How to Look Better in Pictures: The Profile Pic

January 19, 2011 in Design, Fashion, How to Look Better in Pictures, Style, The Business of Fashion by alliemcc

Part 2 of this series, where I point out some common photo foibles, and give you advice on how to look better in snapshots.

This week we have,

The Picture Worth $1000

That is what your online profile photo is worth, folks.  What are you gonna do with a thousand words? I'll take $1K, thank you. 

Think about it.  It could be the deal maker (or breaker) for a full time job, a freelance gig, or a wealthy spouse.

I will now attempt to explain how to take your profile photo from "floating head" or "mug shot" to a money-making headshot, with my lovely assistant, professional photographer, Kristina V.


Disclaimer: This is a somewhat subjective… subject, but I've tried to frame it within the objective principles of good graphic design and marketing.  If you use your social networking accounts strictly for  socializing with friends and family who will love you no matter what, then there's probably no reason for you to read on.  But, if you ever use the web for dating, job hunting, or marketing your own business, you may find this helpful.  Also, you do not have to be "beautiful" for this to work. Now go forth and rock some pictures.

What not to do

Left to right: Ronald Yau, Jennine Jacobs, Sonia Simone.

I'm going to spotlight this particular group of people first, because they are professionals and they should know better. They're all professional bloggers and social media marketing demi-gods.

We'll talk about what's wrong with these pictures a little later.

Sorry, everyone! Nothing personal. I love you, you're gorgeous.

I'm sure you all have Facebook friends, Tweeps, and other contacts on the interwebs whose profile photos make you cringe.  Here are a couple of my faves:

A random girl who spammed me on Twitter (or, the picture associated with a Twitter account that spammed me.):


A girl who follows a separate Twitter account I manage. She claims to be "wardrobe/fashion stylist":


And, there's a Facebook group for such photos, so send them over!

So, what makes a good or bad profile picture?

Let's look back at my first example of bad profile shots of people who should know better.

First, we have a webcam shot, complete with blue glow and lack of eye contact between the subject and the viewer (to clarify photospeak: the subject is the person in the picture; the viewer is the person looking at the picture). And about 75% of the picture consists of the walls and ceiling behind the subject.

Next, we have the subject's face taking up less than 25% of the entire picture. Other people and vehicles are cluttering the shot, and a very strong vanishing point is distracting your attention from her. Also, she has her back to the viewer, and her hair is covering half her face. The smile is great, and it's an interesting shot, just not a good choice for a profile.

Finally, we have a photo with a pretty good set up, decent composition and lighting, but again, the subject's back is to the viewer, forcing her to twist her head back, and she looks very uncomfortable doing so.  I don't know if its her discomfort in that position, but her facial expression gives the impression of skepticism or even sarcasm. I think the color balance is a bit off here as well– she might have a pale complexion, but it seems to have a slight bluish tinge to it.

Good profile pictures have a few common traits:

Setting up the shot

You: and only you. No pets. No children. No trees. No vehicles. No significant others. No drinking buddies.

Clothes: No nude profiles, please. Aim for "job interview" or "lunch date". Keep accessories to a minimum, and stick to solid color tops.

Eye contact: the subject is looking right into the camera, seeming to look right in the eyes of the viewer. Again, look at the camera, especially the webcam, not the monitor.

Contrast: there should be about an equal balance of dark areas and light areas. Take note of what you're wearing, along with your hair color, when choosing what will be in the back drop.

Positive: Smile. Even just a little bit. Or go all-teeth-out if you want. And try to be genuine. Unless you are searching for a job as a freelance murderer.

Taking the shot and editing

Self-timer: If you don't know what this is, go get your camera manual right now and look it up. Use a tripod– borrow one, set your camera on a shelf or a cardboard box, or get a friend to press the shutter release. Set the timer, and stand back. No more taking photos at arm's length– ever.

Pro photographer tip: Extend the zoom (manual, not digital) when taking a portrait shot: zoom in as much as possible with the lens and then take the shot from as far as you have to. Mass-market cameras are by default wide-angles. Wide angles are not the most flattering for headshots because they distort facial proportions, i.e. features closest to the lens (nose!) will appear disproportionately larger. So manually zoom in as much as your camera will let you, and then step back and take the shot. — Kristina V.

