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Paula’s Top 10 Rules for Perfect Photos: Prep, Posing, and More

Photo of a camera on purple background

When it comes to attending conferences, work events, retreats, or any other sort of professional experience, I’m very focused on making sure that the event is documented by photos and video. In fact, if we’ve been together at an event, I may have bullied, er.. organized you into the best pose on a step and repeat (a publicity banner at an event), group photo, or in front of a panel. On my own website, I share some of my favorite photos under my “Paulantics” section.

My love of photo and video documentation is twofold. First of all, my father is a photographer, so I’m probably one of the most documented people you’ll ever meet; I have pictures of myself from infancy up until yesterday. What was true when film cameras were the only choice, is definitely the case now, when we can take high quality and high resolution pictures and videos on our mobile devices (#TeamAndroid).

Secondly, I am passionate about preserving life experiences utilizing the eye and lens (pun intended) of the photographer!

As someone who has done many fun things and also lost people who have been foundationally important to me, including my mother, I love the fact that I can go back and look at pictures that have been taken. They capture moments when we have experienced joy, momentous occasions, and even challenging experiences. It’s powerful to be able to reflect on memories in that way, and that’s part of why I believe people should take photos seriously.

Here are ten rules that I’ve developed through my years of taking photos and documenting events:

1. Curate your outfit to align with your personal branding

Before you attend an event, you should strategically select what you’re going to wear to it. There are a couple of different methods to this. I’m a big believer in personal branding, and part of that entails understanding what is authentic for you. Who are you, how do you show up/how do you want to be perceived? For example, I have a necklace that has my social media handle on it: “@Paula Edgar”. I always wear it, regardless of whether I’m at a gala, on a panel, or speaking at a conference. It’s a part of who I am and a key part of me showing up authentically.

If you know you’ll be at an event where many attendees will be industry professionals, or from a specific industry, think about how they tend to show up. For example, as a member of the legal profession, (although some things have shifted) many of the events I go to have people often wearing blues, blacks, grays, and browns. I try not to wear any of those colors unless there are bright pops of color or patterns on my outfit so I stand out.

What you wear at an event should not just be arbitrary; you should put consideration into it and it should be a well-thought out aspect of your personal branding proposition – how you want to be perceived by others (both people at the event and people who will see your photos at a later time).

2. Consider the logo/colors of the event or organization

This could be a subset of my first rule, but I’m going to give it a standalone section. When I choose my outfit for a speaking engagement, I think about what the event is, the logo of the organization that I am speaking for, and the colors in the logo. And yes, you might think this is a lot of thought to put into what you’re wearing to an event, but I believe that people should prioritize their personal brand. Even small considerations can make a big impact.

For example, if I’m speaking for an organization whose colors are red and blue, I might wear a red dress with a blue accent, a blue dress, or I might choose a black dress and have accessories that will amplify and use the colors of the organization. I do this because when you align in that way, two things happen. First, it looks better in the photos. Second, when you’re taking pictures where the logo also appears, you literally coordinate and the photos are complementary to the brand. Not many people I know put that much thought into it, but I do think that the outfit and accessories you choose are very important.

3. No name tags in photos

My third rule for events is that when you are taking a photo, remove your name tag.

I’m sure there are people who’ve been at events with me who know that I am really, really, really serious about this. A name tag blocks a part of your outfit, it impacts how you show up and what you look like, and it just doesn’t look good in photos.

Recently, I was at a conference where I was standing at the step and repeat and helping people improve their photographs. I either helped them take the picture, or I assisted with the photo’s composition.

Every time someone would show up at the branded step and repeat, I would say again and again: “You have to take off your name tag.” One woman asked me, “Well, how are people gonna know where we were?” And I told her, “Turn around, you’re standing in front of a step and repeat. You don’t need the name tag to do that.” The step and repeat displayed the organization’s name, logo, and specific details about the event.

Even if your picture isn’t in front of a step and repeat or logo, you can use your social media/photo captions to tag organizations and use event hashtags to make it clear where you were without impacting the look of your outfit.

If you’re moving quickly or folks are resistant, then go ahead and take the picture with the name tag, but I know that photos look better without them!

4. Never hold a drink in a photo

Rule number four is that you should never hold a drink while taking a photo. As much as possible, if you’re holding a drink in one hand and you’re taking a picture, put your drink behind the person next to you, or put it down on a table. It doesn’t matter where it goes, just put it somewhere else.

I always think about this from a branding perspective and the risk perception factor. There are tons of people who will make assumptions about you because of the fact that they know that you drink, even though a lot of people do drink. To me, it’s not worth inviting a potentially negative perception when that is not your intent. It’s really not fair, but it happens.

In addition, I don’t like having other things in photos, like bags. Make sure you remove as much extraneous visual clutter as possible so that it doesn’t impact the photo composition and allows the viewer to focus on the actual people in the shot.

5. Photo Composition 101

This isn’t quite a rule, but these are some of my guidelines for photo composition. There are a couple of ways to compose a photo. First, you can highlight a specific person by placing them in the center of the photo. So, if someone is an awardee/honoree, or is in a leadership role, you might want to have them be the focus. In this case, place that person at the center of the photo and then have everyone else flank them on both sides.

