Faking a Professional Author Photo

At the dayjob, I work with a lot of authors and frequently ask for headshots to use in our marketing of their events. You would be floored by how many people send me shots like these:

click to see what’s really wrong with this one.

(Note: These are all altered stock photo images, not actual headshots I’ve been sent, but they are in no way exaggerations. In fact, these are probably better than 50% of the ones I’m sent))

An unprofessional author photo makes you look like an unprofessional author. Full stop. I cannot send these pictures out to my media contacts or put them on the big screen at an Authors Festival.

The primary purpose of an author’s photo is to give the reader a personal connection to the author. For some readers, this is very important. My main purpose (at the dayjob) is to create recognition so an event attendee will recognize you when they see you.

But do not worry! If you’re booked for an event or media appearance soon and you don’t have time or money to book a pro session, you can fake a decent author headshot in about 5 minutes. In fact, here’s one I just took right now at work.

1. Lighting is Everything

Great lighting can make anyone look fantastic. You want your face to be fully and evenly lit either straight-on or from multiple angles. The camera should be between you and the light source. Fluorescent lighting is the devil. Overhead fluorescent lighting is the devil and his twin brother.

The #1 best non-pro lighting is indirect sunlight while the sun is fully risen. If you can find a large window and stand a couple feet inside of it with a nice solid wall behind you, that is ideal. Covered porches/overhangs work great too. It will give you a soft glow and make colors pop. Direct sunlight can wash you out and make you squinty.

If you work during every daylight hour or live in Alaska during the Winter, you can use lamps to light your face. When I vlog at night, I put two white-bulb lamps on either side of the camera.

I’m a makeup addict, so I do have to say that makeup can supplement good lighting. A brush of blush for healthy color, a sweep of mascara and/or eyeliner to define the eyes, and a swipe of lipstick or gloss can help define your features.

2. What’s Behind You?

The best backgrounds for these photos are: a solid or lightly-textured wall, an empty (of people, buildings, cars, powerlines, etc) landscape, or a bookshelf that is several feet behind you.

Weird backgrounds can be distracting and draw the attention away from you. (Like why is that dude in a graffiti-ed alley?)

3. Mechanics & Tools

You don’t have to have a super fancy camera to take a decent photo. A point-and-shoot or a mobile phone camera (released in the last three years) is definitely good enough. If you can have someone take the photo for you, that is preferred, but you can actually fake this with a selfie, as long as you keep your extended arm out of the shot. My photo above is a selfie. Some front-facing cameras are better than others, but the back-facing camera will always be best, if possible.

The camera should be at or slightly above eye level. Look up to it with your face, not just your eyes. Play with tilting your head at slight angles. Make sure your whole head is in the shot and there is space between your head and the frame on all sides.

4. Keep the Creativity for Your Writing

You may think that weird face or funny hat is hilarious, but there will be many people who don’t. Keep it simple so you don’t run the risk of an editor removing the photo. Even if you are a comedic author, you might face the opportunity to run a writing workshop or give a keynote address and you want people to think that you’re a professional.

When I say this, I know there will always be shouts of “If they don’t like who I am, forget them! I’m not going to pretend to be somebody I’m not.” I caution you to stop and think about this for a minute. Is making a goofy face in your author photo really worth alienating readers and potential allies for your writing career?

5. Only You

I see so many “author photos” that were obviously part of a group shot and then cropped. No one else’s body parts should appear in your author photo. Not to mention, these are usually lower quality because they’re only a small portion of a decent-quality photo.

6. Formatting for Success

  • Save at the highest resolution in every step of the process (if you use your phone camera, there is usually a setting to change the quality). Don’t let photo editing software compress the photo.
  • Save it as a .jpg. Every platform on the planet can use a jpg.
    • Do not, under any circumstances, copy it into a Word document and send someone that.
      • Whhhhyyyyyy?
  • Save it with an identifiable name. Mine is called “Sarah Nicolas.jpg” on my computer. If someone works with multiple authors, they may have several headshots in a folder. Don’t frustrate them by making them look through a folder that looks like this to find yours:

While a professional photography session will usually give you the best headshot possible (as long as the photographer is decent), you can use these tips above to fake it until you can get that done.

Let me know if you have any questions in the comments! Or if you think you got it, take a shot at it and post a link to your photo in the comments!!

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