Create Your Personal Brand: The Headshot

Crafting your brand is scary. It seems like a lot of effort and it is ridiculously challenging to put that mirror up to yourself and ask "What is it that I truly stand for? What do I want to be known as?"

You know you need to do something. You may be up for the whole package with a complete brand overhaul or you just want to make sure you aren't doing something unintentionally damaging.

The headshot is that one area where if you are going to fix one thing, this should be it. It is the first thing you are judged by when someone looks at your social media sites. Anyplace you show a piece of yourself -- has a visual image of yourself associated with it.

Bring In The Expert: Nancy Rothstein

Condoleezza Rice and several high-profile authors have trusted Nancy for capturing their images for book jackets and their business websites. CEOs and industry leaders have brought her in to seek her counsel. She has seen the impact that a good shot can have on the personal brand. 

Nancy sheds some light on how to get the best out of your face, from the DIY approach to utilizing the services of someone like her.

Intentional Branding: Know the Audience

"I always start with a brand consultation. I think that one of the main things about personal branding is to actually be intentional and take the time to think about it and build it out as if you were a company. I help them understand 'who is my audience?' and even how many audiences you might be speaking to. You may want to be seen as a respected professional, but you may have times where you want your clients to see you as warm and approachable, for instance. I can, often quickly take people through that process of knowing how you want to present yourself to each group and not try to make this 'one-size fits all.'"

Background Just as Important as You Are

Your photograph just isn't a picture about you, it is also where you are and in what context you present yourself. You project the story behind each shot and make suppositions about the person based on where they are. You make immediate judgements based on someone standing in a bar vs. someone standing in a boardroom vs. someone on the cliffs overlooking the ocean.

"I think subtlety is always good. There's a thing with people being photographed who aren't photographers. They think if I want trees in the background, I should go stand right next to a tree and actually that doesn't work. The way to get a nice tree in the background is to be pretty far away from the trees; it tells a story. If you want to convey that you are from the Bay Area, you don't need to stand in front of the Golden Gate. I intentionally shot your photos in places that are identifiable to San Francisco because they have the texture of the city, but aren't you standing in front of a specific landmark or sign that says 'Welcome to San Francisco.'"

Your Tone: To Smile or Not to Smile

If you know who you want to connect with - who is your audience - you can determine how you want to present yourself in the shot. But, too often, people go on autopilot and create a likeness that is just like everyone else, that stereotypical shot. For a lawyer, it might be looking serious, arms crossed and in front of legal books; for finance, it might be plain gray background with a single-color suit; for the tech entrepreneur, a gray t-shirt and a smug look of confidence seems to be the de facto shot.

"I think those images can work and can help convey that message, but remember, if you are trying to attract clients, or get people to want to work with you, are those the images that will do that? You might be super-serious and capable in your profession, but you still want someone approach you and talk to you about working with you. That requires a different tone and approach that is typically seen. Basically, if your industry is trying to put you in a box, think of ways to set yourself outside of that mold and get someone to say 'that is the person I want to talk to.'"

Once you have an idea of who you want to connect with, how you want to be perceived, and what story people want to think about you, you can start planning your shots. There are three ways to approach this: DIY, The "Shopping Mall" package, and the professional shoot.

Putting It into Practice: The DIY Shoot

"Some simple practical advice here. Just because you are going to do this yourself, or not spend any money on it, don't think this is any less important. You should spend extra time on the location and your image to make up for the lack of an experienced photographer. Avoid white shirts or shirts with lots of patterns. Stay clear of any overhead lighting or being directly in the sun. Look for ways to focus on you and try to have your background slightly out of focus. Also, digital 'film' is cheap. Take lots and lots of images and try a few different looks, different angles. It may feel a bit uncomfortable, but plan on spending a little bit of time on this. I have often found that when I do professional shoots with my clients, often the best shots come toward the end after they have loosed-up to the camera."

Putting It into Practice: The Shopping Mall Shoot

"These can be a good middle ground experience for you shot, but you have to be careful. Often times, they put you into positions that are comfortable for them, but you have seen these poses a thousand times. Elbow on knee, head holding chin. Arms crossed, body turned to 45-degree angle toward camera. They were fine for your high school year book, but not great for your professional shot. It will probably be your job to help them get out of their comfort zone and do something unique with you."

Putting It into Practice: The Professional

"If you are going to pursue a professional photo shoot, a few things you should consider in working with a person like me. One, always - always - always have a consultation before the shoot. Talk about what you want to accomplish and who you want to attract. If they aren't listening to you, they probably aren't the right photographer for you. Two, tell them what you don't like about yourself. A good photographer will spot what things the camera likes about you, but we all have these areas we don't like about ourselves - my eyes look tired, I have crow's feet, my ears are too big, the skin on my neck .... we all have those 'things' that bother us. Telling your photographer in advance can help inform how you will be photographed.

Three, bring several wardrobe changes. You may know for sure you want a shot in your suit, but you may find that your best shot is the one without the jacket or is just a t-shirt. Point is, bring several changes to help bring out your best self. Lastly, having this honest dialogue with your photographer has another added benefit - you build a rapport and are more relaxed the day of the shoot. It helps you be more at ease and more natural in front of the camera. A good photographer will be tuned-in to your feelings and help you best present yourself to the camera. It comes down to comfort and trust."

Final Thoughts

Your photograph is the 24/7 sign of who you are and what you stand for. It is your calling card across the digital spectrum. Whether you selfie-stick it or go for the pro, a great authentic photo sets the tone for everything else a person sees of you. It is worth getting it right.


Nancy Rothstein is an award-winning photographer in the Bay Area and the preferred vendor of the fine arts museums of San Francisco. 

Todd Wilms has been the subject of some of Nancy's best work (at least he thinks so) and is a marketer in the Bay Area as well.

The face is the mirror of the mind, and eyes without speaking confess the secrets of the heart. - St. Jerome