5 Tips for your Next Portrait Session from a Professional Photographer

Elizabeth Williamsberg Photography will kick off the month-long fundraising drive with the Mama and Me portrait mini-session fundraiser, a special mini portrait session event to kickstart Family Portrait Month. During this special event hosted at Medium Film Studios, 1401 Walnut Street, in Downtown Boulder, all participants will receive a mini twenty-minute portrait session, one Facebook cover image, and two 5×7 fine art gift prints. All net proceeds from every session donated toward Operation Smile, a worldwide children’s medical charity dedicated to helping children and young adults born with facial deformities.

Every year I’ve hosted Family Portrait Month, there are a few Frequently Asked Questions regarding how to prep for your photo session, so I’ve put together the top five tips for how to prepare for this — or any — portrait session.

Do: get your hair or make-up professionally done

Yes, even if you are an Instagram influencer or YouTube make-up star, I recommend getting a professional to do your hair and make-up for any portrait session. While your every day make up is great for every day, professional lighting can easily wash out your skin or downplay that dramatic eye you’ve worked so hard to achieve. Camera make-up should be a bit heavier than every day make-up, but not so heavy handed that it looks unbalanced in your portraits.

Moreover, your make-up artist or hair stylist will know what products to use — products you may not already own — and the best way to apply them to emphasize your natural beauty. And, once your portrait session is complete, you’ll look fabulous and feel pampered and ready for dinner, drinks, date night, a girl’s night out, or any other way you want to paint the town red!

If you want to save some money, here’s some advice from MUAs and hair stylists I’ve known over the years:

  1. Do not use make-up with SPF. Yes, SPF if necessary for everyday make-up, but it can absolutely ruin photographs! SPF sits on top of your skin and reflects harmful light away from your skin, preventing damage. This is great for your skin, but terrible for photographs and can result in your skin looking shiny or washed out. My recommendation: invest in a make-up setting spray with SPF. Kate Somerville UncompliKated SPF 50 Soft Focus Makeup Setting Spray (available on Amazon or at Sephora) is a setting spray with SPF 50 that you apply on top of your make-up; apply your SPF-free make-up prior to the session, have your portraits done, and then apply a setting spray with SPF afterward.
  2. Hair or Make-Up: look for matte products hair and face products Glossy vs. matte is a cyclical trend, but one thing that always looks bad: oily skin. Much like SPF products, anything that reflects light for a glossy look is going to end up with your hair or face looking greasy. Yes, those glossy lips look gorgeous; glossy foreheads, not so much. The solution: look for low-gloss or matte products for your face. For your hair, try Paul Mitchell INVISIBLEWEAR Shampoo,10.14 Fl Oz. For contouring, try to avoid products that use reflective particles or appear shimmery and shiny; go for a matte concealer one or two shades lighter than your foundation (I use NARS Radiant Creamy Concealer in Chantilly, or invest in a powder contouring kit like Tarte’s tarteist PRO glow highlight contour palette
  3. Au natural humans: protect yourself from shine! Shine is the enemy of portrait photographers; turn around times are greatly reduced when we do not have to spend hours Photoshopping away shiny skin! For men, gender neutral individuals, or anyone who prefers to avoid make-up, I still highly recommend grabbing some blotting paper to sop up any excess oil (such as Boscia Black Charcoal Blotting Linens, which are excellent for oily or acne-prone skin) or blotting powder (I highly recommend MAKE UP FOR EVER HD Microfinish Pressed Powder -6.2g/0.21oz by MAKEUP FOREVER, which I never go anywhere without!)
  4. Want a Professional for less? Check out a store or beauty school! Many stores, such as MAC Cosmetics, The Body Shop, and Sephora provide make-over services with a minimum purchase ($50 for Sephora). You should call in advance to make an appointment and find out the minimum purchase required, though many have walk-in services available if they are not otherwise busy. Even better: Sephora Rouge and MAC Addict members can have the makeovers done for free! Additionally, call your local beauty school — their students need people on which to practice, and you can often get your make-up or hair done at a significantly reduced rate–sometimes for just the cost of the products used!

Don’t: wait until the day of the session to try a new hair style, go for a facial, or get a spray tan

For weeks, I’ve been eyeing a new hair color trend for fall: toasted coconut hair. I spoke with several salons, interviewed hair stylists, got quotes, and finally chose a hair artist whose portfolio looked perfect, who knew exactly what trend I was talking about, and guaranteed me she could absolutely make my hair look like the photo doing the rounds on Instagram. I was giddy for days after I booked my appointment, and everyone I knew seemed to share the excitement, wondering the day after why I hadn’t posted pictures on Instagram of my new, on-trend hair.

