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What makes a person photogenic?

A few months ago, I went out to the Strange Ranch again to do senior portraits for Emily. She happens to be gorgeous and happens to also be photogenic. But I think there's a misconception that those two things always go hand in hand. So not true. Emily is photogenic because she has a natural ability to relax in front of the camera. Of course this makes my job really easy. Because the ability to relax in front of a camera is what makes anyone photogenic. If you're not relaxed, it's my (most important) job as the photographer to help you.

You'd think by knowing this, I'd be really good at letting people take my picture. I will rat myself out now and admit that I am overly anxious, borderline neurotic about it. But that's why I can relate so easily to the natural nerves of my clients. Before a session people often say, "I'm warning you, I've never been photogenic." My response is, "Don't worry, that's what everyone says." Which is true. I feel like what they're really saying is, "I'm afraid you will take unflattering pictures of me." And what I'm really saying is, "I know you will be nervous, that's so normal. But don't worry because I will know how to make you feel safe enough to relax, so that you're able to reveal the things that matter most to you: laughter, connection, love..." These are the things we want captured. But revealing these things means someone will have to "see" us. That feels vulnerable, so we sometimes hide behind plastered smiles, perfect hair and matching t-shirts. Being a photographer is like being a waitress or hair stylist, in the sense that success hinges on relating to people. But it's also like being a therapist, because it's about relating to people when they're nervous.

This is why I've never taught a workshop. It would be over in 5 minutes, and would go something like this: 

"Hi friends, thanks for coming to my photography workshop. I've been shooting for twenty years. Back in the day my camera was 4 feet wide. We used to lug it uphill both ways in the snow. Now it's not like that. Now you can learn every technical thing you ever wanted to know online or in any one of the hundreds of other fabulous workshops out there. The learning curve is way less than it used to be, which is so great. Unfortunately all this info doesn't guarantee that you'll be able to take great portraits. There's only one thing that can do that: Developing your ability to calm people's nerves. Period. Unfortunately, I can't tell you how to do that because it would be like me telling you how to paint or sing or dance. You have to find your own way. But I can give you a hint: Calming others always starts with calming yourself. Thank you and goodnight."

Then everyone would throw tomatoes at me because they were expecting me to show them how to change their aperture. 

Anyway, I mentioned that Emily is naturally relaxed. But this is not the norm. And I'm not writing this to make people feel like they should take quaaludes before a portrait session. I'm writing this to make the distinction that being photogenic has less to do with the way we look, and more to do with how we feel inside our own skin. Also, to acknowledge that being nervous is a natural part of every photo session. So when you choose your photographer, the most important decision you can make is to choose one that you can connect with. 

 If you live in San Antonio or Boerne, The Strange Ranch is a gorgeous location for weddings, corporate events, and any other kind of fun Texas-y party. The owners are super sweet too. Thank you Shanan and Emily for such a fun day. :)

Reader Comments (12)

Love this post Maile! Your writing and your photos are always a huge delight.
June 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa Jill :)
Funny.....I moved to Columbia, Missouri from Waco. I've also lived in SAT and a dear friend of mine lives in San Antonio. Anyway, I thought the Strange ranch sounded "strangely familiar." Read your amusing post and viewed your beautiful photography. (When I grow up someday) Yea, just as I thought, its in TX. My sweet Texas. Miss it and need a visit. Thanks for sharing and yes, I get it, C A L M. soothing calm.
June 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmyRuth
Fantastic photos and I totally agree. My dad is a great photographer. He raised my brother and I with a camera in hand. We are both really super photogenic because a camera was there to capture us from an early age and my dad always made us feel relaxed around it.
June 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaitlyn
Great article and I totally agree. ...just relax... and great interaction with your client gets them to that point.
June 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNancy
What a great post, Maile. Your wisdom is true, and not just for photographers. Your energy influences all those around you. Miss you!
June 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLori
You are an AMAZING photographer!!!
June 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMegan Perkins
So so true, but easily forgotten when in the moment. The one pic I have of myself that you took is one of my favs just because I look happy and relaxed. I need more of those :).
June 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTexasholly
Such good advice! M - Those pics are gorgeous!!! XX
June 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSavvy in San Francisco
The way you frame it, your tips on how to be photogenic might just as well be applied to living a satisfied life. What a gift if we were all a bit more comfortable all the time.

June 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda
This makes so much sense!!!! This explains everything. I've NEVER liked having my picture taken. I definitely can't relax & I don't feel good about myself. I even put this on my Life List to have 1 photograph taken of myself that I love! Now if we could just clone you to other parts of the country...I really doubt others have the ability to do what you do.
June 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChrisor
Oh my friend, these pictures are gorgeous and this post is truly brilliant! xo
June 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLauren
Beautiful senior and gorgeous pictures, yes, she is quite photogenic! I love the Texas setting, I've been in AZ for the past three years and your pics make me very happy to be back home. Great work, Maile!
July 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLeah

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