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Get a better author photo without spending a fortune

Raise your hand if you’ve seen a bad author photo on an author’s website or used in a social media profile recently.

My hand is up.

I’ve seen photos where the author is just staring into a webcam. No smile. No warmth. Just a stare.

Then there are the smartphone selfies. (What adult has actually mastered the art of the selfie?)

Sometimes you can tell that another person standing next to the author has been cropped out.

Other times, the author is joined in the photo by someone else — usually a spouse — who isn’t cropped out.

If your author photo is bad, is your book bad, too?

These amateur photos are certainly more affordable than professional head shots, but they aren’t very useful. The author might as well be saying to readers, “Quality isn’t important to me.”

Put more simply: When readers see that you don’t care enough to use a quality head shot, they might think that you don’t care enough to write a quality book, either. Who’s going to take a chance on a book that might be sub-par at best?

I’ve said it before: Quality counts. You need to write a good book, and you need to present yourself to readers as a writer who cares about getting things “right.”

The goal is to always create a book and corresponding marketing materials that are as good as your book. Your headshot is one key element of all of those materials, whether we’re talking about your Amazon Author Central profile, your website, or the profile photo you use for social media accounts. They all feature your head shot — it’s the common denominator.

So it had better be good.

Yes, you have to spend money to get a good quality professional author photo. Many authors are reluctant to do that, while others simply don’t have the money for it. Money can be an obstacle, but there’s usually a way around that.

Four ways to save money on your author photo

Here are four ways to get a headshot that’s better than the do-it-yourself option, but less expensive than paying full price at a studio.

1. Barter.

Bartering involves swapping services. What do you do well that can help a professional photographer? Another way to approach this is to ask the photographer what she needs help with and then figure out how you can contribute in a way that makes a service swap fair.

You might write a newsletter, shop for props, or serve as a baby wrangler on a shoot.

2. Offer to model for a photography class or workshop.

This gives aspiring photographers practice and helps expand their portfolios. You get an author photo that’s better than you’d take on your own.

3. Hire a photography student at a discounted rate.

Students don’t expect to be paid top dollar, but you still want to pay for their time. It’s an incentive for them to do their best.

What if you don’t like the beginner’s photos? Discuss that in advance. You might be able to negotiate to only pay if you’re happy.

4. Get it done at a writer’s conference.

I had my past two headshots taken at the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) annual conference in New York City. The photographer offered discounted sessions because he didn’t have to market his services and because he’d have a steady stream of customers.

Many other conferences contract with a photographer to take on-site headshots at a discount, too. If you plan on attending a writer’s conference, be sure to check the schedule to see if this is offered as an add-on.

What do people look for in head shots?

Photofeeler lets you get feedback on your photos. In addition, the company surveyed its users to get feedback on elements that produce a better professional profile photo. You can read the results in the company’s article, “New Research Study Breaks Down the Perfect Profile Photo.”

It offers helpful tips that range from “let your teeth show when you smile” (whoops — see mine with no teeth in the site header above!) to “wear your eyeglasses” (score one for me!).

Do-it-yourself tips

You can also take the D-I-Y approach, but you’ll have to step up your game. Hubspot, one of my favorite marketing information resources, offers advice in the article, “How to Take Your Own Professional Headshot: A Budget Friendly Guide.”

Finally, study author photos before updating yours. What do you like about some of them? What do you dislike? If you’re going to work with a photographer — even a student photographer — it helps to show them what does and doesn’t work for you.

I’ve saved a few that I like on a Pinterest board. If you’re thinking about getting a new author photo, creating a similar Pinterest board might make it easy for you to save (and later find) examples you like.

Finally, remember to use the same headshot for all social media profiles and everywhere you are online, including your website and its media/press room (learn more about that in “Must-have online press room elements for authors and books“).

By the way, if you don’t have a website yet, get one up and running now. You’ll need to contract with a hosting company; I use Hostgator. It’s offering 75 percent off hosting plus “select” domains (website addresses) for $2.99 through tomorrow, March 16 at 11:59 pm CT, with my affiliate link for new accounts.

Finally, remember that your author photo says a lot about you. You want it to say the right things.

Have you seen a great author photo? Please share a link to it in a comment. 

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  1. Great article, Sandra! Such a good thing to do, because authors will be asked over and over for their picture. Better to have one you are happy to send out.

    I used Thumbtack – https://www.thumbtack.com – to find a local photographer. This site was so easy to use and I was able to read reviews on the photographer, choose how far I was willing to drive, and designate how much I would spend. Usually you’ll have a few people respond, but I only had one which made it easy – mine had all 5 star reviews and a ton of them.

    Like so many, I do not enjoy having my picture taken, but a professional can put you at ease. I wasn’t going to put the picture in my book, but was having them taken just for media use, but they came out so well I put in the book too.

    1. What a great tip for finding a photographer, Martha! Thanks! I don’t like having my picture taken, either, so it really helps to work with a photographer who helps me relax. I’m glad you’re happy with yours.


    1. You’re welcome, Ginger. I’ve seen some scary ones. Have you? I don’t like to include bad examples, though, because I think that’s kind of mean.


  2. I’m fortunate enough to have a friend who is a photographer. She came over for some tea, and we must have taken about 300+ pictures and only come up with a few that worked. We tried indoor and outdoor shots. I’m not photogenic, so I practice smiling in front of the mirror before I’m photographed. I sometimes do this thing when I squint one eye more than the other… Try not to squish your face too much. My friend also had me practice “the turtle” — extend your neck. It feels uncomfortable, but it looks good. There is also Tyra’s famous “smile with your eyes” — smile and notice how your eyes feel, keep that feeling in your eyes, but tone down the smile (so you do not have weird wrinkles). Consider what is your best feature. If the beast feature is the smile, go for it. In my case, my eyes trump everything else.

    I would suggest to have different outfits ready (you do not want to blend into the background, but you also do not want your shirt to be more visible than your face) and to consider what the photo will be used for. I needed a professional photo for a November book fair. At the time we were taking the photograph, my neighbour had a yard full of poppies (a Remembrance Day symbol).

    I did not wear glasses and my teeth are not showing, but the photo we chose feels like me. I don’t know if I’ll ever take a better one.

    It looks good as a 1:1 head shot, and a 2:3 portrait.

    Catia DaCosta’s studio is CDC Photography.

  3. Make very sure that you have the rights to the photo which will allow you to use it as you wish. Being sued for copyright infringement or having to pay to use your own picture stinks.

  4. Great article. I have a question. I write both fiction (historical) and also nonfiction/how-to books. I plan on wearing a vintage dress for my fiction book author photo, but don’t think it would be a fit for the back of my nonfiction (Kickstarter) books.

    Your article said to use the same photo. Would that rule still apply in this case?

    1. Thanks, Patrice. You’re correct — your photo in a vintage dress wouldn’t work for your nonfiction, but your nonfiction photo would work for your historical fiction. You can definitely use two different photos, but I’m not sure why you’d want to.


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