Copyright 2005-2009 Erik Sherman, All Rights Reserved

David Holzman “ready” for his close-up.

David Holzman off-guard and relaxed.

Erik Sherman

Complex ideas elegantly expressed

Headshot Smarts

One day, every professional writer learns the meaning of terror when an editor says, “We need a photo of you.” Many writers hate having their pictures taken, finding the process uncomfortable and even overly intimate. But a little knowledge can make it almost pleasurable—and far more useful.

Properly done, a photo does make a stronger connection with readers and reinforce a writer’s platform. That is because images are the language of emotion, telling stories a thousand words would miss. Think how the picture of Neil Armstrong striding the moon captured a generation’s hopes just as a crying woman crouched over the body of a Kent State student expressed the despair.

Such directed attention can work to a writer’s advantage. Cover photos on Martha Stewart’s early books conveyed an image of the consummate home maker. They turned her into an icon of home and entertainment.

Most writers may not be former models, but they can get photos that help their careers. First decide what the picture should say about you. This message must be emotional. Have you written a health article and need to personify vitality? A self-help book that needs a figure of authority and wisdom? A gripping human narrative created by a serious and sensitive face? Those working in different genres or subjects might even require multiple images, each tailored for a different audience.

Trying to save money is wise, but not if doing so costs you more over time.  Have you ever picked up a book, found yourself interested by the contents, and then come across an off-putting author photo that broke the mood? A bad image can chase off customers. Second cousin Marv may be a whiz with a camera, but an author photograph must go beyond composition and incorporate lighting, poses, props, and surroundings to communicate. Even the tilt of a head up or down can change the impression the photo will give.

A photographer must also know how to help people relax. Tension appears in the face, creating an off-putting impression. Look at the two examples of magazine journalist  David Holzman. The one on the right, taken a moment after the one on the left when David dropped his guard, is more natural and appealing.

Look for someone experienced with either authors or business people who need head shots done. Photographers who work with actors who are used to creating an appearance may be out of practice in coaxing the best out of you.

Schedule your shoot before that editor telephones. Many photographers book weeks in advance, and you want time to discuss the image to convey. Be sure the person you select will take time to discuss wardrobe, make-up, and surrounds, because photos alter reality, and not always in a flattering way.

A picture flattens a three dimensional face into a two dimensional representation, effectively making someone look broader and heavier. (There’s a reason that models are often rail thin; that lets them look “normal” on the page.)

Clothing can create undesired effects. Because film and digital capture are less discerning than the human eye, that black turtleneck can easily blend with a black background and cause your head to look as though it separated from your shoulders. White clothing can similarly appear as an undistinguished mass. Intricate patters sometimes create a distorted effect.

You’ll likely need make-up so your features do not become washed out in the image. Women should avoid doing their own make-up; their daily regimens are unlikely to work well with the photographic process.

Also consider whether you want a photo taken in your home or working environment, whether a studio and props would be better, or if a picture outdoors might serve you best.

Before you dust your hands and conclude that you’re done, remember that having a photograph taken isn’t the same as having the permission to use it. Like all created works, it is copyrighted and you need the photographer’s permission to reproduce it, whether that is on the jacket of a book, on a magazine’s contributors page, in press kits, or on your web site.

All this planning may be more than you anticipated, but the picture perfect results will be worth it.

Hillary Rettig is a career coach and author of the upcoming book, How Not to Burn Out. A combination of natural setting, warm lighting, and level pose communicated professionalism, calm, and hope.

Getting a good headshot takes work, but it pays off