Behind the portrait/headshot: an in-depth look at my process
What makes a truly excellent portrait or headshot?
I decided to create this (mega) post for a few different people (so if this is you, keep reading):
- – You want to know the difference between luxury and regular photography (apart from the hype).
- – You’re a business owner or brand who wants authentic headshots/portraits, but you aren’t sure how to accomplish this.
- – You’re looking for a photographer, but want to educate yourself on what to look for before you invest.
- – You want to hire the best portrait / headshot photographer in Nairobi (or elsewhere) – but aren’t sure what to look for.
- – You’re an artist who likes my work (and you want to know my process).
- – You’re new at photography, and would like to learn what makes an excellent photo.
I created this post so that you could understand how my mind processes imagery, as well as what you should be looking out for if you hire a high-end photographer for your portraits and headshots. High-end photography is not for everyone – some people just want a cute photo of themselves, or to get the photos done without much attention to detail. If that’s you, then I’m not your photographer, and this entire post might seem like overkill.
But if you’re detail-oriented, spend a lot of time in your thoughts/feelings, care about the finer things, and value how experiences make you feel – read on.
Here’s what I’ll be covering:
– The difference between luxury and regular photography (and no, it’s not just because of more expensive equipment, or fancy-looking branding).
– Why I’ve chosen to edit the colours the way I have (plus details of my general selection process)
– An ENTIRE series from a headshot session.
– Some of the 3 and 4 star images, and why I would NOT pick them.
– The final 5 star images (and why I picked them).
– What I do in Photoshop, and why this is crucial.
– Answers to any questions you might have
Grab a cuppa, and enjoy the rollercoaster that is my mind. Please note that – for transparency – EVERY single image is clickable and can be enlarged.
What’s the difference between luxury and regular photography?
I’ve branded my work as “bespoke/luxury photography”, and often get asked what it is that makes my work different from other people’s. I mean, why should someone pay me my rates when they can hire a number of great photographers for a much lower fee?
Let’s start with this question (which only you can answer): If someone has amazing pictures of someone else in their portfolio, does this mean that they’ll be guaranteed to also make you look and feel beautiful/wonderful? After I released my self-portrait project, I was offered free shoots left right and center by other photographers. But through my own 8 years of photography experience, I was able to see that about 90% of them wouldn’t paint me in a flattering light. In fact, I could tell from their portfolios that they didn’t care whether there was complete comfort, strong presence, or awkwardly angled limbs. They didn’t care whether I looked like me. I’ll go as far as to say that 90% of the photographers I have seen don’t care as much about whether the photos are authentic – what matters to them is whether they took a good photo. As unfortunate as this sounds, a large number of us are photographing with an audience of photographers in mind. We love the compliments of “great lighting”, “superb framing”, and “wow what a wonderful edit” – and so a lot of us care less about whether the subject looked completely like themselves, and more about whether we did things “right”. I’ve been in that horrible cycle of looking for validation from fellow photographers (and in some ways, I sometimes still struggle with this), and so my figure of 90% may not be an exaggeration. But what’s cool about this little “fact” is this:
The other 10% are in the luxury industry (much to the annoyance of the rest).
Here’s the thing: if you’re not into cars, then you don’t understand all the fuss between someone wanting a Mercedes vs getting a simple old car that just DRIVES. If you’re not into perfume (I collect fragrances), you won’t understand why someone would pay $500 for a scent that goes away after a few hours (I mean, unless it’s Amouage). So in the same way, I don’t usually blame someone for not getting the idea of luxury vs normal photography – though it usually means they aren’t the client for me. I get rude comments from photographers who don’t see eye to eye with me, from how I’m over-priced to how I’m ripping people off. That’s kind of what someone uninterested in fashion would probably say about a limited edition handmade pair of shoes – it just means we don’t think the same, and that’s ok!
Having said that, it’s very easy for anyone to say they’re a luxury photographer just because they got a fancy logo and hired a $12,000 branding expert (I, uh, actually did that many years ago with a different brand – but I digress). Let’s be absolutely honest here, since that is what a LOT of luxury service providers are doing – creating a brand of luxury that is based on a whole bunch of HYPE. I get that the devil’s advocate in you might be wondering what the difference is – a photo is a photo is a photo, and you could hire some Instagram teen with 50k followers to shoot you for 10x less than I would. So what’s the true difference?
