As I continue to work with Blue Cactus Press on the publication of my forthcoming story collection, There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, we decided I needed updated author pix. So I consulted with my stylist (my wife, Jennifer) and Christina Butcher, the publisher behind BCP and also our photographer. And then, a few weeks ago, we all headed into downtown Tacoma for a photo session.
When my first novel, Hagridden, came out a few years back, Jennifer took my pix and they turned out so good that we went ahead and used them. Which is to say, this more recent set of photos with Blue Cactus Press was my first “official” author photo session, so I wanted to share a few thoughts on the process.
I also asked Jennifer and Christina to chime in from their perspectives as stylist and photographer, respectively, which I’ve set apart with “Jennifer says” and “Christina says” quote boxes.
For starters, the clothes. Because I’m color-blind and because my wife is so naturally stylish, I started by asking her about my outfit. She, in turn, asked what I wanted to project in my pictures.
It’s important that you’re involved in the process. It should represent who you are, and you should feel comfortable in what you’re wearing, because comfort is one of the most important elements.
I said, “I don’t know. Ease? I want my pics to say, ‘Here is a guy who writes books. And isn’t always a total douche.'” (More on that last note in my next post!)
So, we started with a combination of casual comfort and writerly professionalism, which basically meant blue jeans and a blazer.
I was trying to think of colors that would look good with the backdrop — gray and greenish tones. I didn’t want anything too overwhelmingly patterned, because I wanted the focus to be on you. So I thought a focus on texture would be better to add visual interest to the photos. And I wanted whatever you would wear to look timeless and classic.
I brought out five possible outfits, different shirt and jacket combinations, and then you gave me feedback, and that’s what led to the final outfit.
We opted for my most casual blazer, a soft, vintage green corduroy, and a dark pair of jeans. We sorted through a variety of shirts, but ultimately we settled for a casual gray chambray and, just to add a bit of panache, I selected my brown brogues and a gray fedora with a brown hatband.
We added the hat for variety, and because you like to wear that style of hat. It’s very you.
All of which was perfectly comfortable for me, because once the outfit came together, I realized I’d worn nearly the identical outfit to teach my poetry and literature classes the week before.
For the location, I again relied on the eye of my wife, who picked out a few local spots around Tacoma. We settled on an ivy-covered wall downtown, near the museum row, and we tried a variety of poses along leafier and barer portions of the wall.
I look for backdrops with vibrant pops of color, like murals, graphic art or unruly greenery. As an introverted author myself, I know it’s tempting to try to blend into the background whenever possible, but I enjoy photographing people in places that highlight and enhance both their own beauty, color and grit, as well as that of their surroundings.
One thing that we found both challenging and interesting was the varying light. The day was supposed to be overcast — ideal lighting for a photo session — but as is typical in the Pacific Northwest in spring, the weather was fickle and the sun decided to make a surprise appearance, ducking in and out of cloud-cover during the session. You can see the difference in the first three photos (in full sun, up top) and the second two (in cloud-cover, above).
Not that the lighting was much of a problem. Christina has a great set of photography gear and made all sorts of adjustments:
Always have a fully charged, second battery with you. Always.
Use as much natural light as possible.
Take photos in a high resolution. You can always crop and reduce an image, but trying to enlarge one with low resolution later on will leave you disappointed.
We also took some photos without the hat, including some close-up shots. I’d worn a hat in my first author photo, mostly because I like to hear hats, which is why we brought one along this time, too. But I figured I’d try some photos without the hat just to shake things up.
During the session, I would shift posture occasionally, trying different poses but mostly just trying to keep loose and candid. Once in a while, Jennifer would step in to suggest alternate poses or to adjust a bit of my clothing.
Poses are hard because it’s like, what do you do with your hands? You want to look natural, but also not awkward, so you need to do something with your hands. Putting one hand in your pocket still looks pretty natural, for example.
With the poses, you want to feel natural, which is counterintuitive when you’re literally posing for photos. So I spent a lot of time talking off-camera just to help create a more natural vibe, a conversation, so everyone felt more relaxed and to help bring out your natural warmth.
And the whole time, Christina just kept clicking the shutter. This is a classic mode of photography — to take as many photos as you can so you can be sure to capture those one or two magic shots — and it’s made all the easier with digital photography. I think Christina must have taken a couple hundred photos, and we were only out there for maybe 20 minutes.
I LOVED photographing Sam, especially because he came with a stylist. 😉 Jennifer Snoek-Brown (Sam’s wife and librarian) has a great eye for fashion and she and Sam already had a clear idea of what they wanted Sam’s photos to convey. Couple that with the cool props and accessories they brought and that they didn’t take things too seriously (this is important), it was delightful.
Speaking of adjusting my clothes: it’s hard to remember to suck in one’s stomach during these things, and eventually I just gave up. I look how I look, and I look like I eat a lot of bread and cheese and I enjoy the occasional whisky, both of which are true. But all that shifting and turning for different postures and camera angles makes for constantly shifting clothes, which is why it was nice to have someone “on set” to keep an eye on shirt wrinkles and flipped collars. Jennifer also reminded me several times not to squint so much — I’m a very squinty-eyed smiler to begin with, and as you can see from my wife’s (very cool vintage) sunglasses, that sun did get rather bright sometimes. So pro-tip: bring your stylist along! The photographer is going to be focused on the camera, so you want someone else to help with your wardrobe malfunctions.
My job was to loosen you up. And I also was making sure of the little details — is your collar flipped up? is your sleeve straight? And I was in charge of switching out the props.
Of course, trust your photographer, too. Christina is a pro and had tons of great tips for prepping for a photo session:
If at all possible, try to ensure the person you’re photographing is comfortable with the tone/style of the images. Don’t ask someone to smile if it’s clear they want to appear fierce. Don’t tell someone who’s already smiling and laughing to tone it down.
Also, bring layered clothing and accessories. Hats, jackets and maybe a second top to change into are great ways to bring variety into the session.
You just want to make sure those “props” are authentic. Or, I did, and my stylist-wife wanted the same thing:
We obviously brought props for a lot of options, including goofy outtakes, but they were sincere props, like the journal you actually write in or a hat you normally wear. So even though we could make the props look ridiculous when piled into the photo all together, they are actually things you use in your regular life.
So, that was my first “official” photo session for author photos. And it was loads of fun, which, ultimately, I think is probably the most important tip. Enjoy it. It’s a lot like writing, really. Yeah, you’re trying to convey something to an audience, and yeah, behind the scenes it can feel like a lot of hard work, but if you’re not having fun, you’re missing the point!
Besides, we all know how ridiculous those over-posed “serious” author photos can look — which is why Jennifer and Christina and I had an absolute BALL taking fake “poseur” photos, too! And stay tuned, gang, because you know I’m going to share those in a future post! 🙂