (dun dun dun duuuuunnnn…)
If you’re like me, the thought of a professional author photo is both exciting and terrifying. I knew exactly what I wanted: a photo that would have almost magical qualities—a picture of me that would look good, and yet somehow also perfectly represent the real me to my readers.
I approached this task with dread. However, I am happy to say that, here on the other side of the process, I have pictures I LOVE.
Some of my positive experience is owed to planning; some of it is owed to luck. I did do some research. I looked at A LOT of author photos, and made decisions about preferences: color over of black and white, outside over inside, smiling over serious. So that much was planned. Luck entered in when it was time to find a photographer. Just before I started searching, my son and his girlfriend (who are both graduating from NYU’s New Studio on Broadway,) had actor headshots taken. My son raved about his experience with Amanda Pinto and Jake Nathanson of Sub/Urban Photography, told me about other authors they had photographed, and suggested I reach out to them. He also gave me the link to their website, (sub-urbanphotography.com,) which overflows with beautiful examples of their work. (Though I credit good luck with bringing me to Sub/Urban Photography, finding the right photographer does not require good luck—read on!)
When I emailed Amanda and Jake, I let them know what I was looking for, and they walked me through questions about clothing, locations, and whether I wanted to hire the freelance hair and make-up artist they work with. All these discussions were important, but after the choice of photographer, I would say the choice to hire a professional stylist had the greatest impact on my results. Alex Rivera, the freelance hair and make-up artist I worked with, not only listened to my thoughts about what I wanted, he had the training and experience to know how to achieve it. My son’s girlfriend, (who—like me—has long hair,) mentioned how great it was to know that there was someone standing by with a brush while she was being photographed outside in the wind. Sold.
In the end, this experience I’d been dreading turned out to be an incredibly pleasant and relaxing day. I rode the train to New York, met the team downtown, and after hair and make-up, we headed out to the streets of the East Village and Soho. (Yes, we shot outside on the street! Amanda and Jake knew where they could find lots of light and very little traffic.) Afterwards, I was sent a huge batch of proofs, out of which I chose three to be edited. (The results are attached at the bottom of this post.)
I was so happy with how everything turned out, I asked Amanda and Jake if they would contribute to this post. In response, they provided some excellent questions that authors should ask themselves, as a type of checklist before choosing a photographer. I’m thrilled to be able to share them with you:
First question to ask: Is this photographer a portrait photographer?
This seems like an obvious question, but it’s actually very important. Many photographers have different specialties, whether it’s event photography, weddings, live performance, art-specific work, etc. So for example, if you have a friend that takes photos and will take your author photo for cheap (or maybe even free), have you seen their portrait work and do they seem to have a knack for it? A portrait, especially one that goes on the back of a book, needs to reflect who you are as a writer. This doesn’t mean that if you wrote a serious book that you have to have a serious picture, but what about your personality plays a big part in your writing? Are you playful? Are you soulful? Are you witty? Photographers with portrait experience, especially with actor headshots, have to have that extra ability to make people comfortable enough to be themselves on camera. So if this photographer is a portrait photographer, you’ll be able to see that reflected in their work. Does it consist of beautifully composed pictures with people smiling awkwardly and stuck in tense poses? Or are you looking at an honest moment captured on camera?
Second question: Does the photographer typically work with non-actors?
Even though having headshot experience is almost crucial for taking an author photo, it’s just as important for the photographer to know how to work with people that aren’t used to being on camera. A great deal of photographers, especially those that work in major cities like NYC or LA, can be actor headshot centric. Look through the photographer’s work and see if they have anything like corporate portraits, family portraits, candids, etc., and see how they compare to the actor headshots. Do they seem just as natural as the headshots? If so, that shows you that they can use those interpersonal skills even on the otherwise camera shy. You know that they can help guide you through the shoot without expecting you to know exactly how to act or pose beforehand.
Third question to ask: Do you know anyone who has used the photographer?
So many of our new clients come to us through recommendations from prior clients. Honestly, these are the people you need to ask the most questions. They’ve been on your side of the shoot and were satisfied with how it all turned out, but why? Ask them what the shoot was like, how long it took, how much it cost, where did they take you (if it was an outdoor shoot,) etc. I would hesitate to use any photographer unless you know someone who has worked with them in the past and can answer your questions objectively. Just because they had a positive experience with them, or even a negative one, doesn’t mean you will have the same one. You may prefer someone that’s bubbly vs. neutral, fast vs. slow, and so on and so forth. The best possible situation, however, is you can get a consensus on this photographer from more than one person. If you know a handful of people who have used the photographer, each of them being from different professions and with different personalities, and they unanimously agree they had a positive experience, then chances are you’ve found the right person to work with.
Thank you so much, Sub/Urban Photography! I love my photos! (The one in the middle is the one I chose for the book jacket.)
What kind of experiences have you had with author photos? As a member of the The Sweet 16s, I know many authors who are in different stages of the process. Please share your thoughts in the comments!