Ladies, gentlemen, and those of you elsewhere on the gender spectrum: The difference between a cheaper photographer and myself, is the level of care involved in every second of the work that’s done. I do what I do with love and obsession, as well as careful scrutiny. From the forms you fill out, to how you feel during the shoot as well as after, and even when it comes to your experience on this very website – I am here to be of such high service to you, that you can’t help but feel special and valued. That’s the real point of the luxury industry – making you feel loved, in some sense. The Ritz Carlton, for example, is partly more expensive than the Hilton because their wake-up calls involve genuinely caring about how your day will go – not some automated voice message that makes you feel like a number. I mean, they’re also pricier because they’re amazing in every other way, but it’s a great example. I once had the privilege of looking behind the scenes at their staff culture, and it’s incredible how much the joy of a team will affect how a client feels. So much care goes into their work – and so they price accordingly.
So, in my case, I care about whether you are comfortable, and whether you feel good about the whole experience. Every moment – from enquiring about my services to receiving your images – is meant to have you feeling amazing, comfortable, and important. Everything I do related to my clients is with their comfort and joy in mind.
“But Melissa – doesn’t all this care put into your business just make you a luxury MARKETER?”
GOOD POINT. And you’d be right. But the thing that makes me different, is that I put an equal amount of care into my photography. I care about whether there is a sense of power or character in your eyes, I care about your insecurities, I care about how you’re going to be represented in my images, I care about the first impression your images will leave, and I care about how my work will make you feel about yourself. When your testimonials constantly mention that your work has caused self-love, well… the proof is in the pudding.
My colour choices
Now that my many disclaimers are out of the way – here is the before and after between the RAW (unedited, straight out of camera) image and the colour processing I did. I share this because I actually tend to edit one image quickly (in terms of colour) and then batch the rest to look exactly like it. Then, after I’ve done all the culling mentioned below, I’ll go through each individual image and play with it (and its colours) in detail. I work this way because it makes all the images a little bit even in terms of the “look”, which makes my decision-making process less biased. If there are multiple looks/outfits/backdrops, I’ll batch colour process each “set”. Sometimes this initial process is done in black-and-white to help me truly see the lines/forms, after which I’ll move it into colour later on (if necessary).
In this case, I found the blacks too harsh and wanted the images to have a slightly airy feel about them. I’m wearing a pretty neutral pallet, so I figured it’d be cool to give it a dreamy wash (plus a mild film look, because yes, I jumped on to that bandwagon and now I can’t get off). I also made my lipstick pop a little more as it actually is brighter in real life – it’s always important to me, as you’ll come to see, to have details look as they do in truth (instead of what a silly piece of tech decided was reality, but please don’t tell my camera I said that). Finally, I also took down the highlights a little, desaturated the yellows, and added some warmth to my skin-tone to add a slight glow, and accentuate my brown/desi roots (I’m wearing that dot for a reason, y’all).
Then I’ll flag the images (that’s my first round) in a quick cull that’s based on only keeping images that are “ok and/or better”. I tend to also include cute bloopers here, as some clients get a kick out of that.
After this, I’ll make sure I can only see the flagged images. From here, I will pick the images that I know my client will like, and mark them with 3 stars. From here, I pick the best ones and mark them with 4 stars. Finally, the best images will be marked with 5 stars, and the cute and funny outtakes will be marked with a different colour label. I tend to only edit the 5-star images for my “You, Yourself and You” package, but all my other packages include every single image. Clients then get all images that are flagged, as well as the cute/funny outtakes in a separate folder. The 5-star images will get posted on my blog (if the client didn’t ask for privacy), and also put in a separate folder for the client (so they can know my professional opinion on which images are the best, which is very helpful for actors and performers, as well as indecisive souls).
The entire set of images
- In this case, I flagged almost every single image just to be able to show them all to you (including the really unflattering ones).
- If I was behind the camera, there would’ve been way less images of the same look. Having said that, I shoot VERY quickly. Meaning, I can get you 10 of the best images you’ve ever seen of yourself in about 15-20 minutes. So a 2-hour shoot means that you end up with A LOT of images.
