OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
Being an author in a digital age is truly exciting. But it is also a big responsibility because we have to have a professional online profile.
People make impressions based on the first glance of our book covers, our websites and yes, our online images and avatars. They also judge us by what we blog about, our tweets, the photos we share, how we interact in forums. Everything you do that has your name on it relates to your brand.
Branding is a huge topic so this article is specifically focused on the author headshot. I've been using the same image online for a few years now and it happens to be one of my wedding photos. It's happy, happy, smiley and has worked very well for this site. This is one side of the authentic me. But it's time to move on.
My fiction writing alter-ego, J.F.Penn, is a kick-ass, action-adventure thriller addict and my writing includes scenes of violence as well as dark and twisty plots. This is also authentically me, but really doesn't fit with the smiley wedding image.
Given that I am now taking my fiction writing seriously as a full-time author-entrepreneur, I have been going through rebranding for my fiction site JFPenn.com and so I decided it was time for new headshots for both sites. You may notice I have a new headshot in my header above.
I know how we all fret about what we look like and whether to invest some money in a pro photographer so here's my experience and lessons learned. I'd love to hear from you in the comments about your own thoughts and experience.
[Apologies that this post contains so many photos of me, but that was kind of the point of the exercise!]
- Decide on what kind of photos you want. My new fiction branding is “J.F.Penn. Ancient mystery, Modern thrill.” I decided that I wanted to have the photos done in Oxford, the place I consider home and also where I went to University as well as where some of my fiction is set. It also has some ancient looking backdrops that fit with the brand.
Research appropriate photographers. Google “portrait photographer” and the place you live or want to have photos in. I looked specifically for Oxford photographers. Then look at their sites to get an idea of the type of pictures they take as well as their prices for your budget. You want to feel happy with how they do things and the results they get. I went with the lovely Mim Saxl, whose portrait shots are casual, yet professional, and I liked her attitude. I also thought her rates were excellent (I paid approx US$140 for an hour which included editing time). You will need to email or phone your photographer to confirm times and dates as well as any other details.
- Try on some different outfits. Mim told me that plain colors work best for headshots as they don't draw attention away from the face. I was having photos outside in May, which should have been warm but this is England so I took a jacket and of course, it was absolutely freezing, so definitely have different clothing for weather options. Even if you're inside, take a few changes of clothes so you can do different looking shots.
The photo shoot itself
- Look your best. Ladies, wear some makeup! If you're paying for pro-photos then paying for some professional makeup and hair may also be a good idea. I didn't do pro hair and makeup this time but I did practice before hand and re-applied just prior to the photo-shoot. I have no idea how a man would prepare (guys, leave a comment!). In general, make sure the look matches your brand e.g. horror writers in pink frilly dresses just don't cut it!
- Trust the photographer. You have hired a pro for a reason. They will take a lot of shots, maybe thousands and many of them will be terrible. That's ok. They know what they are doing. Trust them and let them guide you in terms of location and positioning (but be sure to tell them what kind of thing you want first).
- Imagine someone you love behind the lens for a more personal look. No startled rabbits please! You see some pictures of authors looking scared or just unhappy in their headshots. Try to be natural and move through some different expressions as the photographer clicks away. Keep imagining a real person smiling at you if you're smiling. Anyone can tell a fake smile by looking at your eyes so make sure they are real smiles!
Tips from a professional photographer
I asked Mim to provide some tips for authors on getting that perfect headshot. Here are her words:
- Work somewhere with the photographer that has some special significance for what you like to write about – for example, if your books feature famous landmarks, discuss incorporating recognizable features into the background of your headshot. You do not want an overly busy background, but it is still nice to get a suggestion of place in any shot – it makes it instantly more interesting. In addition to the interest in your shot, it will get you in the mood for being photographed as an author, and remind you of why you are doing the shoot! I suggest chatting with the photographer about possible locations, and seeing what suggestions they have in response to information you give them about your work.
- Wear something you love. This is really important for anyone having a portrait done. You may think it is less-so for authors, as generally, pictures of authors in books tend to be headshots, and so who cares what you wear, right? Wrong. Having your photo taken is a somewhat unnatural and potentially daunting situation, often involving posing. Most people (including me!) don't like getting it done. Anything you can do to make yourself feel more relaxed and at home (especially if you're out on location with others around) is great. If you feel relaxed and good in what you're wearing, it will show on your face. I also always recommend people bring a couple of clothing options, so we can have a play and see what works best – and if you're working with me, stay away from busy patterns in clothing, they just distract from your face.
- And now, to state the obvious, choose your photographer carefully. Look through the websites of a few in the area you want to work, and see whose style you like. Are you looking for something more traditional and posed? Or more maybe more modern, with shallow depth of field? Feel free to ring photographers up for a chat. I have worked with lots of people who have had bad shoots with photographers when they just have not ‘clicked'. A good photographer will put you at your ease straight away. Something else which is key to look out for when choosing a photographer is additional charges for using the photos – I chose to work by charging my fees upfront for the session, without additional fees for a dvd or use of the images after – many do not.
- Have fun! A good photographer will help you relax and come up with some great shoots – sit back, and enjoy the ride. And remember, they're probably nervous tooMim Saxl, photographer at mimsaxl.photography
And finally, get over yourself!
We all hate the way we look. That's human nature. But it is SO important to have a great author headshot as well as a way for people to feel you are a real person online. Your face is unique. People connect with faces.
The result is worth so much more than you feeling self-conscious for an hour. You really have no excuse not to do this if you are taking your author profile seriously. Go and book a pro photographer now!
What are your experiences with author portraits? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.