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Author Headshot Photos: What You Need to Know

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

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An author on social media asked about using headshot photos taken by professional photographers. Do they get a cut of royalties from the use of the photo for a book? Do you have to credit them for the photos in the book or the photo caption?

Those are great questions. Let’s dig into the whole topic of author photos for use in books and book marketing.

I was really impressed that the author in the opening example had the forethought to ask about the legal nitty-gritty of using photos taken by a professional photographer. Most authors don’t. They feel that it’s a picture of them; they may have paid the photographer and wonder why this is even a question.

What surprises many people is that photographers retain the copyright to photos of you, even if you hired them to take the photos for you. However, professional commercial photographers usually grant their clients license to use the photos as part of the service.

A written agreement between you and your photographer is required for both the work to be done and the licensing of it for your use. Be aware that pro photographers may likely use your photos as part of their portfolio because they own the copyrights.

The photographer’s attribution expectations should also be a part of the agreement. Consult a business attorney to review or develop an agreement for you before any photos are taken.

A big mistake I’ve seen people make over the years is using professional photos taken for portraits or those taken at events such as weddings, but using them for a business purpose. This is a huge mistake. If you want to use these photos for a commercial purpose, like your book or marketing, you need to set up a licensing agreement with the photographer to avoid being sued for copyright infringement.

Though most wouldn’t even think of suing you, if you ask amateurs or non-photographers to take your photo, they could ask for royalties or damages if you use it for commercial use or publication since, technically, they clicked the shutter and are the creator.

Wanna know how weird that can get? Just search the web for “monkey selfie copyright dispute.” And what about robots? Aside from these bizarre special cases, always make a written agreement to use photos taken by others for your books and marketing. Again, consult an attorney with questions.

Tips for Working With Professional Photographers

Today, photographers often post sample portfolios online to showcase their work. Realize, though, that they’re posting their best work. Sometimes it’s work for clients who have spent a lot of money. Tell the photographer what your budget and goals are, asking them to direct you to the portfolio samples that are similar to what you want and can afford.

Also, interview photographers to determine if they’re a good fit for you personality-wise. If you feel nervous or uncomfortable with a photographer, it’s going to show in your photos. I had this happen to me, even though I was working with a talented and experienced photographer. Plus, the studio was really far from my home. By the time I reached the place, I was exhausted and frustrated, too, which made it even worse. I hated the work and didn’t use much of it for very long, in spite of the fact that I spent a fair amount of money on it.

Adding to this equation is that a photo shoot can take hours and hours! Lighting, props, posing, and background adjustments take a long time to get right, even for pros. This is very draining. If you’re not used to this, you’ll be anxious, and it will be obvious in your photos.

After the photo shoot, photographers these days may send links to proofs of all digital photos taken. The client is then asked to choose which ones they want to use. The final digital files of those chosen shots are then sent to you, the client. If you want all the photos from the shoot, you may be charged additional fees.

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I’ve had several rounds of business headshots and branding photos taken over the years by professional photographers. With only one of the rounds did I get the natural, authentic look I wanted. I used that good set for many years. Some of the others, I didn’t use a lot, or at all, because I didn’t think they represented the real me.

Selfies as Headshots?

My author and editor friend, Shayla Raquel, polled conference planners on Twitter and Instagram about how they felt about speakers who submit selfies as their headshot for the event website, social media, and other materials. At the time I checked the poll, here were the responses:

Instagram:

  • It’s unprofessional: 25%
  • It doesn’t bother me: 40%
  • I’m neutral: 35%

Twitter:

  • It’s unprofessional: 50%
  • It doesn’t bother me: 25%
  • I’m neutral: 25%

I’m not sure exactly how many voted in the poll. But regardless of the sample size, with my background in events, trade shows, public speaking, and networking, I thought this was an interesting reflection of where we are now with technology. Even 10 to 15 years ago, we wouldn’t have seen responses like this. We wouldn’t have even asked the question! Professional photos were the expected norm.

In spite of a possibly small sample size, this quick poll suggests that there could be greater acceptance or tolerance of selfie photos for business and marketing use. Half to 75 percent of the respondents weren’t bothered by selfie headshots or were neutral on the topic.

Why Selfies Might Be More Acceptable Now

When the iPhone came out in 2007, it heralded a new era of digital photography capabilities for everyone. The lines between pro and consumer equipment continue to blur. I even had a videographer who shot some pro video for me with her iPhone. iPhone’s photo capabilities just keep getting better, too. So it’s no wonder that people are thinking twice before hiring pros.

We also have to remember that from early 2020 until early 2022, the world was reeling from a pandemic. In-person pro photo shoots were less likely during this time, making selfie branding photos more acceptable.

It will be interesting to see if acceptability of selfie photos for marketing will become a new norm.

Confession time: I currently use a selfie for my author headshot. That wasn’t always the case. Though I admit, selfies are not always the best choice for everyone and every situation.

Today, many people can take a decent selfie with the smartphone camera in their hands, avoiding the expense and hassle of hiring photographers. Plus, there are no copyright issues since you’re the photographer.

We also value authenticity more than we ever did in the past. Photos that are too posed and too perfect don’t seem genuine. One of the things that has always made me chuckle in networking is the vanity portrait headshots on business cards and websites that look nothing like the people you meet in real life. And you thought that nonsense started with Instagram!

On a related note, because pro headshot sessions can be expensive, I’ve found that people don’t change their headshots regularly. So they end up using photos of who and what they used to be, again not looking like the person you’d meet in real life. A current selfie might be a better choice than a dated pro headshot.

Please understand that I am not disrespecting professional headshot and branding photos. What good photographers can do for your image and brand is spectacular. But given the minimal income that most self-published authors make from their books, this is an expense that must be scrutinized since I don’t believe it’s the marketing element that will make or break a book sale. Don’t think that’s the case? Ask yourself about the last time you decided not to buy a book because the author’s headshot wasn’t as professional as you thought it should be.

Tips for Selfie Headshots and Branding Photos

Let’s say you decide that you can’t afford a decent set of headshot and branding photos right now, or you don’t consider an in-person photo shoot safe from a health perspective, and you decide to go the selfie route with your smartphone. Here are some overall tips.

  • Get lit: Make sure that the lighting you use, natural or artificial, fully but softly lights your face without hard shadows.
  • Avoid filters: While you probably should adjust selfies that turn out too dark or light, avoid using beauty or artistic filters. Authenticity always wins.
  • Use uncluttered backgrounds: Minimize clutter and distractions as much as possible so that viewers can focus on you.
  • Take a lot of photos: Take several shots with each pose, background, and lighting choice. It’s easier to choose from lots of options as opposed to having to do retakes.
  • Be you: Wear clothes, makeup, hairstyles, and accessories that you normally do in real life or what you consistently use as part of your brand. I know some creatives who love playing with costumes and makeup as part of their art and are recognized for it. Always be your authentic self!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Heidi Thorne

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