What Is Photogenic?

We have all heard this term, at least all of us english speaking natives. We may have even used it. I know I have on numerous occasions. For those of you reading that might not know what it means - I have an believable number of readers from around the globe - more than 40% from non-english speaking countries. That always surprises me considering my sarcasm might not translate to well… In which case that scares me into some semblance of responsibility occasionally. Back to the word "photogenic" - It means someone that looks good in photographic images. Typically it is hard to take a bad image of these people - hence the need for a word.

With regular old people and even some models this is usually not the case… In fact you have to work pretty hard to get a great image and even harder to get a flattering image. Some people that look fantastic in person take a lot of work to get a flattering image. Why is this? I thought about it for a long time - I ma just that way. I have not come up with an answer but I do have a few observations that have held up to be true. The first one is that some people are relaxed in front of the camera and this goes a long long way to get to the "photogenic" place. In fact it is a requirement - no relax, to much tension - not photogenic.

That is not the end of the story, it really isn't, it's only the first requirement. Then there is "prettiness", but that doesn't cut it. Honestly there are some people that I have shot that look far better in the images than my impression of them on the street. How can this be? Are they just meant to be shown in 2 dimensions rather than three? Maybe but that is not it. Is it because they are easy to shoot? I used to think so but have ditched that theory as my experience has shown that some of the people that I make the best images of - the ones that I find hard to make a bad image of are very very difficult to work with. For instance my daughter No. 2 - quite possibly the most frustrating photographic subject of all time but when I can actually get her in focus I have never taken an unattractive image of her.

They don't have to be hard to shoot, I have some models that I work with and it is a cake walk in every way. So photogenic does not mean easy or hard to work with. Is it just the way the person is - they always look great in photographs? Typically yes - they do but having taken about ten million pictures I can tell you that there is something about the relationship of the photographer to the subject that affects "photogenic-ness" of the subject. I have shot people that seemingly could be and are described as photogenic buy some of my colleagues that look like crap when I shoot them and vis-a-versa. Then let's take daughter No. 2 again - I can't take a bad image of her and a lot of other people can't either. I have seen the results - amateur to pro but then again I have seen school photographers take horrible images of her as well.

The bottom line is that photogenic is not only the subject, there is some degree of influence of the photographer that causes the photogenic to happen on a subconscious level. I might have to take a few years sabbatical to be able to quantify it any more than that. I am still intrigued by the effect of photogenic subjects and why they exist in some symbiotic relationship with the photographers that find it impossible to take bad images of them.

For your consideration here is an image that I randomly jammed up on my Hasselblad online portfolio. It has been wildly popular and caused me to receive quite a few emails from fellow photographers with questions about it. I chose this image at random - I happened to have a jpeg already, it was square, I shot it with my Hasselblad, and I have been intrigued with this image for years. Intrigued because there are so many technical and aesthetic flaws that they have stopped me from ever making a final print of this negative but… I still like it. In fact it is one of those images that makes me think about what photogenic is. Despite the flaws and the distortions caused by the haphazard way her hands are twisting her face, and her eyes being semi-closed, and an unflattering angle, and countless other issues - I cannot seem to make an unattractive image of this subject.

What is photogenic? Why are some people photogenic in front of your camera? If you are not a native english speaker - do you have a word for this effect?


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