Few of us have the time, money or inclination to enlist a professional photographer every time we want to refresh our online persona with a new social media headshot. Still, no matter if you’re on Facebook or Linkedin, Twitter or Tinder, everyone wants to look their best.
A little attention to detail will get you away from futilely trying to photograph yourself in the bathroom mirror or in the murk of a darkened home office. With these general guidelines in mind you can add a lot of appeal to your social media profile — and if you don’t like the results right away, keep shooting. In a digital world there’s no penalty for experimentation.
Get a Little Help
This can come from your friends, a tripod or most anything that isn’t your own arm. Despite all of the effort devoted to them, hand-held “selfies” are as ubiquitous as they are bad. A rear-facing camera on your smart phone may provide a near irresistible temptation for vampy self-documentation, but resist the selfie. Unless you’re an orangutan, your arms just aren’t long enough and the angle you will have to shoot from will either make you look like a sad puppy or give the world a nice view up your nose.
Instead, do yourself a favor and find someone else to take the shot or use a timer to give you time to get into a suitably appealing position. There are lots of inexpensive options available for smartphone or point-and-shoot tripods out there. Even propping your camera of choice up against something solid will be better than a noticeable portion of your shot devoted to the inner curve of your arm.
Fill the Frame
If the selfie has a virtue it is that it emphasizes the subject. A photograph needs to be composed like a painting or a movie set. You can opt to fill the frame with your own beloved mug or take a picture that tells the viewer more about yourself. Regardless of what sort of photo you want to put up on your social media profile, it will benefit from a good use of space.
Photographers often talk about the “Law of Thirds,” in which an image is divided up by an invisible grid (like a Tick-Tack-Toe board) and the various segments of the grid are used as loose guides for composing your photograph. It’s generally thought that images of all sorts are more engaging when their subject accounts for two-thirds of the available media. Many social media profile pictures are presented in a square format, if you don’t organize your shot with the Law of Thirds in mind and instead just center yourself in the shot, eyes locked straight ahead, then you might as well just avail yourself of the artistic skills on display at the local DMV.
Don’t misunderstand; there’s no rule that says you have to give over a portion of your profile picture to an elegant curve of empty space, but you also don’t want to look like Bugs Bunny erupting from the Looney Tunes logo.
Light it Up
Even if your smart phone or point-and-shoot camera comes with a reasonably powerful flash, don’t use it. There’s very little that will rob a photo of drama or appeal faster than flat, intense light emitted from a source very near to your lens. Instead try posting up in a room with lots of natural light or finding a nice shady spot in the great outdoors (you know, that place with trees and other people). Just avoid direct sunlight because it tends to create a lot of harsh shadows, and very few people look their best when squinting.
All the thoughtful composition in the world can’t overcome the inherent limitations of small cameras and smart phones when it comes to light gathering. The lenses, sensors and available apertures on these small devices simply don’t function well without a lot of light. If there is one failing that casual pictures generally suffer from, it’s bad lighting, which in turn forces the camera to increase its sensitivity to light and produces ever-more grainy pictures.
Do yourself a favor and get out of the shadows.
Remember: This Isn’t a Wanted Poster
Mug shots, driver’s license pictures and yearbook photos are largely informational and not taken with an eye towards aesthetics. A straight-on photograph of anyone, eyes boring out from the frame, is not only dull, but also unflattering.
Try turning your head slightly to one side or the other, look somewhere other than directly at the camera, use the direction from which light is coming to add depth to the photograph by creating areas of varying luminance. Change the angle you’re shooting from or consult a guide to natural crop points (one such easy to understand illustration can be found here.)
While you want to avoid a profile picture that looks like it should have a cash reward for capture printed under it, you also want to stay away from full-body images. A photo swollen with the subject’s face can be just as ineffective as one where they assume the stance seen in tourists around the world as they stand stock-straight in front of some landmark as though their only reason for being in the photo was to add a sense of scale. Unless you’re a runway model strutting your stuff, a picture that shows everything from your tennis shoes to the top of your head is probably not a good idea.
Environmental portraits or photographs that show you doing the things you enjoy or give us insight into your world are valuable ways to script your own visual narrative.
Do you build ships in bottle, collect vintage Pyrex, have an undying passion for tree houses? Show the viewer something about yourself in your profile picture. A photograph can, intentionally or not, broadcast a lot about its subject without the temptation to hollow self-aggrandizement that “About Me” sections in social media profiles are prone to.
If you like to cook, climb mountains or crochet, then show the viewer of your picture that rather than telling them. When you’re photographed doing something you care about then your expression and body language will be able to tell the world far more (and in a subtly more convincing way) than words ever could. If you’re having trouble filling the frame of the photo or you just don’t like a camera in your face, then try taking a photo that narrates something about yourself in the quiet language of images.