- If you click on the images below, they’ll become huge, and then you can stare at me close-up.
The images that didn’t make it (and why)
I’m so glad I got these two. They represent the look that every selfie-lover gives me. See, on your mobile phone the wide-eyed look WORKS. On a camera like mine, you just look like you’re either over-posing, or like I caught you being… blank. You may not agree with me – yet – but that’s because you haven’t seen the rest of the images. Sure, these are pretty images that are suitable for Facebook (and will get you all the likes and comments), but we don’t want a pretty picture: we want either the best image of you that you’ve ever seen, or something that makes people go, “THAT IS SO YOU!!”
These don’t cut it. Also, holy eyebags?? Photoshop is great, but I like to get things right in-camera. I don’t have eyebags that massive, but sometimes the camera catches your face in an unflattering way. I try to make sure we find out what is flattering for you during the shoot, so that we can make you look as wonderful as you do in person (even if you don’t think you do – trust me, I’ve never met a person I considered “ugly”).
Armpit, weird unflattering arm angle that makes me look skinnier than I am, A PIECE OF DEO (my Onnit deo is solid and made of natural components, so it’s not THAT gross – but still). It’s got a lovely candid expression, but it just won’t do. As for the second one – I do love a good “I’m just closing my eyes, no big deal” image – but this one isn’t flattering. If I had to save it in Photoshop, I’d shut my eye with the tools there. However, there are far better images, so there’s no point wasting my time on an image that is only “ok”. Also my mouth looks tensed up.
These are cute portraits. The first one isn’t a personal favourite simply because it feels like my classic Indian “soft gaze” that I sometimes do at photoshoots. It’s lovely and all, but there’s little character or substance to it. The second one is a gorgeous portrait in my opinion, but feels a little too commercial. It doesn’t really scream “Melissa de Blok”. In terms of aesthetics it’s great but – we’re looking for substance.
“Hi, operator? I seem to have lost my neck and I don’t know where it went.”
You see yourself all the time. So an image like this of yourself would be pretty cool. But to someone who doesn’t know you, they have no idea that you actually have a neck. My head looks like it got glued directly on to my shoulders. I also don’t like how much eye-white is showing in my right eye on the first one (now that I’ve pointed it out, you’ll never unsee it). The second one has an annoying tuft of hair that would’ve been fixed if I’d been behind the camera (yes, I could Photoshop it, but… why?). Also, holy eyebags (these can be fixed, but still)! I should add that the last one would be good for an actor playing up on a sexual side (let’s be honest, I look like I’m about to take off my clothes here) – but it’s not one of my favourites, primarily because of the lip tension.
This is a lovely image, but once again my chin kind of disappears into my neck. It’s also just not as great as the other images – though I’d give it to a client anyway. It’s also out of focus, so there’s that. I only give out of focus images if the expression is TO DIE FOR – because then it’s less about the technicality, and more about the moment.
These are all lovely, but none of them show anything powerful. They look like a quick picture was taken. That’s fine if you have a friend who has a professional camera, but my job is to make you look your best: natural but still with some sort of pop. I also feel like the last one has just a bit TOO much hair going on – that can be sexy, but here it just covers the face ( and I look a little uncomfortable – which is a BIG no-no for me). Also, no division between chin and neck – though this can be blamed on the fact that I couldn’t actually see myself…
Some more “caught in headlights” images that, quite frankly, make me look like I’m going to devour someone alive. It’s hilarious, because I genuinely thought I was being sexy in these poses (those darn mobile selfies again!). The first one could be a great portrait, if it weren’t for the awkward angle my arm is in. That’s one of my biggest pet peeves with photographers – when they don’t pay attention to the awkward angles of limbs, making a person’s body look distorted if you don’t know the subject personally. Images should showcase your truth, even to a stranger.
This image is gorgeous, and just another example of “good, but not GREAT”. If there are a few images that have similar expressions, I’ll go back and forth between them, over and over, until I’ve decided which one is best. During a session, I’d probably try to recreate the expression so that we have more images to choose from.
