Why A Great Author Photo Matters (And How To Take One)
by Tucker Max
This is an important and hard truth that most authors avoid:
Readers will judge you, and your book, based on your author photo.
Is that fair? Maybe not. Is it reality? Absolutely (and you probably do it as well).
Why do people do this? It’s mostly unconscious, and evolved as a way for humans to quickly assess threats, opportunities and determine relative social status of a new person to know how to interact with them. A deep discussion of this topic is far beyond the scope of this piece, but basically, snap judgements based on appearance evolved because it works (there is a ton of research and science on this, and most of it falls under what is called “signaling theory”).
Because everyone on earth is like this (and most of us don’t even realize it), you need to really pay attention to your author photo, and make sure you do it right. In this piece, I’m going to walk you through exactly how to do that.
But first, I’ll show you several you examples of author photos, both good and bad, and break them down for you. Then I’ll give you one key guiding rule for author photos (or any profile photos, like those on LinkedIn), along with a broad set of rules and guidelines you can use to create your own great looking author photo.
This is a classic author photo. This signals warmth and openness. Joanna has a broad, authentic smile on her face— you can almost see her enthusiasm and joy.
By making the photo black and white, and tightly cropped, she focuses you on the things she wants you to know about her–she’s positive, optimistic, and encouraging.
This makes sense— Joanna writes a lot of books for authors about writing, publishing and marketing. She is a teacher, and this photo signals both trust and warmth.
This is not a good author photo at all. First of all, it’s tilted to the side at a weird angle. Second, it’s poorly color corrected, and dark. Third, the smile seems forced and awkward.
These are all poor signals. Your first unconscious thought is something along the lines of, “Why is this not centered?” This picture signals unprofessionalism, amateurishness, and lack of emotional connection.
This picture could be in the dictionary for “classic high-status author photo.” He is smiling authentically with his eyes and is tilting his head, which signals both warmth and interest. His arms are crossed and his shirt is unbuttoned, which signals casualness and comfort. The style of his shirt is tasteful, and his hair is cut in a modern style— both signal professionalism but also comfort.
This picture tells a very clear story: this is a person who has done a lot in his life, is well known, and is very comfortable with himself and his work.
This is not good at all. He has a parted, flat hair style, his smile is toothy and goofy, and his shirt is distracting and visually unappealing. He’s frail and has a thin neck and is slightly hunched over in a way that accentuates that aspect. The background of the photo is pure white, giving a jarring feel to his appearance, as if he is coming out of the screen.
Understand that I am NOT making fun of his looks. Everything I commented on (and most of the things that people are judged on) are things he can control. He can control his hairstyle, his shirt, his posture, his smile, and the background of the photo.
This picture sends several negative signals, the main one being that he has no aesthetic or professional taste. The fact that he did not spend time or energy on his appearance at all—or if he did, he is so socially unskilled that he did a poor job— is generally a very negative signal.
But not always. We’ll talk more about this later, but if you are writing a book for specific tribe— in this case “nerdy” engineers— and you want to signal to them that you are part of their tribe, this author photo actually does that. But it automatically repels anyone that does not identify directly with you.
Compare this photo the one above; it’s the complete opposite. Physically, Eric and Giff are very similar. But the photos feel totally different, don’t they?
It’s because of how they choose the signals they are displaying: Eric has a fashionable hair style, his glasses are contemporary, his smile is authentic (but not toothy and goofy), he’s not slumping or accentuating any negative physical aspects of his appearance. His shirt is stylish without being ostentatious, and perhaps most important, look at the background. It is bottom lit and color shifting, which gives it a modern feel that is reminiscent of technology and the future.
Eric’s audience is basically the same as Giff’s, but Eric’s photo sends totally different signals. Eric is still appealing to a serious technical audience, but he is not unappealing to a mainstream audience. In fact, this photo displays a very sophisticated understanding of how he is trying to position himself: While a serious technical insider, but not a socially awkward nerd.
This is a very traditional, business-professional style author photo. Everything about this photo says that this man is an American business executive: solid, stable, trustworthy, and part of the establishment.
The suit is tailored, dark, expensive and tasteful. His wedding ring is clearly showing. His hair is graying, combed but not stiff, and though he’s smiling, it’s not in an overly excited or awkward way. He is sitting in front of a whiteboard that he has clearly given a presentation on.
This makes sense. Patrick’s entire market is traditional corporate America, and this picture speaks directly to them, telling them that even though he has some new ideas, he is one of them.
