This post should actually be titled “How to Get the Most from Your Photography Shoot.” While you do need a great head shot, photographers can provide you with so much more: interesting, engaging images you can use for your web site, a variety of portraits for publicity materials, and photos that are ideal for business cards, YouTube thumbnails, or social media avatars. Most importantly, a great photographer can draw out what is most compelling about your personality and presence and use it to create images that will inspire people to become curious about you and your voice. 

Head shot photography for classical singers has evolved at a breathtaking rate over the past twenty years. For decades, the standard was a single black and white vertical close-up of the face shot on film, then printed and reproduced on glossy stock.

Nowadays shoots are digital and usually full-color, often with the aim of producing a variety of pictures – vertical and horizontal, face and full-body, formal and fun, indoor and outdoor. While you may choose one image to be printed, most of the time you’ll submit digital copies of your photos online for publicity materials and college/young artist program applications. 

Twyla Robinson, Soprano

 

Then...

...and Now

(Photo: Kristin Hoebermann)

Where remote audiences once had to settle for radio broadcasts and audio recordings, opera is now filmed for broadcast and purchase. Opera singers use the internet to build and support their careers and communicate with their fan base. Competitions and training programs increasingly require video submissions for their pre-screening rounds. It is therefore essential that your visual materials align well with your vocal artistry; the opera industry has become far more visually oriented.

A photographer is a professional artist, just like you. If you want your pictures to project an image of professionalism, you must engage a photographer whose skills, experience and dedication are equal to the task. 

Photographer Kristin Hoebermann, on a shoot with

tenor Juan Diego Florez

Kristin Hoebermann has been doing portrait photography through her Manhattan studio since 1990. Kristin loves to work with performing artists of all kinds, but over the past 15 years or so classical singers have become a particular specialty: “As I was shooting portraits for more and more classical singers, I challenged myself to think of things I could do differently for them, to help them stand out and be seen,” she recalls. “They have leeway to use some pretty creative stuff. There are so many things that we can work with – fantastic lighting and cool scenarios. They don’t all need to be looking at the camera, so the moods and vibes of the shots can have tremendous range, almost as if they are being observed, not as though they are posing for a camera at all.” 

Choosing a Photographer

Before you begin studying photographers’ portfolios, I advise you to look at many pictures of opera singers. Visit the web sites of prominent artist management firms like CAMIOpus 3IMG, and Intermusica. This will give you a general idea of the aesthetics embraced by the industry. The photos on these sites should all be properly credited, so when you see a picture that you like it will be easy to find that photographer’s web site. 

Lori Guilbeau, Soprano

(Photo: Kristin Hoebermann)

When reviewing a photographer’s work, “Make sure the eyes are sharp and engaged, and that there's light reflected in the eyes, so they look alive,” Kristin recommends. “You're also looking for natural skin tones; there are a lot of inexpensive cameras where the sensors aren’t that accurate, and the skin tones can look very unnatural. You want something that has personality, and to work with someone who knows how to get different looks from you, not just straight head shots.” You will need a variety of looks and images, so seek versatility. “It’s nice to have at least a few different styles of photos. Some close and dramatic, others with a lot of background, maybe they’ll be walking down the street, or not looking at the camera, with urban buildings or backlighting… Something edgy, something beautiful, something natural – those are all completely different vibes. It’s necessary to have a variety of shots that you can choose from for your web site.” 

Kristin emphasizes the role of lighting. “Lighting is of the utmost importance. I think that is particularly important for classical singers, because nobody wants to get a picture of a classical singer that looks unprofessional or too casual. You need to project confidence, magnetism, success and stardom, yet tempered with a modernity and freshness that feels contemporary… Some people look best in certain lighting due to skin tone, face shape, etc. so I play around a lot to get the right looks for each person.” 

The most important thing is finding a photographer who understands your needs and delights in creating photos that will showcase your personality and bring out your best features. “Look for a portfolio full of great pictures, with great lighting, where each person is unique and interesting.”

