Are you autistic and have a hard time getting your picture taken? Or are you a photographer trying to take headshots or portraits of autistic people, and looking for how to be more supportive and accessible? This guide might help.
I’m an autistic photographer. I don’t specialize in photographing autistic people. In my experience, autistics hate getting their photo taken more than any other group though.
In my years of taking headshots and portraits, I’ve figured out strategies for how to take portraits of people with many different support needs. Here I apply some similar, broad principles to autistics in order to get the shot.
Nine Tips for Autistics Getting Their Own Picture Taken
I know you probably hate everything about this process. I get it. It can be brutal. Ideally, if you can find an autistic photographer, and additionally have whatever photographer read this article, you will probably have a better go of it.
Not just any autistic person with a camera will do. They need to have good digital editing skills, and a solid understanding of lighting and framing and what their job is with capturing the right shot for a portrait.
1. If you wear makeup, go minimal with it. We can edit a blemish digitally, but we cannot create skin texture if you have hidden it beneath too much powder. For real. Giant red dot on the tip of your nose? If you come to me for a shoot, I will ask you to please just leave it. I promise you I will erase that dot, whereas you trying to hide it is likely to create excess makeup issues, and blur your texture.
2. Wear solid color clothing, in any color other than your complexion.
3. If you have a way to control fly-away hairs, doing that can be helpful for certain shots. This applies to people of any gender with any hair length.
4. If you’re going for a headshot, I still suggest wearing pants/lower clothing that matches the style of the top. This affects your mood, which comes through in your face.
People often try to show up with formal wear on top and sweatpants on the bottom, and I don’t believe their headshots will ever say “CEO” unless they’re wearing the pants that go with the tops. Trust me. Your mood matters a lot and what you’re wearing influences what your face depicts.
5. If you wear eyeglasses and have more than one pair, wear the ones without reflective lenses. If your shoot is outdoors, don’t wear the glasses that transition when the sun hits them. Your eyes absolutely must be visible in the headshot, no tinted lenses.
6. Don’t choose clothes that you think other people want you to wear. Choose clothes that make you FEEL the way you want to convey in your portrait or headshot.
What’s this photo for? Is it an author headshot? What’s the book about? Wear whatever brings out the right mood for you. The photog has to help you elicit that feeling to get the shot, but start by dressing the right part rather than wearing your coolest shirt or whatever.
7. Stop trying to practice your smile in the mirror. This doesn’t help. It may stress you out, and facial muscles easily fatigue. Seriously. Don’t do this.
8. Do your homework: Think about why you want this photo, and write it out on your phone. This is for your eyes only, and I want you to make it over the top, extra. Write it either funny or bragging or dramatic, but make it something that when YOU read it, you feel the best feelings about this role in your life, okay?
Here is an example: This photo is for the staff directory at the hospital, where I now supervise eight people, sucka! That’s right! I’m the Head Honcho in this Department! Whose department? MY Department, kids! You heard that?! Sixteen people applied and they chose me! I’ve got this! And everyone who didn’t believe in me can kiss my ass. Mkay?
Yes, that’s super corny, but if reading it would make someone smile and also feel proud? That’s the note for them.
Because guess what? That’s exactly what you need to have in mind to create the best headshot.
If you’re not corny, then write it different, but write something up if you can (nobody will read it but you – I promise) that when you look at it, you will have the positive feelings you need to have about the purpose of this photoshoot, so that they will show up on your face!
If that’s all too many words and/or preparation, I still want you to have something on your phone or device that puts you in a positive mood. It could be pictures of your favorite character from your favorite series, and you can then scroll through these images of your beloved character.
Trust me… okay? Do that homework, put it on your phone, I’m calling it your positive frame of mind homework. That’s it.
9. Oh and also ask your photographer to read this article before your shoot.
Eleven Tips for Photographers Taking an Autistic Person’s Headshot
Okay look. You might be autistic or you might be allistic and an autistic person sent you to read this article. Either way, I’m glad you’re here. You want to get this right and be accessible, right? Cool. It’s not actually that hard – you just need to do this shoot differently.
How to photograph autistic people is not harder, just different.
