Author Headshots

As an author pursuing publication, have you thought about the fact that you’re going to need a professional headshot? Many people brush off the idea initially, thinking they can have a friend take some nice shots in the backyard. That might be true and you may think your snapshot looks great, but many people will perceive it as a snapshot or an amateur photo. You don’t want the look of an amateur – you’re a professional all the way. A great headshot is key to presenting exactly the right image to the world – whatever you want that image to be.

If you’re already contracted with a publisher, you should get your headshots right away. But many bloggers and people with online presence would benefit from a professional photo as well.

Here are a few tips:

→ Be sure to get a digital file without any copyright/logo on the images as well as written rights to the images. If you take a CD to a lab to have pictures printed and there’s a logo on the image, they won’t print them, assuming you don’t own copyright.

→ Ask if you can get the image in both high and low resolution. That way you can select which to use for what purpose. Some websites need a lower resolution image (Twitter, FB) and it’s handy to have both options.

→ Avoid over-photoshopping. You want to look your best, but it’s even more important to look real. Don’t let the photographer airbrush the life right out of you. On the other hand, it’s important to select a photographer who is skilled in digital artwork. Everyone needs some touching up, even if it’s just to correct the lighting or get rid of a shadow.

→ Talk to the photographer in advance and make sure they’ll allow several poses and at least two wardrobe changes.

→ Don’t plan to do your headshots at the same time as your family portrait. These are two completely different kinds of photography, and most photographers won’t do it.

→ Avoid places like Sears, JC Penney, Olin Mills, or Glamour Shots. You need a situation in which the proper time and care can be taken, and in which you have more assurance that the photographer is skilled specifically in professional headshots.

But what about cost?

Most people assume the cost will be prohibitive, but you should be able to find a professional photographer who will charge around $125 for the sitting and the final digital image on CD. Here are some ways to try and pay even less:

(1) Get together with a group of friends who all need headshots and engage a photographer to do them all at one time in one location, such as a local park;

(2) Find a professional photographer who does good work but is newer in the business, and see if they’ll give you a rate less than the more established photographers;

(3) Some writers conferences have a photographer available who will do your headshot for a nominal fee, less than $100.

(4) If there is a local photographer whose work you love but they’re very expensive, you could always see if they’re open to barter. Do they need someone to write or edit copy for them? Do you have other skills or services you could offer?

Don’t be thinking that a headshot is an indulgence or that it means you’re overly concerned with appearances, or any other nonsense your brain might be telling you. It’s a professional investment, and it matters.

Q4U: Do you have a professional author photo yet? Why/why not? What are your thoughts on headshots?

P.S. My friend and client Megan DiMaria, who’s worked closely with a high-end photographer for years, helped with the post. She also has two posts on her own blog, much more detailed than mine, talking about how to find a photographer, how to dress and prepare, and how to tell a good headshot. Read them here and here.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  6. Jenna on September 8, 2010 at 7:03 PM

    >Ha ha. I know you said not to Photoshop but I did. I only took off ten years or so.

  7. Write Friends Write Garden on September 7, 2010 at 3:53 PM

    >Great advice! Keep in mind, work for hire "should be" copyright free. Why? Because you paid for it. After spending many years in print, advertising, and SAG work, difficulties would arise when this was not spelled out in writing. Make sure this is understood upfront.

    I appreciate your blog!

    Michelle Bradford
    Write Friends

  8. Liberty Speidel on September 6, 2010 at 10:46 PM

    >I don't have a headshot yet, but will be doing photos later this month (weather/family/budget permitting). I'm going to do it with a pro, and at the same time as family photos, so we'll see how it turns out. At the very least, my husband will get a nice one of me to take to work, and hopefully I'll get one I can use on my blog (and eventually books).

  9. Under Cover Editor on September 6, 2010 at 4:37 PM

    >I agree in general, but there's nothing worse than a professionally produced "glamor shot."

  10. Polenth on September 3, 2010 at 11:28 PM

    >Lynne Connolly wrote:
    I'm just not photogenic, I guess. I've had and paid for two separate sessions with two different and highly recommended professional photographers. Both were complete disasters.

    This is me. I don't take well to photographers taking my picture. A family shot is far better than a professional shot, because I'll look okay (rather than looking like I'm about to kill the photographer… great for horror writers perhaps, but I'm not).

    I needed one because some of the short story markets require one, and there isn't time after getting accepted to get a shot done. It's best to have one ready, as it might be needed at a moment's notice.

