I always urge my students who want to become portrait photographers to have their photo taken; you learn a lot by sitting on the “wrong” side of a lens, feeling that special shade of tension that comes with giving another person the power to decide what you officially look like.
I really don’t like to be photographed, even though there are so many pictures of me around, that one might think I love to look at my own face.

But the thing is, I know how to take care of my uneven features, I know how to feel comfortable in a silent empty room. I know that every photo I won’t like will be deleted, disappearing from this plane of existence forever.

When I was in Atlanta I don’t remember who asked me to pose for their camera first; Zack or Bernard. I remember both moments, I just don’t know which one came first. I said yes to both because I trusted them, because I liked their work and most of all because I would be a lousy teacher if I didn’t take my own advice.

It was Zack’s idea to turn this into a contest, that’s for sure. At this point I’ve learned to recognize how he always burns the bridge behind, forcing himself to move forward. He makes sure he has something to lose and then he fights not to lose it. Where most people plan around ways to avoid failure, I’ve seen him grab failure and strip it naked, just to have a constant reminder of what might happen. To turn it up a notch, we just had a very emotionally loaded conversation about photography and life a couple of nights before, and I think some of the things we talked about were still lingering in his head.

[Editor’s Note :: Those things are STILL lingering in my head Sara. To this DAY! -Z ]

Zack decided to go first.

We started from a simple setup I remember thinking he would be very comfortable with, and he made it clear from the get go that this wasn’t about two friends having fun, but rather a professional photographer giving his best to his subject.
I don’t know if starting with a tethered medium format camera was a choice he made for this specific reason, but the message he sent from the very beginning was: I got this.

I was taking care of my own hair and makeup and Zack asked me to fix some stray hair (humidity in ATL is not friends with my hair, that’s for sure) and after a couple of test shots he noticed two eyelashes were clumped together and asked me to fix that too. This level of attention to details let me know that he had my back and I relaxed a bit. The first setup was all a matter of very small adjustments. I didn’t have to do much, just sit there and move my head slightly. Not having to worry about what to do was a great way for me to stop being anxious about the whole thing.


The weird thing with Zack is that I feel we are — at the same time — completely opposite and exactly the same when it comes to photography. We share the same urge to find meaning in what we do and the same struggle to separate bullshit from the stuff that will still matter after we are gone. We are both well aware of what’s missing and still willing to do the best we can, with what’s there. But on the other side I am a messy shooter and I work like my hair is on fire, most of the time. There’s a big deal of unpredictability in my process, while he’s always very intentional. He goes after something and just plows through until he gets that exact picture that is in his mind.

He’s methodical and precise, focused and present, but at the same time I could see gears moving in the background of his head.
When we started shooting for the second photo I was under the impression that he wanted to do something to bridge the gap between our approaches and turning what could be a one way process into a conversation.
He has described how he lit and set up the photo in his post and I was extremely curious to see how the final picture would turn out, because I could see the light reflecting on the broken mirror and I thought it would be cool. I figured he was trying to go for a more intimate and unguarded, but still subtle shot, and as soon as he found the light he was going for, the ball bounced back in my court.

I knew that I needed to start building the bridge from the other side if we wanted to meet in the middle: this was supposed to be a collaboration rather than his mere interpretation of my face. I allowed myself to just slip into a state of mind that I think shows in the final photo. I love his first photo, because it’s clean and I look awesome, but his second shot is my favorite of the four. It is revealing of me as a person without making me feel exposed. It’s obviously posed, but still very honest and I think that little sparkle in my wedding band is the perfect detail that turns the image into a narrative. It stops being about “me” and it becomes about the feeling of being lost between light and dark, being an individual and finding your identity as part of a couple, of being present and yet still somewhere else. It captures in a very subtle way the uneasy feeling of being a “36-years-old-female-bunch-of-walking-contradictions”.


Bernard, to be fair, could have won this.


In the days leading to the photo shoot, our relationship had turned into this kind of siblings-from-a-disfunctional-family dynamic and there was a playful vibe between us, that he could have turned into photographic intimacy very easily. His ideas were solid, he showed me reference photos for what he had in mind, pulling from things I had said and things that were important to me, and I was at complete ease with him.

Then, as soon as he started shooting, he stopped looking at me. I mean, of course he was looking at me; he was adjusting lights and checking focus and making sure everything was okay, and he was also talking to me, but he was only looking at my image on his camera, and not at me. His eyes, for some reason, were never meeting mine.

This was super weird.

Taking someone’s photo, especially if it’s the first time, in many ways is like a first date. You’re on your best behavior, a bit nervous and a little hopeful, but you know you need to make things happen without forcing it. There’s a subtle balance of tension and being at ease that needs to be found; you’re trying to find a connection and your chances of getting something, increase a lot, if you are able to make the person in front of you feel as if he/she is the only person in the universe. Bernard not looking at me felt weird because it wasn’t coming from him being a shy person — just minutes before we were cracking jokes and the shift happened instantly, as soon as he picked up the camera.

