Audition Packet: Interview with photographer Arielle Doneson

(This is a reprint from an article posted in July 2011)

The time to start preparing your fall audition materials is getting close; is that headshot really standing the test of time?  If you no longer recognize the person in that photo or you'd just like to freshen up your audition packet, it may be time to book a sitting with a great photographer like Arielle Doneson.   We spoke with Arielle, a former opera singer turned star photographer, about her thoughts on how to get the very best photos out of your session. 

How and why did you make the transition from singing to photography?

Remember in Music school when they told us “If you can think of anything you’d rather do than be a singer than you should do that instead?”  Eventually that just became true for me.

Several years ago I was taking some time off of auditioning and performing, really working on my technique with an amazing teacher.  Consequently, I had to find a new way to channel my creativity.  I had been shooting headshots for friends for a few years at that point but now photography became my focus.  I threw myself into study, doing everything I could to educate myself about photographic technique, lighting, workflow, post-production, etc.  After a year or so I realized that I was happier doing photography.  I didn’t want to audition anymore.  There was just a lifestyle incompatibility for me. It takes a very special kind of person to be a singer and I just realized over time that I wasn’t that kind of a person.  I love being a photographer.  I also love opera and singers.  I just didn’t love being an opera singer.  Now I just hang out with them and take their picture-ha!

How does your own performance background inform your photography work?

One of my favorite things about photographing singers' headshots is discussing their rep with them.  A Zerlina needs different shots than an Salome, than a Tarquinius, etc.  I know these operas, I know these characters.  I can use that knowledge and translate it into the kind of shots a singer might want.  I also know all too well how awkward it can be to get headshots taken!

Any advice on how one should choose a headshot photographer?

There are so many awesome photographers out there!  Find someone whose work you love.  Don’t go for the cheapest option as that usually signifies the least experienced.  Don’t be fooled by flashy extras, such as all of your images on disc from the shoot- your competition is getting each image they use retouched and no matter how glorious you look un-retouched, that lightly corrected/retouched photo will look better.  You won’t be able to use that disc of 1000 images except as gifts for Grandma (which, I admit, is valid).  It’s just a trick to make you think you’re getting more than you are.

Talk to them about what you do, get a sense if they are a good listener.  I really believe the most important part of portrait photography (aside from technical knowledge), is the ability to make people feel comfortable and listened to.  From my own performing days I can tell you that I had 3 different big name photographers do my shots over the years-two of those shoots resulted in bad images because I wasn’t comfortable during the process- I didn’t speak up about what I wanted.  But the third one was a real sweetie, I really felt comfortable in the shoot and the images prove that.  It’s not so much that a great photographer knows what angles to use (we should all know that, as professional photographers), but a great headshot photographer knows how to make a normal person (not a top model), feel comfortable and gorgeous in a genuine way.

How long does a typical session last?

Each session is different, but I’d say the average is about 2 hours, not including hair/makeup which is an additional hour.  I’ve had some shoots that lasted an hour and others that were closer to five-as long as it takes for both of us to feel like we have what we need.  There’s definitely ‘a zone’ that is reached after the first 50-100 frames when all of a sudden the singer is comfortable being photographed, we’re laughing and having a great time and all of the shots are “gold.”  I’m usually making some reference to Zoolander and the “blue steel” at this point :)

How many shots do you take in that time period?

Again this differs with each client.  What is consistent is the number of shots I show in the final gallery-this is around 200.  In my experience, when taking 1000 frames and showing all 1000 it becomes overwhelming and very difficult to cut down.  There’s just no way that all 1000 images are keepers.  I shoot until I feel we have at least 200 awesome shots, sometimes this is after 250 frames and sometimes after 1000.  It just depends on the comfort of the singer.  Then, with the aid of their trusted team of advisors, i.e. their teacher, manager, mom, boyfriend, grandma, wife, etc., the singer narrows that 250 down to their favorite 20 or so and we go from there.

How many different looks (clothing choices) do you recommend?

It’s definitely better to bring too many options than to arrive at the shoot with too little.  I usually suggest bringing at least 5 options and we do at least 3 looks, usually more.

Can you provide any guidance on how singers should select their wardrobe for headshots? What works well, what doesn’t work well?

For women and men I love colors that flatter you and bring out your eyes, lush looking fabrics (not wrinkly knits), clothing that makes you feel fabulous and gorgeous.  It’s so important to feel like your best self for our shoot.

I usually recommend that singers bring their audition clothes-these are often very nice, classic styles that look expensive (they often are, right?) If you want to do full body shots (which more and more companies are requesting these days) think about shoes, etc.  Don’t forget to bring the proper undergarments to your shoot-almost anything can be altered in Photoshop, but great undergarments can make you feel  more toned which will thus create a feeling of  confidence and comfort which equals great shots (like how I delicately referenced SPANX without actually saying the word?).

Things that look bad:  Wrinkly clothing (some things an iron just cannot fix and frankly, you don’t want to be thinking about wrinkles during your shoot-you want to be thinking about how gorgeous you feel). Loud or trendy patterns (the shots are about you not the print).