The answer: because it wasn’t new, on-trend toasted coconut hair.

My hair is not a disaster by ANY stretch of the imagination–everyone who’s seen it has said it is very lovely. But it is not what I wanted. It is not the looking I was going for, and it is not exactly the best hair cut and color for my face shape, my skin tone, and my personal style, but it is not the disaster it could have been.

Even if you’ve been going to your stylist for ever, a new cut, style, or color may not look the way you think it will. Your portraits should look like you, not like someone else! Getting a special hair cut or style for one day may make you look amazing, but will it result in a photograph that looks like you, that is recognizably you? Finally, your portraits should be timeless; a new on-trend cut or color may look fabulous on you, but in twenty years will it still be the amazing hair you think it is now or more like a 1980s poofy nightmare?

Guys: this applies to facial hair! If you usually have a full beard, shaving the day off your portraits may be a very bad idea; sun exposure may have resulted in a different (lighter) skin tone where the sun’s rays have been limited in reaching your skin! If you want to go from fuzzy to clean-shaven, give yourself a couple days to shave consistently to get a more-even skin tone or anticipate putting a little tinted moisturizer on your freshly shaved skin. Make sure you use shaving cream and are exfoliating regularly to prevent your freshly-shaved face from razor burn or ingrown hairs! If you haven’t had a shave in a while, but you want to go for the scruffy look, start trimming to your desired length a few days in advance as well.

Thinking about getting a tan?  Similarly, you should not get your spray tan the day off your portrait session. The tan you walk out of the salon with is not the tan you will have eight hours later; some spray tans continue to darken even after your first shower while others appear much darker until your first shower! Moreover, spray tans have a habit of bleeding onto everything–sheets, clothes, etc. — and make-up products may not adhere as well or, worse yet, may remove some of the tan on your face. Plus, studio lighting is HOT — you may well end up sweating a bit and ending up with a streaky, blotchy, or otherwise undesirable tan.

Facials are another form of pampering that seem like a no-brainer, but they’re designed not for picture day! If you are not a regular at your salons when it comes to facials — whether this is your first ever, or your first in a few years — you will want to give your skin a week buffer between your facial and your photographs. Facials can actually cause breakouts, and unless you’ve patch tested all of the products your spa has used, you cannot be sure how your skin will react to even the most gentle and all-natural facial products. Remember: hypo-allergenic is a marketing term; just because your spa says they use hypo-allergenic products does not mean you will not have a reaction.

My recommendation: if you want to update your hair, get a tan or get a facial, wax your eyebrows, or make any other major changes, do it at least 72 hours before your session! That way, if you don’t like it, there’s still time to change the cut, adjust the color, or (if worse comes to worst) get extensions put in.

Do: wear clothing that makes you feel comfortable and confident

There is nothing worse than clothes that are itchy, stiff, tight, or uncomfortable — and it shows in your portraits. The simple fact is: if your clothes aren’t comfortable, you will not look comfortable. This is true no matter what age you are. If you are going to buy a new outfit for your portrait session, make sure you try it on for fit and flattery — does it emphasize what you want to emphasize? Do you feel comfortable in this outfit? Wear your clothing around the house to get used to the feel of the fabric and where the clothes sit on your body. Break in your shoes in advance as well! This is not as applicable for a mini session (unless you intend to go out afterward, but if your session is an hour or two long, there will be a lot of sitting, standing, and moving around. Brand new shoes will make every step agony relatively quickly — especially if they are a perfect fit or (worse yet) too small.

Do: arrive on time

Let’s take the ethics of making someone wait out of the equation. Shit happens – there’s a traffic jam, you get a flat, other things go wrong and delay you. Most people understand that we cannot plan for every contingency, and as adults, we all know it is rude to keep someone waiting and would never do it deliberately.

That said, there are reasons you should give yourself an extra ten or fifteen minutes travel time to try and minimize any delays that could cause you to be tardy. If you are having your make-up done or hair styled at the photographer’s studio — especially on the day of a mini session — the artist or stylist may not do the best job possible because they are rushing or simply unable to do everything you would like because they need to be ready on time for the next client and keep things flowing for the photographer.

Depending on your photographer, punctuality can make or break your photo session. Some photographers are natural light photographers, which means they do not use additional light sources for your portraits. Their appointment times are based on the sun — when the sun is predicted to produce the most flattering light, also known as the golden hour. (If you find a natural light photographer who suggests a noon appointment, you should ask a LOT of questions to make sure you will end up with the best photographs possible. It is possible to be a natural light photographer and shoot at noon, but it takes talent, experience, and skill. Your neighbor with a camera may not be the best choice.) The sun does not wait for you or your photographer, so showing up late to an appointment with a natural light photographer — or any outdoor session — will shorten the time your photographer has to shoot. Your photographer may rush to get all of the images you agreed upon, and you will either end up with a product that is not as fabulous as it could have been or waiting several weeks while your photographer makes adjustments in Photoshop.