  11. Anonymous on September 3, 2010 at 10:40 PM

    >This brings up something I've often pondered.

    Why do writers go for the "leaning into a door case with one hand clutching their arm" photo, or the "look how pensive I am, what, with my hand on my cheek as I stare into the camera" shot?

  12. Ishta Mercurio on September 2, 2010 at 11:33 PM

    >I don't have a head shot yet. I'm an actor too and want to just use one headshot, and headshots for actors are WAY more expensive than the prices you have just quoted – about $500-$800 CAD just for the sitting, and more for the prints. I'm working on selling some of my completed picture book manuscripts and magazine stories and poems, and as soon as I have made enough money from those sales, I'll funnel it right back into my career by getting professional headshots.

    Thanks for this post – you had some suggestions here that I hadn't thought of, like making sure the digital image on the CD doesn't have a copyright stamp on it.

  13. Michelle Davidson Argyle on September 2, 2010 at 11:30 PM

    >This is an excellent article, thank you! I am a photographer who does headshots for actors and some authors. You've covered some really great stuff here. 🙂

  14. Jenny B. Jones on September 2, 2010 at 9:04 PM

    >What? Glamour shots are bad? (putting up bedazzled jean jacket and AquaNet…)

  15. E. Elle on September 2, 2010 at 8:25 PM

    >I don't exactly get the warm fuzzies when I think about getting a professional head shot… but I know it must be done eventually. My good friend is actually a professional photographer so I have my bases covered. :o)

    This is great advice, Rachelle. Thank you!

  16. Anonymous on September 2, 2010 at 7:29 PM

    >Personally, I think it's more important to get the book deal first. And most authors these days going digital go more for natural shots and they change them all the time.

    Sometimes I wonder where everyone has been while so many things in publishing have been changing. I know authors with bestselling books who post and change their photos constantly. Actually, most of them do this. And it's all free; the author doesn't have to pay a dime to a professional photographer. And the fans love (adore) it.

    Twenty years ago I could see where this might be an issue (I have not hear Olin Mills mentioned since then either…lol), but there have been a few changes, with all due respect.

  17. Cynthia Watson on September 2, 2010 at 6:39 PM

    >Thank you so much, Ms. Gardner. I'm just on the verge of getting head shots & I don't really know anything about it.

    Thanks to you, now I do!

  18. Rosslyn Elliott on September 2, 2010 at 4:58 PM

    >I had two headshot sessions with my wonderful photographer. In the first series of shots, her talent made me look good. Too good. I have facial characteristics that can make me look younger than my age under the right lighting, with a little airbrushing and especially when I smile. I realized that I did not want to look as if I could even *possibly* be in my twenties in a professional headshot. So I had the second series taken a year later, and the example should appear with this comment. It's better to look my actual age (in my case, pushing 40) if I want to be taken seriously for whatever putative wisdom I may have acquired. 🙂 There are plenty of wise young persons in the world, but unfortunately, others sometimes assume that youth equals lack of life experience.

  19. Crystal on September 2, 2010 at 12:51 PM

    >In regards to numbers 2, 3, and 4:

    While I understand what you are suggesting (as a photographer), it undermines our industry.

    You get what you pay for. In any business. Do not pay less, especially for a photograph that is going to be the ONE thing that people will see first of you, before your book cover, before your interviews, before you are world famous.

    Your words are important, and so is the rest, but in this world of social networking, your face is just as important, if not more so than anything else.

    Do not sacrifice quality for cost.

    I know what I am talking about. Your suggestion of having photographers lower their costs, undermines our entire industry, and when you go to someone with lower prices, their prices are low for a reason. Consider that. And and photographer who is worth going to, will not lower their price, no matter what. They know their value, and they won't budge. Just as you would not budge on your agent fees.

  20. Susan Panzica - EternityCafe on September 2, 2010 at 12:46 PM

    >What perfect timing for me! I've just been evaluating my options for headshots. Since my daughter is taking photography in college, I'm giving her first shot. lol
    All the advice given in your post and the comments will surely make our photoshoot great. Thanks so much!

  21. Anita Mae Draper on September 2, 2010 at 12:19 PM

    >Oh, wow. You mean for once, I'm actually ahead of the game?

    Last week, I made an appt for professional headshots with Amber Zimmerman. She's setting up at the ACFW conference under the name, The Clik Chick. From what I undertand, the cost is $40 for 6 photos.