Preparing for Your Shoot

Matthew Worth, Baritone 

(Photo: Kristin Hoebermann)

Most of the singers I know tend to over-prepare for everything, but relax – preparing for a photography shoot is nothing like preparing an opera role! Remember that in this case, the photographer is the artist and is going to do all of the work. Your job is to just be yourself. Do show up well-rested and trusting, but let your photographer take care of the rest. “Sometimes people over-think it,” Kristin observes. “They get nervous because they think they need to control everything, but the truth is there’s a limit to what you can control. So come in looking your best - not super tired or hung over! - have your hair color done, maybe have your nails done, but don’t obsess over every detail, because obsessing doesn’t translate into a better shoot. You walk in the door, and it's all me after that. Of course, it's you, but it's really me helping you to be the best. Some people ask, is there something I should think about? and I say no, because you want to really be in the moment.”

Most photographers will have a hair and makeup stylist on hand or will do your hair and makeup for you. Do bring a variety of apparel, shoes, jewelry and accessories so that there is plenty to choose from – you may end up being surprised to discover which items from your wardrobe end up complementing you best in pictures. Kristin prioritizes classy over casual. “Dressy, pretty, bright colors, great necklines, cool jewelry, because I always say to the ladies, and men, you want the picture to look like you’re already famous, like you're already singing at those big houses, in those parts that you want. It doesn’t mean be fake – it means own your potential, bring it out now.” She also loves it when singers bring their favorite music to listen to during the shoot – it helps put them in a great mood, tells her a lot about their personality, and often exposes her to music she’s never heard before. 

What to Expect

The advent of digital photography has made it so that shoots can really flow – rather than capturing a series of still poses, your photographer will probably direct you to stay active and dynamically engaged while they continuously shoot. Your shoot will be a sequence of different looks and setups, with time to transition, rest, and (ideally) review things in between. 

Joyce DiDonato, Mezzo-Soprano  
(Photo: 
Simon Pauly)

Kristin stops to show her subjects the pictures she’s taken in between each set-up. “I like to stop after I get some great shots, put them on the computer, and look at them full-size with the artist to make sure everything is going great, that the hair and makeup is looking how we want, etc. But I also do it to show people: This is why I’m directing you this way, this is why I’m saying move your body this way or that way, and then they really get it and can see what we are creating together.”

Making Your Selections

Most photographers will make it possible for you to review your pictures online shortly after the shoot is complete. It usually takes Kristin two to three days to post photos – her shoots can yield as many as 2000 images, so she narrows it down to the 500 to 700 that are the most viable before putting them up. 

How do you narrow those 500 to 700 images down to the 8 to 10 you will use? I recommend you do it in three phases:

  1. Pick your favorite twenty to thirty shots of each look.  
  2. Request assistance from five to ten people who know you well and care about you. Ask them to pick one to three favorites from each group. 
  3. See where their choices overlap. 

Whatever strategy you use to narrow down your options, enlist the help of friends and colleagues – don’t do it by yourself. You’ll gravitate towards the photos that you think look the most attractive, but what you need are the photos that embody your most engaging qualities. While that is something you cannot judge, it is very easy for those who know and like you to assess.

Retouching

Once you have made your selections, you will need to have your photos professionally retouched. Retouching can mean subtle things like brightening the whites of eyes and teeth and erasing flyaway hairs. Sometimes more dramatic changes are desirable. Here is the photo I use for my Musical Exchange avatar, before and after retouching: 

You’ll see some subtle modifications to my hair, skin, etc., but you may also notice that my shirt is a different color! Everyone who helped me narrow down my options loved this shot for my casual photo, but most of them disliked the color of my shirt. With skillful retouching, no problem. 

The point of retouching is not to produce an idealized or dishonest version of you. Retouching is a means of defining your best features, removing visual distractions, and optimizing the overall composition of the photo.  

There are many companies that provide retouching services. One New York-based service that specializes in retouching and printing head shots is Reproductions  – I used them to retouch my photos (companies like Reproductions can also create a version of your head shot that includes your name and fach and produce high-quality print copies of your photos). 