This is one of those images that I don’t end up giving to clients – but had to be shown anyway. There are some clients who think they want ALL the images, and it’s like… No you don’t. You don’t want this picture of you looking at your own boobs. Unless you’re like me, and you get a kick out of outtakes. Good thing all but one of my packages leave you with an outtakes folder (for your amusement). 😉
When clients work with me, I make sure to find out about their insecurities in advance, so that my culling takes that into account. In this case, I’m actually really insecure about my very skinny wrists because they get me awful “concerned” comments about my health, no matter what my weight is (they never ever get bigger, even when I’m a size 12/14). As a result, I try not to accentuate or highlight my wrists in images, to avoid the hurtful comments. This is such a stunning expression (and I’m saying this professionally, not because it’s my face!). But that half wrist makes me look skinnier than I am – and cropping it will take away other things I like about the framing. I’d give this to a client if the expression was worth it, but also make sure they’ve first seen all the best images to avoid any insecurities taking over their mind/heart.
I love genuine laughter images. But… the flattering ones. The ones that make a client look powerful and confident. This is not one of them. This looks like I just got caught doing something wrong and I’m half-willing to admit it.
Great images – except the first one distorts how my face ACTUALLY looks, and the second one is out of focus. Unless the client wants an image focused on her breasts, this just doesn’t work.
The first one is lovely as a portrait, but again – ok, not amazing. During a session, I’d probably have played with this hair motion a little more so that we get a shot I’m happy with (for context: that’d take 2-3 mins – I shoot quickly and don’t believe in exhausting my clients!). The second one has a stunning expression, but I absolutely hate images that have a stub of arm framed in. Unless this was a 5-star image (which it is not), I tend to dislike cut-off limbs, as there’s a sense of the image not being complete.
1: “There’s a photo shoot happening?” I look like I’m not very happy, as though the photographer showed up in my house unannounced. First impressions matter, and when it comes to portraits and headshots – you never know who will get the wrong/right impression of you from your image.
2: “I’m trying to look sexy. Is this sexy?”
3: “This wine is nice.”
Trying the squinch. Failing. Number 1 is lovely but there are similar ones that are better.
This smile doesn’t look comfortable.
One eye is smaller than the other. Sure, I could widen one or narrow another, but why do that when I can just get it right during the session? While I do a lot of detail work on people’s skin, I don’t want to be messing about with what the image actually was (especially when the client is CAPABLE of creating an image that is more true to life and will make them feel good about how they look).
Cute outtakes of when my sister asked me to think of something lewd related to someone I have a slight crush on. Again, not the best images, though they’d definitely be given to the client. A REALLY lovely image from this set ended up in the 5-star images (see bottom of blog post).
All the squinching. Still not as good as the ones in the 5star category.
Cute, but not the best.
I share these to show how subtle the differences are in some images. To some people, these are all the same image. To me, this is something
These are great for a collage on different facial expressions (which is something I usually give my clients). Super cute in a collage, and super fun. But…. not 5 stars. (Don’t worry, clients still get these)
These are very cute, but I’m extremely fussy about what’s given 5 stars. The first one is a smile that’s pretty, but also has a “Yeah, I’d like you to stay far away from me” vibe. The second one also isn’t bursting with confidence like some other images. 3 or 4 stars though, definitely.
When lips look tense, it shows. People won’t be like “Hey there, (insert your name), your lips look tense here” – but subconsciously, it’s just FELT that you’re not exactly comfortable. I don’t want you to look like you’re trying too hard. The first one is nice within context (I was in the middle of smiling or laughing while speaking) – so definitely great for a collage. But without context it’s unclear whether I’m pissed off or happy – the lip tension and glare just doesn’t GO with the soft colour scheme. If this were for a client, I’d probably make it black and white, then create a very gritty image. However, I’d have preferred high-contrast dramatic lighting for that. It’s a powerful image if edited right, but… for our purpose of a set of natural, confident and beautiful portraits, it doesn’t work. I’ve attached what I would’ve done for a client below (with the disclaimer that it really isn’t my favourite):
These are in between me making funny faces (I give my clients a lot of instructions when it comes to what they need to do with their faces, and we usually end up laughing lots and lots together). These are great for a client to laugh about later on, but not as our final product.
