Jordan Reyne - D.I.Y. - How to Do Your Own Press Photos on a Shoestring
A lot of us out there hate being photographed. Thanks to Facebook, we are all painfully aware that bad angles and poor lighting can have an effect that makes us want to crawl into a hole and die (after murdering the “friend” who tagged us). Despite being an aural medium, music places a great deal of emphasis on the visual, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make pictures that are very much your own, and that go some way towards conveying what your music is about. Those pictures don’t have to be all about glamour and adherence to the beauty myth either - unless that is seriously all you are after.
This feature is a D.I.Y on taking your own press pictures. It is aimed at those who don’t have the budget to head to a professional photographer, or who have had bad experiences with the latter. Do be warned, most pro photographers would probably scream at the lack of knowledge and polish behind this, but if you happen to have liked any of the press images I’ve used for the last year, and don’t notice / take issue with the lack of technique or the less than pro quality, then this article is for you. Basically, it’s how to take pictures you like, that say something about your music, that are of a high enough standard to use on the web or for CD cover art, and not spend a fortune doing it.
Hands up anyone who has ever said “I look terrible in photos”. Join the club. I spent years avoiding them altogether, then going to pros who somehow decided that all the angles I hated were “just fine”. I discovered I am capable of looking like someone’s ailing, drunken, triple-chinned nana, even outside of facebook candids. A lot of us are. What you might not know is that many of us who can look seriously bad in pictures also have the capacity to look good in them too.
If you’ve ever been to a pro photographer you have doubtless heard them say - lighting is everything. Marlene Dietrich is well known for not having let anyone else light her for her photos, and having done my own lighting myself for a while now, I understand why. “Sure”, you may say “but she was actually beautiful”. It was widely agreed that she was, yes. But we don’t have to look like Marlene Dietrich to be happy with the results you can get from low cost shoots. Plenty of people say this, but it’s important to remember: what is considered beautiful changes with culture, time and fashion. It also changes with the angle of lights because strange and terrible things can happen to anyone’s face when it is converted from 3D (how others see you) to 2D (a flat image). Put simply, lighting helps to make you look like the you that you are probably more comfy with, or at least used to dealing with - the one in the mirror.
In my own setup, lights were one of the most expensive components, costing 55 British pounds for a second hand studio light (shown below).
This kind of light source is known as “constant lighting”. The five bulbs each have an individual switch on the back, so they can be turned off and on individually. Mine also came with a cover (you’ll need one too) that diffuses the light so it isn’t too harsh. Harsh lighting can really harden lines and furrows so I avoid it unless I am trying to look older. Serious photographers would use two lights, but I had to keep costs low. To give you an idea of budget - I used to pay 150 pounds for a one hour session with a pro photographer, so I wanted to keep the total cost for my setup around the same price in case it failed. I’d had enough failed photoshoots that it was only a similar risk. If your setup works, you have the means to do as many photo sessions as you like. Aside from the camera, I also needed a backdrop - in the form of a white sheet, hoisted onto two mic stands and a curtain rail (which I already had) and a small tripod for the camera that cost less than 10 pounds.
Lighting is an artform all of its own. In terms of offering advice on placement of lights, I am in no way experienced enough to offer a lot as I really just rely on “if I like it, it’s working”. Generally I find myself putting the light around a metre in front of me, but off to my left, with 2 bulbs on and 3 off. Every face is different, so this may not work for you. If you can afford two lights, do get them, it is far easier to find something that works, but the pictures in this article are all done with one. On the occasions that I have worked with pros, the lights are placed on either side of the subject, around one and a half to two metres away, and around one to one and a half metres in front. My limited experiments have also shown that when I photograph myself with the camera pointing upwards at me, my incredibly white throat appears to be a series of chins I do not have. It is a useful angle though if you want to add a touch of aggressive or arrogant - which depending on your music you may want to. Cameras pointing down at a subject have the effect of enlarging your head and eyes (if you look up) and shrinking your body. If you are after anything with a sort of questioning / quizzical or lost & forlorn look to it, this can be really effective.
Vital as it is though, lighting is not enough on it’s own. A huge part of doing photo shoots is about feeling comfortable. This might sound familiar if you are a musician - have you ever tried doing vocal takes where the engineer manning the desk barks at you every few minutes that you missed a note? Or just kind of grumbles angrily “let’s try that again” at the end of the song? Off putting isn’t it? For me, doing a good vocal take requires non-judging ears, or preferably being alone entirely. When doing photo shoots, having no judging eyes can make all the difference.
There is a lot to be said for conveying who you actually are on camera, and this means being comfortable enough that you don’t inadvertently look pissed off, and being properly lit so that you are less likely to be confronted with something that you don’t feel ok with. I lack confidence completely in front of cameras, but found that those negative messages we grow up with from advertising could be turned into something halfway useful. Worries about (often imaginary) flaws mean we gravitate to angles where we will be more likely to be pleased with the end product. Use proper lighting along with the next little ingredient - a clever little invention that has a front facing LCD so we can see how we look before we even take the shot, in a way that is familiar to us.
