Want to be a better portrait photographer? Get in front of somebody else’s lens

Tips & Techniques

When was the last time you had your photo taken? I mean, not just a quick selfie or holiday snap, but an actual portrait of yourself taken by another photographer?

For most of us, it’s often a case of the Cobbler’s children having no shoes. We are so busy and focused on our clients that we rarely ever have time to update our own professional photographs. But in today’s age of visual branding, it’s more important than ever to practice what we preach, and actually have a nice professional up-to-date photograph of ourselves for our website and social media.

Tamsin, a local photographer friend reached out recently and asked if I’d take some new headshots for her non-photography work. I jumped at the opportunity and suggested we do a swap. It had been several years since I had my photograph taken by another photographer and I thought it would be an interesting exercise to remind myself how my clients feel in front of the camera. Tamsin and I quickly set up a couple of shoot dates. Hers would be shot in my studio with a plain background, mine would be outdoors in a more natural relaxed setting.

Like many photographers I don’t relish having my own picture taken, I am far more comfortable behind the camera. Most of my profile pictures have been self-portraits, and it had been a whole year since I’d even done one of those. While many people find some joy in experimenting with self-portraits I generally find them to be somewhat of a time-suck and usually yield just one image that is even halfway usable. Most of my expressions look contrived and I was keen to see what another professional could get out of a difficult subject (ie. me).

Photographing Tamsin

I tried to approach Tamsin’s shoot as I would with any client, although I have to be honest and say that I was somewhat apprehensive about photographing another photographer. I really like Tamsin’s work, she has a very natural candid style, something that I have always struggled to get right. My work tends to veer towards the more posed, static end of the spectrum and I was slightly concerned that Tamsin wouldn’t like my style.

Tamsin does not generally shoot indoors with strobes, so I was curious to see how she would feel in front of all the equipment. It turned out that Tamsin, very much like myself, is also not particularly comfortable in front of the lens. This is like 80% of my clients if I’m being honest. Even a very quick headshot session is mostly spent helping them to feel relaxed and confident.

I did have to give Tamsin more direction than I was expecting in terms of how to stand, although in hindsight this makes sense. As the subject, we cannot possibly know what the photographer is seeing and we do need to trust the photographer on this matter. When I’m shooting I tend to almost over-direct to begin with, and then back off a little as the person becomes more relaxed.

In general, the shoot went very smoothly. Tamsin gave me some information about what she wanted plus a reference photograph that I needed to match the background of so it was relatively simple. Although these types of images are fairly run of the mill, it was fun to photograph another photographer and see her reaction.

When I asked Tamsin how she felt she said that “it was certainly easier being in front of the camera in my 20s than it is in my 40s!” She continued “It’s also been a while since I’ve had professional photos taken but I think that as long as the person taking your photos has a sense of humour, reassures you throughout and helps you feel more relaxed it can make a world of difference.”

Phew, so I think I did OK during the shoot! Tamsin chose 8 images and I set about retouching them. This opened up another can of worms related to the retouching styles. We actually didn’t discuss it at all, we just agreed to ‘do our thing’ and then make any adjustments later.

More and more recently, I have gravitated towards a much lighter retouching style. I want people to look refreshed as opposed to 10 years younger, however, I do understand that some people like a slightly heavier hand than perhaps I have been doing lately. Tamsin did admit to me later that she did in fact do a slight amount more retouching on a couple of the images. A great reminder to double-check with the client about how much retouching they want.

My turn to be photographed

The following week it was my turn to be in front of the lens. You might think that it would have been a breeze preparing for the shoot, being a photographer myself and dishing out advice regularly to clients on what to wear. But no, I was a hot mess of anxiety. Of course, I left it until the day of the shoot to actually figure out what I was going to wear, only to discover that half of it was in the laundry and the other half was actually quite unflattering.

Despite having experience and knowledge in this aspect I still felt unsure of myself and definitely would have benefitted from more guidance. This was a beautiful reminder that my clients are most likely feeling even more unsure of themselves and need a firm but gentle handhold through the whole preparation process.

Now for the actual shoot. We went to a park, where, horror of horrors, there were actual live people around enjoying themselves! I haven’t felt this self-conscious and awkward perhaps since that time when I tripped up walking on stage for an orchestral audition and fell flat on my face in front of the entire panel of judges.

I am possibly one of the most awkward people to photograph and I needed a lot of direction. There is a sort of vulnerability and blind trust in having your photo taken. To begin with, I felt myself wanting to help with the locations and was analysing where the light was coming from, but after about 10 minutes we started having fun and I was able to relax and just be a little more natural. It was actually nice in the end to hand over the reins to somebody else.

Tamsin admitted that she’d had similar feelings to me prior to the shoot. “Would she judge the way I photograph?” she asked herself, “would my style of photography or editing techniques be her cup of tea?”

“More questions and insecurities can come up when you’re face to face with someone that does the same job as you but luckily, Alex was incredibly complimentary throughout and that made me feel instantly at ease and confident about taking her photos,” Tamsin said, “which in turn reflect how Alex comes across in the portraits I took.”

The images Tamsin took of me are some of my favourites that I’ve ever had. I’m usually very self-critical but she definitely captured a more light-hearted and playful side to my character. That is a testament to how natural and relaxed she made me feel as the shoot progressed. A mixture of goofing around and being a little bit vulnerable and connecting with one another on a deeper level than just taking a few photographs really shows in the images. Perhaps that is something I myself have got lazy with in my own photography.

The takeaway

All in all, it was a very worthwhile experience. As photographers, we are doing this process every time we shoot, and it is easy for it to become ‘just another day’s work’. For our clients, however, having their photos taken is not something that happens very often. To them, it is a big deal. We must remember this, from the first interactions and guiding them through what to wear, to the shoot itself, and of course to the post-processing and file delivery.

It was fantastic to relinquish control and see what another photographer would make of a location as well. I certainly wouldn’t have thought of doing some of the things that Tamsin did, and I’m keen to add those ideas the next time I shoot. I hope she was equally able to take as much away from the experience as I did.

“Despite my initial insecurities of photographing another professional photographer,” Tamsin later told me, “I was pleasantly surprised by how everything just flowed between us. That compatibility of us working together has encouraged and motivated us to join forces in the not too distant future and I look forward to it!”

One thing I would emphasise is that Tamsin is very much a different photographer from myself, both in style and genre. She loves to photograph families, I love to avoid photographing families! We both appreciate each other’s styles, however. I think that this also helped because there was naturally no feelings of competition between us. I would happily work with Tamsin in the future, and would heartily recommend her to potential clients that fit her better than myself. I feel quite confident that she would do the same for me.

So what are you waiting for? Go find another photographer to do a swap with. At the very least you’ll end up with some new profile images that you don’t have to retouch. At the best, you might come away with a learning experience, a new partner in crime, or even better, a new friend.

You can see more of Tamsin’s work on her website and Instagram.

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