    For someone who's usually behind the camera, I think I'm stressing out more about my appt with Amber than my editor/agent ones.

    Great info, Rachelle.

    Anita Mae.

  22. Kaye Dacus on September 2, 2010 at 11:52 AM

    >I'd like to add a piece of advice to this if I may . . . you should make sure that you get at least one shot against a plain/solid background. One of my publishing houses requires that author photos be against a white or other solid-color background, because when they make the image small and print it in black-and-white inside the book, tree branches or other patterned backgrounds don't translate well.

    We used a light-colored bedsheet—one that didn't clash with the tops I'd chosen to wear for my photos. And, since redesigning my website with completely different colors, because of the solid background of the image, it was so easy for me to Photoshop the image to match the background of the headshot to the new background color of my website. And my publishing house has occasionally changed the color of the photo background to coordinate with the colors on my book covers for marketing materials as well.

  23. Rachelle on September 2, 2010 at 11:39 AM

    >Anon: I get what you were saying. On the other hand, I remember too clearly all those years of taking my kids to those places for their yearly photos… always rushed, always felt like an assembly line… never enough time to get it right. If you were one of those photogs, it wasn't your fault, just the system.

    By the time my kids reached school age, we stopped with the Sears photos and we don't even buy the school photos (which are also notoriously bad.) We have so many beautiful snapshots of our kids, and spring for professional ones every couple of years.

    It makes all the difference to "just say no" to paying for mediocrity! Mediocre – I can do myself with my Nikon.

    But I know lots of people love their Olin Mills photos. This is just my experience.

  24. Anonymous on September 2, 2010 at 11:27 AM

    >Oh, Rachelle. You're sweet to think about my wounded ex-photographer feelings. This is why we love you.

  25. Rachelle on September 2, 2010 at 11:22 AM

    >Anon 10:03: I changed it. Hope it's better.

  26. T. Anne on September 2, 2010 at 11:08 AM

    >I need to do this. My picture is so dark and my smile too big. I really think the photo should offer a feel of the kind of writing you do (if possible). The photographer I'm going to be using has an amazing portfolio. I'm looking forward to our time together. Hopefully she'll bring her miracle lens.

  27. Anonymous on September 2, 2010 at 11:04 AM

    >Ack… I meant, "that were either working as freelance photographers and supplementing their income with a regular job at Sears or Olin Mills, or currently in art school." Pressed ENTER too soon.

  28. Anonymous on September 2, 2010 at 11:03 AM

    >I'm sure it wasn't meant this way, but I take exception to the line, "You need a REAL photographer." (emphasis is mine).

    As a former photographer for one of those "fake" family portrait places, I knew plenty of colleagues that were either working as freelance photographers and supplementing their income with a regular job at Sears or Olin Mills. Of course, this isn't always the case, but there's nothing that bothered me more than someone who said (sometimes at my studio) that the were also getting some photos done by a "real" photographer… which I guess meant that their kids had just posed for some "fake" pictures that usually looked adorable.

    Obviously, like Rachelle's other posts, this is really spot-on and informative. It's just the one line that didn't seem fair.

  29. ninidee on September 2, 2010 at 11:01 AM

    >I have envisioned what my headshots will look like but thought that is something you get once you have a publishing contract. I will be considering contacting a photographer soon after reading this.
    Maribeth 🙂

  30. Stacey Graham on September 2, 2010 at 10:57 AM

    >Great post! I had my shots done a month or so ago (see avatar) and bartered the cost for writing her marketing materials. =]

  31. Krista on September 2, 2010 at 9:32 AM

    >My professional appointment is next week, so thank you for the tips! She's the same photog who did our family portraits last fall, and she'd doing my daughter's senior portraits, too. I have a great relationship with her, so I'm pretty confident she'll be able to capture something good from me. I hope!

  32. Erin MacPherson on September 2, 2010 at 9:27 AM

    >I got my pics done by Rubigirl Photography a few weeks ago and I am SO thrilled with what she did. She spent about two hours working on my sitting and took pics for all sorts of purposes. I admit: I wasn't super excited about having pictures of just me, but now that I have them, it's so nice to have a little icon to put on my blog and everything else!

  33. Heather on September 2, 2010 at 9:22 AM

    >I'm lucky because my best friend is a professional photographer, so she's going to take some headshots for me once wedding season is over and her weekends clear up a bit.