In general, people who are taller should be in the back of a photo, but you do want to be sure that their face (and as much of their torso) is unobstructed. When in a large group photo, at least your face and shoulders should be visible. In general, if you can’t see the photographer, they probably can’t see you either. Make sure to maneuver so that you can be seen! #branding

Another approach is the comparison photo. In addition to focusing on a person or arranging by height, you should look at the color composition of the outfits people are wearing. I often get a lot of resistance to this because tall people and short people want to be arranged by height. But the truth is that sometimes it looks a lot better to also consider the colors and print arrangement. One way is to alternate solids and prints, arranged by color. Or, you could have similar colors grouped together. When you’re working with color, you really want to actually pay attention to and then think strategically about the composition.

As an example, if there are three folks who are wearing yellow and two people who are wearing black and one who’s wearing plaid, I might put the person in plaid in the middle, flank them with the folks who are in black and then place the people in yellow at the ends. It doesn’t have to be done in a specific way—I’m just telling you about some of my preferences and I’m notorious for making photos better.

6. Do not scrunch down, squat, or bend in photos

You’re probably scrunching down because you are tall or want to make sure the people in the back can be seen. But I can tell you that unless you’re trying to take a silly or fun photo, it normally doesn’t look good. Especially if your outfit has long lines—which can be true for both men and for women. If you want to know how it looks, scrunch down or bend in front of a mirror and you can see how the body composition shows up. It doesn’t look the way you thought it would, does it?

That’s why in general I recommend people arrange around height, color or whatever other organizing factor. It’ll be better because you’re not compacting your body. Plus, we should all stand up and show up as our best selves. We should be loud and authentic in how we show up. Now, like above, some people may not agree with me on this, and I’m okay with that!

7. Posing: Keep your preferred side in mind

Another rule I like to keep in mind is to always know your preferred side. If you know that you need to be on the left so that the left side of your face and body is shown in the photo, do that.

Primarily for women, I’m a big fan of (in both group and solo photos) putting your hands on your hips. You might use both, like in a power pose or just one hand to cinch your waist. It’s a slimming technique and also helps to lift your torso and have you appear, from the waist up, in a much more confident pose than when you don’t. Try it now and see how it elongates your torso and shifts your appearance.

One of my rules of group photos, particularly with groups of women, is to have the women on the ends of each side of the photo pose as what I like to call bookends. This means that they place their corresponding outer hand on their hip which then makes it a nice frame of the group in the photo.

8. For group photos: Listen to the person taking the photo

The hardest part about a group photo is organizing the participants. I often joke that I turn into a camp counselor when I arrange photos; I have to yell and I have to tell people to be quiet (sigh). The fact that they’re not being quiet makes it way harder to arrange the pictures. Then, when people complain about standing too long, I always say, “If you will just be quiet and give me two minutes, I will make sure you get a good photo.”

One of my favorite things to do is to help photographers convene people and also to help to curate the photo so it’s special and memorable. So, next time you’re getting ready for a group photo, get into the space, listen to what’s being said with quiet focus, keep smiling and stay ready.

9. For silly or fun group photos: Know your angles and keep your eye on the camera

Sometimes people will say, “Let’s take a silly photo.”

I love silly photos. However…

Although I’m telling you all these rules, silly photos are fun and necessary. After COVID-19 and now during this hybrid, post pandemic time, we need to make sure we are experiencing joy and documenting when we are together. Remember that you can be silly and put yourself into all kinds of funny and interesting poses. However, you don’t want to find that you have been tagged in that “silly photo” and see yourself in an unflattering, awkward, or revealing pose, or position.

So, my suggestion for when you take a silly or fun photo is that you can put your hands up, make funny signs or even slightly scrunch or lean, but always have your eye on the camera, know your angles, and have a look on your face that you want to be photographed. You will rarely, if ever see me scrunching my face, unless it’s specifically what I want to do, or it is an unauthorized candid. This is deliberate versus just hoping and waiting to see what happens. I’ve seen so many people who are upset because of how photos turned out when they could have taken steps to ensure that they were not captured that way in the first place.

10. Take and be in photos both for memories/documentation and for brand building

In short, taking and being in great photos is helpful to document experiences for memories (both joyful and otherwise) and for marketing purposes. They can help to build your personal brand and connect you with others. As such, you should approach the process strategically and take it seriously (but maybe not as seriously as me). On social media, photos get more visibility, which can make you and your brand more visible. Make sure you are being consistent and thoughtful about how you document. Remember what you’re going to wear, how you show up, your smile, body composition, and more.

Even with all we’ve covered here, I do have more rules that I will share in a future post, including a post on how to do selfies (properly).

All of these rules are my recommendations for making photos better, but you should do what works for you. Oftentimes, there are time constraints that prevent you from getting the ideal photos you want; but these guidelines will at least provide you with some strategies to consider and share the next time you have a personal or professional photo opportunity. Share with a friend!

Want to help your employees understand how to take photos that help them amplify your organization and leverage their personal branding? Connect with me to find out more about how I can help by facilitating a workshop or keynote speaking engagement at your organization.

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