What’s really stopping you from getting a great promo photo? The excuses I hear most often are about money, time, and finding the right photographer. And then there’s the procrastinating, because we’re unhappy about how we look and want to wait until we shed the extra 10 pounds. But here’s the thing, even when all those bases are covered, there’s STILL something that prevents musicians from getting that great set of shots. It’s this: failing to understand what promo photos are really FOR and what a good photo can actually DO. So this week I’m unpacking the 3 Essentials to Getting a Great Musician’s Promo Shot. (This revisits and updates an earlier post with new examples added.)
First, let’s unpack the missing perspective you need.
Inevitably, when a musician is working on upgrading her promotional materials, we get around to her or his photos. All too often, the photos we’ve been using are simply the best of what we’ve got. Even if they’re 10 years old and don’t really look like us anymore. Or, it’s the one photo of ourselves that we can stand to look at.
We all want to look better than how we see ourselves. So when it comes to photos, our concerns are typically with looking accomplished or distinguished, or thin, attractive, and young, wise, or glamourous. This is all a mistake.
Because getting a good photo isn’t about putting on a professional “image.”
A successful promo photo communicates who we really are as humans, as story-tellers working through the medium of music. Ideally, you want the viewer to get a sense of what your music-making is like based on your photo.
How photos work
We live in a predominantly visual culture. Photos are what we look at first in any promotional piece. Photos create a sense of human connection. It’s the first impression we make on viewers who then make immediate judgments about us and our artistry based on the visuals.
So, if your photo seems awkward, formal, dated, or less than winning, then the person potentially booking you may assume you’re not ready for prime time. And if your photo looks like a cliché—like a zillion other talented artists, then the presenter or employer may think “nothing special here.” I’m not saying that presenters book artists simply on photos. I’m saying that photos make an indelible first impression and they can either pique our curiosity positively—or not.
Ineffective photos actually hinder our abilities to get the bookings, students, and jobs we want, because the first impression we create can’t be undone.
Warning: Mindshift ahead
Let’s bust a myth. Effective musician photos are NOT about looking:
Of course there’s nothing wrong with looking like any of the above if that’s you, but your publicity photo as a musician should do something more important than these. It should give the viewer a sense of what you—the REAL you—are about as an artist and what your performances are like.
Descriptors to the Rescue
What adjectives or other descriptive words would you use to describe you and your performances at your best? What have people told you about your performances? Make your own list but here are a few non-cliché examples of descriptors . . .
There’s no right or wrong here: but viewers need to get a real sense of your approach and perspective as an artist. Not simply that you are attractive or that you play “beautifully.”
In an artist we want more than this, right?
The Adjective Game
With the photos below, try what I call the adjective game. Based on these images alone (not any prior knowledge of the artists), think what you would imagine their music-making and their performances to be like. What aspects of their approach can you intuit from the photo you see? What words or phrases come to mind? There’s no right or wrong—this is simply about getting more sensitive to the communicative power of effective photos.
Violinist Ayano Ninomiya Photographer: David White
[For me, the adjectives I came up with are: determined, strong, focused, like a contained fire. What comes up for you?]
[From this image I imagine Shai’s performances to be intelligent, powerful, discerning, and probing. What do you see?]
vocalist / composer Luciana Souza photographer: Kim Fox
[This photo says to me: real, open, insightful, kind, and finely-honed. What do you hear the photo saying to you?]
And what about teaching shots or casual rehearsal photos, what can they reveal?
[Here I see Twyla’s focus and vision, and a kind of electric energy. What did you get?]
In looking for dynamic shots of teaching, I’m always looking for photos that show a real human exchange between the teacher and student. A flash of understanding, of recognition, or humor.
[What I see in these? Humor, sensitivity, delight, and a sense of “we’re in this together”— as in, no hierarchy. What do you see?]
