Q&A with Christa Meola // on Photography for Your Brand

A while ago it occurred to me that I know all these amazing, talented, professional creatives (personal stylists, photographers, copywriters, etc) that you should know too. More than that, you should be in on the conversations we’ve had…when we’ve been jamming at a workshop, pontificating over a cheese plate in Paris, or catching up on Skype. We love talking art, business, design and branding. What works and what doesn’t. Basically, the stuff that helps YOU create a MAGNETIC BRAND.

I’ve been chatting with these pros, recording our convos, and curating juicy Q&As, which I think are full of useful advice – stuff that you can take and put into action, or keep in mind when you need to hire one of these pros, or pull a DIY.

We’ve done this old school, in writing, so grab a bevvy and come join us…

Meet Christa! She’s a dear friend of mine who also happens to be a pro photographer. Christa is based in NYC and her work has taken her all over the world. She’s also a teacher and writer and the best person I know at photographing women (read her full bio at the end of our Q&A). Her expertise and insight is so valuable I want to share it with you here…

Natasha: First Q, how does one go about finding a “personal branding” photographer?

Christa: Very enthusiastic personal referral is always my favorite way to find collaborators. But you know, you can go on Pinterest and start pinning shots that you love and you’re invariably going to come across someone that you’re pinning again and again and again. Look at what you’re attracted to and find out who’s the photographer behind them. Check them out online, see if they have testimonials and a solid body of work.  And then you have friends that you know love their images, so ask if they loved their photographer, if they loved working with them.

Natasha: How would you answer the Q “What should I wear (to my shoot)?”…

Christa: You do need to have  a discussion with whoever’s designing your website because what you wear is going to be what they have to work with in terms of color but also in terms of what you’re communicating. You have to think about your brand. Are you wearing a leather jacket or a summer dress? All black or hot pink? What you wear communicates a lot about your brand. Not only should it be flattering (that’s something a stylist can help you with – finding something that’s complementary to you), but also consider that what you’re wearing is going to be on your website. It needs to work with your overall brand and design.

Natasha: What should someone bring to their photoshoot?

Christa: Bring more than you think you’ll need. You should have a number of choices because some things won’t work on camera, and your photographer can help you make those decisions. You definitely should have a variety and not just bring 10 different black outfits. If you can afford to have a stylist work with you either in prepping, planning via Skype, or actually on the shoot to help accessorize and style you that’s great. They will help fit things, make sure clothes flatter you better, pay attention to  things that maybe your photographer is too busy to catch – things like maybe the lapel on your jacket isn’t sitting right or something is showing that shouldn’t be.

Natasha: So you would be cool with a stylist being at the shoot?

Christa: It’s not absolutely necessary, but yes, a stylist makes my job so much easier! Because if a stylist isn’t on set, I have to take over that job as well. I’ll sometimes have to retouch images because a bra is showing or a hem slipped out or – all those things that happen with wardrobe where it would be so nice if a stylist was there. Also they are pros at what they do so they’re going to make you look so awesome in terms of what you’re wearing. Also, the stylist has all those other things…lint rollers, scissors, clamps…a lot of them bring items that you don’t have to go shopping for. If you don’t have a stylist you should definitely bring those items yourself.

Natasha: Should someone practice their poses or expressions before the shoot?

Christa: No, I’m gonna say no. Unless that makes you feel more confident. But a pro photographer who’s great knows how to coach genuine expressions from you and can also flatter you in posing. I think all you really need to practice is good posture. And everyone knows what good posture should be. Shoulders down, head out, chin down, straight back. Not a sucked in gut but tight abs. Other than that, it’s your photographer’s job to know what’s flattering and can position you.

Natasha: What can we do the day/week before our shoot to make sure we’re ready?

Christa: You definitely want to make sure you’ve had a discussion with your designer (or whoever’s doing your website) so you’re all on the same page. You want to make sure you’ve shopped for all the necessary items: accessories and shoes included.

