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The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Taking Business Headshots That Don’t Totally Suck…
As someone who takes pride in being in the business world, but not of the business world, I tend to view the sterile habits, practices, and trends that so often define business culture from an outsider’s perspective. This is to say, I find it pretty difficult to get down with things like canned networking events, stodgy cover letters, and the bastardization of quotes to emphasize big business-y words like “synergy” and “teamwork.” But of all the bad business-people tendencies I’ve come across, few come close to the business set’s seemingly innate compulsion to take and use really bad headshots. You know the ones: posture set at a cool 90˚, head facing six-o’clock, hands in lap, requisite power suit, smug and/or detached facial expression, fluorescent lighting, overuse of Photoshop, taken a long time ago…
Sure, business headshots and business portraits are a throwback to grammar school class pictures, which none of us ever took too seriously (at least, I hope not), but nevertheless, they’ve got an important place in the grown-up world—especially for those who represent their companies or brands in some public capacity. This could mean that you're pretty, immortalized mug simply appears on your corporate website or social media profile. It could also mean that your photo’s going to be projected onto a giant screen behind you at a speaking engagement, alongside your byline in a noted publication, or gulp, flashed on TV screens across the nation because you’re really big time like that. Even more important than representing your company, however, is representing yourself. Crazy concept, I know, but it’s upon this notion—the idea that you should look like you and feel like you, rather than like the you that you assume people want or expect to see—that I’ve created my official lists of 10 headshot dos and don’ts.
Before we move on though, let’s get one thing straight:
I’m not bashing headshots that are afflicted solely by a non-photogenic or unattractive subject (although truth be told, a good photographer can sometimes account for such things); I’m talkin’ headshots that suffer from the subject’s preconceived notion of what it means to be in his or her position. A respected business person! An industry all-star! A real power player! An office drone… Yep, I’m trying to rid the world of headshots that are downright contrived, inauthentic, or otherwise cringe-inducing. Offending headshots tend to fall into one of two primary categories: “I’m trying too damn hard” or “I take myself too damn seriously.” From there, they can be broken down into sub-categories, such as “If I do this, my audience will think that,” “I look serious, because I am serious,” and “I’m going to paint this here picture for you, so you’re not tempted to use your imagination too liberally.” Long story short: headshot offenses run the gamut, but I have no intention of introducing an entire classification system. Rather, I’m going to give you some really great, free, and unsolicited advice so that your next headshot doesn’t fall victim to one of them.
- Use a headshot that was taken 20 years ago. Or 10 years ago. Or even 5 years ago. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: people’s appearances change as they age. And that’s okay. Even more than being okay, it’s like, totally normal. Part of the ol’ human condition, as it were. Seeing that we’re all human here, people will totally get it. Swear.
- Use any photo that might be mistaken as a yearbook photo. (Or, worse: actually was your yearbook photo!) It’s not that I have anything against yearbook photos; it’s that most yearbook photos kinda look like yearbook photos, and therefore look silly or like you can’t let go of the good old days or you don’t have the good sense to get a new picture taken or some combination of any or all of these things. Some tell-tale signs of yearbook headshots are doe eyes, hunched back, over-the-shoulder head swivel, cropped just below the chest, flaccid blue background, era-specific hairdos (need I say more?), and depending on your age, black and white (but not at all in a good way). (Bonus: you’re wearing a private school uniform!)
- Think that featuring your wedding ring in your headshot will convey that you’re grounded and therefore a good person to do business with. Yes, people really do this. You might be wondering to yourself, Wait. Why is their hand even in the picture in the first place? Exactly. The only way to pull off the dreaded wedding-ring-in-the-ol’-headshot maneuver is to prop up your chin with your hand. And for reasons I hope I don’t even have to explain, this is completely unacceptable. Bottom line: if you’re a solid person who people should want to do business with, then your wedding ring (or lack thereof) won’t factor into people’s opinions either way.
- Wear shoulder pads or a red power suit. These two things could be separate entries, but they’re typically abused by the same business professional archetype, so I’m coupling them. The call to ditch the red power suit and shoulder pads once and for all transcends their ability to ruin an otherwise decent headshot. This daring duo—generally worn by the business woman who thinks being competitive in a man’s world means being tough, matter-of-fact, and displaying no qualities that could be even slightly perceived as, gasp, feminine—simply needs to be banned. Or, at the very least, burned.
