Please Don’t Pick That Photo

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As a photographer, there are times when I’ve done a mental facepalm because one of my lesser images made it through the culling process, and my clients latched onto that EXACT image. Or I haven’t had a chance to cull the photos because I did the shoot tethered. I then let my clients help with that process in real-time, and their choices are, well, not what I would let through my professional filter.

I may get in trouble for this post because I’m going to be a little more honest than I should be. Or at least, I’m going to speak about something that’s usually hush-hush.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a longstanding quote that I use both sincerely and sometimes in jest. I’m no saint, and sometimes it’s also the only way I can explain someone’s style or choices.

A Photographer’s Perspective

One thing that makes photographers exceptional is having a point of view with their work. That’s why the best photographers in the world have a unique style or aspect of their images, which makes them instantly recognizable. As a result, what I think is a good portrait doesn’t always match the opinion of my peers and, in the worst situation, the opinions of my clients. 

One benefit of having a point of view or a unique style as a photographer is that it acts as a filter. I don’t expect people who love bright and airy pictures to hire me. My ideal clients love vibrant and dramatically lit images. In fact, I’ve told potential clients that I’m not a great fit for them because they wanted images that didn’t align with my style. It’s not because I don’t want to take amazing photos of them. The problem is that I see the world in vibrant and dramatic photographs and can’t easily turn that off. I’ll take a couple of bright and airy photos that aren’t as great as a bright and airy specialty photographer, and then my brain will relapse. I’ll suddenly be taking a moody, shadowy shot even in the middle of a sunny day.

It’s happened.

A few times.

But what happens when a client wants the kind of work I produce, we wrap a stellar session, and as we go through the images on my computer immediately after, they pick an image that I would have instantly thrown in the discard pile?

Bad Photos Happen

There are photographers reading this who are probably laughing or chastising me right now.

See, I do all my studio-based sessions tethered. This means that my computer is hooked up to my camera, and as I take an image, the picture instantly gets transferred to that computer. This allows me to angle my laptop to face both my client and me so we can simultaneously look at the images and collaboratively make adjustments in real-time with a 16” high-resolution monitor. 

Let me be frank; there are going to be bad photos. I will catch my clients blinking, in the middle of speaking, halfway through a sneeze, or rolling their eyes at me for a stellar dad joke/pun. It’s inevitable, and any professional photographer who says otherwise is lying to you. But, on the other hand, these images typically make for some great laughs when we review them later.

But sometimes, I get clients who prefer to pose themselves and do things that break every photographic rule of composition or flattering body positioning vs. letting me direct them. I’ve taken a lot of photography courses on how to pose people well based on body type, the mood of the shoot, clothing, and other factors, and occasionally I get clients who give those lessons a giant middle finger. And all with huge smiles on their faces.

And that’s normally fine. Until we review unedited and unculled images on my computer, or they ask to see the pictures I have already discarded. 

Note: Only my headshot clients see unculled images from their sessions. I like going through the images with my clients so they can pick their favorites immediately after I put down the camera because it reduces the overall time of the session (a key factor in my service offering).

Story Time

But the other day, this totally bit me in the butt. I was photographing this lovely lady for her headshots, and she was just “meh” on any image that I directed her posing and expression. When I let her pose herself and snapped the photos, I was a bit flabbergasted while she bounced with glee at the sight of the images on my laptop. Her preferred images had distracting hand placement, double chins, or her head tilted back so far I could see her brain through her nostrils (Okay, slight exaggeration but you get the point). Look at my portfolio – I’m decent at posing and know what to look for. 

Then we got to the culling process on my computer, and she selected her self-posed images primarily. Now she’s a business owner, and these headshots will populate her website. I’m terrified that the pictures she has picked will drive away traffic and that my name might be attached to them (I warned you that I would be too honest in this post). So while we’re narrowing down images, I gently pushed to include some pictures that are “normal” for the majority of the world. 

And by “pushed,” I said, “I think this is a powerful photo of you. It shows confidence here, and this other one looks really warm and welcoming. Your smile looks really genuine, and your hands are present but do not draw focus from your face. I think you should consider these options for your website too.”

I still struggle with how that session went. She walked away ecstatic with the images we captured, including the two I recommended she also take home. Did I do my job, or should I have kept my mouth shut and let her walk away with only the images she selected initially?

I’ve had this occur on several of my shoots. That “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” quote reminds me that people see themselves as beautiful in ways that I don’t. It’s what guides me when a client asks for a pose that I don’t agree with, but I still want to give them what they want. I don’t know if I’m serving my clients by acquiescing to their requests or failing them by not using my expert opinion and experience to guide them to better different results.

The Expert’s Opinion

As a professional photographer, I share my opinion when needed and express concerns as necessary to help my clients get the best possible images. Sometimes that means saying, “We can do that, but here are the trade-offs,” or “I’m happy to do so, but that means we can’t do X,” or “I love that! I’m going to make a few adjustments that I think will really take this to the next level!” But when it comes to selecting their images? The best I can do is give them a strong starting point or suggest what I think will work best for their application. 

Otherwise, I smile, nod at their choices, and promise to do my best editing with their selections.

I guess this blog post is serving more as a rant than a “please listen to your photographer” plea. But if you take anything from this article, I hope it’s that photographers genuinely want you to get amazing images and are working insanely hard to make that happen. So if they make a suggestion during your photographic experience, I recommend considering their input. 

And pick whatever images make you happy.

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