Direction: At the very least, face the camera head-on. Better yet, show a three-quarter view (that means, your face from one ear to the nose, plus half way to your other ear). If you go with three-quarter view, or any other angle, make sure you flip the photo if necessary so that you are facing what you want people to read next.  This is especially important if you are selling something (for example, your skills on LinkedIn, your upcycled handbags on Etsy, or your hilarious one-liners on Facebook or Twitter). For more on this concept, go here.

Interesting cropping: These pictures are small.  At a maximum, your profile picture should include no more than the waist-up. Some are so small, they should encompass just your head. (See below for more on this.)

Appropriate: Match your picture to the social network.  That means, consider the background and your choice of clothing  and hairstyle, even facial expression, carefully– the same shot might not work on your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn profiles.

Here's a guide to what type of picture is appropriate for which online profile.

Marilyn is modeling a good example of a very small profile picture, something appropriate for Twitter.  (Use this example for good cropping, not color!)  I would actually suggest flipping this photo horizontally so that it is "pointing" more to the right, where the Twitter stream would show up on the screen.

Mona is a good example of a Facebook profile photo.  It's a little bigger, so you can include more of you in the photo if you wish. And unless your Facebook account is strictly for business, you can get away with a bit more color or creativity than a LinkedIn profile, for example. Just be sure that this picture will also look good at a smaller scale, because it shrinks down to a Twitter-like size on your Status updates and Wall. I might also flip this one to face the right.

President Obama is our model for a good LinkedIn profile pic.  Flag is optional. Neutral background: check. Appropriate clothing: check.  Business-like but smiling: check.

How do you do all this cropping, color editing, flipping, etc.?

Well, friends, you need some kind of photo editing software. If you know how to use Photoshop, you are already running circles around this article, and you have no excuse for having a crappy profile photo.

You can create a very good photo with just a simple digital camera, or even the webcam on your computer.

If you are a non-technical, non-artistic person, I would suggest you go download Picasa for free, which is what I use for every single photo that is on this blog, or some other free photo editor of your choice (Google it). And do the tutorials.

Picnik is a web-based photo editor that I have used a little bit (free to sign up). DO NOT use the oh-so-tempting "stickers" and "frames" and colorful shit they offer on your profile pictures. Save that for your holiday card to Grandma.

I would just also point out black and white, with good lighting (window glow!) and the right amount of contrast, can make an ok photo look a lot better, and will make it stand out from a sea of colorful profiles.

When you export your photos, select at least "300 dpi" or the optimal setting suggested by the program.  Picasa is pretty reliable on this.

Let's talk about looks for a second.

In spite of what you may think, and what you've been told, and what the media presents, you don't have to be thin, white, blond, or fill-in-your-beauty-standard-of-choice-here to produce an attractive, compelling, friendly, potentially money-making profile photo.

You need to simply include the elements I listed up there, above Marilyn and Co. (especially "no flash" and "smile"), spend a few minutes with a photo editing software, and you're golden. 

Pro photographer advice: Try to look confident and relaxed. This may take a number of shots, but if you keep doing it, you are bound to relax. When I shoot, I pretty much expect to throw away the first 15 or 20 frames. These are the warm-up frames because my subject is still warming up to the camera and to me.– Kristina V.

Don't take my word for it.

I highly recommend these 2 pages for better advice on choosing your profile photos.

Here are some more "expert" views, don'ts and do's, and how-to's.

On personal branding. "You are the company, the logo and the service."

On choosing the right photo. "DO keep in mind the nature of each social networking site to which you belong, and adapt each profile photo to reflect this."

On choosing your photo for LinkedIn.  "People like to know who they are meeting or working with."

On keeping separate personal and professional social media accounts.

On taking digital self-portaits, from Independent Fashion Bloggers.

Bonus: Adjusting your photo privacy settings on Facebook, and why you should.

My thanks to Kristina of Kristina V Photography for her assistance with this article!

Do you have any questions or requests for advice on snapshot snafus?  Send them my way, {} and I’ll solve your dilemma in a future post!

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