- Make use of strategic backgrounds that work to “tell the story of your profession.” You know who you are: the PR person posing in front of her press clips, the real-estate agent standing in front of an impressive row of buildings he probably didn’t sell, the writer perched in front of his overflowing bookshelf, which just so happens to be filled with a bunch of books that really say something about him… Please. Just stop. It’s too literal. And too nauseating.
- The faux-candid shot. A close cousin of the strategic background, the faux-candid shot features our subject in the throes of his/her work. Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with using a picture that features you doing your work. My issue is with photos that feature you faux doing your work. There’s a big difference. Imagine, if you will: the CPA sitting at his desk working on something. It kind of makes you wonder what he thinks people will believe was going on when that picture was taken ever-so-candidly. “Well, would ya look at this? There’s a random camera guy in my office. And he’s taking pictures. Of me. While I’m scrutinizing this here P&L statement.” So staged. So insulting. So not worth it.
- Have a mustache. Unless it’s ironic, in which case, you probably don’t have a job anyway because you’re a hipster. A hipster whose dad is bankrollin’ you, so that you can continue perpetuating your simulated edginess and self-proclaimed artsiness. Because edgy, artsy people can’t be bothered by things like working, or any other thing that’s okay for the common person, and thus, totally beneath them. They’re special people like that. ** But yeah, mustaches just aren’t any good. Unless, like I said, you’re a hipster. Or a molester. Or over the age of 60.
- Deploy the power stance. You’re not Peter Pan. You didn’t conquer the world. You’re not a force to be reckoned with. How do I know this? Because the hands-splayed-on-hips power stance screams, “I’m overcompensating for something!” I’m not going to take any guesses as to what it is you’re overcompensating for—only you know that—but just know that your audience is onto you. And we feel sorry for you.
- Abuse Photoshop. There’s a difference between tasteful touchups and Photoshop overdoses. I’ve had the thankless (but still pretty satisfying) job of having to call a client out on this before, “So, your face miraculously looks like a baby’s butt in your headshot. Did the photographer use some kind of special filter? Just kidding. I know you phototshopped the hell out of it.” His reply? “Oh yeah, it’s totally Photoshopped. I really just don’t like how I look.” A fair response, I guess, considering the crime at hand, but the problem here is that even if you don’t like how you look…it’s still how you look. People who know you and meet you will make this mental leap. And when they do, you will just be that creepy guy who heavy-handedly airbrushed his corporate headshot. Eww. Don’t be that guy.
- Take yourself too seriously. All of the above (and below) tips culminate into this one very simple objective and overall life rule. I’m a big believer.
Now, because I really want to help you succeed, here’s a much less fleshed-out list of “Dos.” (Sure, I’ll say it: focusing on the negative is way more fun.)
- Ditch the suit. Come on; it will be fun! Wear something that represents your style. You’re allowed to have one, you know.
- Smile. Hello, the whole not smiling thing has, like, so been done. You know, on your driver’s license…
- Show your arms (women); loosen up that tie (men). Because you’re not required to be a man in a suit; because you’re not a slave to a man in a suit.
- Look your age. This goes both ways. If you’re young, own it. If you’re old, own it. Old people trying to look young are so painful. Young people trying to look older usually fail miserably. Wisdom is in. So is youth. Win-win, methinks.
- Dare to have a personality. As in life, as in your headshot.
- Use a professional photographer. It makes a huge difference. But just because the photographer is professional, doesn’t mean s/he’s good. That’s some really amazing advice, actually. Pats self on back. (The link to our fab photographer is below.)
- Get a full-body version while you’re at it. May as well. You never know when this version might come in handy.
- Get tasteful touchups. These are a far cry from Photoshop overdoses. They’re meant to hide blemishes and maybe lip lines, not transform you into your unrealistically smooth-skinned, expression-less alter-ego.
- Get something that you would be comfortable using across media, with an emphasis on the social kind. If your headshot passes the “Will my friends think I look like a stiff if I put this on Facebook?” and the “Will I be ashamed of the jerk that I’ve become?” tests, then you’re probably golden.
- Update your headshot regularly. Say, every other year or so. Because again, you want to look like you, at your current age, and give your audience enough credit to assume that they’ll catch on if you don’t.