Always Be Squinching And Other Tricks From A Portrait Photographer For Taking Flattering Pictures

These days, everybody has a headshot. If you don’t know what you’re doing with your eyes, your mouth, or your jaw to make sure that yours look their best, portrait photographer Peter Hurley is here to instruct you.

People pose for more pictures than ever these days, at their own and others’ hands. And since we basically live our entire lives online, those pictures are more important than ever–now, any old romantic prospect or potential empoyer who knows your name can find a photo of you to go with it.


With that in mind, we asked portrait photographer Peter Hurley, whose recent video on “squinching” (squinching: narrowing your eyes slightly to create a confident look. No, not too much–that’s squinting. Watch the video for more), went viral recently, to share with us tricks for how to look your very best when posing in front of the camera–even if you’re also the photographer.

Consider the whole face

I’ve got a slew of tips, but squinching and emphasizing the jawline are the first two I start with. The jawline is number one (see video below). The squinching is cool, believe me–if people can get people to squinch in front of their cameras, or if they’re doing selfies, they’re going to look way more confident and cooler–but if their jawline’s not out, then it doesn’t give them any definition around their face, so it doesn’t really help them out anyway. So you have to get the jawline first, then throw in the squinch.

You can only move your mouth, eyes, and eyebrows. Those are the three things you can move on your face. I like to engage eyebrows. That’s another thing that I’ll work on down the road. But you don’t necessarily have to. I’ve had clients say, “I can move my nostrils.” I don’t think it’s really going to help your picture-taking ability–you’re not going to get any more photogenic by flaring your left nostril slightly. Other than that it’s really subtleties. It’s really the subtle things that make the difference.


Seriously do say “cheese”

Another tip is always adding a slight smile. If you don’t have it–if you don’t have a slight smile it doesn’t warm (the photo) up and you can appear really standoffish and mean. It’s not appealing. If you add that simple tiny little smile to it it really helps. I’m actually thinking about doing some sort of selfie video tutorial that incorporates these ideas.

It’s kind of like mental gymnastics. You’ve got to layer them all in. You’ve got to get the eyes going, the little smile, the forehead out. There’s a lot to think about. When I’m coaching people I stay on top of them and it’s funny. You really have to be aware that you’re going for this, or in a split second it’s gone. We don’t want to look blank. People are way more engaging when they look like something’s going on. When you squinch it makes (you) look more appealing and interested.

You actually do have a “good side,” so find it

People always talk about their side: Which side is their good side, so I was going to do a video explaining how to find your good side and how important it is to be on your good side and that sort of thing.


We’re all human. When we’re born things don’t necessarily come out symmetrical. It’s amazing–I feel that the human face is the most incredible thing to look at, let alone photograph. Each one’s so unique. I have identical twins and they look completely different to me. To other people, they can’t tell them apart. To me, it’s like they’re totally different. When I walk the streets of New York and I have all these different faces going by me, it’s just amazing, because that’s what I do every day. I’m photographing people’s faces and the intricacies of the human face are pretty amazing.

To find your good side, you either get in front of a photographer who knows what they’re doing to suss it out with you, or you have to wait till my video comes out where I go through all that. [laughs] It’s subjective, really. I’ve had people in here who I like one side of their face, and they’re like, “No, it’s definitely this side.” And I’m like, I think they’re wrong. Sometimes it’s minor, but it can be major. When it’s major, it’s just so intriguing to see. I don’t think being symmetrical makes you more attractive. I think one side of the face being more attractive than the other because it’s not symmetrical is a little different. Most of these tests that are out there are all looking at people straight-on, and I don’t agree with that because I shoot people on every angle. You need to shoot the person on both sides of their face to see it, not just straight-on. Straight-on is only giving you one perspective.

Squinching = Confidence

I’ve been coaching photographers on squinching for almost three years now. I was with one who is my associate who I work with all the time. And we were talking about this and he said, “You just let the cat out of the bag” and I said, “I know.” It’s my thing, and I’ve been working on it for 10 years, so for me it’s a teaching process, but I’m also feeling people out. I’m very intuitive in the way that I work and knowing how far to push people, or who to push and who not to push. I’m working with a prominent psychologist in the industry and we’ve teamed up to do something that we’re calling “Headshot.” It’s a leadership therapy-type move where I work with leaders in companies and kind of semi-profile them for their self-image for personal branding and that kind of thing, and it’s all based on this intuitive process that I have going on when people are in front of camera. It’s pretty interesting stuff.

Peter Hurley

My job has always been to up people’s game. When I started, most of my work–and I still continue to shoot a lot of actors for their headshots–I became known as the kind of go-to guy in the industry. The reason being, I made people squinch. So casting directors want a confident actor in front of them. Most actors, if they’re good at their craft, are confident, but some are trying to get their foot in the door of this industry. Maybe they’re just not ready, but they walk in my door and they look in the camera and they look scared out of their mind. It just doesn’t fly for me. You can’t put that out there. Not only can you not to put it out there, if I photograph you, my name’s on it, so I’m not letting that go.

I’ve created a false sense of confidence for these people through the squinch, through coaching them and building them up so the confidence is there. Whether they carry that on into the audition is another thing, but that’s not my job. My job is just to get them that audition, so I do this with my clients and then let them go. But I know what I’m creating. I just did it this morning. The guy walked in. I have people in here every day, everybody’s got a different self-image, and when you are in front of the camera it’s probably the most vulnerable place you can be. And then all of a sudden it’s a career. I do it with CEOs. If someone is a CEO of a company, I’m going to think that they know what they’re doing. They’ve got their act together, they’re confident in their job. It doesn’t equate to when they get in front of a camera. All of a sudden you’re in front of a camera. It’s a totally different element and they’ll lose that sense of themselves, or they just might be self-conscious or self-aware, something like that, and their confidence goes away. So it just doesn’t match their personality or what they convey on a day-to-day basis, so I have to bring it back in and teach them how to do that. Since confidence always come from the eyes it’s always going to start with the squinch.

Taking a selfie is a special opportunity

I think there’s a ton of things you can do to take better, more interesting pictures, but they all boil down to one thing: What are you doing with your face? And what’s your thought process? Most of the time, we can’t see our face–but if you’re doing a selfie with the camera turned toward you, you can look right at it and adjust, which makes it really like looking in a mirror and adjusting. That’s pretty easy and most people can do that, so definitely take advantage of that. But if you’re taking a picture, and somebody’s taking a picture of you, you have no idea what your face looks like. Nine times out of 10 what you think it looks like is not what it looks like at all. You’re just guessing. Think about your face right now. I’m thinking about my face. I have no mirror. I have no idea what my face looks like. I hope I’m okay. Your brain has it under control for you. You don’t walk around thinking about your face all day long, until that moment the camera goes up, and then you have to think about it. Then you have to take control of something you never control, and when you’re not in control of it, it looks fine and then you control it and it gets weird. That’s why a lot of people–and I’m sure you’ve had this if you’ve taken a picture of somebody–they look at it and they go, “That doesn’t look like me.” They say that all the time. There’s a couple reasons for that. The answer to that when people say it to me, is, “Well, there wasn’t anybody else in there.” The camera doesn’t lie. I’m sorry. You were the one the photo was taken of. But most of that is people have a mirror relationship with themselves. We look in mirrors a lot more than we look into cameras.


About the author

Dan Solomon lives in Austin with his wife and his dog. He's written about music for MTV and Spin, sports for Sports Illustrated, and pop culture for Vulture and the AV Club