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Proud pup mom, type A creative, lover of the outdoors, Top Chef fan girl, and wedding and portrait photographer. Welcome to the blog!
HI, I'M RACHEL!
This post has been a long time coming and I’m so excited to have finally made time for it! Today I’m going to tell you why to wear makeup for photos. And it’s a long one, so buckle in!
To Wear Makeup or Not to Wear Makeup – That is the Question
Over the years I’ve had several clients reach out before their photo session to ask if they should wear makeup to their photo session if they do not wear makeup in their everyday life. Their concern is that they want to look like themselves in their photos. (As a person who no longer wears makeup in my everyday life, I can relate.) And of course, that makes so much sense. Whether you’re having fresh headshots taken, engagement or maternity photos, or photos for a dating profile, you want to accurately represent who you are at this time of your life. Those are some good instincts!
My response is always this: even if you do not wear makeup in your everyday life, YES, you should still wear makeup in your photos.
I’m aware that in this day and age, that could be a controversial answer. I’m going to walk you through why I feel this way, provide you with all the information I can, and then you can make the decision that’s most aligned for you.
What Type of Photos Are You Having Taken?
Before I tell you why to wear makeup for photos, let’s start with the type of photos you’re having taken. Are you having classic portraits taken? Or are you going for a very raw, emotional, photo journalism look – like an artistic project? If you’re looking at my blog or are one of my clients – I’m guessing you’re going for the classic portrait vibe. If that’s the case, the info I’m sharing will be relevant to you. If that’s not your vibe, then I suggest checking with your photographer and asking what they suggest.
Photographs are one dimensional / flat objects, so we need to do some stuff to create dimension, contrast, and add visual interest. I say “we” because we both get the opportunity to participate in the creation of that dimension. I do what I can creatively behind the camera to use light in such a way that creates dimension, in addition to using foreground, leading lines, texture in our surroundings, etc. Since I am a portrait photographer, 99% of my photos include my clients’ face(s). And my clients’ faces are the one thing I don’t really have creative control over! That’s where you come in.
Without makeup, your face is basically all one tone / no contrast, which reads as very flat on camera. That’s not what you look like in real life, so why would you want to look flat in your photos? That is my number one reason why to wear makeup for photos.
The lack of contrast on a makeup-less face becomes very apparent when you consider that the rest of the image will have contrast – especially if you’re wearing any type of color or darker fabric. In most cases, the rest of the image will have at least some contrast (the background, the setting, your clothes, the clothes of the people with you), and then your face will be the same flat tone all the way across basically. That will stand out as looking a little odd compared to the contrast and dimension in the rest of the image.
Real Life Example
I don’t want to call anyone out, so I’m going to use myself as an example. I had to learn this lesson the hard way! When I first started my business, I knew nothing about how makeup plays a role in still photography. I did my own makeup for my first headshots and since I never wore lipstick IRL, I only added a clear gloss to my lips for my headshots. As you’ll see in the photo below, my eyes were well defined because I wore eyeliner and mascara. And then everything south of my nose looked like one flat beige blob. There was no pop of color on my lips to create contrast with the rest of my face, so it all just blended together. It didn’t match the rest of my face, didn’t represent what I looked like in real life, and it was not flattering!
When you add makeup to your face, especially in ways that define or contour, you’re adding dimension and contrast, which helps your face look more like it does in real life instead of looking flat.
Compare the 2015 headshot (left) to a headshot from 2019 (right) when I had Carla Pressley Hair & Makeup Artist do my makeup. I definitely wore lipstick – as you can see just a hint of color still made a difference. My features are defined, I look like myself, and there is dimension on my face thanks to eyeliner, eyelashes, blush, and lipstick – plus all the other stuff she did that I don’t even know about!
These things are especially important for photos where you (the subject) is further away from the camera. The further away you are in the photo, the easier it is to lose definition of your facial features. Makeup will enhance your features so that even from far away, your face doesn’t look like one large blob.
In Real Life
In real life, when someone is looking at you, light is playing off your face – there are highlights and shadows all over which are constantly moving as you talk and move, creating dimension and giving you the look of liveliness. Makeup artists know how to use makeup so that the same or similar effect can be created in a still photograph. They can do so in a subtle way to maintain your ‘natural’, fresh faced, everyday look so you still look like yourself in your photos.
The Non-Clown Version of Yourself
I think when people think of makeup, especially when they think of having makeup done by a professional, they think of thick, harsh, obvious makeup where you end up looking like a clown version of yourself. That is definitely not what I’m advocating for. I’m advocating for you to use makeup in a way that will create dimension so you walk away with a non-flat looking face in your photos. You get to decide your level of comfort with the amount of makeup that’s used.
The thing to note is – even if you feel like you’re wearing a lot of makeup, it won’t show up on camera the way it does in real life. Here’s the perfect example of that from my own 2019 headshots session. Look at this selfie I took vs. how my professional photos turned out. In the selfie taken with my cell phone camera, I look SO made up! Yet in the professional photos my makeup looks more natural and subtle.
What to Tell Your Makeup Artist
If you’re someone who does not regularly wear makeup, you’ll want to ask your makeup artist for a very subtle, natural look. These ladies all did that and it worked really well. Their faces look realistic, dimensional, their features are defined, and they still look like themselves.
If you’re someone who does wear makeup in their everyday life, perhaps you will be more comfortable with a makeup artist doing more of a natural-enhanced look…
…or something more ‘glam’.
And if you’re comfortable with it and it fits your style, a great way to add dimension, definition, and visual interest is with a really vibrant lip – especially if you keep the rest of your makeup very subtle. These ladies did a great job of that and it really adds a little something special to the photos.
Communication is key when working with a makeup artist and the ladies I recommend always do a fabulous job of providing what the client wants while still creating the dimension that’s helpful for me.
It’s important for me to note: this is NOT about you not looking ‘good enough’ without makeup or me insinuating you have flaws you need to cover up with makeup. This is strictly about a technical aspect of still photography and how makeup can help with it.
This does not *just* apply to women. This goes for men too! I wish more men were willing to wear makup for this reason! If you’re a man, please know I will not be judging you if you decide to have makeup applied for your photos. I will applaud you!
For more information on this, see this IG story series I did where I expand on this very topic.
Did this post get you excited to book your own headshots or branding session?! If yes, send me a note and we can chat about what you have in mind: contact me
Hi – I’m Rachel! A wedding, engagements, and headshots photographer in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and northern Virginia. I love taking photos of elegant people who love to laugh, as well as of much in-love couples. If you’re a dog owner, that’s a plus! I’m currently booking 2022 portrait sessions, as well as 2022 and 2023 weddings.
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Rachel is a wedding and portrait photographer
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