8 Tips: How To Choose the Right Profile Photo

8 Tips: How To Choose the Right Profile Photo

profile photo 300x291 - 8 Tips: How To Choose the Right Profile PhotoYou know you’ve seen it. That cringe-worthy photo from your friend’s beach vacation that she’s using as her LinkedIn profile photo. “What in the world is she thinking?” you’ve wondered. “I’d never use a photo like that to represent myself online.” Really, Mr. Look-at-me-and-my-super-cute-puppy?

Hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for puppies. I’m pretty keen on babies, too, but not in our profile pictures. There was a time when we framed and displayed those photos at home or, perhaps, on our desk at the office. Things are no longer as simple. Today, our workplace is not limited to just one desk in just one office. To some extent, we’re all connected to others online and we still want to express ourselves by decorating our online office with our favorite photos. For those of us who have businesses or careers, the version of ourselves we put online matters. It can and will be seen by anyone interested in learning more about us.

One of the often overlooked elements of our online presence is our profile photo. The photo is important for a couple of reasons:

  • It makes it easier to recognize you. If I’m meeting you in person for the first time, having seen your photo will put me at ease knowing who I should be looking for. Similarly, if we’ve met in person and you send me an invitation to connect online, seeing your photo will help me remember you.
  • Simply put, it humanizes you. I don’t want to connect with an anonymous account. I want to connect with a person. And, yes, this means that it’s time to finally add a photo to your LinkedIn profile if you haven’t yet taken the plunge.

Choosing the Right Photo

  1. Head shot – Probably your head, neck and a bit of your shoulders, but no more. It should be the real you, not a cartoon or Mad Men version of you. And, by real you, I also mean current you. It may feel like you were in high school only yesterday, but if you did the lindy hop at your prom, your old yearbook photo won’t do.
  2. Logo – Unless your business is a well known brand (think Ford or Macy’s), it is probably best to use your photo rather than a logo. In general, we like and want to connect with people, not businesses. It’s important to note that using a logo instead of a photo on LinkedIn would violate the User Agreement. Skip the logo and stick with your own head shot.
  3. Keep it simple – This means we want to see you. Lose the baseball hat, those awesome sunglasses or anything else that competes for our attention in the photo. Same goes for busy backgrounds.
  4. You and only you – Getting back to puppies…your primary profile photo is probably not the best use of your puppy photos. Ditto for you and a group of your best friends or you riding your bike.
  5. Nudity – If I can see your shoulders in your head shot, I want to see clothing. While you may be wearing a strapless dress, it’s all about perception. Don’t take the time to create a great profile only to leave people wondering if you’re actually naked. Eww. There is no difference between being naked and appearing to be naked in a profile photo. There is a time and a place for nudity, but your profile photo is neither of these.
  6. Consistency – A great way to help your own branding is to use the same photo for all of your online profiles. Use the same photo on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube channel, your blog, etc. It will make it much easier for people to recognize you right away.
  7. Smile – Don’t overthink your pose. Attempts to look too serious can come off as intimidating. And none of those here-I-am-looking-busy-by-pretending-to-talk-on-the-phone photos. You’re not that busy. Put the phone down for a second so you can smile and have your picture taken.
  8. Doesn’t need to be fancy – You don’t need to rush out and schedule a session with a professional portrait photographer. Having a friend take a photo of you in front of a solid background should be fine as long as the lighting is sufficient. Word of warning – Whatever you do, have someone else take your picture. Do not, under any circumstances, let me see you taking your own photo in the bathroom mirror with your phone.


I can hear you all the way across the internet, “But I use the different social networking platforms differently and that’s why I have puppies on Facebook and am wearing a suit and tie on LinkedIn.” You are in good company. If you must have a profile photo with your puppy/baby/surfboard/bottle of wine/cigar/goat, keep it on Facebook and only on Facebook. As long as you understand what can be seen when a potential client or employer Googles your name and you’re OK with it, that’s all that matters.

Are your profile photos dressed to impress? What profile photo best or worst practices have I missed?

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  1. Adam April 6, 2011 at 9:54 am - Reply

    A colleague of mine was using a photo that made it look like he was naked for a while. And hadn’t realised that it had that effect.

    We had to “have a word”…

    • Irene Koehler April 6, 2011 at 10:04 am - Reply

      Good for you, Adam. I hope he thanked you for that “word” and realized that you were only intending to helpful.

      • Adam April 6, 2011 at 10:12 am - Reply

        Oh, yeah. He found it amusing, thankfully.

  2. Hjortur Smarason April 6, 2011 at 2:51 pm - Reply

    Excellent post, Irene. It really irritates me when I get friendship requests from someone where the picture is showing someone else – or even ten people.

    Being YOU is crucial, as is being consistent so that when you meet people in another network they’ll recognize you again. Heck, you might even print it out along with your twitter ID for the tweet up, since it is hard to always wear the same clothes as on the picture and keep the same facial expression 😉

    There’s one thing I’d like to add – Be memorable! Have something in the picture that makes it different and memorable so that people recognize it in an instance. This is your brand!

