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WORDS FOR WRITERS: The Importance of Your Author Headshot

A term taken from the entertainment industry, a headshot is an 8″ x 10″ professional photograph of an actor, taken with specific parameters, which is submitted to a casting director or producer in the hopes of booking an audition based on the first impression of their looks.

Having a headshot-like photo of yourself as an author is also important. While it doesn’t need to be actor-quality, it does need to be professional, clean, and accurately represent both your image and your brand. This headshot is used in your books, on your website, on your agent’s website, on your publisher’s website, and in any marketing you or your team may put together to advertise reading and appearances.

It’s also important to have a single consistent headshot across all of your social media profiles, so you are instantly recognizable on each platform and it’s clear to people searching for your social media accounts to follow you that they’ve found the right account.

It’s also important that your headshot actually look like you–not a heavily made-up version of you–so that when you arrive places like book store signings, and local writer’s festivals, the organization team knows who you are. If readers know what you look like, they can find you at events and appearances, or can recognize you as they pass by your table at a convention.

For my first few author headshots, I recycled my acting headshots. I was still actively working in the industry and it seemed a shame to spend $400 on photos and only use them for one side of my creative career. Here are some samples of those shots:

You can see that while they're nice photos, they're very "performery"

You can see that while they’re nice photos, they’re very “performery”. They look very posed, and very, dare I say it, boring for all that they’re colourful and I look quite nice in them. The one on the far left is the only one that really shows any hint of my actual personality. I quickly switched out my headshot for this one:

This photo was part of a portrait series I modeled for. Again, I thought, why not use a great photo that already exists instead of commissioning a new one? But, if you notice, this one is distracting. Though it’s a great shot of my face, and especially my eyes, that weird lick of hair in the centre of my forehead and that earring pull your attention, instead of my face. It’s also a little too close-up. I look like I’m about to eat your soul. It’s a beautiful photo for the portrait series. Not so much for an author headshot.

That’s when I realized I needed to commission proper author headshots – what works for actors does not always work for authors. Actor headshots end up being a bit cold, somehow, and for an author, you want your picture to encourage people to open up your book and start reading. I engaged a professional photographer (in fact, the dude who did the portrait series above) and  for a couple hundred bucks we shot in his product studio (he photographs cell phones mostly) for a few hours.

I used the one on the top left here the most, as it looks nice and serious but also a bit playful – like I’m enticing you to come and get a peek at the things I’m thinking. Then switched to the one on the bottom left when my first YA novel came out because you could really see my personality in that one, and it was adventurous.

When these photos got to be over 10 years old, I decided it was time for an update, and asked a local cosplay photographer to do up my new set:

I’m not completely keen on the middle one, I’ll me honest, because I think it makes me look like a soccer mom or your local elementary school secretary. But the one of the far left is, I think, a great representation of my personality.

So which headshot am I using right now? Well, none of the ones I paid for!

This is a selfie I took in my bathroom (which has the most magical lighting, I swear). I’d gotten all dolled up for an on-camera interview and really liked this photo. It’s a lot more serious than I usually am in my author headshots, but as my next few books are a lot more literary in nature than my two fantasy series, I wanted something a little more “grown up” (but not as grown up as the above Soccer Mom look) while still being fun. A friend cleaned it up and adjusted some of the colour in Photoshop for me, and voila, my new headshot was born.

This is proof that to get a great headshot, you don’t have to seek out a professional photographer. I still like to do so, because they have experience manipulating images to clean them up, and generally much better cameras, skills, and lighting set-ups than just you, your cell phone, and a backyard. But it’s not necessary, as long as your resulting photo is clean, crisp, and flattering.

Finding a Photographer

If you do decide to go with a professional, seek out someone who’s photography work centres on helping people translate emotion on their faces. Look for photographers that specialize in headshots (acting is better than corporate), or character photography like cosplay photoshoots or boudoir shoots. These are people who know how to flatter a face, but also make it look like a real person, and can pull the emotion out of you.

Avoid photobooths, passport photo stations, school photo set-ups. There’s no way to adjust the lighting to ensure that it’s the most flattering.