Kristin on a shoot with mezzo-soprano

Michelle DeYoung

Your photographs are a vital part of your introduction to representatives of Young Artist Programs and opera companies. While the quality and creativity of your singing is of paramount importance to them, beautiful photographs that project your personality are a powerful tool for engaging their interest and helping them to envision you as part of their program or team. 

Engaging an experienced, skillful photographer is indeed a significant investment, but it’s one that is well worth making because it enables you to visually project the value of what you bring to the art form. It can also change the way you view yourself and your career because a session with a photographer who can bring out and communicate your artistry through their photos may show you some things that you didn’t know you had in you.

 

Joyce El-Khoury, Soprano

(Photo: Kristin Hoebermann)

“A good photographer is like a psychic in that they are able to see you in a different way from the way you see yourself, while at the same time, understanding and appreciating your essential qualities. The headshot is the quickest and most direct way to give information about yourself. It must represent your strengths well, and look like you took care and time in putting yourself together, albeit while not trying too hard!”

(Photo: Kristin Hoebermann)

Brenda Rae, Soprano

“I loved working with Kristin! She’ll create so many different looks for you, and can do both inside and outside shots. She's very friendly, positive, and easy to be around, which is one of the most important things for a portrait photographer, since you want to appear comfortable and natural in your shots! She and her makeup artist also LISTENED to what I wanted. It was just a great experience, and I'm still really happy with my shots!”

Madeleine Gray is a professional opera singer and photographer based in the Baltimore/Washington DC area. She specializes in head shot and performance images.

(Photo: Keith Thienemann)

“Right before I headed off to conservatory as a grad student, a kind and generous family friend arranged for a Big Name Hollywood Photographer to take some head shots for me (a family friend worked in the film industry, and it was his gift to me). I was squeezed in at 7:00 AM before a Vanity Fair magazine shoot, with stylists, production assistants and agents everywhere; to say the least, it was intimidating. While the photographer and his delightful makeup artist were perfectly pleasant and professional, my 23-year-old self was completely overwhelmed by the entire experience. I had no idea what to do and the (highly-respected) photographer was used to experienced Hollywood stars rather than a clueless, nervous opera student with no camera experience, so he didn’t give me much direction at all. The resulting photograph was technically beautiful and quite flattering, but I didn’t feel like it was anything at all to do with ME.

“Subsequent experiences were a bit better, but it was always challenging to find a photographer who really knew operatic repertoire, voice types, and industry trends. AND who knew how to help a singer trained to play to a large house instead channel personality into a single, small, lens; I always left feeling I had somehow missed the mark.

“If you’re a photographer who is interested in taking head shots for opera singers, learn more about opera!! Roles, voice types, genres… Just like acting ‘types’ there are things to know so you can get the best shots for the client. Also, I think there’s a tendency for photographers with limited familiarity of Operaland to assume that it needs to be a super-formal, rather old-fashioned, studio/Hollywood glamour portrait. That CAN be a lovely look but operatic head shots now often emulate looks popular with actors, and even promotional/formal shots are now often a lot more editorial in feel and vibe than they used to be (natural light, on location, glamour/fashion poses and setups etc). It’s important to look at what’s on-trend around the world, too, as opera singers are often global and may need to represent themselves a little differently for different markets.”

Like some feedback on your head shots? Post them here and we'll take a look! Have a head shot that you love? Tell us about your photographer!


Click here for more from the Singer’s Audition Handbook.


FEATURED DISCUSSION

Joyce DiDonato, Mezzo-Soprano

Claudia! Great post - AGAIN!!! (You are bringing SO much information to singers with this forum!!! BRAVAA!) My thoughts on head shots has changed over the years. Yes, I know there needs to be a professionalism to them, but I also think they should truly reflect not only who you are as a person, but help the viewer imagine how to cast you. I wouldn't recommend trying to "be" an "opera singer", but select the photos that show us - in your EYES - who you are, and you can be on stage.