    • Irene Koehler April 6, 2011 at 3:04 pm - Reply

      Yes! “Be You” is the best advice. How would you suggest that someone make the photo memorable?

  3. Marcelle McGhee April 7, 2011 at 4:44 am - Reply

    Plan to share with a few folks who really need to read this post. Should be required reading for college students!

    • Irene Koehler April 7, 2011 at 1:33 pm - Reply

      Hi Marcelle. I’m happy that you found this useful enough to share. While I know several college students who would benefit from the advice, I’ve got to say that I also know a few seasoned professionals who have photos which should probably be reconsidered.

  4. Hjortur Smarason April 7, 2011 at 4:45 am - Reply

    It doesn’t have to be anything complicated – a strong dominant colour is one thing to help people identify it – like yours is black. Having a parrot on the shoulder is distinctive, a hat of some sort – if that’s something you would use from day to day, a certain object or something that relates to what you do for a living – like a mic if you’re a speaker or singer.

    I’ve been using my picture for 3 or 4 years now, casual, but with a background that is somehow exotic and historical. There’s a fossil fish whispering in my ear and the corner of a real mammoth tooth on the other side – fits the image of a social media explorer and traveller.

    I like to look at your profile photo as your logo – without being a sign of any kind – still a picture of you but reflecting the real you.

    • Irene Koehler April 7, 2011 at 1:34 pm - Reply

      I like that statement – your photo is your own professional logo. Wise words, Hjortur.

  5. Emilie Dupre April 8, 2011 at 7:55 am - Reply

    I was told that I looked too serious on my Twitter avatar. So, I changed it to a more smily look. But I prefer showing a serious look on my professional website and LinkedIn. Should I also use my nice and smiley face on my Linkedin account too? I know it’s better to be consistent but… 😉

  6. Wendy Hoechstetter, CAPS April 17, 2011 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    Great post, Irene! I so agree with the keep it simple recommendation in particular. Few things make me crazier than to not be able to see the person because of hats, sunglasses, etc. – or because the shot has been taken too far away. I really need to get a head shot taken myself…

    • Irene Koehler April 17, 2011 at 8:35 pm - Reply

      Thanks for chiming in, Wendy. So many of us frantically look through our existing photos, hoping to find something that “will work” which results in people being hidden behind hats, sunglasses, bushes or family members.

  7. Jefro May 2, 2011 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    Excellent advice as always.

    I also put my picture on my business card, in the same arrangement as it is on my website, very clean and simple (my wife designed it). I found that it definitely makes an impression, that people comment on it almost every time, and that people tend to recognize me as a result, even a year later at the same conference. It isn’t even my favorite photo, personally, but it does the job.

    • Irene Koehler May 2, 2011 at 1:44 pm - Reply

      Great idea to include the photo on your website also, Jefro. Having a photo that looks like you and makes it easy for people to recognize you goes a long way toward making you more approachable.

  8. Mark Podulka May 23, 2011 at 9:50 am - Reply

    Irene, as a pro photographer, I only disagree with one point. I am more than happy to do quick and inexpensive head shots that will look better and better portray your personality than a quick snapshot!

    • SheppardPhoto February 17, 2014 at 8:36 am - Reply

      I have to agree with Mark on this one. After all, it looks like your own avatar is a professional photo. As a photographer in my own right, I can see the hair light that most “regular folk” don’t have in your avatar. Otherwise, greate advice.

  9. […] See: 8 Tips: How to Choose the Right Profile Photo […]

  10. Darryl April 1, 2012 at 9:07 pm - Reply

    Excellent advice! Thank you so much.

  11. Barbara Saunders May 16, 2012 at 11:37 am - Reply

    Hmm … Many of my connections are professional cat or dog writers. Many of them use photos of themselves with animals. They don’t really work with others personally; they’re promoting books, podcasts, and other products on a topic. I think this works well.

    • Irene Koehler May 16, 2012 at 1:03 pm - Reply

      Excellent example of where my advice might not fit, Barbara. A friend of mine is a dog trainer and we had a very similar discussion. He felt including dogs in the photo added to, rather than detracted from, his brand. I have to say that, in this case, I agree.

  12. Joyce Feustel June 24, 2012 at 9:11 pm - Reply

    Thanks so much, Irene, for these very helpful tips. One of my biggest frustrations with photos is when I can’t see the face of the person. I hope your blog will help people to realize the importance of an appropriate photo on their social media profile. Just posted this blog post to my company’s Facebook page.

    • Irene Koehler June 24, 2012 at 10:27 pm - Reply

      I’m so happy you found these tips helpful, Joyce. For many people, the first time they put up a photo on their profile, it’s a bit intimidating and uncomfortable.

  13. […] Putting a name to a face is a great way to connect with people and can sometimes be more important than your text itself. Basically, images are important, and they work. Irene Koehler gives a few pointers on how should you choose the perfect headshot: […]

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