How To Take A Great Author Photo

Irene-Young-HiRes-sepia-by-Sardi-Klein-NYCPhotographer Irene Young Reveals Her Author Photo Secrets




Mary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Irene. I’m particularly glad to have an opportunity to interview you because, among other things, you specialize in taking photos of authors which seem to capture their essence. In addition, you’ve photographed musicians for more than 600 CD covers and had four years of training at The Academy of Intuitive Arts.

Mary Mackey Author PhotoThis photo you took of me two years ago is my favorite author photo ever. I freeze up in front of cameras, so usually when someone takes a photo of me, the result looks as if I’m sitting for a mug shot. How do you get your subject to relax? What’s your secret?  

Irene: The short answer is that I know everyone has a beauty about them, and I feel confident that together we will get to the place of its discovery. It’s a process that must be handled lovingly and with great respect. The minute someone enters my studio, (or in your case, the minute you opened your door to me), I know the person can feel my confidence and care. Perhaps, that is what sets people at ease more than anything. There is no judgment or blame in this process. I would never say someone is not photogenic. If I felt I were failing I would say (to myself) “it is more me than them,” and I would find a way to succeed. It is the portrait photographer’s responsibility to guide her subjects to a safe, familiar place within themselves. The author may then exude a confidence in his or her own their identity as an artist – and in what they are offering the viewer at the moment contact with the image is made.

Mary: How do you pose your subjects in ways that will make them look good?

Irene: Every person is different. I have to get into the composition and the comfort of the subject to find their place of power. The best scenario is when you find your spot and I find mine. That is where the magic is found. However, it is my job to bring you to the place of your power.

Mary: You seem to capture the essence of writers’ personalities. How do you do this? Do you read their work beforehand?

Irene: I research the author prior to the shoot. If they are a poet, I will read a few poems. On occasion I will read a bit of fiction or nonfiction, but timing more often than not does not allow for this luxury. I do read people well fairly instantly upon meeting them, perhaps due to my training in the intuitive arts.

Mary: On a more practical note: what’s the best way to present yourself when you’re being photographed? Sitting? Standing up? In profile? Are there colors you should or shouldn’t wear? Make up you should or shouldn’t put on? Ways you should do your hair so you don’t come out looking like a mad scientist?

Irene: One person may find power in standing while another may find it sitting. I try it all. Sometimes people feel less vulnerable if they are sitting first. I ask people to stay away from distracting patterns. You want the eye of the viewer to meet you, not your clothing, though there are power colors such as red, teal, black, and deep grey. It really depends on the person. Everyone has some piece of clothing they feel strength in wearing. I try and start there. In regards to makeup, I caution people about wearing too much, especially for older women. Base can get into the lines in our face and actually make us look older. Then, I have to spend digital darkroom time undoing the makeup. And HAIR! I have learned over these 40 years that I can take the greatest photo in the world, but if you do not like your hair – it’s all over. So, during the shoot, I do ask people to check their hair a few times.

Mary: What are the technical decisions you make as you are taking a photo?

Irene: Lighting, and background. And if we are “on location” rather than in the studio, depth of field places a major role.

Mary: What role does intuition play in your photography?

Irene: Intuition is everything. I feel my way through the entire shoot. There is intention behind everything I do or say, even though it is not obvious. I read every muscle in a person’s face. What is their face saying to the viewer? Will they like what their face is saying at this moment? Shall I click the shutter or guide them to another place? All this is done in a split second with 40 years of practice. I also choose my assistants very carefully. Before each photo session I ask myself if it would be better for me to be alone with the person, or if it is better to have others in the room. Some people need activity. Others need intimacy. If I choose to use an assistant (or if the requirements of the shoot simply dictate one), it is essential that the energy of the assistant and client are compatible. Even better, is if they “click.” The assistant, though, is there to help, and they must do so while understanding the boundaries. I am the skipper, and they are the crew.

Mary: You’ve said that “the key to photographing people is to do so with a wide open aperture of the heart, with no judgment, and with a true belief that everyone is beautiful.” Could you elaborate on this for us. How do you not judge the person you’re photographing? How do you see everyone as beautiful?

Irene: I have often pondered this, and I am not sure I have an answer. I have asked myself “who” decided “what” is beautiful in our culture, and I find it all intriguing. Being magnetic is a real key to beauty – having what I call “an energetic swagger.” Knowing well who we are with a quiet confidence and graceful humility can be quite sexy, don’t you think? So, I guess the answer to your question is that I expand the concept of beauty to be energetic. And I guess I just love exploring people and finding their spark.

Mary: What’s the single most important thing an author must consider when having an author photo taken?