Strapless dresses/tops don’t look good in a headshot, you’ll look naked.  But a strapless gown can make for a beautiful full body shot.  Cowl necks are the same way-bad in a headshot (they look frumpy), but can be lovely in a wider shot.  There are exceptions to everything, I suppose…

Most importantly, choose clothing that you love-that makes you feel like your best self.  Clothing that represents you.  Ten years ago guys were all wearing tuxes in their publicity shots but we are so far from that now.  Now the trend is less formal, I’m seeing a lot of striped button-down shirts with leather jackets for men and cute cocktail dresses for women.  And a lot of shots in jeans.

How about tips on hair and makeup (for both men and women)?

The best advice I can give about hair and makeup is to trust your instincts and know what you like.  Are you a person who likes when other people do your hair and makeup?  Then you will love having a pro do it for your shoot.  Do you usually find that you prefer how you do your own hair after you have it cut?  Or you like how you do your own makeup, that the pros just don’t ‘get’ you?  Then don’t spend the extra money (my makeup artist friends want to kill me now-ha!).

I don’t usually like the look of makeup on men.  I think it’s obviously makeup and I’m happier just doing a little bit of digital editing magic.  But go with your instinct, guys.  If you feel more secure having a professional judiciously apply a bit of concealer I completely support that decision.  Please do not apply your own foundation before your shoot.  It never looks right.

Also, remember to speak up, singers!  If, during your shoot, you don’t like how your hair or makeup is looking PLEASE let your photographer and makeup artist know.  It is your time, your photographer is your employee for that time, and your shots must reflect your best self.  If you like more eyeliner let your makeup artist know, if you like bigger hair, tell us.  We will not judge, I promise.  We just want you to be happy with your shots.  The more fabulous you feel about your look the better your shots will be.  

What is your feeling about indoor/studio versus outdoor shooting?

I usually like to include both in most shoots.  I just listen to what my singers prefer and we make a plan from there.  I get bored just shooting in front of a white background so I need to mix it up :) And I personally feel that looking at 250 images of my own face in front of a white background would be cruel and unusual punishment.

Is there a particular time of day/time of year that works best for a session?

Usually I schedule shoots at 10am or 2pm.  This way we can avoid the harsh midday sun whether we are indoors or out.  If you don’t like being cold I don’t recommend scheduling an outdoor shoot for the middle of February in NYC.  But that’s probably obvious :)

Any general dos and don’ts you’d be willing to share?

The biggest do I can share with you is to ask you to be honest with yourself.  Speak up if you want to showcase something more or less, be honest about what you like.  It’s your time.  These images are your entrée into the professional world and they must represent you.  And make sure you have a personal affinity for your photographer, if not you may feel uncomfortable during your shoot and this will show in your proofs.

Being photographed is really awkward for most of us.  But if you make sure you are happy with the things you can control and let go of the things you cannot your shots will be all the better for it.   You took a lot of time and consideration choosing your photographer, now trust them to do what they do best while you shine.

The biggest don’t?

Hmmm…  Don’t let anyone convince you that you don’t know what you like.  If you like big hair but your photographer or makeup artist says “it’s not their style,” than find someone who realizes it’s not about them (the photographer.)  These shots need to represent your individual narrative, your individual beauty.  If you feel that you are too made up and would never look as glamorous in person you should also speak up. From my friends who run auditions I can tell you that they find it particularly jarring when a singer shows up with a headshot that looks like a completely different person.

However, on the other side of that idea don’t allow your insecurities to determine things too much.  For example, most of like a photo of ourselves because it makes us look thin, or our nose looks smaller, or something silly like that.  The emotional character of your expression is the most important part of choosing your images, everything else can be edited in photoshop.  That’s why it’s important to have a team of people whom you trust helping you choose your shots.  They can see the beauty in your expression and not that little bit of arm fat :)

Any further advice you’d like to share on how each singer can get the best out of any headshot session?

Just like singing, don’t over-think it or stress about it too much.  Similar to a great performance a photo-shoot takes on a life of its own.  It may not be exactly as you rehearsed it in your head but if you stay in the moment it will be even better :)

Do you have some tips on choosing the shots you'll use (publicity and standard headshot)?

When choosing your favorites, go by expression-this is the one thing we can’t digitally alter and is the most important thing of all-a bit of tummy fat can be retouched in a second but a genuine smile is impossible to recreate.

I do not recommend choosing your own headshot - Most people don’t understand their own beauty.  This is made perfectly clear if you’ve ever caught someone making their “mirror face.”  You know the one-they’re looking in the mirror, sucking in their cheeks, making some bizarre, pinched expression you’ve never seen them make in real life?  That is how they think they look their best.  Funny, right?  But we ALL do this.  We tend to see flaws and insecurities while your managers, friends, agents, voice teachers, etc. are often better at judging which photo will represent your talent best.  So, go through and pick your favorites with those people and if all of them disagree with you about your favorite than listen to them-you may be blinded by good old ‘mirror face.’

If a singer is interested in scheduling a session with you, how can they find you?

They can check out my website/blog:

and contact me.

Good luck to you all and may you have unprecedented success this audition season!



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