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You’ll notice that I didn’t say a “bad headshot”, because even a good headshot will ruin your brand if it’s not the kind you need. And when I say ‘brand’ I mean both your personal brand  and  your company’s brand.

Here’s why. How many times have you landed on a website which made a favorable initial impression but then seemed to lose appeal? The logo looked clean and strong, the page layout eye-pleasing and well organized. The colors created the right mood.

But then you saw some pictures of their people. Maybe on the ‘About Us’ page or under the bios of their teams. Suddenly the good impression ended. The people in the pics didn’t look professional, friendly, or even competent. The pictures themselves looked downscale, like they were done in a department store portrait studio. Maybe the background was a multi-colored, mottled painted backdrop from the ‘80s.

The brand has suffered. First, there are your feelings about what you’re seeing, then the thoughts. It looks like these people didn’t manage their own interests very well, how are they going to manage yours? Would you want them to do your accounting or your legal services? Probably not.

I know there are other, more important criteria you should use to evaluate a professional firm. But the feelings and thoughts you got about the firm’s poor branding won’t go away. I’m not saying this setback is insurmountable, but their poor branding hurts them during your evaluation, even while you’re just looking at their web pages.

And it was all unnecessary. All they had to do was to get headshots for their people that were worthy of their professionalism. Often the package is at least as important as the product, sometimes more so. If you want to sell your product effectively, why not put a great package on it?

How to Make Your Professional Headshots Work — Six must do’s

1. Wardrobe — Start by choosing the appropriate wardrobe, at least the part that will be in the shot. What would you wear when interviewing for an ideal position with a great firm? Or what would you wear to the first meeting with a really important new client?
Maybe dress a little more conservatively than usual. Make sure everything fits well. For men that would be the jacket and the dress shirt. The tie should be well tied and up to the collar, not sitting 1/2 inch below it. If the shirt collar is too loose, it will look sloppy. If it’s too tight, your neck will bulge out.

For women your blouse should not be too low-cut or when the photo is cropped it might look like you’re wearing nothing under your jacket. Removing loose threads and lint from dark garments is a good idea.

Dark colored jackets and light shirts and blouses offer the most contrast and visual appeal, especially in black-and-white, and a lot of times photos will be used in black-and-white. A conservative, upscale tie is a must.

2. Grooming — Hair should be neatly styled, not too flashy. Men should shave closely and trim stray hairs from nose, neck, and ears. Men should remove excess oil from the forehead and nose. Facial hair should be trimmed.

3. Attitude — Try to feel good about your shoot. It’s an important career opportunity and shouldn’t be treated like a burden. The right photographer will make you feel comfortable, and it will be over soon. But if you come to the session with a tired or negative attitude, it might show in your pictures. I’ve heard many times “I always take bad pictures.” Today’s a new day. Give yourself a chance to succeed. Otherwise you won’t look like the competent, confident professional you deserve to look like.

Get enough sleep the night before. Everything works well when you’re well rested. Do whatever works for you as a stress reliever and treat your shoot as a job interview and a chance to advance your career.

4. Photography — Hopefully you’ve chosen a photographer with a lot of experience in doing executive and professional portraits rather than one whose main experience is shooting weddings and family portraits. The right headshot photographer will guide you through the steps. He knows what to do and he understands the corporate and professional aesthetic like general portrait photographers never do.

When it comes to the photography, the responsibility lies mostly with the shooter you’ve chosen. But if you know what to look for, you can ask questions and make your preferences known, which will improve the odds for getting the kind of shot you need. I and many other shooters show some of the images we’ve just done to the client, while they’re still in the camera. If things aren’t looking right, feel free to express your concerns while you’re still in the shoot. I would rather hear a client’s concerns while we’re still shooting than the next day when the shoot is over.

Here are the things that have to work in the photography.

Pose and expression. Look at some successful headshots. Look at the posture and the facial expressions. Relaxed posture but not sloppy is best. Hold your head up to show your self-confidence. Most people do better headshots when they are sitting rather than standing, but either way will work provided the photographer is not too short and has to shoot up at you.

Unless my client asks for a straight-on pose, I like to turn my client’s body slightly away from the camera with her head centered and looking right at the camera. When the body is too straight-on, it reminds me of a passport shot.

Don’t be afraid to show your teeth, even if they’re not perfect. It’s better than an uncomfortable expression. Try to keep from squinting your eyes, but opening your eyes up too far looks really unnatural. Take a deep breath after a few poses to loosen things up and not look stiff. Moving around a little in the chair every once in a while also helps reduce stiffness. You’re not shooting a recruiting poster for the Marines. Too stiff does not look right and makes the viewer a little uncomfortable.

Lighting. This is mostly up to the photographer, but if you’re not liking what you’re seeing in the proofs, you might want to ask some questions. Avoid gimmicky lighting that calls attention to itself. It’s a distraction you don’t need and will make you look nonprofessional, even though it’s not your fault. The whole face should be lit more or less evenly. If there are shadows, they shouldn’t be too dark or weirdly placed. Once again, look at examples of well-lit headshots to get an idea of good lighting.

Composition. Most business headshots are composed with subject centered in the frame, with some headroom on top and cropped under the chest at the bottom.  Camera angle is important. Shoot up from a low angle and it makes the subject look arrogant. Not a good attitude for business. Shoot down from a high angle and the subject looks weak and lacking in confidence. I prefer to shoot level with the subject, right into the eyes, with the subject’s chin neither raised nor lowered. It’s very common, unfortunately, for photographers to shoot down on women. This should be avoided for a strong look.

5. Selecting the best image. Often this is the hardest part. You may have several good images and you need to choose the best, the headshot that will enhance your professional image. If you’re totally stuck, ask your husband or wife, a friend or an executive assistant. They might find it easier to be objective. Sometimes, if you’re not in a hurry, wait a day or two and then revisit your selection. Use the points mentioned above as a checklist of what to look for.

Here’s the good news. If your headshot is lacking in any of the points I mentioned, you might be able to fix it with good retouching. I’ve never seen an image that couldn’t be made much better by skilled retouching.

There are three things to keep in mind: Looking good, looking like you actually look, and not looking retouched. If you’re not happy with the retouched proof the photographer provides, ask for revisions. Usually people are happy with the first version, but I’ve had clients ask for as many as 20 revisions, after which they were ecstatic with the final product. Make sure up front that your photographer is willing to provide revisions without extra charges.

All this sounds like a lot to worry about, but it’s actually rather straightforward. And if you choose an experienced photographer, he or she should be able to guide you effortlessly through the process.

professional headshot