If you’re thinking of using one of those photostudios that exist inside big box stores like WalMart, have a candid conversation with the photographer about what you want, and look at examples of their past work. These kinds of “family posed together” photos produce nice pictures, but they’re usually not as soulful as you want for an author photo.

Also consider reaching out to local artschools and galleries, and ask to review the student’s portfolio before agreeing to work with them.

Most importantly, if you are working with an outside photographer – PAY THEM.

Be prepared to pay upwards of $400-$600 for a full headshot experience, with multiple looks, and hair & makeup included, with some light digital photo editing (like my first set of headshots above.) If you do your own hair & makeup, select your own wardrobe, and only have a few looks, with digital editing, then you’ll likely pay around $100-$300. If you handle everything and they just need to show up and shoot, then cover their transportation costs and the bare minimum.

Like you, these people are artists and this is their job. Please don’t insult their craft by offering to pay in exposure – people die of exposure.

Assembling Good Author Headshot

Size 

-Shoot the photo in the absolute highest resolution the camera allows for. This will ensure that the photo is suitable for print.

-Most author photos on jackets and print articles are square, and  in social media, they’re circles, so be aware that your picture, whatever orientation you shoot it in, will be cropped.

Framing

-Usually an author photo is cropped to a few inches above the top of your head, at your shoulders, and just below your collarbone. So make sure that whatever is in that square – hair, clothes, makeup, background, jewelry – is the best it can be and does not distract. Obviously you can shoot the photo wider, and provide wider versions of it so outlets and publishers can crop it as they desire, but be aware that generally speaking, that’s the only part that will be used.

-The most important part of the photo is your face, specifically your eyes. Make sure that this is the focus of the photo. I know it sounds obvious, but anything that distracts from that (like my silly snake-tongue curl of hair in the middle of my forehead above, or an overly-busy background) is doing you a disservice.

-If the camera is help just slightly above your eye-line, so you’re looking up at it and your chin is tilted up toward it, it will give your chin, jaw, and shoulders nice definition. Necks tend to sort of blend together in photos otherwise. However, the camera shouldn’t be so far above you that it’s clear that you’re looking up at it.

Lighting

-This one’s a bit tricky if you don’t have a studio set up. You want light that is bright enough to see your face, but not so harsh that it cuts lines out of shadows on your features, or flattens your features right off. I generally use the natural light from big bright windows or put a lamp directly in front of my face, a few feet away from where I’m sitting or standing. The key is to diffuse the light – pull sheer curtains (without patterns!) across the window, or drape a sheer, colourless and paternless scarf over the lamp. Never shoot with a bare bulb – I tape a kleenex to the outside casing of my  reading lamp.

-If you’re shooting outdoors, consider doing so during “The Golden Hour”, or right around sunset when the light quality gets very warm and the slanted angle of the sun is flattering. Otherwise, natural light tends to be very cold, or blue, and can make you look sickly and flattened.

Background

-This should be pretty plain, and should flatter what you’re wearing and your natural colouring as much as possible. There’s a rust-red fence in an alleyway near my house that is so flattering for my friend with an olive complexion. But when I stand in front of it, my pink-toned skin just looks flushed up and sunburned.

-Try to find something with a bit of texture, like a painted brick wall, a trellis covered in ivy, a section of wallpaper that’s not too busy and distracting, or a wall filled with empty frames, or in front of a massive painting of flowers, a  muted landscape, or just colours. Avoid anything with pictures, places, mirrors, or paintings of people in it–the only face we should see is yours, and the only setting we should be exposed to is the one you’re sitting in.

-Having said all that about not being too distracting, try to also avoid boring old Builder’s Beige.

-Don’t shoot in front of a mirror, a window, or anything else intensely reflective. There’s a chance the photographer will end up in the shot, or you’ll end up with a weird back-lit halo from where the light is bouncing back at the camera.

-You can also choose to shoot in such a way that the background is slightly out of focus.

Pose

-Look at the camera (dead centre of the lens, not at the photographer), or just off frame. Author photos of people’s profiles or romantic poses of them as they gaze out over the sea are kind of poetic, I guess, but they don’t help the readers to know what you look like (and thus find you at literary festivals or in autograph lines).