The idea of this adjective exercise is to help sensitize you to what great photos actually do. That way, you can think through what you most want from your next shoot. The aim is to get photos that will engage viewers so that they’re curious enough to click “play” or “contact” on your site and then hire you.
Pitfalls to avoid
Female musicians often come across in their photos as though all they have going for them is their attractiveness. Alluring but vacuous-looking photos are fine for fashion spreads but not for music careers.
How do we end up getting it so wrong?
Musicians—male and female—often try to “put on a show” and have their photos and PR materials convey something they don’t actually feel or believe about themselves. They imagine that by dressing a certain way, or using a certain location or backdrop, and holding their bodies in a certain pose, that they’ll get a great photo that shows them as “professionals.”
It’s easy for musicians to come across as though they’re trying too hard, or trying to please, because that in fact is often what’s going on. The camera can only pick up what we’re actually putting across—it’s all communicated through our eyes, our expression, and the way we hold ourselves.
You can’t hide from the camera. So if you go into a shoot feeling awkward, intimidated, or self-conscious, and you can’t seem to warm up to the photographer, then the shots you get will come across as somewhat stiff and it will be clear that you are “posing”—instead of as though the photographer simply caught you mid-insight or about to respond to an idea.
So for your next shoot, spend time well in advance thinking what you want the photo to say about who you are and what your music-making is all about.
I recommend you come up with 5 adjectives that describe you and your music-making at its best. So choices like “friendly” and “accomplished” are simply scratching the surface. Same problem with wanting to look like you’re a “serious artist” or “deep.”
Prepare for your next shoot reminding yourself why you are a musician, what makes you feel proud, and what it is about music that you fell in love with. Because you need to walk into your shoot embodying that clarity—so the camera can read it.
You’ll also want to spend time before the shoot talking with your photographer explaining in detail what you’d like your photo to convey and getting comfortable letting your real self be fully present. Don’t forget your set of adjectives—share these with the photographer in advance.
To recap: here’s what we’ve covered:
Essential one: understand the real purpose of a musician’s promo shot.
Get beyond your ego and your self-consciousness. This isn’t about proving who you are, it’s about showing some vulnerability and being your real self. The photographer is hoping to catch this in the split seconds between when we are posing or trying to be seen a certain way. Instead of “trying” in the photo shoot, it’s much better to be fully present and centered. Relax and be human with the photographer. Reflect on what you value, human to human.
Essential two: Clarify what you want your photo to convey.
Come up with 5 adjectives about you and your music. Make sure that none are clichés or generalities. Get specific.
Essential three: Find a photographer whose work is multi-layered.
Get recommendations. Find musicians’ photos you admire and check the photo credits for the names of photographers. Look at 10-15 of these photographers’ sites. What you’re looking for in their bodies of work are shots that communicate something more than the basics of glamour, allure, intelligence, thoughtfulness, or friendliness. Look for photographers whose work is nuanced, layered, and reveals the person behind the “professional front” they want to project.
This week: Analyze 3 photos of musicians you don’t know using the adjective game. I’d love to see what you come up: send the URLs for the pics and your set of adjectives to me at Angela@BeyondTalentConsulting.com.
As always, I welcome your questions and comments and I’m easy to reach at the email above or over on the contact page.
Want more help with photos? Read the chapter in Beyond Talent on creating promotional materials that rock.
Oh, and be on the lookout for a special post coming your way about a few openings in my Power Group coaching program starting in January—in case you want to make 2019 the year you gain real traction in your career!
You are invited to join the FB Live conversation each Tuesday at 7 pm ET / 4 pm PT over on our Musicians Making It Facebook group—this week we’re talking about recruiting students. I’d love to address your questions related to networking. Hit reply and let me know what aspects of this would be most helpful for you.
And if you haven’t joined the group, please do, and bring a friend — happy to have you with us!
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As always, I appreciate your feedback, and if you’re interested in receiving coaching from me, let’s talk! I’m at Angela@BeyondTalentConsulting.com.
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