by Colleen M. Story
The subject of professional photos shouldn’t be a difficult one for authors today, but somehow, it often is.
We live in a visual world where our pictures are frequently used to identify us. Authors, in particular, become known to their readers, fellow writers, and other network contacts through their photos as much or even more than their written words.
Yet many writers claim shyness, a lack of time, unhappiness with their appearance, or other issues for the fact that they don’t have quality author photos. I’ve featured over 300 authors on my writing websites. I know.
These excuses may have worked decades ago, but not anymore. If you’re serious about being a writer, it’s time to buck up and get yourself a good photographer. You’re in the business of being an author. You need to look like a professional, creative individual.
Below are the seven most common mistakes I’ve seen authors make with their photos, and how to correct them.
I’ve heard all the excuses. Here are a few of the common ones:
These types of excuses only hurt you as an author. Today’s readers want to know who you are.
I completely understand having a private nature. I have one myself. But when you fail to show yourself online, you’re essentially hiding from your readers and they’ll know it. Even if they forgive you for it, they won’t relate to you as well as if you give them a visual reference.
You are (or aspire to be) a professional writer. Not having or being able “to find” your author photo is unprofessional, at best.
Instead: Please don’t use excuses. Make a point to have some professional (or at least professional-looking) photos taken and keep them in a safe place so you can access them when needed (which in today’s world, is frequently!).
I’m always surprised when authors do this. You’re no longer in your 20s (unless you are). Why pretend? Readers are savvy. They’ll figure out how old you really are and then they’ll wonder why you’re hiding behind an old picture.
Are you ashamed of your age? Trying to fool readers into thinking you’re younger than you are? Either way, they’re going to feel deceived—especially if they come to see you in person and find you appear vastly different than your old photo. This is not the impression you want to make.
Instead: Once your author photo becomes 10 years old or older, have another series of photos taken. It’s time to update your image to match who you are today.
This is another form of hiding. I’ve gotten pictures in which authors are standing several feet (or more) away from the photographer and the viewer can just make out their general features. Some authors go a step further and turn their backs to the camera. (Perhaps they think they’re showcasing their best side?)
Again, I understand the desire for privacy, but if you’re going to operate as an author on today’s market, you’re not doing yourself any favors by hiding. Relating to your readers is the best way to keep them coming back for more.
If you aren’t interested in growing your audience, take your photograph from as far away as you like. But if you want to compete in today's market, don't make this mistake.
Instead: Have some photos taken specifically for your use as an author. If you want to show some scenery in a blog post or something, go for it, but make sure you have professional author photos that allow readers to see your beautiful face.
There’s nothing wrong with using fun snapshots in your social media posts or even in your blogs, but when it comes to your official author photos, it’s best to use a professional photographer or at least someone with a talent for photography.
Too often I receive photos from authors that are clearly amateur. They just don’t put the author in the best light. Writers may forget that their photos are usually the only visual representation readers have. If these photos make the author look distracted, goofy, unkempt, or checked out, that’s the image the reader will have of the author, no matter what the reality may be.
Instead: Invest in a professional photographer, or at least in someone who is a skilled hobbyist. It’s a good investment in your author career–once you have professional photos, you can use them over and over again across all mediums, from your print books to your website to your business cards, guest blog posts, posters, and more. Professional photos make you look your best and are well worth the money.
Do you really want readers seeing you on your old dingy couch or underneath your hanging geranium? Is it a good business move to show yourself in front of a discount store or dilapidated cupboard?
Some professional authors use background, lighting, and even clothing to portray their fiction genre or area of nonfiction expertise. (Thriller, horror, and romance writers are often really good at this.) But that's not necessary. What matters is that the background doesn't give a negative impression.
Instead: You don’t have to portray the type of writing you do in your author photo (though it can be cool if done right), but at the very least, choose a neutral background that will not distract from the main subject of the photo: you.
I’ve received many author photos that cast the author in darkness. The light is coming from behind the writer, who is the focal point in the picture, so the eye is drawn more to the background (or wherever the light falls) than to the author’s face.
Here’s what that does: It makes the reader remember the background more than your image. That’s bad for your career because you want readers to recognize your face when you see it. That’s the point of marketing online—to gradually get more and more readers to recognize you and become interested in your work.
If your photo makes the flowers or the city or the lake behind you more illuminated and interesting than your face, those who see it will naturally remember the background more than they will remember you. It’s just the way the brain works.
Instead: If you hire a professional photographer, you won’t have to worry about this. That person will know how important good lighting is to a quality photo. If you’re taking photos outside, a professional will schedule a certain time of day to take advantage of the best light, and will also bring along additional lighting to highlight your face. (If they don’t, hire a different photographer.) If you take them in the studio, your photographer will have several lights available to work with.
If you’re having a friend or amateur photographer take you pictures instead, be alert to the lighting. The softer light of sunrise and sunset always makes faces look their best, and indoor lighting to the side of the subject rather than directly overhead or in front will also create the best results.
This has nothing to do with trying to look like someone you’re not and everything to do with respecting the reader. If you show up in your sweats with your hair a mess and that’s your picture, you’re telling the reader you didn’t want to bother preparing for the photo—and thus didn't care about yourself or your work.
Instead: When getting ready for your author photos, think of how you’d like to appear when meeting your reader in person for the first time. You want to put your best foot forward, right? Put some effort into it and your reader will notice.
Of course, if you have a specific image you’re trying to portray in your marketing materials, go for it. The key is to put some thought into it so your photo reflects your best self.
Take a look at your author photos and try to see them from a reader's point of view—one who doesn't know you. What does the photo say to that person? Feel free to take the photos around to some friends or even strangers to see what qualities they glean from the images. You can gather some great information that way.
If the feedback isn’t great, consider investing in a professional photoshoot. Once you go through it, you'll be set for about a decade, so it's not something you need to do often. Good photos are critical, though, to your online author platform. Do yourself a favor and don't ignore this piece of your author business!
What has worked well for you with author photos? Have you committed any of these "7 Deadly Author Photo Sins?" If so, did you hear feedback about it? Share any of your lessons learned down in the comments!
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Colleen M. Story inspires writers to overcome modern-day challenges and find creative fulfillment in their work. Her latest release, Writer Get Noticed!, was a gold-medal winner in the 2019 Reader’s Favorite Book Awards, a 1st-place winner in the Reader Views Literary Awards, and Book By Book Publicity’s best writing/publishing book of 2019. Colleen frequently serves as a workshop leader and motivational speaker, where she helps attendees remove mental and emotional blocks and tap into their unique creative powers. Find more at her motivational site, Writing and Wellness, and on her author website, or connect with her on Twitter.
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