Even if your photographer is a studio photographer (or making outdoor portraits with pro lighting that can overpower the sun/compensate for ambient light) you may not be the only session they have booked that day. They will need to move on to their next client on time, and you will once again end up with fewer photos or photos of less quality.

Most of all, running late is stressful for everyone involved–and it shows. Just like wearing uncomfortable clothes, stress shows in photographs, and when you are running late, you will feel stressed. If you are being photographed with someone else — a group of friends, a spouse, or your family — the relationship captured will look very different from the loving relationship that should be seen because running late puts people on edge.

My recommendation: plan and prepare to reschedule if necessary. Give yourself more time than you think you need to arrive. If you’ve never been to the location, don’t just rely on Siri or Google Maps–double-check the location. If you’ve been to the location, make sure you give yourself time to park and assume finding parking will take you a few minutes.

If you are hiring a professional make-up artist or hair stylist, tell them what time you absolutely need to walk out the door to be on time as well as what you are having done when you book your appointment. Make sure to communicate this again with your artist or stylist, and set your drop-dead deadline for leaving is five or ten minutes before your GPS says it should be. (For example: if your portrait session is at 4:00 PM and the salon is fifteen minutes away, tell your stylist you need to be out the door by 3:30 PM.) That way, if your hair does not want to cooperate (it happens) or your eyes keep watering away your eyeliner (me!) you have a small buffer to work with.

Make sure you have your photographer’s studio number (or cell number if you are shooting on location) and be prepared to call and reschedule as soon as you know you are going to be more than 10 minutes later. Yes, your photographer may charge a fee to reschedule (they’re not going to be able to book someone else for your session time on short notice) but your pictures will look MUCH better when everyone is relaxed and having a great time!

Do: communicate with your photographer (and make-up artist or hair stylist, if using) before your session

Communication is the key to any relationship, and you should have a working relationship with your photographer! You and your photographer (as well as your make-up artist and hair stylist) should be on the same page about the goals of your photo session. Before you book your session, you should discuss what you want your portraits to look like and what your goals for your portraits are. Are you looking for images for your social media profile, or are you looking for fine art wall portraits for your home? Are you looking for a natural, boho style or a glamorous, editorial style image? Every photographer should ask you questions about what you are looking for, but if they don’t, make sure you state your expectations. Like a job interview, hiring a professional photographer is a relationship that works both ways; you need to make sure you can work with each other and feel comfortable interacting, but also make sure what they are offering is what you want.

Whether your session is twenty minutes or an all day event (or something in-between) make sure your photographer knows what images you absolutely must have!  Do you want all family portraits or a session that are some group portraits, some individual portraits of your children, and some portraits of just you and your spouse? Is it imperative that you have full length portraits or do you only need headshots? If your images are for professional purposes (publications, acting, modeling, etc) communicate what you absolutely must have from your session. If there are stylistic requirements, say so. For example: some publications have very strict guidelines about engagement announcement images such as eyes being on the same line, vertical, with minimal blank space. If you need images made within such guidelines, provide them in advance. If this is outside of your photographer’s ability, style, or comfort zone, they should tell you so you can hire a photographer for whom such images are their forte!

Moreover, you should communicate your timeline for your session as well. If you are going to a hair stylist or make-up artist in advance, let your photographer know. If you are going out to dinner or have other plans afterward, let the photographer know so they can be conscientious with time management. I have definitely lost track of time during an amazing session where everyone was having a great time. If you need to be somewhere, let your photographer know in advance so they can create a timeline of the images to be made and know when to cut image to make sure that the images you NEED are captured.

This is also applicable to your make-up artist or hair stylist.  If you want to emphasize a particular feature, tell them! If you are limited for time, say so! Speak up about what you need, and if you are not getting what you want, say something so that it can be made right!

My recommendation: think of your pre-photography consult like a job interview. If you have things that are absolutely non-negotiable, say so. If there’s something about your body you would like to emphasize — or something you would like to hide — let us know! Please communicate in advance so that your photographer (and make-up artist or hair stylist) can plan and be prepared for you so that your session runs as smoothly as possible and you get the best possible images from each and every session! AND, if you feel your photographer is not listening, if you feel your photographer may not be able to photograph what you’re asking, or you have any other doubts, find one that you feel comfortable working with!