Don’t schedule a new haircut, tanning, or botox right before your shoot. You do not want to do that. Nothing that could turn into a disaster – don’t do any of those!

You definitely want to have a mani/pedi – and I would say do that a day before not a week before. That’s probably the biggest mistake I see with not being prepared, people will say to me “Oh I didn’t know my hands were going to be in the shot!”

A week before I would also get in touch with my photographer to check in, and say “This is what I have, what I’m bringing, and is there anything else I should have, do or be aware of?”

Lastly, get a good night’s sleep, make sure you’re moisturized, and show up to have fun! There’s really not much more you have to do :)

Natasha: This is something that comes up when someone’s considering what kind of photography they need for their site. When it comes to creating an online brand, what are your thoughts on a studio session vs. “lifestyle shots”…I get the question sometimes, “is a headshot enough?”…

Christa: This is such a good question and this is a long answer! If it’s done well, one single photograph of you, your face, regardless of what’s in the background or isn’t (it could be a white background, grey, blue, New York City, a beach, a desert, whatever) communicates a lot. It focuses on your face, expression, thoughts and emotion.

Having said that, if you’re a lifestyle brand, meaning if what you’re selling is your lifestyle and how to get it, then you need to showcase that. Which is why we see so many online brands/personalities where the person’s running around here and there, at home with their hubby, or with their cappuccino in the morning or on the streets with their dog and all that stuff, with the city in the background, on the top of a building, at the beach doing yoga – it’s all communicating something.

Determining if one shot is enough is so personal to each individual and his/her brand. There’s no right or a wrong. It depends also on the photographer and if he/she nails what you need in one shot. Consider also your designer’s wants and needs. Are they designing an experience for the viewer that has your face on every single page and every single opt-in and badge and everything? Consider your future goals and needs in terms of this shoot. Do you want these photos to serve you for the next two or three years? You may need several in that case.

As a photographer I would like the freedom to ask what’s important to you, what are you trying to communicate, what are your needs, and then capture that.

Natasha: Yes, and I think we need to make the distinction between “headshot” and “portrait”.

Christa: Yeah, I think everyone has a different definition of “headshot” and “portrait.”

Natasha: Headshot for me is cheesy realtor headshot for the side of a bus or something. You know – they all look the same, with the crossed arms. It’s not really reflective of their character.

Christa: It’s the mugshot! It’s not really a portrait of someone. Yeah that’s a really good distinction.

Honestly, I like doing a mixture when I’m hired by someone, because it’s an investment. I always shoot for a straight up honest, classic portrait that doesn’t have anything in the background. Because what if you move, evolve and grow?! I want something that’s timeless and the essence of it is you but then I also want something that’s going to capture what your work is like, all the details of your job. For instance I photographed a chef recently, we did tons of shots of her cooking, playing with food, hosting a party, tight portraits, her pantry, cookbooks etc. When I shot you I did your hands drawing, notes that you wrote, stuff you love that’s part of your brand. So it doesn’t need to be “you, you, you” in every shot.

Natasha: What’s the #1 mistake you see women entrepreneurs (or men) make with their photography? (This is my way of asking what really chaps your a** when it comes to photography you see online!)

Christa: Oh my goodness, what really chaps my a** is people using amateur photography and yet charging premium prices for their own services, or wondering why there are no clients when they have such lousy photos. I actually heard a colleague tell another colleague “Oh you don’t need pro photos, you’re so photogenic, you’re so beautiful”…to me, being beautiful has nothing to do with having professional photography! My response to that is: “I know you don’t think you realize the difference, but if you saw your photo that your Aunt Sally took alongside a pro’s photo of you, you will see the difference.”

However, if you must, I’m all for bootstrapping! If you don’t have the budget then great – it’s important to get yourself out there. Trade your services for a pro if you can. Hire the best that you can. Fewer quality shots are better than a bunch of mediocre ones.

