Building Your Business

The Anatomy of a Great Freelancer Headshot

By Susan Johnston January 20th, 2015

Before the days of LinkedIn and Twitter and Pinterest, most writers could hide behind their clunky computers (or typewriters, in the early days) without needing to put a face to their bylines. But today, with social media profiles and contributor photos displayed on websites, a writer’s image is an crucial element of career success.

For some (including yours truly), that may mean a New Year’s resolution to refresh a long-neglected website with updated photos. Rita Colorito can relate. For years, the Illinois freelance writer used a cropped photo from a trip to Venice, Italy, as her headshot. But she admitted, “It’s been ages since I looked like this, so I wanted a new, professional shot.”

Last year, she hired a professional photographer for an outdoor photo shoot, out of which she chose eight images. “I use different shots for different pages on my website,” she said, “and choose different ones based on [the] client.”

Whether you’re going the DIY route or hiring a pro, here are some tips for getting a great headshot, even if you’re camera-shy.

Put your best face forward

You’ll photograph best when rested and well-hydrated, so as New York portrait photographer Irina Smirnova suggested, avoid caffeine and salty foods the day before a shoot. Professional hair and makeup is optional, but at the very least, avoid shiny skin by putting on powder or dabbing skin with a tissue.

Connect the image to your brand

Keep in mind the type of impression you want your photos to convey: “If you’re a Marie Forleo type, you’d want to emanate strong, feminine, jazzy qualities,” explained Michael Cinquino, a New York-based photographer who specializes in headshots. However, if you’re more soft-spoken, then think of poses and clothing choices that reflect a more reserved personality.

Whatever vibe you’re going for, your photos should make you appear professional and likeable. “If you look at the photo and you’re not compelled to meet you or work with you, then it’s not a good photo,” Cinquino said.

Dress to flatter, not distract

Choose clothing that makes you feel great but isn’t too brash or loud. “Clothing, hair, and makeup is there to elevate you,” Cinquino said. “You don’t want it to be distracting.”

Patterned tops can sometimes work if the design isn’t too busy, but solid colors are a safe bet as long as they contrast again your skin (skin-toned clothing can, at first glance, bring to mind The Emperor’s New Clothes). If you’re buying new clothes for the occasion, make sure they’re freshly pressed to avoid wrinkles ruining the shot. Also, gather multiple outfits to give yourself more options.

Consider the context

Before you hire a photographer or ask a friend to snap photos, think about how you’ll use these images. For instance, Colorito chose an outfit that complemented the colors on her website. If you have a website with lots of white space, a white background will blend into the background on your website. However, if you report on darker topics like crime or international conflicts, that probably won’t suit your needs.

For photos intended for LinkedIn, Cinquino recommends a soft gray background to avoid busy backgrounds that won’t display well in a small box. For larger photos, a busier background can work.

Showing your photographer a few examples of headshots you like can help you achieve the desired effect. Smirnova likes to meet with clients in advance to discuss their vision and sometimes shoots writers in their home offices. “What is it you’re going for?” she asked. “What are you trying to achieve? Communication needs to be clear with the photographer.”

Get comfortable on camera

It’s important that you don’t treat the whole process as a chore. As with any major investment, you should weigh multiple options rather than just finding the cheapest photographer or someone who has an opening tomorrow.

“Hire someone who has a rapport with you,” Cinquino said. “You’re not standing there. Treat the camera as another person and tell a story in your head.” The most interesting photos result from the subject reacting to something, often something the photographer says.

Cinquino also recommended moving your forehead slightly closer to the camera than your nose and mouth to help etch out your jawline and create a more flattering angle. “You don’t want to lean back,” he cautioned. “The camera doesn’t add a lot of weight unless you lean back.”

Even though we’re ultimately judged on our creative output, how we look matters. If we want to convey a sense of professionalism and be taken seriously by editors and corporate clients, then it’s up to us to put in the effort to make a positive impression by any means necessary.

Image by Richard Drew
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