-Keep your posture loose, but prim. Lengthen you spine, raise your chin a little, roll your shoulders back a bit, but don’t stand at attention or hold yourself like a ballet dancer.

-Experiment with the angle at which you hold your body. Shoulders-straight-on-to-the-camera really works for some body types, and really does not for others. Look at how stars are standing and holding thier arms and hands on the red carpet, how they cock their hips and angle their heads. It may feel stupid, and may even be a bit uncomfortable, but you can’t deny that they’ve got the whole “posing without looking like I’m posing” pose down.

-Find a way to put some natural-looking gaps between your arms and your body, so there’s a bit of air in there. This will give your torso and waist definition and keep you from looking like one solid mass straight across. Perch an elbow on an armrest, or hold it slightly cocked away from your body, to allow a space. If you like put your hands on your hips, instead put them on your natural waist and a little further forward on your belly than you normally would. This keeps you from looking like Peter Pan.

-It’s okay to suck it in if that makes you more comfortable, as look as you don’t have an expression on your face that makes it look like you’re sucking it in!

-Your expression should be one of ease and comfort.  Don’t lean to hard into ‘mysterious’ or ‘goofy’ or ‘sexy’. Again, this is a photo of you, not a photo of your story or what you want people to feel when they read it. There’s other ways to convey visual representations of your tale. This isn’t the place for it. This is also not the place for your best GQ photoshoot celebrity scowl impression. Scowls don’t invite readers into your worlds.  I’m not saying you have to be all smiley-go-lucky, but make sure your expression isn’t standoffish or offputting.

-And yes, go ahead and practice your poses and expressions in the mirror. We actors all do. Trust me.

Clothing

-You will also have to provide your own wardrobe, so choose solid colours or big patterns (tiny patterns don’t translate well on camera), something with a flattering cuts, and clean tailoring without too many flounces or flourishes. Consider things like: a cozy cable-knit sweater with an interesting but not distracting neckline, a summer dress with cute sleeves, a favourite teeshirt under a blazer, etc.

-There’s no need to go formal, but also don’t look like a slob. In fact, “business casual” is a great place to aim, though you can be a bit more buttoned up if you want something that convesys a bit more seriousness (especially if you write something like medical thrillers), or something a bit more approachable, like well-tailored jeans and a very flattering teeshirt (especially great if you write for kids).

-Don’t get sued! It’s tempting to wear a band teeshirt if you write about musicions, or a Starfleet insignia earrings if you write SF/F, or some sort of nod to your nerdom if that floats your boat, like a Steven Universe tee, but resist. Those are copywrited logos and images and it’s best to just keep them off you entirely, just in case. Also, they can distract from the message of the photo, which is “this is me”; putting branded stuff in the picture with you distracts from your face.

-Don’t over-layer. One, maybe two layers is all you need. A shirt and a waistcoat, for example, or a cute summer dress with a cardigan. Make sure whatever layer you add flatters your figure instead of hiding or muffling it, and that they’re in colours that contrast and don’t blend together.

-Don’t over accessorize. Keep the jewelry simple, the scarves non-distracting, and if you decide to put something in your hair – a clip, a band, a ribbon, bead or clasp – make sure that it’s subtle and flattering and doesn’t pull focus.

-Look at yourself from every angle in the clothing – does it give you saggy arm or can you see your bra through it? Be aware that the light will be much brighter in the studio.

-Don’t let your clothes muffle you – your face is the most important element of the photo. If your clothes take away from that, instead of framing it prettily, then choose something else.

Hair and Makeup

-You’ll also probably have to do your own hair and makeup, unless the headshot professional includes it in their fee. If you’re not sure how to do your own, look up some “natural makeup” tutorials online.