This one simple gadget changed my experiences with being photographed from a complete torment to something I don’t mind at all. The PL120 Digital Camera. Along with the front facing LCD and a timer that shoots two shots in a row after waiting a few seconds. It’s a “point and click” consumer model. Not a pro camera at all, but if you do like the results later in this article, then it will get you there. It cost me 60 British pounds on Amazon, second hand. When you set it up in front of you, you can see exactly what you look like. You can then set it to “self timer” mode, and hold positions you think is working until the shot is taken.
Be warned, out of the box it looks like it doesn’t even have a front facing LCD. It’s a small screen too so it has its limitations in terms of shot type, but if you are doing head and shoulder shots you should be close enough to see clearly. Watch how your features interact with the light at different angles. Try positioning your light, or lights differently, and look again. The front facing LCD will give you immediate feedback on how it’s working.
The last ingredient is action - perhaps better described as “tension”. Movies would flop if the characters in them weren’t doing anything, or were flat and uninteresting. By now you can probably take some pictures where you look a bit more how you like, but we need to create some intrigue by something about the music itself (or ourselves if you are reading this as a non-musician). Images that just look “nice” or “pretty” are a tad flat, and so not particularly interesting. Taking your own press photos gives you the opportunity to experiment with ways to convey something of whatever emotion inhabits your music. How many band photos have we seen with a bunch of dudes in t-shirts and jeans standing in a row? Or women just lying about looking pretty and vacant? There is often no interplay between the men in a line type photo, which means, no action. Solo shots don’t give you much scope for people interacting but you can interact with the viewer by having a look or attitude that makes them wonder or respond. The pretty and vacant pictures might be nice to look at for some, but it doesn’t tell us a lot about what to expect from the music, unless it is in fact pretty and vacant.
You might want to make a list of adjectives that you’d use to describe your music - or that you hope others would use to describe it. Is it aggressive? Is it uplifting or sublime? It may sound banal but it can help in adding some clues as to what your music contains. People respond to images in both conscious and subconscious ways and if you are producing dreamscape electronica, people hunting for that may pass you by if your photo shows you snarling and holding up an axe. I’ve gotten it wrong often enough myself in the past, but having thought my shoots through in advance the results are improving. My newest CD is very pagan and Celtic sounding, so I dress in witchy clothes with horns - aiming for “hot” or “pretty” would mislead people who are after happy pop classics. My music is also dark and quite often angry, so rather than smiling, I go for intense or “somewhat pissed off” as staple facial expressions.
When the lights go out - photo editing
You still don’t get to go home ;) The results you see on the camera (above) won’t actually look like the ones below until you do some basic enhancements on them. Don’t worry, nothing hard is required here and you don’t need to know how to use photoshop. I generally only use the adjust brightness/contrast/intensity function in Corel Photopaint, but most graphics packages will have something similar. The images above are the raw images followed by ones with the brightness increased only slightly (or not at all) and the contrast and intensity up fairly high. Experiment until you find what you like. If you find your lighting was too harsh, and adjusting brightness contrast and intensity doesn’t help, you may want to try a motion blur but be careful. In my earlier failed experiments doing photos I found that having certain features sharp is vital to an image’s impact. The eyes particularly. If your graphics package has a wand “select” tool, use that to select your face, minus eyes and mouth, and do a very slight blur. You may get a hard line around the selection area if you have used too much so keep a copy of the original file before you start experimenting.
The raw images above are before adjustment to the brightness, contrast, intensity and the addition of hand drawn graphics. Yes, they are actually pretty horrible, so if you think your pictures aren’t turning out as they hoped, make sure you try the brightness/ contrast/ intensity trick first!
Below are both images with brightness/ contrast/ intensity altered, the wire round my forehead removed (2nd pic) and the blue of my eyes boosted (1st pic). It makes a hell of a difference, as you can see, but it isn’t difficult to do.
Last but not least - head to Bandcamp and look at some of the artwork from musicians who are similar to you, or who you would like to be seen as similar to. Check out what seems to be going on in the graphics side of their world. Like anything visual, the graphic representation of music goes through fashions and fads. Looking through the indie folk music section, I found a lot of hand drawn art, and combinations of photographic images with hand drawn aspects. That is how I came up with the new EP cover below. The hand drawn element gave me a lot more scope to add something that gave an impression of the music too. I started doodling, photographed it, and added it to the photo I had as a layer in “subtract” mode, then erased any parts that looked odd.
Pictures, and thousands of words
If a picture can paint a thousand words, we may not always know exactly what those words are and we certainly can’t sing along. From that and a few other comments, it may be obvious that I actually don’t like or feel comfortable with the emphasis placed on visual appearances in a medium that is primarily aural, as it gives too much opportunity to re-enforce some of the bad messages that go out via advertising about how people should look. That said, all musicians find themselves in the position of having to do it, somehow. I found that doing my own shoots I can feel more ok with it than I did, so I hope this has helped anyone who felt the same. My own mindset changed from “oh christ, now I have to waste my time and money trying and look amazing, even though that just buys into all the stereotypes, or none will buy my records” to thinking of it in terms of the proverbial “dancing about architecture”. Dancers have been asked to express something about everything from buildings to paintings to political movements. It might be pretty damn tricky, and the details are lost or confusing for some, but some of the symbolism will come through. It is the same for making pictures about music. It is possible to represent our music and ourselves in image form, and in ways that can have interesting results that convey something. I don’t profess to be great at doing this but its a challenge of its own, and I hope that in reading this you also feel more able to give it a shot - on your own terms.