Think about it this way… for most online entrepreneurs – you don’t have a store. Your clients don’t get the experience of walking into an amazing location with great architecture, and details, and beautiful products on the shelves…or conversely, a badly lit walmart. I hate going into someone’s website experience and seeing lousy photos!

Natasha: I do too. It’s one of the questions I ask upfront, it’s on my intake form. And it’s there because I’ve realized that some of us honestly just haven’t really thought about it. It might be on someone’s “to do” list, or they’re making do with what they have. So that’s part of this Q&A series – I want to spotlight the elements that make a great online presence.

Christa: And then the other pet peeve would be, too many shots smiling at the camera. Your photographer should shoot a variety of shots. Is there anything else besides smiling at the camera that you want to communicate?

Natasha: What’s the biggest piece of advice you would give someone who needs photography for their site?

Christa: To have a discussion with the designer and the photographer so none of the investment is wasted and everyone’s aligned. So you don’t surprise the designer with the photographs, so they’re related. My biggest pieces of advice is actually to do everything with intention. So when you go shopping for outfits you know what you’re looking for and why and what you’re gonna communicate with it, not just “oh I’ll go look for something pretty”.

Natasha: So how would you feel about getting a Pinterest board from a client or their designer?

Christa: I love that! I do a Pinterest board for every client, I don’t shoot without one. I like to include the client in a collaboration of what we’ll be shooting. I have them help me create the shot list. How many close-ups do we need? How many full body? Do we need horizontal, landscape or portrait justification? Do you need stuff shot on green screen? This is all stuff you and your designer need to have a conversation on.

Natasha: So as far as the shot list, is it up to a client to tell you how many shots they need?

Christa: Not really, but if you don’t have a photographer that’s on the ball or asks, you have to do that for yourself. You don’t want to show up thinking “I hope we get one great shot”, or “we’ll see what we get”, but rather have an idea of what you need to communicate.

For example for Mama Gena, she needed dark images for when she’s communicating about negative emotions. Then we needed her classic look in her fishnets, something else to communicate high energy. We did stuff in the street, where she lives, graffiti, etc. We had a whole list and we narrowed it down to what we could do in one day. A lot of a photographer’s job is setting expectations. If you want to have a successful shoot, you need to be realistic about what you can expect, otherwise you’re going to be disappointed.

Natasha: That’s huge.

Christa: Huge!

Natasha: Let’s touch on hair and make-up, I think this will be helpful for people…

Christa: You have to have a pro. Have to. Because you don’t look like you look in real life, on camera. I need to see darker lashes and eyebrows and contouring so it can show up onscreen. It’s not like you need makeup because you’re not attractive or because I don’t want it to look like you. No, we actually need it to look like you on camera – that’s why we need makeup, and a pro is gonna know how to do that.

And the hair thing – if you wanna look polished and feel awesome then get your hair done. But the makeup is another story – it’s actually really essential because it helps read on camera.

Thank you Christa!

ChristaMEOLAChrista Meola is an internationally recognized photographer, speaker, teacher, and author of the five-star reviewed The Art of Boudoir Photography, How to Create Stunning Photographs of Women.

Her knack for telling a story through her lens has made her a go-to for private portrait shoots, among celebrities, families and everyday extraordinary people. From her home base in NYC and destinations around the world, Christa has photographed subjects ranging from Hall of Fame rockers to champion boxers, and taught thousands of photographers the secrets of her business.

While the other kids played dress-up, little Christa photographed it. Behind the camera since age six, she and her work have been featured on Good Morning America, Inside Edition, creativeLIVE, The NY Post, The Huffington Post, and Professional Photographers magazine .

She’s been invited to teach in Spain, Italy, France, South America, Canada, and across the US. And once, backstage in LA, where she hugged Michael Buble.

Learn more about Christa on her popular site ChristaMeola.com.