Irene: The photographer! Being photographed is a process. It is not about letting someone take your picture. It is a process where you come to “give it.” Once in a while someone will ask me how long it will take me to take their picture. I answer: “It won’t take me long at all, but the real question is how long will it take for you to give it to me.” And everyone is different. That process must be honored.

Mary: What’s the single most important thing the photographer must consider?

Irene: The photographer must honor the person who is trusting them with their public image. It is not about the ego of the photographer, although I know there will be disagreement here among portrait photographers. I probably would be richer and more famous if I had a bigger ego, and thought it was more about “my work” than the care of the person’s spirit. However, I like the way I work, and think I will stick with it. It works for me.

Mary: You’ve sometimes have donated your work for charitable purposes. Could you please tell us what charities you’ve donated to and what inspired you to do this?

Irene: Two things come to mind: Years ago, when I was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, I produced a CD called Glass Half Full. The musicians are all clients of mine with wonderful songs of comfort and hope. It is currently still selling with $4 per CD being donated to the Breast Cancer Fund. The work of BCF is solely dedicated to “prevention,” and that is where the power of the work lies. “Awareness” is one thing, but the pink ribbon has been commercialized to a point of shame in my estimation, so I prefer to support the work of the Breast Cancer Fund, a national organization based here in the Bay Area.

Secondly, I find myself with a soft spot for older authors and poets trying to stay afloat on a fixed income in this modern technological world. I am fortunate to also be a web designer, thus, tech savvy to a decent degree. My long-time design partner, Carol Ehrlich, and I both love empowering older writers and artists with tools to help support their genius in the modern world. That is definitely worthy of attention. There is a blog post on my website called, If a Tree Falls in a Forest, and No One Is Around to Post it on Facebook, Does it Make a Sound? I think it is important to remember the invaluable contributions of the “more experienced generation.”

Mary: Before you go, please give us some examples of your favorite author photos and tell us why you like them.

Irene: This is tough. Forty years makes for a lot of photos. I have a bit of the shoemaker’s children syndrome. I am so busy creating for others that I do not attend to my own portfolio and/or retrospectives of my work.


I love the work I have done with Susan Griffin because I hold her genius in high esteem. Ann Jones because I can’t believe she has had the guts to live so much of her life in conflict zones.I love the shots of Nan Geffen and Sandy Boucher, Daniel Polikoff. And what fun with Jewelle Gomez! And imagine Caroline Casey! The genius of Judy Grahn. I love the writing of Alexis Masters. Chana Wilson was beautiful to photograph. And, of course, the magic of Mary Mackey! The important work of Joan Lester. And playwright, Heather Raffo is quite stunning to photograph. And a fave poet, Ellen Bass! This week I had the pleasure of working with two authors: Sandra Butler and Patricia Garfield. And soon I will get out images from the early years of Geneen Roth, Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks, Neal Barnard, etc. I am better known for photographing musicians, but I do truly love photographing authors. This week Ireland’s Queen of Music, Mary Black, released her autobiography and I am thrilled she used a photo of mine on the cover. That is a nice blend of genres.

Chana-Wilson_by-Irene-YoungRedwing-Keyssar_by-Irene-YoungPoet-Ellen-Bass_by-Irene-YoungPatricia-Garfield_Creative-Dreaming_photo-by-Irene-YoungNan-Geffen-by-Irene-YoungMARY BLACK_Bk-Cov-photo-by-Irene-Young

I love this new photo of NYC writer Virginia Bell. She has been a columnist for The Huffington Post for many years writing about The Second Half of Life and also Astrology.

Virginia Bell photo by Irene Young

When I began my career in The West Village in New York City, I knew Tom Victor who was widely known for his work with well known authors. We each had our specialties, but I always admired the simplicity of Tom’s amazing photography. He was working with one person at a time, while I was living the night life, meeting and photographing one to six people at a time! One person and a simple beautiful concept is so lovely compared to the production of a CD cover! I love them both for different reasons. I love it all. I have a license to stare, admire, appreciate, direct, and in the end – make people happy with their own image. All in all, not a bad way to go through life.

You are warmly invited to join this conversation about People Who Make Books Happen, ask Irene Young questions, or leave a comment. See the other interviews in this series for information about How To Get An Agent, How To Design A Book Cover That Sells Books,  Helping Independent Bookstores Survive and Thrive, Three Great Reasons To Still Print On Paper, Designing Websites For Writers, Best-selling author Ellen Sussman on Surviving Rejection, and more. This is where the experts hang out.

And remember to come back next month to read the another great interview in the People Who Make Books Happen series.

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