Do You Really Need Professional Headshots?

Photo by Abbie Winters
Picking a photo for personal use on social media can be difficult, but it is generally low stakes. Sure, scrolling through all the selfies you've snapped, or do-overs you've asked friends to take is time consuming but, at least for me, there's much less weight attached to my decision. (Plus, I usually default to an "artsy" image that somewhat obscures my face anyway.)
Picking professional photos is much more fraught, though. Worrying about whether people can put a face to your name might feel irrelevant, or like a simple matter of vanity, but showcasing yourself as a professional goes beyond words.
Here's a few common questions about professional headshots:

When Do You Need A Headshot?

"When a candidate has decided on a dedicated career path and has an idea of how they plan to get there, it may be time for a professional headshot," says Chris Kenny, the senior communications specialist at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). "Career paths of course may change over time, but headshots are a way that employees and job seekers can brand themselves as serious, career-driven professionals. In other words, the investment into a personal headshot communicates, I'm not looking for a job. I'm looking to further my career.”
Steven Sprouse, the manager of internal communications at SHRM, adds that professional photos are more of a necessity for senior and executive-level workers, since they are the usual points of contact for external partners, customers, and workers. For example, their faces are the ones most often splashed on company websites and in annual reports, brochures, and at corporate events.
"Professional photos may also be necessary for very public-facing types of jobs, e.g., any job where you are representing the public interest, professional speaking jobs, on-camera talent, etc.," he says. This means you could need a flattering, up-to-date photo even if you're not in the C-suite.

What Should You Look Like?

Advancements in technology and smartphone cameras have made it possible for even the most basic images (or people) to look like superstars. If you're unable to afford a headshot, enlist a friend who knows all your best angles.
"It may not be edited and retouched by a professional photographer, but if done correctly, it can serve as a great placeholder until a professional shot can be taken," Kenny notes.
"No need to hire a professional photographer — any camera or smartphone will do," says LinkedIn career expert Blair Decembrele. Before you spend money on photos, she advises that you DIY your own, making sure that the quality is top-notch. That starts with your clothing.
"Every industry is unique. Whether you wear a tie or t-shirt, it's important to look the part," she says. "A good rule of thumb is to look at what the big names in your industry are wearing in their LinkedIn profile — if they’re wearing a button-down shirt and a blazer, it may be good to follow suit."
Next, to get a solid profile picture, she advises picking a simple background. "Plain white is best" so that the focus stays on you. Then she suggests having someone take your photo in natural light to compliment your features. Stand near a window and ditch the flash for the best effect.
Finally, she adds, keep the photo cropped and make sure that your face fills up at least 60% of the frame. "No dangling arms of your college buddies, or distant photos on that hike you took this summer."
LinkedIn in has photo filters on its mobile app, but of course there are a number of other apps you might use to edit things like the brightness, contrast, saturation, or sharpness of your images. Pixlr, which has a Photoshop-like platform, is a favorite of mine, and apps like VSCO and Instagram are easy options, too.

How Much Should You Pay?

Like Decembrele, Kenny also advises that people search their own networks to find ways low-cost ways of getting professional headshots.
"Headshots can definitely be expensive starting out, and in the beginning of one's career journey professional headshots may not be necessary or expected. However, there are some good workarounds for someone that needs a headshot but lacks the financial resources to hire a photographer," he says. "Many college campus career centers or job fairs may offer headshot services for free. For example, this year, SHRM offered conference attendees the opportunity to sign up for free headshots at the 2017 Talent Management Conference."
If you work at a company with a human resources department, ask if they have any equipment or know of any resources to help you get one. If all else fails, or if you can foot the bill, call around to local photographers and studios and make an inquiry. You could also go on sites like Yelp to find local pros.
For example, I went on Thumbtack to see what the job might cost. The site has an option to select Portrait Photography, after which I was directed to select Professional Headshots (versus newborn and graduation portraits, for example).
Next, I picked a style, where I'd want the photos to be taken, how many edited photos I'd like, and in what format (including digital copies vs. a photo album or CD). Lastly, I selected my estimated budget. The range was $100 to $1,000+.
I chose the second option just for kicks and received quotes directly from several photographers within 10 minutes.

Where Should You Post Your Headshot?

Kenny says that headshots are generally not needed for résumés in the United States ("depending on the line of work and position desired"). Plus, adding one could work against some professionals.
"It is a good practice for employers to refrain from looking at pictures of candidates during the initial hiring process. That protects both the organization and the employee from potential discrimination claims," Kenny explains. "CVs are a different situation. It is expected that candidates will submit a headshot as part of their CV, and is common practice throughout Europe and in others countries."
Using a headshot on social media is also a case-by-case matter. LinkedIn is one of the most important places for professionals to use headshots, he says, as are professional and company websites "that showcase the employee to the public."
Uploading a formalized headshot on popular platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat could be important if you use those sites for branding or in a professional capacity, but "there is some flexibility depending on the brand, culture and social media strategy of the company," Kenny continues.
"Many startups, especially in the tech or creative space might prefer candid photos instead of professional ones, however, these decisions should be thoughtful. Current employees using social media platforms as part of their work responsibilities should defer to their particular organization’s stance on professional headshots vs. personal photos and social media usage," he explains.

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