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How to take a good headshot

Ahhh… the dreaded headshot. Most small business owners need one at some point in their careers. Most small business owners also hate taking them. Aside from being completely ruined by the Real Estate industry, headshots are kind of like meeting your boyfriend’s parents for the first time – you’re never quite sure how to look or act, and you’re always insecure you’ve missed something crucial in the preparation.

But – just like meeting the parents, headshots are crucial for marketing yourself and creating a great relationship with your clients. Most especially if you are in sales or entertainment, that little snapshot is either your ticket to an easy contract, or the banana peel that makes you miss the mark – and look foolish to boot.

Thecommich asked her great friend Monica Michelle (shameless plug: she is also  co-owner and photographer for Footsie SF) to weigh in on what makes a good headshot, and how to take one.

Rule no. 1 – Don’t Be Lazy

Yes, you look adorable in that picture on the beach, with the cute dress and drink in hand. Guess what, you can’t use it as a headshot.

“Why not?” Asks the Busy Business Owner Who’s Too Cool To Care. “It shows I’ve got personality. And besides I’ve got my tan going!”

Thecommich needs to make this very clear: Your headshot isn’t about YOU, silly. It’s about your company. It’s about the BUSINESS that you represent.

Even if you are a model or actor, your headshot isn’t about you. It’s about what role you can play in someone else’s production.

A cute but obviously candid and unplanned beach picture says (about your company) that your services are lackadaisical, and maybe you’ll be taking shortcuts. It also says (about your business ethic) that you don’t care about being professional or prepared. Why would anyone hire you for a project or ask you to a script reading based on those qualities?

Suck it up and hire a photographer (or find a friend with a decent camera). Plan a whole day for headshots, and make a checklist of backgrounds, outfits, hair and makeup looks that you might possibly want (yes, makeup is needed even if you’re a man – just a touch of powder so you’re not a disco ball under the lights). Which brings me to…

Rule No. 2 – Details Matter

Here’s your first clue that headshots are a tricky business: according to Monica, “Different camera angles and lighting can greatly change perceptions.” Obviously you don’t want your headshot to look like a passport photo or mug shot. These things take time so talk to a photographer about them.

Monica also recommends thinking about your brand personality. “Remind your photographer about what you want your first impression to your client [to be]. Do you want to appear approachable, [or] powerful?” A picture taken from the bottom will make you look dominant and powerful, while from the top (with you looking up) denotes friendliness – but also submissiveness. If you’re a lawyer or consultant, you might want to go for the former.

And do I really have to remind you that your outfit matters? That men should never be photographed in sleeveless tops (even if you’re in construction)? That if you over-gel or over-tan you’ll end up looking like an escapee from the Jersey Shore?

For the ladies – unless you’re an avant-garde makeup artist (or Tammy Faye Baker), stick to a natural daytime look. Ditto for hair. You don’t want to look shellacked into place; neither do you want to go all Farrah Fawcett and obscure your background with your bouncy locks. Which brings me to…

Rule no. 3 – Check what’s behind you

Monica can’t stress this enough: “Backgrounds can make a huge difference. What does the beach, the forest, or a studio background say about you and your business?” What does a white background say, other than that you are lacking in imagination? And worse, what if the picture in the foreground is, uh, kind of creepy?

Environmentally friendly company? Outside and in the sunshine, for sure! Fincancial guru? Outside on a rooftop with the financial district skyline looming behind you. Nurse practitioner or midwife? Indoors with beautiful curtains or wallpaper in the back.  You can try different approaches and experiment with colors. The point is to make sure, at the end of the photo session, that you’ve captured the essence of your company. Show a trusted friend or impartial observer your different looks and ask them what they think your company is like based on it (don’t ask your mom, she’ll tell you that you look great and you’ll win them over regardless. Not what you need right now). And last but not least –

Rule no. 4 – Color your world

By now you probably have your company colors. Why not use them in the shot? I’m not saying wear a teal shirt and orange tie (if that’s the combo of your logo); but maybe you can add a dash of that purple you use in the website on your necktie.

If you want to move away from company colors, Monica suggests to consider what colors mean in perception. Red is always a dominant/agressive color (DEFINITELY not the one you want for a caretaker/health worker headshot, since it’s also the color of blood). Blue can be soothing, but a bright blue is also good for denoting energy and youth. Purple is more mysterious – women’s groups use it a lot to denote the complexity of the fairer sex.

And, unless you are selling the stuff, day-glo, iridescent ANYTHING is a definite no-no. Prints are equally problematic since they go in and out of style and small prints don’t register well on camera.

Snap away, kids! And send TheCommich a headshot if you’ve got em already. I’ll be sure to tag you properly.


  1. Mitchell
    February 11, 2010

    Interesting post, Michelle! What background would you suggest for a Communications Consultant at Marketwire?

  2. gwenchua
    February 11, 2010

    Hey Michi, funny running into your article. I just took my headshot for the Real Estate industry.

    Its on FB. Did I ruin it? :-)

  3. Michelle Valeriano
    February 12, 2010

    Hey Mitch! You're young and friendly and your company's color is red… how about an outdoor shot with a brick wall or red facade as your background? And that killer smile 😉

  4. Michelle Valeriano
    February 12, 2010

    Gwen – is your headshot your profile pic? Dude, I've seen you smile bigger than that! Plus your background does NOT match your personality (you are definitely not a "beige" person!) If you have the budget to go with a professional, I suggest you try to do so – and don't be afraid to use a background color. Also – shoulders back and big smile! Let me know and I can intro you to Monica if you like.