September 9th, 2020

Top 7 Mistakes Writers Make with Their Author Photos

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.

1. Not Having a Photo At All

I’ve heard all the excuses. Here are a few of the common ones:

  • I don’t like how I look in pictures.
  • I haven’t had time to get a good photo.
  • I can’t find any good photos of me.
  • I’d rather not show my face and let my words speak for themselves.

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!).

2. Using a Photo from 20 Years Ago or More

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.

3. Taking a Photo from Miles Away

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. 

4. Having Your Friend or Partner Dash Off a Snapshot

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.

5. Ignoring the Background

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.

6. Ignoring the Lighting

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. 

7. Failing to Look Your Best

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.

The Important Thing About Author Photos

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!

Giveaway: Would you like to get more writing done and boost your writing career? Get Colleen’s FREE worksheet, “7 Easy Ways to Become a More Productive Writer” here!

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About Colleen

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.

Top Image by Sanna Jågas from Pixabay

33 responses to “Top 7 Mistakes Writers Make with Their Author Photos”

  1. Important topic. You are definitely right to stress it.

    You missed my favorite: the photo is not attractive.

    Most people aren't all that thrilled with their photos, and many women actively hate theirs (yours is VERY nice, Colleen).

    I've just had a pro take a bunch, and will go through the process of ending up with several, and several different sizes and resolutions from those (she's 91 and I didn't want to go through the back and forth about details - it was enough of a favor for her to take a bunch with different backdrops, etc.).

    But I pay attention to author photos, and am constantly amazed at how bad some of them are: as if they had taken a single photo - and that was it for all eternity.

    Bad backgrounds. Bad cropping. Bad lighting. Bad angle - photo from below makes the author look like a chipmunk with chubby cheeks. Impenetrable glasses. Horrible haircuts. Extremely short bangs.

    Washed out face. Messy background with all kinds of distracting who-knows-whats. Hair covering the face. Backlit. Tiny face in a square. No hair distinguishable, because the photo has a dark background and the author, dark hair.

    Low resolution. Blurred image (author probably moved). White background, white shirt. Half the picture is a scarf. Unattractive clothing. A jacket which makes a woman's chest look funny. Face turned sideways with mottled skin (mug shot from burning?). Only half of the face!

    Can't see the eyes. Ears stick out. Odd position of arms. Full-body shot displaying horrible posture. Colors of clothing do not work with the background - or the skin tone. Looks like it was taken from an airplane.

    The concept of look your best, and look reasonably intelligent, so the reader will trust your writing and storytelling ability (whether those are actually connected is irrelevant), seems to be ignored.

    The above was gleaned from the avatars on two pages (sixty photos) on Goodreads (where I have been noting them subliminally for years).

    The author photo is your first opportunity to make a good impression on the reader. I think every single one of these photos could have been improved immeasurably!

    I think these authors are far more attractive than these pictures show. I think people are beautiful.

    • colleen says:

      Thanks, Alicia! (I had a great photographer. So talented.) Sounds like you've noticed many of the things I have about author photos. Half the picture is a scarf! ha ha. I haven't seen that one. :O) Completely agree that the authors themselves are better than their photos show--and love your statement about the photo helping the reader trust your storytelling ability. People do make that connection (whether they should or not). When watching readers browsing in the bookstore, I often see them turn to the author photo before buying the book. A book is a connection between reader and writer after all, and we are so visual these days we seek out that representation. A good photographer is worth the investment!

      • I now can't NOT notice.

        I didn't realize that readers did that, but it makes sense: you are buying a product, and you want to know how aware and 'with it' the creator is. Women and non-white authors have struggled with this - should I put a photo or not?

        That nice little space on the inside back flap of a hard-cover dust jacket is an extra you don't get with an Amazon POD paperback.

        All marketing - and knowing what one reader would find positive, another would hate. Until you're so famous everyone already knows what you look like (Stephen King). Then you might as well.

        I have seen magazine articles where a group of women actors you would not think of as particularly glamorous are given the star treatment - and they are gorgeous. Clothes, makeup, hair, lighting...

        We all think of ourselves as attractive, but authors shouldn't give up this little boost by not making sure the photo is as stunning as possible. Your competition will.

  2. Terry Odell says:

    I recall going to a conference, and I'd never have recognized the author/keynote speaker based on her outdated author photo. I'm very fortunate that my son's a photographer and lives close enough to have him take my headshots. He doesn't like doing it--he's a nature photographer and hates studio work, but I'm his mom. He'll give me half a dozen shots so I can vary them.

    • colleen says:

      Terry, yes---that's happened to me too and I think, "Why?" Maybe they didn't have time to update it but it's something we should all take seriously. Oh how nice on your son! That is helpful!

  3. I needed these reminders, Colleen. I've had some decent shots by hobbyist photographer friends, but I know the time has come to hire a pro. Any thoughts about studio vs outdoor settings?

    • colleen says:

      Great, Karen! That's exciting. Always fun (but sometimes nerve-racking) to get new photos. I asked my photographer for both (indoor and outdoor) which we did, but I much preferred the outdoor ones. She had some great locations that made for interesting but not intrusive backgrounds, and we chose a time of day with good lighting, so I never used the indoor ones. BTW, to find a good photographer, review their work. That's how I found mine--look for those that do well with people pics.