    But your advice on offering to barter or work with someone who's just starting out is great. My friend frequently trades services – she got her website and business cards from people who bartered for her photography services. It never hurts to reach out to someone like that. I also know many photographers in my area will give discounts to people who release the images for the photographer to use for promotional purposes – typically on their website, blog, etc.

  34. Stephanie McGee on September 2, 2010 at 9:21 AM

    >Great advice. I'm in the boat of "someday." Being a student, even $50 is prohibitive to this budget.

    In a year or so when I'm hopefully in a full-time job and such I'll have to start seriously thinking about a headshot.

  35. Lisa on September 2, 2010 at 9:10 AM

    >I thought about getting a headshot (I have two friends from high school who are starting their business as photographers), but I was afraid that I'd jinx myself. Like who am I to need a professional head shot. I'm not a *writer*!

    Maybe if (no when! positive thinking) I have an agent or a few freelance gigs under my belt, I'll feel more confident getting one done. Thanks for the good advice, Rachelle!

  36. Sharon A. Lavy on September 2, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    >Thanks for the great advice, Rachelle. I had photo's taken in March at the ACFW Board meeting. Love the pictures. But I have lost enough more weight I need new ones already. (Rue-N-Y weight loss surgery in Dec)

    I have been getting by with snaps my husband took of me, but after reading your post I will get at it and schedule another photo shoot.

  37. Marcia on September 2, 2010 at 9:01 AM

    >I've had headshots done twice. The first wasn't worth the cost at all. Though the publisher asked me to have it done, they didn't use it in any way, and this was pre-internet, so neither did I, except to accompany a few news releases. Overall, I thought the shot was too formal. The second one got only slightly more use. And if you don't want to put out this money every few years, you'd better be sure you look like that for a long time after the shot is taken.

    Maybe I'm extra-blessed in that I have two friends who do good enough photography that they took their kids' senior pictures, but even I took my own pictures for the INSIDE of a book. Some of my favorite author photos are taken by friends and family members who know the person, and not every book jacket has an author photo. Next time, I'm going the friend/photoshop route.

  38. Marie on September 2, 2010 at 8:58 AM

    >I'm lucky enough to live in LA, where famous/high-end photographers are plentiful, and got my headshot done by Paul Gregory who does actor headshots and has worked with several celebrities (i.e. Amy Adams). He's also a professional makeup artist as well. The difference is truly startling. The prices are slightly higher (mine was about $500 for a half-day session with 4 outfit changes) but the results are really satisfying and worth the extra cost. 🙂

  39. Sarah Forgrave on September 2, 2010 at 8:49 AM

    >My mom's a professional photographer, so that makes it handy to get headshots taken. Can't beat the free price tag. 🙂

  40. sharonbially on September 2, 2010 at 8:46 AM

    >Timely topic! Just last night a friend of mine gawked at the head shot on my web site. Trouble is, it IS a professional head shot. I am simply camera-phobic and rarely manage to get a decent shot, one where I don't look stiff or otherwise awkward. It takes a really good photographer to work this out. But so far, I haven't found one! Then again, my husband thinks I just need a glass of wine….

  41. Alexis Grant on September 2, 2010 at 8:41 AM

    >Great post, Rachelle — I like the practical ones the best! I blogged about this recently, too:

  42. Rachelle on September 2, 2010 at 8:35 AM

    >David A. Todd: Believe me, I'm not insensitive to the cost. I live in the same world you do, working my tail off to pay the bills. That's why I gave you alternatives to paying those high prices. Many of my clients have gotten wonderful, high-quality headshots for about $50 at a writers conference. For myself, I bartered with a local photographer. I have a great deal of respect for the talent of a good photographer and I don't want to devalue what they do; yet I (like you) have a hard time paying the price.

    However, from the other end, when we're putting author photos on the agency website (as we are in the process of doing right now), it's important that the headshots look good and professional. Not only does it say something about each author individually, it reflects on the agency and all the other authors represented there.

  43. Kelly Freestone on September 2, 2010 at 8:26 AM

    >I did headshots, and they turned out TERRIBLE!
    We were outside and it was muggy and rainy.

    It was ugly.

    I had on lip gloss, and it made my lips look plastic.

    I had my hair curly instead of straight and it looked like rats on my head.

    Not what I looked like in real life at all!

    It was terrible.

