More Than Skin-Deep

More Than Skin-Deep

Why having a professionally shot photo is much more important than you think.

Your business headshot is one of the most important projects of your career. It’s my pet topic because it works for (or against) you even while you sleep. It’s alarming that many business people don’t seem to realize this.

Dani Werner Studio took my headshot not long after I started my business in 2006. That shot has brought me, and her, business. I have been a proponent of hers ever since and recommend her to clients for whom she’d be a good fit. Werner’s mantra: “With today’s technology and social media, first impressions happen long before we have the opportunity to meet in person.”

Amy Zellmer owns Custom Creations Photography in St. Paul’s West Seventh neighborhood. We met in 2010 when Amy was tasked with shooting me for a magazine cover. I’ve recommended her to creative clients and others who want something unique with their headshots. Zellmer urges her subject: “Be authentic. Let your true essence show through in your photos.”

In order to find out who will help you look your best, take a look at the online portfolios of two or three different photographers and ask yourself what speaks to you. If anything you see in a shot seems too out-there, then move on. “From your headshot, people should have a sense of what it’s like to meet you in person,” explains Werner.


My big pet peeve is those generic blotchy gray, brown, or blue backgrounds. You’ve seen it, and many of you have it. These are not flattering. You don’t need anything fancy, but you do want something that enhances your coloring and your wardrobe. Laura Erdman-Luntz is a yoga instructor and motivational speaker. Zellmer’s use of a clean off-white background makes Laura pop. It allowed for darker wardrobe and a nice color punch from jewelry. Great makeup tops off this look. Zellmer says, “Sometimes the best headshots aren’t really headshots at all. I work with a lot of creative entrepreneurs, and we take their photos in their environment—maybe in your artsy work station or in front of a project you’ve completed.”


If you are going to be creative with your background, make sure it doesn’t clash with your wardrobe. In general, keep wardrobe simple but bright. For women, you can’t go wrong with brights. Royal purple is a power color that works on most everyone: Blouses and jackets for women, ice-purple shirts with purple ties for men. Blues are also good; blacks and whites are not. Carol Kaemmerer is a LinkedIn consultant. She’s not a client, but she asked me to give her my honest opinion about her headshot. Because her dark hair fades into a dark background, and she wasn’t wearing color, the shot didn’t do her justice and was distracting. She took my advice seriously and sent me an updated effort wearing purple a couple months later that was markedly better.


Man or woman, you need makeup for a professional headshot. If someone tells you otherwise, look elsewhere. All professional photographers will either include makeup as part of the headshot package or bring someone in who can do yours. Trust me: It’s worth the nominal fee to get this done. Take a look at the “before” and “after” shots of Medtronic executive Bob Cannon. His “before” was taken in his assistant’s cubicle. Lack of makeup and unflattering lighting don’t showcase who he is. Werner and her makeup artist did their magic to produce his “after” shot. It’s not overdone, and you can still see the real Bob. But now his headshot is a wow. Consequently, his image sells him, no matter when or where people see it.


All good photographers will use lighting to your advantage. You should look sun-kissed and natural without many shadows on your face.

Most photographers will give you the option of two or three looks. Have a specific intention for each, and wardrobe to match. Do make sure one shot can go on your company website and business collateral. The other shots can be used for specific purposes—social media profiles, events at which you are asked to speak and less formal settings.

Body positioning

A frontal shot with shoulders square to the camera is a strong pose. Your photographer may direct you to angle for one or more of your looks. This is fine as long as you’re not in full body or head tilt. Women need to remember that a tilted head is a submissive posture and doesn’t give a strong subtextual message. Smiling is always good as long as it’s natural. Zellmer suggests you practice your smile in front of a mirror so you know how it should feel during photos. I tell people to smile with their eyes instead of their teeth. To practice, just think of something funny and laugh or smile. That’s smiling with your eyes. If you just move your mouth, that’s a toothy smile and not attractive.

Werner wants subjects to be “genuine, confident and conversational” in their shots. Sometimes this means a fuller shot is the more authentic way to go. Scott Anderson is a Minneapolis-based attorney/accountant who also does work in Arizona. These two different zones of influence require his headshot to speak to a mix of business types. His “before” shot was naturally him, but I advised against a polo shirt—even though that’s his everyday wardrobe and many of his clients wouldn’t mind. To showcase his credibility, I felt strongly about a suited look. He found a great happy medium with his photographer by doing a three-quarter look with no tie. This gave him the genuine feel he wanted.


The return on investment you or your company makes on your business headshot is priceless. Personally, I can tell you the $495 I spent in 2006 for my shoot (including makeup) was some of the best money I’ve ever spent. My headshot helps showcase my credibility and leads to real business. So smile for the camera.

Roshini Rajkumar is a communication coach, host of News & Views on WCCO Radio, and author of Communicate That! For additional communication tips, visit

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