-Even if you don’t wear a lot of makeup in your daily life, you will need to put on at least a little for this shoot. Even your skin tone with a bit of foundation to avoid really red or blue areas of your face that make you look tired (especially under your eyes), and take away the shine (which the lights will LOVE) with some matching or translucent powder. A bit of blush helps your face from looking too flat, and if you feel comfortable with it, add a little bit of highlighter and contour to just make the natural shape of your face more defined. Don’t go overboard, though, because with the camera that close it will be obvious you have. Define your eyebrows gently, and I would recommend lining your eyes and wearing mascara to make sure that they’re the most prominent feature. Finish up with a lightly tinted gloss or a bold lip, whichever you like. You can go as light and natural or as dramatic and fun as you like, but just remember that you should still look like you.

-And yes, male-presenting friends who never use makeup in their daily lives, I’m talking to you too. Foundation, powder, a bit of mascara and a bit of colour on the lips – that’s the least you should be doing as well. Just because you’re male doesn’t mean the camera isn’t going to flatten your face too. (Trust me, the male celebs you see on the red carpet? They’re totally wearing makeup.)

-Don’t get a new haircut the day of, just in case you hate it. However, do go to your stylist for a great blow-out or a bit of styling care if you know that you’ll be happy with the work they do, and you think it’s worth it. Otherwise, your normal “going to work” haircare routine is fine.

-Like your clothes, your make up and hairstyle shouldn’t distract or be too “made up.” You should look like you, not the Glamour Shots version of you.

-Only go to makeup counters for the free make over if you trust them and have seen their work before.

-A little bit of handcream on your palms and stroked over the crown and ends of your hair helps to tame fly-aways.

Tone

-Generally speaking, your main headshot should make you look warm, approachable, and a little bit like you’ve got a secret you can’t wait to share with your readers.

-Consider your genre and audience – if you write medical thrillers or crime dramas, consider looking and posing a bit more formal, a bit more serious. If you write fun kid’s adventures, wear bright colours and smile widely. You should lean toward your genre, without letting yourself get totally swallowed up by the ‘mood’ of it. Look at the other author photos for comparable authors in your genre for inspiration.

-Have multiple shots available – your main one, and then a few others to use depending on the event. I usually make sure I have a “serious author business” shot, a “I am a kind person and you should totally come talk to me about my books” shot, and my “yay we’re going a fun event!” shot, at the bare minimum.

Props

-Go light on props, if you decide to have any. A suggestion of genre – like stethoscope on the table beside you – is always better than a full on set with costumes. For example: if we know you write about vampires, then you don’t need to show that you do too; that’s how we found you – you don’t need to dress all in black (especially if it’s not flattering), wear blood-red lipstick, and clutch a rose or a stake. Doing that a) makes you look like it’s Halloween and b) makes it look like you don’t trust your readers to understand what your genre is.

-Steampunk, as an aesthetic, seems to be the only exception to this rule. More is more in terms of Steampunk Author shots, it seems!

-Don’t hold a copy of your latest book in the photo. That’s great for candids and other photos on your website, but putting the book in your headshot will date it extremely quickly. The second you put out another book, that headshot is no longer relevant or useful.

What do you do with your author headshot now that you have one?

-Make sure you have the highest-res version (the biggest file size) that you can get with the photo, and make sure you always keep a copy of it. I’m constantly asked if I have a higher-rez version of something for print.

-If possible, make certain that you have pics that are right-click-able so they can actually copy/paste them onto their own websites, etc. Make sure to name the file something like “J.M. Frey Promo Photo 7 by Jane Camera” so both your name and the photographer’s name are attached to the file.

-Pick one head shot and stick with it for at least a year. The point of a photo like this is brand recognition, so swapping your photo in and out constantly makes it hard for your audience to know you’re you. If you must use a different photo (for example, your current photo is too serious for a light-hearted, fun interview), try to use one from the same series as your current headshot. The mood and tone will be different, but the photo will still be recognizably on brand (like my two photos above with the pink backgrounds).

-Put it in your Media Kit

-Put a gallery of photos (but not too many!) in the About section of your website so events,  media, interviewers, organizers, marketers, and venues can select the photo they feel best fits the mood and tone of what they are conveying.

-Give it to your agent, and provide it with your bio to your publisher when asked.

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Have a question about the craft of biz of being a writer? Check out more WORDS FOR WRITERS articles.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: The Importance of Your Author Headshot