    Next time (I'm talking with my Aunt/photographer now) we'll be inside and I'll have her bring the backgrounds for me…NO LIPGLOSS!!!


  44. David A. Todd on September 2, 2010 at 8:04 AM

    >$125 is huge when you're working for 1998 wages at 2010 costs in the midst of a depression. I'll have a headshot done when I'm under contract somewhere, or when freelance income justifies the expense.

  45. Wendy Paine Miller on September 2, 2010 at 7:55 AM

    >Got mine done a few months ago. Sort of a painful experience for me and somewhat comical at the same time.

    I'm going to do all I can to be ready for publication (including non-writing related things).

    As a side, it helped to pray before I had the photographer start. Can you tell I'm not a fan of having my picture taken? 😀

    ~ Wendy

  46. Eliza T on September 2, 2010 at 7:53 AM

    >I once interviewed my teen daughter for an article in a writer's newsletter. One question I asked her was to describe her thought process when picking up a YA book in a bookstore.

    She said she was looking for reasons to put the book down, such as stupid title and stupid cover. The last reason was bad author photo.

    Her response: if authors don't care enough about themselves to take a good photo, they probably don't care enough about their writing to produce a book I would want to read.

  47. Anonymous on September 2, 2010 at 7:41 AM

    >I believe we make too much fuss about things that matter not. A headshot won't get more sales, nor will it endear an agent or editor to an author's writing or story, at least it shouldn't.

    It's another one of those things that every writer HAS to have (along with Twitter, a blog, a Facebook page, a website, etc.) that makes writing prohibitive.

  48. Lynne Connolly on September 2, 2010 at 7:33 AM

    >I'm just not photogenic, I guess. I've had and paid for two separate sessions with two different and highly recommended professional photographers.
    Both were complete disasters. And it wasn't just me who hated them, my family did, too. And my agent. "It doesn't look like you," they said, and they could see the terror in my eyes.
    As author pics, I use two pictures. One my husband took when we were on a holiday, and I had to catch up on some work, so it's me at my laptop. Another a friend took just after I'd received an award. Both are undoubtedly me, relaxed and happy.
    I don't blame the photographers, one of whom decided to scrap the first session and redo, at his expense,("You look much nicer than that, let me do it again.") but the second one was no better.

  49. steeleweed on September 2, 2010 at 7:22 AM

    >The backcover shot I put on one of my books was not professionally done, but was fine for that particular book/blurb.

    For a official photo, I will find a pro – if I even decide to put my photo on the book.

  50. Dina Santorelli on September 2, 2010 at 5:50 AM

    >Terrific post! And timely! Just yesterday, I posted on Twitter that I was in need of a NY/LI photographer to do new headshots. This info could not have come at a better time. 🙂

  51. Pam Halter on September 2, 2010 at 5:49 AM

    >Aw, no Glamour Shots? Not even for romance writers? hahahahahaha!

    How about fantasy writers? Should I wear my fairy wings? 😉

    Seriously, I keep hearing this and need to take it to heart. My snapshot isn't terrible, but it isn't professional. Thanks, Rachelle!

  52. Gary Corby on September 2, 2010 at 3:15 AM

    >I emphatically second the advice to get your headshot done by a serious professional. The difference in quality is amazing.

    Mine was done by a celebrity photographer who by good fortune is a family friend. It was very educational and lots of fun the tricks they use, such as shaking yourself all over and staring into the distance between each shot.

    (In passing, "headshot" when used in reference to a mystery writer is not the most reassuring term.)

  53. Beth on September 2, 2010 at 2:24 AM

    >I'd also recommend making sure the photographer or their assistant helps with your makeup – photos really take much different makeup. I've had headshots done for professional purposes and spent 30 minutes in makeup before we even started posing.

  54. Anne Lang Bundy on September 2, 2010 at 1:38 AM

    >(PS ~ As usual, Rachelle, you're an endless source of helpful info. I appreciated the tips from Megan.)

  55. Anne Lang Bundy on September 2, 2010 at 1:36 AM

    >I've had headshots done twice, and both actually were at the same time as our family portrait. After we were finished with the family, I sent them home. The photographer happily did several more shots of me alone, let me pick one I liked, and gave me a digital, copyright free image for $50. The confidence that image gives me on my blog page was worth every penny. A secret: I reversed the image for Twitter, to have a slightly different look for no extra charge. (I still use some other shots for profile pics elsewhere, to have a little variety.)