But if you’re tight on money, doling out cash on a professional headshot may seem like a classic “chicken and egg” problem: A great profile could catch the attention of a recruiter and lead to a killer job, but you need a killer job (and salary) before you shell out for that.
As someone who’s analyzed many thousands of LinkedIn profile photos for my company, I can tell you it’s possible to take a powerful, professional picture at home—for free. You just need to make sure you avoid these six common traps that home photographers often find themselves in.
1. Bad Quality Cameras
Years ago, if you came across a sharp, high-res headshot image, you thought, “That person must be a big deal!” But, nowadays high-res images are a basic expectation—they’re the cost of admission for being taken seriously. (Because, you know if you see a grainy, low-res image, you’re more likely to think, “This person is kinda behind the times.”)
So, steer clear of web cams, as they typically have fewer megapixels of clarity than other types of cameras. What’s surprisingly better than that is your phone’s camera, and if you (understandably) don’t have a real camera, it’s a great option.
2. Unflattering Lighting
If you take your pictures in a dark, inadequately lit area, use zoom, or crop down to just a small area of a larger photo, you will see a significant level of graininess and quality loss. I’m convinced that lighting makes the greatest difference between what looks like a professionally taken picture versus what reads as an amateur one.
Never—under any condition—use flash for your headshot photos! Built-in flash is known to be incredibly unflattering on faces. Likewise, taking a photo in fluorescent light often results in a creepy, eerie feeling to the photo.
The easiest way to get natural-looking, even lighting in your photos (without a professional photographer’s set-up) is to use natural light from the sun. Of course, you don’t want harsh, direct sunlight, which creates stark shadows on the face and may cause you to squint uncomfortably. Instead, use diffused sunlight, which you can usually get indoors by directly facing a window. Or, if you’re shooting outside, take advantage of what photographers refer to as “the golden hour”—the last hour of sunlight in the day. It’s the most flattering.
3. Busy Backgrounds
While professional photographers can get a little bit creative with where they place their subjects for headshots, unless you have experience in this area, it’s best to play it safe.
Your most foolproof option is to stand a few feet away from a solid-colored wall, without getting too close (because it could cast unwanted shadows behind you). A plain wall does well to mimic the look of a studio backdrop and ensures that no objects (like a couch or bathroom mirror) alter the mood of your photo in an unwanted way.
If a plain wall’s not your style—or is too hard to find—you can try to capture yourself in a work environment, like at a desk. Just be mindful that the more “stuff” in the photo, the more likely any given object could create an association that works against you. For instance, stacks of papers on your desk could make you look disorganized. Small details like these get factored into a recruiter’s impression of who you are within seconds.
4. Unprofessional Clothes
Yes, it seems a little strange to get all dressed up to stand in front of a blank wall in your house by yourself and take a photo. But that’s no reason to pose in your gym clothes.
It’s important to remember that a photo really is “worth a thousand words.” For example, if you’re wearing a t-shirt in your LinkedIn photo, hiring managers could jump to all sorts of conclusions based solely on that choice. They may get a hunch that you’re a casual person all-around and wouldn’t be interested in a formal work environment.
So before you start snapping photos, ask yourself if you’d wear the same outfit on the first day of a new job. Don’t veer too far off of the traditional path unless you’re being intentional and strategic (e.g., looking for a job in a creative industry and trying to display your individuality).
5. Obvious Selfies
There’s a lot of selfie hate in the world today. For whatever reason, many people are quick to hold it against you if they think you took your photo yourself! So, there are two major giveaways you’ll want to avoid:
- Evidence of an extended arm, including a twisted shoulder
- Facial distortion (a slightly enlarged nose or forehead, for instance), resulting from the closeness of the camera.
If you’re feeling too shy to ask someone to take pictures for you, your best bet is to get a tripod so that you can stand a few feet away from your camera. If you’re looking to construct a makeshift tripod from what you have around, books and tissue boxes work nicely. Then, use the built-in timer (or remote) for your camera or smartphone.
6. Not Getting Feedback
Finally, be sure to reach out to others for their thoughts on your new photo before you post it. This is important because, even if you followed all of the guidelines above, sometimes your facial expression can subtly communicate messages you don’t intend.
Research says that we can’t see our own facial expressions and body language entirely objectively, so we’re frequently left in the dark about whether our face is communicating a thoughtful or smug message. Maybe your confident pose comes off as overly aggressive. It’s for these reasons that a second (and third and fourth) opinion is key to having that certainty that you’re putting the right messages out there. (Tip: For quick and easy feedback on your prospective professional headshot photos, try PhotoFeeler.)
An awesome headshot is a lot more attainable (and cheaper!) than you may have thought. Just use the tips above to produce a photo that gives a polished, professional impression, conveys all of your best qualities, and helps you land the gig of your dreams!