Freakout City, or, They asked for my picture!

You sell your first book and the publisher asks for a head shot.

You have a webpage and you need a photo on it.

One way or the other, you will eventually need one.


What is a head shot?

Because I’m all about cheating whenever possible, I went to wikipedia to nab their definition (with a link, of course) and–well, how to put this delicately?

I learned something new.

Yes, when giving advice, making sure you know what you’re talking about is a good idea. Who knew?

A head shot is a photographic technique where the focus of the photograph is a person’s face. A head shot is a specific type of portrait. A head shot is an image that portrays a person as he is, however simple or stylized the image might be. In contrast to the head shot, an environmental portrait would portray a person with elements of his life such as his work, interests, etc.

You see, I thought of it as focusing on the person’s face, but without knowing the broader term “environmental portrait” I was missing a bit of the picture.  So, these are head shots (and as an aside, I find it amusing that you would not be able to judge the creative output of these two by their head shots):

Stephen King (How innocent he looks!)
Mark Twain (What a dour gent.)

And here is one we’re going to look at several ways:

Naomi Novik (Does she look like a dragon?)




Even though your photographer may want to do a tight head shot, if you’re sending this out to multiple places–newspapers, magazines, websites, publishers–it’s best to have a picture that allows cropping to suit the page layout needs of the recipient.





What I didn’t know is the term, “environmental portrait.”  You’ve seen those. The writer at work. Or more probably, the writer pretending to be at work while somebody just happens to be there to snap their photograph.

Dorothy Parker (“at work”)
Ernest Hemingway (possibly really at work in Africa)

I like environmental portraits a lot, and in fact, have always liked head shots that include the writer’s world.  Head shots with the writer sitting at their desk (which it hopefully took two days to clear for the occasion, or else I don’t want to hear about it).  Head shots with writers in front of books.  Their books.  Old books.  Fake books that just look pretty for the purpose. I don’t care.

But those can be very busy pictures, and once it comes to cropping for layout they may be more difficult to work with.  I’d never really considered that before.  In surfing through images online I didn’t find many, and this may be why.

There’s also the broader environment.  An outdoor shot of an author in her beloved hometown, in his garden, on a research trip to the current novel’s setting.

So many things to consider.

But let’s just stick to the basic head shot and move on.  Do you need a professional photographer?  Well, it’s always best. But if you can’t manage that yet, the fact is in this day of digital cameras and instant gratification, you can get a friend who is a good amateur photographer to take one hundred pictures of you.


Now if you’re naturally photogenic that might not be necessary.  But if you–like most of us–are uneasy in front of a camera, the one hundred pictures is a good idea.  You might want to change clothes a few times to have various looks, or once you see pics wearing one shirt you may immediately ditch it for another.  Avoid busy patterns and prints.  Try formal and informal.

Most of all, wear something you feel comfortable in, and that makes you feel good. If you feel awkward in your clothes, it will show.

And the most important tip of all, relax. If that means having a margarita or box of chocolates on hand, go for it. Or music that makes you smile and want to move. A friend on hand to keep you calm or loose.

Expect to get 60 horrible pictures, 30 that are okay but you sincerely don’t like them, and if you’re lucky, one or two that simply say: THIS. THIS is the one.  In my experience, that one will usually come late in the process when you’ve  stopped worrying about how you look and just want to get it finished. Odd how that works.

Try smiling.  Try not smiling. Try various angles.

While you’re at it, google things like this.

One of my mentors early on said, “Don’t try to look like a Serious Author unless you don’t mind looking pretentious. Look like somebody with a wicked story to tell.  Look like someone a reader wants to sit down and spend time with, have coffee with, and listen to.”

I don’t think that’s half bad advice.

The best advice I stumbled across on my own is a bit devious, if you’re a woman. Or, okay, a certain kind of guy.

Wear beautiful makeup.  I’m not talking about 80s “Glamour Shots” but whatever you would wear to a very nice event, do that.  Then let your hair be more casual, and your clothes even more casual.  It’s a matter of not looking like you’re trying too hard, of possibly even making people think you look like this all the time.

See? I told you it was devious.

And if you do look that great all the time, I don’t want to hear about that, either.

Finally, my mentor said, “Update your photo annually.  Age with your head shot.  You do not want to be the writer who meets people in person and watches them react in horror to the fact that she looks nothing like her twenty-year-old head shot.”

I have to admit to letting that one slide lately.

Which is why I decided to share these tips.  I am thinking about my new head shots.

In the meantime, an environmental portrait from a few years ago:

Patricia Burroughs (on cell phone in front of Hollywood Hills)

Whatever else you do, have fun!

What’s your experience with head shots? What’s your advice? Share!



Filed under Photography, Publishing, Women, Writers, Writing

2 responses to “Freakout City, or, They asked for my picture!

  1. denise

    I prefer head shots because I have body image issues

Hit me with it.

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