Sara Lando by Bernard Brand

I’m sure a big part of it was him being anxious; shooting another photographer is a nightmare, but here’s the dirty truth; I wasn’t trying to figure out what he was doing. I honestly had no idea what kind of images he was getting; I was just hoping I wasn’t making that stupid face I always seem to have when I’m being photographed. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend behind a camera, when you sit in front of one you are vulnerable, and you just have to trust the person taking the photo and hope they’re taking good care of you. And even though I knew all this, even though this is what I teach, even though I have spent the last 15 years taking self portraits, part of me instantly went into “he’s not giving me feedback because I suck and I’m ugly” mode.

Me being me, which is a bossy Italian who speaks her mind even when she feels insecure, I decided to stop Bernard for a second, point at my eyes and lovingly say, “Oi. Look at me. You’re not fucking looking at me.”

And then we laughed about it and things were much, much better.

But who knows how many times I have done the same to my subject in the past, without noticing. I never knew what this felt like, which is why I’m so grateful I got to experience it with a friend.


I love his first photo and I think it could have been a winner if he had done two things:

1- I think at some point he wasn’t 100% happy with the light, but he still probably decided that he would fix it later, maybe because he thought he was taking too much time, and feared I might get frustrated. I have the exact same problem all the time and this always bites me in the ass. What I learned from Zack is that the best way to approach this is to keep working to get the picture, while interacting with the subject, talking them through the process.

2- I think Bernard stepped on the post processing pedal a bit too hard. He is good with photoshop, this isn’t a lack of skill on his part, I think he hasn’t found his voice yet, and he goes a little too far, assuming his photo by itself might not be “enough”.
His style goes a little more towards photo-illustration and I’m totally fine with that, but there is some dissonance between the way he worked the skin and the hair, which makes the photo looks either too retouched or unfinished.  I also ended up looking way younger and more beautiful than I am in person. This is great, but it also took me a lot of years and work to develop wrinkles and I like not being 20 any more. My goal in life is to become the old Imogen Cunningham.

Bernard then needed my bare back for the second setup he had in mind, and because we talked about it and he had already made sure I was okay with it (his first suggestion was for me to wear a bra that he would have photoshopped out, I told him I was fine with a bare back), I was completely comfortable and this was just fun to shoot. I loved the unretouched image, but I get what he was trying to do, and I liked it a lot. Here, though, I think that to really make it work he should have probably photoshopped this more, to make the spine curve in the middle and get the two halves of the image seamlessly merge into a weird, alien creature.

When I was done in front of the camera, it was finally my chance to play a little and go back to where I feel at home — actually holding the camera. Right before my workshop we were having fun and Bernard was being a smartass to Gigi, one of the models; after she braided his long blond hair, he told her he could probably wear the dress better than she could, or something along those lines. So I smiled and told him that after he’d shoot me, I would make him wear the dress and take his picture.

His answer was, “Yeah, right. I’m never gonna do that.”



Bonus photo: we had some white paint around. This was bound to happen.



Read about Zack’s perspective on shooting Sara here. Then read about Bernard’s experience here.

Thanks Sara for providing your feedback! Learn more about Sara by visiting her site.

Zack Arias

A full time commercial and editorial photographer, Zack shoots everything from bands to CEOs to ad campaigns. A gifted teacher and communicator, he has an uncanny ability to meet and connect with all types of people.

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  1. Bernard

    Hahaha.. That is not at all what I said regarding the dress Sara. I got up and asked; “Alright, where’s the dress”?

    I did rock it though 😛

    • Sara Lando

      You did. But then I told you I was *really* gonna do it, you realized I was serious and you wussed out like a little girl in front of a hairy spider.
      I only reported your last sentence because I thought it would make you look a bit cooler.
      (love ya :**)

  2. Timko

    I’ve been waiting for this post! Great read. Zack – Brings some context to some of our convos! Sara – Those shots of Bernard are great. Spending the weekend with Bernard I always wrack my brain to try and picture how I’d shoot someone if I had the opportunity. I’d have never went that direction and that’s why I suck as a photographer!

  3. Elena

    heartfelt post, but my reaction to this series of posts: enh.

    i’m a dedpxl fan, this to me is too much navel gazing.


    • Jeann Smith

      Zack, loved this series of posts. Keep up the awesome work (all of you)!

      • Thomas Pepin

        Nay! I enjoy navel gazing and lint picking but sometimes I forget about the latter and end up with funkiness. I loved the 3 posts with different perspectives, keep ’em coming. One can find tech talk anywhere but insightful posts on the process are bit harder to find.