Jay has a different version of the business professional author photo, where he is signaling that while he’s a legitimate businessman, his style is younger and more modern. He is wearing a dark, tasteful suit without a tie, and his top button is undone. The outdoor setting also signals openness.
There are a lot of problems here.
Start with the tie; it has poorly matched colors, it’s off center, and it’s clearly cheap. Then look at the shirt. The collar is not even tucked into his jacket. The tailoring of both jacket and shirt are clearly off the rack, and furthermore, the shiny material of both the shirt and jacket signal cheapness (in business attire, shiny = cheap).
His haircut is a slightly grown-out buzz cut, which not only signals youth and inexperience, but also sloppiness. His smile is forced and uncomfortable.
Everything about this photo says “amateur.” Just by looking at the photos, you can tell that Patrick and Jay are serious, established professionals, and that Andrii is not.
This is an example of a great author photo (for men or women). Look at the signals, which are all saying the same basic things, telling a coherent story about her taste, as well as her warmth and ability:
- She is sitting in a very design-forward chair, signaling a great aesthetic.
- The shot is in an empty warehouse-style loft, which signals a specific design sensibility, one that is modern and minimalist.
- It’s aligned down a corridor, with pillars showing in the background in a symmetrical way, while she is slightly off center, emphasizing her perspective. This signals a deep understanding of modern design principles.
- She is dressed in a classic and perfectly tailored outfit, with very stylish leather boots. This signals both excellent personal taste and business conservatism.
- She’s looking away from the camera and smiling warmly, as if she’s casually talking to someone in the background, signalling warmth and approachability.
- She’s very pretty, which this photo both hides and accentuates. She hides it by dressing in a traditionally male outfit (button-down shirt and black pants), but she accentuates it by tailoring the outfit to make it feminine and leaving an extra button open.
- The photo is black and white, which signals functionality and classic sense.
Just think about how this photo makes you feel. You’re attracted to her and drawn in by her warmth and smile, but not in a sexual way. You know she’s fashionable and has great aesthetics, and you can see her design style. But the picture is not of a self-indulgent fashion dilettante, so you take her seriously as an intelligent, professional CEO.
Photos are much harder for serious female CEOs than they are for men (for many reasons), and Mona walked that line perfectly (disclosure: Mona is a client of Book In A Box).
This is not an example of a bad author photo per se, but rather a very bad decision.
This first problem is that there are two people in the photo. Unless the book is authored by both of them, this is the first bad decision.
This picture also signals a specific set of topics. If the author were writing books about kayaking, or water sports, or adventure, or anything related to the picture, this might be a good picture.
Unfortunately, this is an unknown author who writes generic marketing books. What is someone looking for credibility and authority going to think when they see this picture? That they should trust this author’s marketing skills … because they kayak? Makes no sense, and is a bad signal for the author.
This is another example of a very specific decision, except this is probably a good one. Through a combination of elements—eating an apple (a sly reference to breaking the rules, à la Adam and Eve), and the unkempt but fashionable clothes—this photo signals that the author is presenting himself as a slightly naughty, “bad boy” writer.
Since this author, Johnny Truant, writes funny serial fiction (one series is called Fat Vampire), this is a great decision. His material is edgy, tongue-in-cheek and fun, and his author photo tells his audience, “I’m the type of person who’d write that type of book.”
The photo is consistent in its signals, and thus is a good decision. On the other hand, if Johnny had written a book on nursing home consulting, this would be a bad set of signals to send.
Two Pictures Of The Same Author
In this case, the author has two different photos. The first is too dark, he is not smiling, and it is poorly cropped. In the second, it is well cropped, he has a good smile, and he is dressed in professional but casual clothes.
Like we said before, part of the “bad” versus “good” decision is about what signals you are trying to send to whom. If Patrick were an essayist and social commentator, perhaps the first photo would work. That picture signals intellectualism, self-seriousness and pensive thought.
But that’s not what his books are about, nor the audience he is trying to signal to. His books are about entrepreneurship, branding and start-ups. To speak to that audience, you are better off being optimistic, positive and warm–which the second picture signals.
This is not so much a case of different pictures being good for different purposes, but a case of one picture being objectively worse than the other.
The first picture makes James look a disjointed crazy person. His glasses are off center, his hair is disheveled, he is wearing a ratty white T-shirt, and the picture appears to be a random candid. James was actually using this as his author photo when he came to us.
I immediately asked his wife Claudia to take a picture that was professional-looking but still reflected the quirkiness and weird genius that people love about him. She took the second picture, which is wonderful. He’s dressed in dark and fashionable clothes and is set against a pleasant background, all of which signal competence and professionalism.
