Here are some answers to the question, based on techniques borrowed from professional photographers I have worked with over the years and my own impressions after studying hundreds of profile photos.
1. THE WORST PHOTO IS NO PHOTO. I have read many discussions about the correctness of having a photo at all, based on the idea that people should not choose employees on the basis of looks. If nobody had a photo, the argument goes, then they would choose the best candidate, not the most attractive. In reality this is rarely the case; serious companies do not just hire pretty people or they would go out of business. Most people today have a photo so if your profile has no photo this creates a feeling of unease. People wonder if it is a fake profile, or they wonder if your computer skills are so limited you are not able to upload one. Photos also have a very practical function of helping people to pick you out from a list of profiles having the same name, and they are useful just to recognize people when you are going to meet them.
2. CHOOSE THE APPROPRIATE FORMALITY. A few people use informal Facebook-style photos on their professional profiles but more people err in the opposite direction, having a photo that is perhaps too formal. But there is no absolute standard for the appropriate level of formality because it depends on the business, the company, the department and even the individual manager. The best plan is to look at LinkedIn profiles of people who already do the work you want to do and see how they are dressed. Some companies expect formal business attire but others would be repelled by that. In the same way even within one company there are different expectations for managers, computer experts and graphic designers.
3. GET THE BEST TECHNICAL QUALITY YOU CAN. No matter how good looking you are you can still create a bad impression just by having a photo that is technically poor. Most of the people in the world will never meet you and your image in their minds is defined by your photo so it is worth making an effort to get it right. Never use the automatic machines at the station and never use the webcam in your computer unless you have no choice. By far the best solution is to have your photo taken by a professional photographer or have a friend take the picture with a DSLR. If this is not possible then at least use a good compact camera.
4. USE PRO PHOTO TECHNIQUES TO LOOK BETTER. Whatever the camera, you can also get better results by using some techniques borrowed from professional photographers. Most important of these is that you will get a better photo by having a soft, diffuse light. You can get this in the studio using window lights but you can get the same soft light from a cloudy sky or reflected from white walls and ceilings. It also helps if you avoid standing too close to the background and shine some light on the background so that you stand out better. The camera lens should also be at about eye level and you will get a more natural looking photo if you move the camera a little further away and zoom in or use a longer lens. This makes your face seem flatter and more natural. Finally, remember that you are not going to get a perfect photo with one shot. Try again and again with different expressions and other small changes. Try, for example, to rotate the body slightly to one side but turn your head to face the camera. Try also leaning forward a little. Leave plenty of space around you when you frame the image so that you can adjust the framing later with a photo editor. Don't try to frame it exactly in the camera.
5. AVOID FILTERS AND CLUTTERED BACKGROUNDS. The primary function of a profile photo is just to show people what you look like. A very creative photo will often fail in this function so you should be very careful with unusual poses, complicated backgrounds and image filters. Instagram photos might look cool on your Facebook page but they can be harder for people to process when they just want to recognize you. A plain background might look boring but it might be the best choice if you can't find an appropriate background, but better still is to keep one eye always looking for good settings for taking photographs. Perhaps there is a lobby in a building you have access to where the light is good and the background interesting but not excessively so. Perhaps a fiend has a home office with very good light and less mess than most others. Make a mental note of these places so that you know where to go when you need to take a photo.
Most people choose a fairly conservative photo where they have a neutral expression, a blank background and formal business clothes. This will work well in a typical business situation where companies are looking for someone who is a good "fit" and conforms to the usual standards. But in some businesses and some companies this can have the opposite effect and perhaps give the impression that you lack creativity and leadership qualities. Sometimes a picture in an unusual setting could have a positive effect if it demonstrates some quality that the organization values. For example, a photo where you are climbing a vertical cliff could highlight your qualities in a very effective way, but you still have to make sure that you are recognizable. A picture taken from far way and where your face is not visible -- even if you are standing on the peak of Everest -- will not be very effective because it fails in the primary purpose of the photo: to show what you look like.
Profile photos are much more interesting and complex than anyone imagines so to give a complete guide in five bullet points is impossible. If there is some other aspect you'd like to know more about, or you have a question about a specific problem use the comment space below or tweet to @andrewhennigan
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