    • Sara Lando

      To add technical specifications: my navel is an innie and to keep it clear of lint I use a finger and soapy water.
      I wanted to try compressed air, but I was afraid it might void the warranty.

      (That said, I totally admit being the kind of person who isn’t very interested in tech talk unless I need to buy a specific piece of gear, and even then I just want to go back to playing as soon as I possibly can)

      • Telly Gabbus

        Funny, Sara. Don’t let the haters get you down 🙂

        Waiting to hear what insights you sent Zack’s way.

        Wondering if every good portrait photographer is equally fraught. I somehow doubt it.

        • Sara Lando

          No wait… I wouldn’t call her a hater.
          She might be here for the more technical side of dedpxl, and that’s great too.

      • Tauseef

        I guess that is what makes us human.

      • Meg

        Oh my darling lady. I adore you.

  4. Patrick

    Three of the best and most interesting posts on this blog – thanks for this all of you. Not least, they make me realise how much more thought I need to give to the elements of portraiture beyond the technical.

  5. Jim Robertson

    Bernard really looks at peace in that dress. There’s a sense of innocence in his eyes and a feeling that this is not at all unusual. I’m not making a joke implying that Bernard likes to dress like a little girl, that’s just the impression I take away from it. Totally natural.
    Yes, the second image is totally a natural consequence of having white paint in the room. 🙂 This has been a great series of posts and Sara did a great job here of bringing the lesson home and spinning it round and round in my head. I’ll be contemplating it for awhile.

    • Bernard

      Hahaha.. Jim, funny thing about that. When Sara photographed me with the white paint, she wanted me to snarl at the camera she said my eyes were too kind.

  6. Kevin

    Zack, Bernard, and Sara,

    This series of posts has been on of my favorite so far. I am an unabashed Zack groupie 🙂 and have enjoyed watching Bernard experience his internship with Zack. I love all four images created by Zack and Bernard my favorite being #1. I’m headshot junkie.

    However, the final image of Bernard by Sara hit me right in the gut. The emotion and presence Bernard brings to the table and Sara’s envisioning of it is truly fantastic.

    Thank you for the work you all do to help and educate us mere mortals 🙂


  7. jarWoodson

    A thousand things flooding my head at the moment after reading all of this. I’m sincerely inspired, intimidated as hell and greatly empowered all at the same time. Thank you Sara, Zack and Bernard. If I ever end up with a last request, it will be to have y’all over for barbeque, wine and music!



  8. Jon Maxim

    Thank you Sara, Bernard and Zak. These three posts are some of the most interesting essays I have read on photography in recent times. I feel that you have all opened yourselves up to us. You have demonstrated that there is so much more to producing wonderful images than technique. We get a real sense of the respect between each of you as well as the irreverence, sense of fun, collaboration and, dare I say it, honesty and love. Truly inspirational. Makes me wish I was part of your “family”.

    A crusty, old, very technical photographer.

    • Jon Maxim

      Sorry, *Zack.

  9. Roo Powell

    I think that Sarah’s observations of the emotional side of being photographed are a real insight for me. I am predominantly a street photographer who wanders occasionally into portraiture. I have also started to play with flash and slowly becoming more comfortable with the technical aspects. I agree with Zack that starting from your comfort zone is good for both the photographer and the subject. The relationship between the two is the foundation for a good portrait. In the street this is sometimes even more difficult to realise, but in portraiture essential! I have also realised I have never had a portrait done of me….I might ask a friend to oblige, I think it might do me allot of good. Thanks Sarah.

  10. jeremy solesbee

    This was a great series. As a newer photographer its nice to hear perspectives from in front of and behind the camera from more experienced photographers.
    P.S. a nsfw tag might help for that Imogen link.

  11. Brett

    Sara, your white paint portrait of Zack is amazing!

    • Roo Powell

      I think you might find that it’s Bernard, not Zack.

  12. mattbeaty

    Love hearing the model’s perspective!
    +10 points for the white paint shot. Excellent, a little creepy, and probably the real winner of the competition 😉

    • ian

      Yep I’m afraid Sara won with that fantastic last shot 🙂

    • Roo Powell

      I think you are right here Sara wins!

      . Putting people slightly out of their comfort-zone sometimes is a good thing. This technique is often used by comedians to good effect. I think sometimes that street photography can do this to people. The slightly uncomfortable/confused/bewildered look is what can make a good shot.


  13. Marc Eliot

    Zack, I lve the portrait the took of you. I don’t like the scratches stuff, but you look so soul-naked! That’s a portrait!

    • Roo Powell

      It’s not Zack, it’s Bernard!

  14. Per

    God I love this site. And posts like these are the main reason. Kudos to all three, this made my day. The process, for whenever the results are of any lasting value, is always highly personal, intimate and either scary or a bit painful. Often both.

    This series of posts went straight for the jugular of it all and I really appreciate it.