The final images (and why I chose them)
Please note that there is a slight sense of bias here. I know my face well, so you may have seen images up there that felt perfect but weren’t chosen. Having said that, there’s no loss on my clients’ part, as all but one of my packages (as I’ve said about a billion times) include ALL the images taken and edited. You’ll also note that I break some of my aforementioned rules when it comes to choosing images: sometimes the entire picture is so worth it, that a flaw here and there can be ignored/dismissed (I’m a hypocrite like that). I rely heavily on my gut as well as my analytical brain, so if my instincts are drawn towards it I am happy to break my own little laws.
Also, can we just pause for a moment and see the difference between the previous images, and our typical wide-eyed selfies all over our camera rolls?
What I would do in Photoshop (and why I use it)
I spend a LOT of time editing portraits in Photoshop. Each image can take up to an hour, which is why I haven’t really bothered with these images. I should probably explain the point of Photoshop here first – I mean, if my work is all about self-love, then why on earth would we need Photoshop?
The answer can be divided into two parts.
Firstly, a camera picks up things that the human eye doesn’t. If you’ve ever accidentally put on your front-facing mobile camera, you know what I’m talking about – when you thought you were looking good, and suddenly the camera makes you shriek in shock. That’s because it’s “seeing” things that we don’t actually see. So your non-existent wrinkles suddenly exist, your weight looks different from what it is, and that look you thought was sexy suddenly makes you feel deflated. I use Photoshop to correct what my camera picks up and make sure that the image matches what my client and I saw that day. Lighting and tech can make things look different from how they actually are.
Secondly, we are used to seeing ourselves moving, living, breathing. A still image is a moment in time, frozen. Sounds poetic, but there’s a darker side to this: it allows the viewer of the subject to notice every detail that we wouldn’t normally see if we were speaking to the person. So now, because of the powerful ability of the camera’s sense of detail, I can now see that tiny scab on your arm (that no one noticed before), the one white hair on your forehead (10 points if you spotted it in my laughing picture above), and that one wrinkle you’d never noticed before. There’s no need for you to scrutinise and notice all these details that would never be seen while you’re moving about (and which would distract from the image, since it’s still) – so I remove anything that distracts the eye from the actual essence of who you are.
Some great examples of situations that need Photoshop:
- You leaned against a wall with one side of your body. As a result, one hip looks much bigger than the other.
- You have allergies and one eye twitched a little in an image with a beautiful expression. As a result, your eye-shape looks completely different from what it actually is.
- You have dandruff/eczema/dermatitis/psoriasis, but it’s not usually noticeable. The camera has made you look like you’re flaking, and it’s distracting from how wonderful you looked on the day I photographed you.
- There’s a lamp post behind you that looks like it’s coming out of your head.
- Your outfit makes your body look different from what I saw when we met.
- My camera picked up fine lines that aren’t visible in person.
- The lighting caused blemishes to stand out more than they actually do.
- Small details are distracting from your face and drawing the eye instead of leading a viewer’s eye to YOU.
An important note on skin editing:
I can’t stand the plastic smoothened skin that many photographers enjoy creating in their images. Firstly, because you’ll get lots of comments about how people didn’t recognise you at first (what does this do to your confidence?!), and secondly because (and I’m sorry for throwing my fellow photographers under the bus but it has to be said), it’s an unbelievably LAZY way of working. The so-called “over-photoshopped” look is actually UNDER-Photoshopped. It involved said photographer taking a brush over everything they didn’t want to see. It doesn’t make you feel confident, it makes you look like someone else, and spreads the message that perfection somehow trumps reality. I strongly disagree with this sentiment and even find myself feeling angry at photographers who resort to this technique.
Did you know that most pimples are only extremely visible on an image because of the contrast between the light and the shadow behind the pimple? As a result, my editing doesn’t involve smoothing out your skin to make you look plastic, but darkening light areas and lightening dark areas to even out your skin-tone. If you have a skin disease that is beyond my skin skills, I’ll send the images to one of my skin-specialist retoucher friends (yes, that’s a thing – they’re often the same people who end up doing magazine covers, because their results are natural but stunning). Your images need to focus on YOU, not what you perceive as flaws – but without taking away from how you’d look in real life when you’re at your best. As a result, my rule is that there should always be some sort of skin texture showing – beware of the portraits that have you looking like porcelain!