As with so much of accessibility, you might find that making some or all of these changes actually improves your photo shoots with everyone, whether or not they are autistic. If so, I hope you’ll let me know because I love hearing that sort of thing.
1. Don’t have a rigid time limit on the shoot. If it’s rushed everyone will be extra stressed. This won’t likely take any longer, but give it some space just in case it is needed.
2. Ideally shoot on location somewhere the client is familiar with and happy to be going to already, rather than in a new place, such as your studio where they have never been.
3. Ask what the portrait or headshot is for. Autistic people rarely put themselves through this nonsense for the heck of it, so find out why they’re doing this to themselves. It’s probably for a specific role, in either work or family. They likely dressed for that role for the shoot as well. This helps you!
4. Listen to understand that role, the purpose of the photo. For example, suppose it’s for a staff directory at their new job. Ask about the job and what they like about it or what is interesting about it. They care or they wouldn’t be getting this photo done. If the client is non-speaking, they might still be able to answer in other ways using technology – figure out how to communicate.
5. Most importantly, find out what puts them in a positive frame of mind. If not related to the purpose of the photo shoot, it could be a stuffed toy, a certain word or smell or person. It could be anything. Find out. It’s important.
6. Let them look down at their phone. If they read this article, they’ve hopefully done their positive frame of mind homework on their phone. Ask them. That will help you, like magic.
If they did not read this article? Let them scroll on their phone or device anyway rather than stare at you and freak out about how their face will look in their photo.
7. While they are looking at their phone, ask if you can show them where the camera lens is and then show them. You’re not taking a photo, but they need to know where it’s going to happen when you do. Show them where the lens is, then let them go back to their phone.
8. When your subject appears relaxed with their phone, you need to help center their mood. You need them to feel the things that the positive frame of mind homework is there to help you with.
If they didn’t do the positive frame of mind homework, you might say something like this:”I want you to think about the most exciting part of landing this new job (or the thing you’re most proud of about this new job, or how awesome it is that you are starting this new adventure, or whatever the positive thing is that you learned from your listening).”
Or ask them to just look through the photos if that’s what they compiled.
And when their face looks like you’d love to take that portrait if only they could look at the lens, invite that! “Whenever you feel like it, look at the lens. You don’t need to do anything else, just look over here, then back to your phone.”
Do it and give praise and relief. I like to say “Cool…” after I get a shot. Don’t say that it was a good shot or a bad shot. Don’t review the image. Don’t comment on their face.
For the love of God, don’t tell them to smile differently or change their face somehow. Just give them relief from looking at the lens, and let them go back to their phone.
9. You’re going to DO THAT SEVERAL TIMES, back and forth, phone to camera lens. Adjust whatever YOU need to in terms of lighting and framing. That’s your work. Minimize instructions. Widen the frame so you can capture what you need to without telling the subject to tilt their head or turn a tiny bit left or right or any of that which you can edit in post if you need to.
10. If you want a different expression on the subject’s face? Change their mood, while they are looking at their phone. Then invite them to look at your lens briefly, then give them relief back to their phone before it becomes painful and the photos show that.
Like making eye contact, looking at the lens feels similar to many autistic people, and they might make facial expressions that aren’t what you were hoping to capture, and aren’t what they want you to capture either.
The look you saw when they were looking at their phone? You wanted that, right?
So use your people skills to talk while they are looking at their phone. Do your setup work while they are looking at their phone, and minimize the time they have to look at the lens.
11. Have your autistic clients read this article before your photoshoot.
Okay? These are the secrets, my photographer friends. Practice and you will get some amazing headshots and have some grateful, autistic clients.
Explaining the Model Photos from this Explainer
I’m both autistic subject and photographer here, using a remote shutter. These would have come out better if I had another human being able to grab the moment. I cannot talk my own autistic a** into relaxing, so there is still some stress in these portraits that wouldn’t be here if a skilled photographer other than myself were behind the camera talking me through the shoot.
But I used the same method as detailed here with myself, and I share it with some vulnerability for the purpose of writing out this tutorial to help any autistic kindred who want to get a headshot or portrait they might like.