My first professional head shot (1997, I think?) was me just trying (hoping!) to look pretty!!!! But fast foward - oh my #@#$% - a few decades, and I no longer am trying to put forth an expected image, but I'm actually happy to break the rules a bit and let the world have a glimpse at ME. Granted, I'm in a different place than having just started out when the headshot should serve as an introduction to the world about who you are, but do not be afraid to let us see who you are. (*with the disclaimer that it should still be "professional" ... and it should look like a million bucks!!!)

Same thing I say about your singing - don't try to show us a fab imitation of another singer - we need to see YOU!!!! Say cheese ... or vegan meatloaf ... whatever floats your boat!!

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For those interested in having their photographs retouched, I'm a young soprano who has also worked professionally as a photographic artist and retoucher for several years. I work for a photo studio and as a freelance editor. If you're interested in a quote I can be reached at ems@emilysolo.com!

My 'serious' one and my 'personality' one. :) Photos by Juan of Third Gears photography in the Bronx.

Hi Kelli! so, your post has given me an opportunity to add something here that I thought would be part of the original post but didn't have room for: 

"Should I be smiling in my head shot?"

I like your "serious" photo more. But with women, it is not often the case that this will be your most engaging photo. 

Kristin often directs women to smile more because “a problem for some women is that sometimes when their face is relaxed and neutral, it reads as though they are bored, mad or sad. You know how it is when you're walking down the street and some guy says, ‘Hey, smile!’ and you're like, ‘What's wrong with you?’ Or sometimes you're just lost in thought and someone, even a friend will ask, ‘are you okay?’ It's admittedly an unfair thing - a confident, strong-looking guy who isn’t smiling just looks edgy and sexy and it makes us want to know them, it makes us think they're powerful and badass – but if a woman does that it's like ‘wow, she looks pissed off!’ or something. So if I am sensing that in the camera, I'm going to try to get the girl to somehow twinkle it up a little or put some positivity in there, whether it's a little mischief, or a little flirt, or a little joy, just a little, it doesn't mean you have to be full-on smiling every time.”

anyway, you've got this little powerful edgy almost-smile in your serious shot, and I think it works very well! There is a lot of personality in this photo. I prefer the directness over the more smiley one. 

Claudia,

I finally got new ones and I am pleased with them.  My photographer is Jeremy Paterno!  http://www.jeremypaterno.com

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Claudia!  Great post - AGAIN!!!  (You are bringing SO much information to singers with this forum!!! BRAVAA!)  My thoughts on head shots has changed over the years.  Yes, I know there needs to be a professionalism to them, but I also think they should truly reflect not only who you are as a person, but help the viewer imagine how to cast you.  I wouldn't recommend trying to "be" an "opera singer", but select the photos that show us - in your EYES - who you are, and you can be on stage.  

My first professional head shot (1997, I think?) was me just trying (hoping!) to look pretty!!!!  But fast foward - oh my #@#$% - a few decades, and I no longer am trying to put forth an expected image, but I'm actually happy to break the rules a bit and let the world have a glimpse at ME.  Granted, I'm in a different place than having just started out when the headshot should serve as an introduction to the world about who you are, but do not be afraid to let us see who you are.  (*with the disclaimer that it should still be "professional" ... and it should look like a million bucks!!!) 

Same thing I say about your singing - don't try to show us a fab imitation of another singer - we need to see YOU!!!!  Say cheese ... or vegan meatloaf ... whatever floats your boat!! 

Ms. DiDonato, I really don't have enough words to say how much I like that second picture!!! The personality is nuts. And Claudia, thanks! I may print both - since I do them myself, no great expense. I like them both, so it is hard to choose!

Very informative, thank you for posting! I've used my headshot for some time but perhaps I should get new ones soon. I would say that this one is fairly representative of my personality 

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Hey all,

I've been using these headshots for a while now, but I'm applying to graduate school now. I'm debating whether to invest in some new ones, or to use one of these, and I would love some feedback. Per Claudia's suggestion, I'm going to Photoshop the eyebrow ring out either way, so pay no mind to it! :)

Let me know if you like the serious or the smiling one better, or if I should scrap them and go for new ones altogether. Thanks!

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