The Camera Doesn’t Lie—But Photoshop Can
Some aspects of creating an author website are like doing a fandango in a minefield, and few elements are as touchy as the official author photo. All authors want to look their best, and they should. The website is likely to be their first point of contact with the outside world. The photo, along with the overall tone of the site, says a lot about the author’s brand. But “looking your best” is a tricky, subjective concept and can create diplomatic challenges for the web designer.
Over the years, we’ve been asked to digitally enhance, liposuction, or nip and tuck just about every hill and valley of the human body, from heads to ankles. (If only we could charge the rates of plastic surgeons!) We were once asked to do a body swap by someone who noted that the torso in his actual photo didn’t reflect his commitment to the gym. “Must be a bad angle,” he said. We spent a fair amount of time doing photo research—body transplants are delicate operations and require just the right chest and shoulder size to match the head; otherwise, the results may appear as though Linda Blair of The Exorcist fame assisted in the neck positioning. The added challenge in this case was that we had to find an image of someone wearing a blazer with a sweater that he liked.
We did manage to dig up an image that passed the sartorial test, and the digital transplant procedure was a success. The recovery went smoothly, and the photo looked great on the site. But the jig was up when the client’s wife saw the site and remarked that she’d never seen him in that sweater before. Shortly afterward, the client had a change of heart about his new body and asked us to use the original picture on the site.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
Almost all digital photos need some basic processing to improve skin tone, color balance, contrast, and other technical details. As you push beyond the basics, however, you start sliding down a slippery slope. Do you stop with removing shadows under your eyes or removing a blemish? How about knocking off a few years by smoothing out wrinkles so your skin is like glass? Or digitally toning your arms and tightening your core?
A skilled photo retoucher can roll the clock back years or decades. But, keep in mind that, at some point, your image may become a distant relative of the original. If that’s where the photo ends up after retouching, consider the potential disconnect when people meet you at an event. If you don’t mind the disparity between how you look on the screen vs. the podium, that’s fine. But if you’re likely to feel self-conscious about it, play it safe and be less aggressive with your digital makeover.
It’s Not My Best Side…
Author photos are generally unflattering for one of two reasons:
- technical issues, or
- the author’s expression or posture.
In terms of the former, lighting problems (highlights and shadows) can often be mitigated, as can glare, shadows, and skin tone problems. Sometimes, however, a photo is just too far gone to be salvaged (e.g., it’s out of focus, the camera shook, or it’s just too small or distant to be useful). In either case, it’s time to get another shot.
The second category, expression and position, can be much more difficult to correct. If you really don’t like your expression because you’re frowning, your smile is over the top, you’re slumped over, looking stiff or uncomfortable, or you’re listing to one side, Photoshop magic won’t help. In that case, the best thing to do is to get another photo using the unflattering picture as a guide to what you don’t want.
What Was I Thinking When I Wore THAT to the Photo Shoot?
Perhaps you really like your photo except for one element. Maybe you realize, after the fact, that your purple scarf is unflattering wrapped so snuggly around your neck, or the brilliantly hued tie instantly draws the viewer’s eye away from your face. Ditto for a piece of jewelry that’s shiny and distracting. In these cases, you may be in luck.
Photo retouching makes good sense and is generally easy to do. Color shifting the tie can be easy. Jewelry can often be toned down to reduce glare and sometimes can be removed entirely, depending on its location and how it interacts with your clothing. But, if you want to remove the scarf altogether, you may be looking at a major task involving a rebuild of your neck, shoulders, and upper chest. For a retake or your next photo, think of as many variations and clothing changeups as you can before the shoot.
The technical considerations around retouching are generally cut and dry—a picture is either useable or not. If it’s useable, it can often be improved for color balance, contrast, tone, and other basic elements. While a truly great author photo typically starts at the photo shoot, simple adjustments can turn a ho-hum author photo into a fine author photo.
The emotional and psychological aspects of digital photo manipulation, however, are trickier to navigate. Ultimately, the issues come down to this:
Are you trying to represent yourself or reinvent yourself?
Only you can answer that question.