Portraiture for social media and Profile images, a guide.

Portraiture sessions to renew your image for work and social media can be a quick selfie, a rushed few minutes in front of the lights when the professional calls to do all the staff portraits or a longer personal session with either professional or keen amateur. So how do you get the best out of that shot?

Let’s look at a few of the basics, the best portraiture for social media and profile pictures is the head and shoulders. I’m sure we have all seen the full length image posed in front of number 10 or the sitters favorite hobby but I would strongly suggest avoiding these type of shots for a profile image.

People will learn more about you from a close study of your face and expression than they will from a full length. At worst the long shot can look pretentious or alternatively just give the viewer a clue to one thing in your life which can provoke a “so what reaction”.

Props are another option, I’m sure we have all seen the photographers portrait with a camera or the motivational speaker at a lectern. These aren’t as bad as the full length shot because at least they tell the viewer something about what you do in life relevant to your job – providing the image is relevant to your job on a regular basis. A lectern shot used by someone who has only ever spoken once at their local rotary club is not going to say who you are normally.

portraiture done professionally
A clean, simple but engaging portrait

In the same sense, holiday images with famous locations, beach snaps and bathroom sefies really aren’t saying the best about a person. are you boasting about where you have been? Have you taken trouble to present yourself?

On the other extreme a studio lit image of a blank expression with a totally white background also says little about a person. So it’s all about balance. So the shot should be 90% head and shoulders with a welcoming or likeable expression with a hint of your character in the background.

Lets look at the options first for that 10% . Your office location may be attractive, either London skyline or country fields – both even slightly out of focus in a background give a feel of where you are based and the type of working lifestyle you might have. Try and avoid clutter in the background, it can be distracting.

A shot taken at a desk often means you have to be less of a head and shoulders portrait but can still be half length so the face is still quite prominent. Be aware though only to include relevant props to add to your pictorial story and avoid that clutter look.

A simple plain strong colour can add strength to a smile and say you are a more outward going personality where as posed square on against a wall with the flash reflected in your glasses will just say I just don’t care. portraiture is all about showing charactor.

Talking generally about lighting, a soft light from a window or from multiple directions are complimentary to a ladies face, it’s the sort of image lighting we see a lot in magazines because it flatters the skin tones. Alternatively hard directional lighting will add more mood and drama to an image and tends to be used more on male portraits. These are generalizations of course and can be used for either sex and often are.


portraiture for a man hard lighting
Hard lighting can suit a man


portraiture of a lady
Soft lighting flatters but beware the Mona Lisa smile.

Moving on to how you should pose, simple riles are normally never square on to camera, try and have the shoulders at 45 degrees or angled to the camera, it stops the look of a police line up image!

Leaning in to the camera can help hide neck detail for those with hang ups in that area and it also makes the sitter look more involved with the viewer. Leaning back is regarded as a negative portraiture or an arrogant pose in the same way as crossing the arms is a barrier action.

The most important thing is the smile – it’s not essential to smile, but if you do it has to be a real one. The number of people I have taken pictures of that try to smile without opening their mouth because they don’t like their teeth is unbelievable. A real smile has just a little teeth showing, it’s incredible hard to pull off the tight lipped Mona Lisa smile without it looking smug or insincere.

Real smiles will often come from the eyes and it’s amazing how many people will recognize this in pictures they look at, because we are used to reading faces, it’s what we do in every day interaction with people. So try and interact with the photographer, they might actually make you smile with their conversation.


portraiture of a politician
Even a politician can have a real smile with the teeth, but has it reached the eyes?

If you have a feature you don’t like make sure you tell the photographer, they can compensate often in the way they set up lighting for any defects you perceive. For example a long face, nose etc is flattered with lower rather than high lighting. Alternatively a round face will benefit from higher lighting which produces longer shadows.

For every suggest “rule” above there are images that will break one or all of them and they work occasionally, but better to leave it to the professional image maker to break those rules as on balance you are more likely to get pleasing portraiture by sticking to the rules.

Lastly, when you come to select your image for a profile picture ask friends or family to pick their favorites and if the consensus of opinion is not the one you have chosen think very carefully about the alternative choice, these people are seeing you every day and know what a good picture of you is. You only see yourself in a mirror generally and in many cases will only be looking for your perceived faults.


Brian Russell

Jan 2016