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Need a Headshot? Ditch the Selfie, Spring for the Pro

By Mary Ellen Sullivan

Here’s the reality of the digital age: You are your brand. Not just your work, not just your reputation, not just your resume. What you look like and how you present yourself online has become a critical piece of your image. Having the right headshot can go a long way in reinforcing it.

Says branding expert Alyssa VandeLeest, President and Strategy Director of Chicago-based Prosper Public Relations, “The photo on your website or LinkedIn account may be the first glimpse a prospective client gets of you, so it is important that it is both professional and that it clearly conveys your personal brand.”

So why not use that photo you like that your niece took at last year’s barbeque? “Absolutely, positively not,” says JinJa Birkenbeuel, President of Birk.Creative, a company specializing in social engagement strategies and branding. “It is very important to use a professional who can translate the image and brand you want to present. Don’t use a smartphone photo because it may not have the sharpness of a professional shot. By the same token, pay attention to the message the photo is sending. For example, don’t use something that you would put on Facebook. Don’t try to look sexy. Don’t have a beer in your hand.”

Fear and Loathing in the Photo Studio

But, you say, “I hate to have my picture taken.” Realize that a professional photo shoot is a very different experience from those annual school pictures that humiliated you year after year. Professional photographers are trained in using light and color, posing angles and employing different camera lenses to capture the essence of who you are on film. “I like to say it’s you, only better,” says Michelle Kaffko of Organic Headshots.

For the past nine years, Kaffko has specialized in headshots. One of the most important parts of her job, she believes, is helping clients get comfortable in front of the camera. This includes talking, joking and getting to know each other. She talks with them about what image and attributes they want to convey. “With attorneys, for example,” she says, “if you are known as a bulldog, we’ll do one kind of picture. If you are a family attorney, we’ll go for a more friendly, approachable look. What I can’t emphasize enough for the people who don’t like to have their picture taken is that we both have the same goals: creating photos that you will like. You have a lot more control over the photo session than you think.”

What to Expect and How to Prepare

Forget everything you have seen on TV and in movies. There will be no wind machines and hedonistic fanfare. Expect a fairly simple studio with backdrops and lights. You may want to bring several changes of clothing that reflect the image you want to portray.

For tips on what you can do to help get the best possible photo, I turned to Michael Schmitt of Michael Schmitt Photography, who has clocked nearly 30 years in the business. Here’s his best advice:

For clothing, stick with minimal patterns and simple, classic styles. Blacks, blues and neutral colors are good. You want the attention on your face, not your clothes. Also, dress the way you would on the job. If you wear a tie every day, wear a tie. If you are strictly business casual, leave the suit at home.

  • For women, wear makeup, but not too much. Same goes for jewelry.
  • For men, don’t get a haircut the day before the shoot. Unless you are actively going for the two-day stubble look, do a close shave that morning.
  • During the shoot, think about something pleasant … your kids, your last vacation, the person you love.
  • Don’t look at the camera, look into the lens as if it were the face of a friend.
  • Be realistic in your expectations. “People want to look like Brad Pitt, but we are trying to make you look like you — your best self,” Schmitt says.

And finally, trust the photographer. The talent, knowledge and experience of professional photographers — they can see the best angles of your face, light for your complexion, help you relax — is key. Most people who hate the way they look in pictures have probably never had a professional shot taken.

Common Questions

How do you find a photographer? One of the best ways is to look at headshots of friends and colleagues. When you find ones that look like them at their best, ask for a referral.

What does it cost? Depending on where you live, around $250 and upward. Costs will increase if you want several versions in different outfits.

How long will the photo session take? Plan for at least an hour. It may go more quickly, but photographers allot for time to discuss what you want, as well as time to help you get comfortable and relaxed.

What if you don’t like the photos? If you have a genuine issue, most photographers will work with you on a reshoot — they want you to be happy with the end result. But if you are peeved that you don’t look more like a movie star, you may have to adjust your expectations.

Mary Ellen Sullivan is a Chicago-based freelance writer who writes frequently about the arts, music, travel and women’s issues, with a specialty in health care for more than 30 years. She is the author of the best-selling book “Cows on Parade in Chicago,” as well as several travel guides, and has been published in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Woman’s Day, Vegetarian Times and other publications. She also writes a blog about joy called “On the Wings of the Hummingbird.” 

Illustration ©ImageZoo.

Categories: Daily Dispatch, You At Work
Originally published June 24, 2014
Last updated April 13, 2018
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Mary Ellen Sullivan Mary Ellen Sullivan

A Chicago-based freelance writer, traveler and the author of “On the Wings of the Hummingbird,” a blog about joy, Mary Ellen Sullivan wrote about the arts, music, travel and women’s issues, with a specialty in health care, for more than 30 years. She was the author of the best-selling book “Cows on Parade in Chicago,” as well as several travel guides. Mary Ellen passed away in March 2016. You can read about her extraordinary life here.

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