  4. jillhannahanderson says:

    I'm one of those people who had their husband take their photo, did my own makeup, etc. but I think overall, it turned out okay. However, one thing I was told by a friend (after my first book came out) was that my clenched fist under my chin makes me appear standoffish, and that I should have had my hand open palm. It's a little thing I never thought about. I have horrible arthritis on my hands and I tend to hide my hands.
    Still, it's a little thing that a professional photographer would have likely caught.
    Very good points, Colleen! 🙂

    • colleen says:

      Oh good point, Jill. Yes, those little things really do matter, and that's great that you got some feedback from your friend. My photographer was very helpful with all that, even with pointers on how to smile without looking pinched or tight. I'll say it again--a good photographer is so worth the investment. Thanks for sharing! :O)

  5. Ellen Buikema says:

    I detest having my picture taken and it shows. It takes a while for me to relax, but once I do the photos come out better. A good, patient photographer can make a big difference!

    Getting a new photo every five years or so works for me.

    • colleen says:

      So true, Ellen. I'm the same way, but a good photographer can help you. It also helps to have a good stretch of time for the photos--a couple hours or so allows you to have the time you need to relax.

  6. Yvonne Müller says:

    Thank you for this very informative article. I know several authors who use decades old pictures from when they were young with fresh skin and I know how it bothers me and makes me turn away from them.

    But I have a question: What do you think about these drawings more and more authors use. They aren't real drawings, more like a comic that features the authors hair and eye color, maybe their button nose or freckles, and yet when you seem them in person you wouldn't make the connection. I read a lot of M/M romance books and as said, more and more use them. I considered using something like that, too, but now after reading your article I'm not sure.

    • colleen says:

      Yes, you miss that connection when the photos are out of date. As for the cartoons—I can see where there might be a place for them on certain platforms, but I know that personally when I see those on Twitter or something, I feel a distance/wall between me and the author. Again, like the author is hiding. Maybe there is a reason the author wants to hide, and that's another issue but I think in most cases readers still need a real face to connect to in the book itself, and on the author's website. If you like that author and his/her work, you look for that human face in future connections.

  7. Mark Hansen says:

    I have definitely neglected my photo, and I'm guilty of thinking I'm not photogenic. If you're going to do any press work, however, you've got to do it. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Eldred Bird says:

    I worked as a portrait photographer at one point in my younger days and I can wholeheartedly endorse everything you've said here. When you're behind the camera it can be a challenge to work with someone who isn't comfortable in front of the camera (like me, for example). My advice is to find a photographer that you're comfortable with and the photos will come out much better. The biggest part of my job was not setting up the shoot and posing the subject, it was setting their mind at ease and getting them to loosen up so their true personality could shine through. Just relax and have fun with it.

    That being said, I took my own author photo. In fact, I took several, picked the best two, then put them up on social media and let the readers vote on which to use. I thought engaging them in the process might bring them closer. It's been a few years, so It may be time to do it again.

    • colleen says:

      So true, Eldred! Thanks so much for commenting. It's great to hear from a photographer. And yes, i think you're so right--a photographer that can get the subject to relax and shine through is worth his/her weight in gold. Fun idea on getting feedback from readers. :O)

  9. Karen Jones says:

    As always, a great post, Colleen, but what about a different type of photo dilemma? What's an author to do when writing under two names?

    • ecellenb says:

      Karen, I wonder about that, too. I think if I wrote in very different genres and used a pseudonym I'd want to have an alternate photo, maybe one using genre specific clothing or props.

    • colleen says:

      Thanks, Karen, and good question. I think it probably depends on how much you're trying to hide your true identity. Seems that's near impossible these days? If you're not worried about people knowing you by both names, I like Ellen's idea about portraying a slightly difference image depending on the genre. You have to be careful not to get cartoonish with outfits, but even a subtle change with a different jacket/hat/backgrounds can create a different vibe in a photo. Could be fun to try! :O)

  10. Julie Glover says:

    So glad you covered this! And yes, I definitely need an updated photo. Putting it on my to-do list. Thanks for the nudge.

  11. Ann G. says:

    I was a Realtor for years, and a good headshot is a must in that business, too, so I got used to hiring photographers. My very best ever photo (in my whole life) was taken when I was in my late 50s. The new photo I have now was done in black and white on a cruise ship (in a studio) and it is spectacular despite my age of 70 at the time. Yes, writers, be willing to spend at least a few hundred dollars on your head shot. You will never go back to snapshots with lousy backgrounds and uneven lighting.

    • Colleen Story says:

      Yes, good point, Ann. Authors are in business too and we need to operate with that mindset. How cool that you feel yours got better with age! That means we have no excuse for clinging to those outdated photos. :O)

  12. dholcomb1 says:

    I need a new author photo. My last one--not the one in my avatar--was taken by a semi-pro. I actually have a local professional to use, I've just been putting it off.

    denise

  13. Barb Winters says:

    Great article and timely. I scheduled an appointment with a photographer at the upcoming writer's conference in Leesburg, FL. Contemplating what to wear. Any suggestions? Thanks!

  14. A couple of things I've learned through the years. Outside shots need extra makeup as the sunlight drains us of color. What to wear - solid colors but consider your brand. For example, my website has turquoise, it is a color with warm and cool tones, so I wore a turquoise top for my photo.

    • colleen says:

      Great tips, Rebecca, thanks! I didn't find that with makeup, but then I'm sure everyone has a different definition of "extra." A good photographer will help as will time of day--taking pics in the early morning or later afternoon is best for skin. Photographers usually use a little extra light as well to warm it up. Love the idea of thinking of your website ahead of time, though I would add to make sure the color is good on you as well as your site.

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