There is nothing more devastating for a portrait photographer than when a client doesn’t like your photos. You train for years, buy the best equipment possible, and come to your session with 100% dedication to providing the best possible experience… and then you get that feedback.
As pro headshot photographers, this doesn’t happen often (maybe one out of 100 shoots), on the rare occasion it does, there is a very specific set of steps we take to guarantee that the client walks away with photos they love.
In many ways, being a portrait photographer is a lot like being part therapist and part private chef.
You’re a therapist in that you’re empathizing with clients about their insecurities and coaching them toward a better photo that minimizes those insecurities. Without deep empathy, you won’t be able to figure out what the client is looking for.
You’re a private chef because you’re creating photos that are tailored to the client’s tastes. A good private chef uses salt, fat, acid, and heat (there’s a great book by Samin Nosratwith that name; I highly recommend you check it out) to create dishes their customers will love. A good photographer uses light, color, and emotion to do the same for their clients.
So, by recognizing the three common reasons clients might not like their initial set of photos, you can be better prepared to course-correct for your next shoot.
In my experience running a headshot photographer studio, here are the top three reasons some people won’t like their first set of photos.
Reason 1: Clients Aren’t Used to Your Lens
Most clients are used to seeing themselves through a mobile phone lens. If they haven’t had professional photos taken in years, they may not even realize what they look like in a regular camera.
What difference does this make?
Well, the focal length of an iPhone camera lens is 26mm…aka ultra-wide lens by any photographer’s standards. Most portrait photographers shoot on a 50mm, 85mm or longer focal length.
That means that, regardless of what lens you’re using, the client may suddenly discover they actually prefer how they look with the wider focal length.
Why does this happen?
Well, depending on the shape of the client’s face, a wide-angle lens may actually be flattering/thinning to their eye. To see the difference, check out this comparison between a wide-angle and telephoto lens from the wonder Dan Vojtech blog post about the topic:
Interestingly, I happen to know for a fact that I prefer myself photographed at 50mm; I’ve done the same test with a self-portrait.
For clients who prefer their face to look “thinner” and don’t mind a more pronounced nose, they may very well prefer the wide-angle perspective of less than 50mm. The old internet myth that “85mm or longer is the best for all portraits” is plain wrong in my experience. It totally depends: 50mm is actually the most similar to the human eye. Why widen your subject’s face? (Unless they want you to.)
How to Fix It
Try swapping lenses. We have a 50mm and 85mm on hand at all times for these scenarios. I wouldn’t actually recommend shooting a professional headshot on a 35mm unless the client wants a really creative look.
Reason 2: Clients Typically Shoot Themselves at a Very Specific Angle
Some people, without even knowing it, take all of their photos from a very specific angle. It can be a side of their face they prefer, or it can be from below or above, and so on. If the photos you’re showing them aren’t from those angles, you may discover that the client doesn’t like any angle that they’re not accustomed to.
I’ve had clients request that I shoot them from atop a six-foot step ladder as a way to prevent showing a double chin. And that’s fine! I’d rather they tell me what they need than keep it to themselves.
The other scenario I see happening is not “camera angle” but with the angle of the client’s chin. Some clients like to duck their chin downward. While I’d typically coach against this practice (it looks unprofessional), if the client insists, I’ll always honor their requests.
You might find a mouth-level shot more professional or natural, but the client may significantly prefer a shot from either above their head or below the chin. Below the chin shots convey more power, as the viewer is literally looking up to the subject. Shots taken above the chin are typically more flattering.
The combination of a wide-angle lens and elevated perspective might be why a client prefers their cell-phone selfies to your shots. In the photo above, I look much thinner in the shot on the left.
How to Fix It
Trust their judgment. In all sessions, I like to tell clients that they can show me any photos of themselves that they particularly like or dislike. This is an easy hack for discovering their preferred angles (especially if they like several photos that are all taken from the same height/side.)
Reason 3: Context Change
Particularly if you’re shooting against a studio backdrop, you might find that clients are suddenly aghast at the result of the photos. There are two situations where a client might need to change the background or context of their studio portrait shots.
First, if the client has any sort of insecurity, studio setups have a tendency to be unforgiving. A neutral backdrop draws attention to the client’s face and may highlight their particular insecurity. This one is tough, because the client may not feel comfortable telling you about this problem. You’ll need to use empathy and gentle prodding to figure out the issue. For 99% of people, I can tell you these insecurities are based on: age, physique, or facial features.
Second, the client might be very uncomfortable in a studio setting. For some people, when the lights are pointing at them, they freak out. You can take steps like make small talk, joke around, or play music to help make them feel more relaxed. It’s just natural that some people will struggle in that context.
A change of background and overall context for the photo might make a big difference in how the client perceives the quality. Both images above are, from a photographer’s standpoint, solid. But, sometimes the client will prefer the formality of a studio backdrop or the casual “candidness” of an outdoor background. They sometimes won’t know that they feel that way until the session is already underway.
How to Fix It
For either of these cases, sometimes the best strategy is to take the client outdoors. Outdoor shots with more complex backgrounds can be more forgiving on the face. They can also be more familiar/comfortable for a client who hasn’t had professional photos taken before.
More to Being a Photographer Than Taking a Photo
Part of being a good photographer is maintaining professionalism during your shoot, no matter what — even if you get constructive feedback.
Over the past four years, I’ve shot upwards of 7,000 headshot sessions, and I’ve had a number of people tell me they didn’t like their first set of photos we did together, at least in the first part of the session. If anyone says they’ve never had a client say that, they’re either lying, unable to read when a client is just being polite, don’t do one-on-one portraits, or don’t work with that many people.
Of the one in a hundred who told me that, I’d say at least half of them just didn’t like their hair/clothing that day. But, guess how I respond every time?
“Okay, I totally understand. Is there anything, in particular, you’d change about the photos?”
What am I doing there?
First, I empathize and say “I understand” without taking it personally. I only care about getting the client the photos they want, so first I need to create a safe space where they can tell me exactly what they don’t like about the current photos.
Second, I ask them directly what they don’t like about “the photos” — not “my photos” or “your photos.” The point is to get a real answer, and removing that personalization in either direction will help.
I get feedback early and often during my shoots. So, when those one-in-a-hundred situations come up, I’m ready to correct and improve.
You have no idea how many times I’ve turned a negative initial reaction into a session the client would describe as “easily the best photo of myself I’ve ever seen.” It just takes a little professionalism and a bulletproof process.
About the author: Dan St Louis is the owner and head photographer at HeadShots Inc, a San Francisco-based photo studio focused exclusively on professional headshots for individuals and companies. When he’s not taking business headshots, he’s likely surfing or playing the latest video game. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.