Answers to the questions you’re probably asking in your head:
Why did you not photograph someone else for this?
I wanted to show you my brutal honesty, but without pointing out flaws for an existing client (or even a model). Privacy is very important to my clients, so I decided to photograph the only person whose feelings I can’t hurt with rude words and “bad” photos: myself. I’ve also left the skin and flaws unretouched (I have multiple skin conditions, so while this is hard for me, it had to be done). Please be kind in your comments.
How did you shoot this?
I don’t have my tripod with me in Nairobi (it’s in a shipment from London), so I used my sister as one. What this means is that I create the set-up/lighting, fiddle with the settings, tell her exactly where to stand, and then have her autofocus from the exact same place while she snaps images. It’s like having a remote, except… it’s a person’s finger instead. I use a digital camera, so I don’t really believe in only capturing one image per minute – the point here is to get the magical “accidental” moments in between.
How is this similar to a typical client shoot if it’s just a bunch of selfies and you already know how to pose?
I pretended to be my own client, and gave myself the instructions I’d usually give my clients. I usually have quite a few ice-breaking exercises to get clients comfortable, so I tried to replicate that as best as I possibly could. While I often do self-portraits, I deliberately did less of my usual poses and tried to recreate the instructions I’d give my clients (which involves a lot of multi-tasking with your face!). Also: I don’t actually know how to pose as well as I do on my mobile phone (instant feedback).
What creative input did your sister have?
is was my personal assistant, but has also assisted me at a lot of my sessions – so she knows what kinds of things I say to get reactions from clients. Like the good sister that she is, she said a few ridiculous things to get better images. I’ll be sharing these prompts/cues underneath the relevant images.
Why does your make-up look like a 2 year old did it?
I’m not a make-up artist, so my make-up is all over the place in terms of colour evenness. If this had been a client, I would’ve had better make-up done, and if that failed – I’d have corrected the colours in Photoshop.
What did you use to edit and select the images in this blog post?
All these images were played with in Lightroom, which is a piece of software that helps with minimal light/colour editing, but is extremely powerful when it comes to sorting/selecting (aka culling).
Did you use Photoshop?
Because of the fact that I take up to an hour per image when it comes to Photoshop, I did not put these through maximum editing. I do explain what I’d have done in Photoshop at the end of this post (scroll up a little).
Why do those squinting eyes look familiar?
Probably because you’ll see every single good portrait include some form of it. 😉 I have been trained and mentored by some A-MA-ZING photographers out there. One of them is the great Peter Hurley, whose process you’ll recognise in some of these images (especially with my terrible squinch). I combine what I learned from him with my own techniques for portraiture.
If I work with you, will this be the same process?
My portraiture process is a little more gentle. This is leaning towards professional or personal headshots for performers, actors, and those in the public eye – but all of my sessions include portraiture too. The two overlap for me in terms of process (mainly because both get AMAZING results in terms of bringing out different sides of you). Due to my sister being a tripod, I preferred to stick to headshot-like images for this blog post. With portraiture, I tend to run around like a mad-woman getting different angles (while still seeming calm, because I’m magical like that).
Why do these images look so bad? I thought you were a photographer?? YOU HAD ONE JOB MELISSA
Thanks, that’s super kind of you. But to explain the fact that there are so many outtakes: I was in front of the camera, and my sister was supposed to have zero creative input – to keep this as balanced of a scientific experiment as it possibly could be (there is a reason I am an artist, clearly). Because of this, there will be MANY images that are out of focus and unflattering. During a session, this would obviously be rectified immediately through my guidance – but in this scenario, I deliberately asked my sister to just focus on pressing the button (and ignore my silliness).
Why is this post so long?
You will come to realise that I pay attention to detail. A LOT. I’m fussy about making sure that clients look their best, and obsessed with making sure they get images that *I* would be happy with as a client.
Do you travel to clients?
I call many places home, and may be in your city right now. I’m based in London, but travel often. I offer all my experiences internationally, so just contact me if you’d like to work together. You can find more details on what I offer here.
How do I know you can shoot me? You’re photogenic. Also, I only see inidividual images – do you also shoot people together?
Well, I mean…. as you can see in the snapshot of my portfolio below – my demographic is pretty varied. Have a look at my past work by clicking here.
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