What Your Headshot Says About You

What can you get from a headshot? A headshot contains all the personal information of a face, all of the experience recorded in the lines and contortions of the flesh. It also contains a story of strength, optimism, and joy superimposed on personal history. A headshot can include a context, a background that illustrates how the person lives and works.

Headshots are valuable because they convey so much about the personal brand, the business identity, and the strengths of the person depicted in them. The collaboration between the subject and the photographer decodes the information in the face of the subject and the subject’s environment into a message of capability and trustworthiness.

The psychology of recording the face has fascinated students of human nature for millennia. How can the face, depicted in a headshot, send a message?

Headshot of a corporate womanExpression:

A series of studies published in Personality and Social Psychology found that a smile in a headshot makes you look more trustworthy. Just think about it. What is the real meaning of a smile? Smiles are the instinctual and universal facial response when a person approves. A smile means acceptance. A smile doesn’t give anything to the viewer. It just means that the person smiling approves of what he or she encounters. If a smile is looking out at you, generally you will see someone approachable.

Of course, facial expressions are much more complex than that. The smile approves, but the approval can be malevolent as well. The top of the face, the brow and eyebrows carry messages about power. Eyebrows shaped downward toward the nose mean strong and eyebrows pointing upward (away from the nose) carry messages of vulnerability. A face with eyebrows facing down and a smile is widely interpreted as potentially dangerous–saying yes to capability. A face with eyebrows pointing upward and a smile is nearly always seen as friendly–saying yes to vulnerability.

These rough dimensions of the face are rarely completely straightforward in life. Eyebrows and foreheads are flexibly expressive with bits of vulnerability and capability being constantly played out in the face, now this way, now that. Faces are often conflicted. Eyebrows and mouths often contain kinks that show dynamic mixtures of feelings. It is up to the photographer to work in partnership with the subject to formulate the best interpersonal message to send.


In a headshot, of course, the person is the feature. But backgrounds are noticed by all and are a vital source of context. You have to make sure that the background does not distract or draw attention away from the face. For very small headshots, like those featured in profiles on Gmail, LinkedIn, or corporate web pages, a pure white background is usually recommended. For larger headshots, you have the freedom to choose a background that reflects a personal brand and the area the subject works in.

If you work in rural area, and the setting is important for a clientele, a blurred but decipherable woodland or pastoral scene would add to the headshot. If you work in an urban location, a blurred street scene or the wall of a building could be effective. Most strongly recommend trying to keep consistent color pallets between face and background. Make sure colors blend between background, clothing, eye color, and hair color, for instance.

Clothing should be carefully chosen to reflect consistency with the brand the photograph is trying to illustrate. Avoid busy patterns, prints, and excessive jewelry (in most cases). Avoid wearing black because many people associate black with grim situations like funerals. Navy blue, grey, or charcoal are universally recognized as a professional look. Ties should be carefully selected not to clash with the rest of the scene. Make sure clothing fits well and is accepted as up to date fashion. Something that looks out of place will send a message of chaos and distract from the impression of serene optimism you may want to portray.

Adam Lowe is an international award-winning portrait, commercial, and event photographer serving the Washington DC and Baltimore regions from his studio in Silver Spring, MD. Please contact us to learn more.