But he’s also signaling quirkiness and humor: sitting cross-legged, retaining his trademark curly fro, and wearing a mischievous smile. It reflects who James is, while still signaling that he’s serious and professional and has taste.[Disclosure: James has been a client of Lioncrest Publishing, which is a division of Book In A Box.]
The Author Photo Rule That Rules Them All
Here’s the thing that makes author photos so hard to give advice about: There is not one “right” way to do it. Like I talked about above, the “right” way all depends on what you’re trying to achieve. But there is one overarching rule that you need to sear into your brain when it comes to author photos (or any profile photo):
Know what you want to say to what audience, and make sure you signal it properly.
This is the key to everything. The author photo for a CEO of a Fortune 500 company should be totally different from the author photo for an up-and-coming comedian. Why? Because they are signaling different things to different groups.
Generally speaking, the CEO’s author photo should signal professionalism, effectiveness, reliability and trust. The comedian’s photo could be wacky, pensive, goofy or even serious, all depending on his comedic style and what he wanted to signal.
Here is how you make sure you’re taking the right author (or profile) photo.
The Two Questions To Guarantee A Good Author Photo
1. What am I trying to say with my picture?
Know this very clearly: you say just as much with your appearance as you do with your words. Clearly words are more important in a book, but people judge books and judge you by what you look like.
The good news is that, within reason, it is much easier to construct the image you want in a still photo. You can emphasize whatever traits or part of your appearance you want, and you can also minimize any physical limitations that would be difficult to minimize in person— height, for example.
You can look serious or silly, professional or pretentious, positive or pessimistic— it’s really up to you. But you cannot have them all at once. You must make specific decisions about what you want to signal to the world through that picture. Decide that to yourself consciously, because once you do that, you’ll be able to know the basic things that should and should not be in your picture.
2. Who am I trying to say it to?
You need to know exactly who your audience is. Why is that? Well, so much of signaling is about telling a certain group of people that you are one of them, or you are a type that they know. This means you must know the basic mindset and associations of that group, so you can make sure they see what you are trying to say.
For example, if you are trying to signal to corporations that you are a competent and reliable professional, then you must understand that they see the conventional Western suit as a key signal of not just competence, but membership in their tribe. Suits tell them that you are one of them. The best examples above are Patrick Lencioni and Jay Papasan.
Conversely, if you want to signal to the tech and start-up community, then wearing a suit sends the opposite signal; they see suits as a sign of being out of touch. If you want them to see you as competent and tech minded, you want a picture like Eric Ries. He’s telling them that he is one of them.
The importance of understanding this cannot be overstated. Remember, signaling is not just about what you are signaling, it’s also about what other people are seeing, and what other people see depends almost entirely on what group they are part of and identify with.
Having a cutting-edge look in one field means you will excluded in others, so know who you are trying to signal to and what signals they respond to.
How Take Your Author Photo
Hire A Pro
Unless you are a very good photographer, I HIGHLY recommend you go to a photography studio and get your photo professionally done. There is no substitute for the skills of a professional photographer. And as an added benefit, they will tend to be honest with you and make sure your photo sends the signals you want it to send, whereas you or a friend might fool yourself.
Some Places to Hire a Pro
Model Mayhem [Free to $500+]
Obviously, a database of models is a magnet for photographers, and Model Mayhem has a directory specifically for finding photographers. The best part: There’s a Time-for-Print option where newer photographers will photograph you for free. If you want to learn more about that option, read this article on How to Get Professional Portraits Taken For Free.
GigSalad [Prices Vary]
GigSalad is like Craigslist for booking services for events or productions. If you search “Headshot Photography,” you’ll get a list of dozens of photographers in your city who specialize in the exact kind of pictures you need.
How To Take A Photo Yourself
If you can’t or won’t hire a good photographer, then you’ll have to do this yourself. That’s not impossible, but it can be a pain. I know it seems easy and obvious to do a good photo, but getting it right is actually much harder than you realize. If you insist on doing this yourself, we recommend learning a few things about lighting and photography first.
Although we don’t necessarily recommend using an iPhone, this is the best article on the Internet explaining everything you need to know to take a pro headshot, including lighting, equipment, common problems, locations and editing.
The site has tons more information than you could possibly consume on photography, portraits and cameras. If you want to dive deeper into any part of the process, this is a good place to start, specifically their article on How to Take the Perfect Headshot.