Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How to take an author photo

First of all, I am not a photographer, I'm a writer and a graphic designer. I've studied photography in a peripheral way, but not as a professional. So this is a general post about aesthetics more than anything. In that as in all things: To thine own self be true.

Before we went out on Saturday to chase the will-o-the-wisp that is the perfect authorial photo, I took a look around online to see what other authors did. I was hoping for a to-do list and ended up with a pretty extensive to-don't list to go with it.

Did we find that "perfect" picture? Well, let's say it ended up perfect for me. No matter how you feel about my photo, though, that research helped me make a better author photo, so I thought I'd share it with you.


  • Be in focus. This is more your photographer than you, but you get to pick the pic you use so be aware that soft focus just makes you look like you went to Glamor Shots. Also, the best outfit and artistic composition in the world won't help if I can't tell it's you.
  • Be well lit. Natural lighting is the way to go if you don't want to invest in studio lighting. A slightly overcast day is awesome; a photographer friend refers to clouds as "God's diffusion filter".  If your face is too shadowed to discern, you'll have to shoot at higher speed (often resulting in a grainy picture) or lighten the photo in Photoshop (same result).
  • Look like you wrote the book. The biggest objection my publisher had to my original photo was that I wasn't smiling. I didn't look funny and it's a funny book. If you're a crime novelist, a steely stare is well and good, but don't glower on the back cover of your romance novel.
  • Dress comfortably. Author photography isn't usually a formal occasion. Don't look like you just came in from doing the gardening, but a tie or dress aren't necessary either. If you're comfortable, it shows; it's as simple as that.
  • Pose comfortably. This goes for any portrait as far as I'm concerned, but that's another blog post. Don't lay down, but don't look like you have a stick up your butt either.
  • Look as much like yourself as possible. This goes back to the second point, but deeper. The photo I chose wasn't as much about being a good photo as it was about picking something that looked like me. 
  • Get a second opinion. Your publisher, your agent, or even better, a loved one can tell you if you look comfortable, happy, and ready to sell some books. "This is the one that looks the most like you" said my wife, the person who knows and likes me the most. Who can second-guess that kind of input?


  • Blend into your backdrop. Mind what you have behind you, and stand out. If it's not too broad of a brush to paint with, authors tend to be the sort that blend in by preference. There are times when that is cool... this is not one of the times.
  • Use a cheap-o camera Unless it's top of the line, skip the cell phone camera. If the images start to look grainy when you blow them up bigger than 5"x7", it's the wrong camera to use. (Or you need to improve your lighting, see above.) Borrow a decent camera or find someone who has a decent camera and get them to take the shot.
  • Confuse this with an actor's headshot. Actors are trying to look like they could be anyone, play any role if you'd just ask them to, but especially leading man/lady if you please. An author should look like someone who wrote the book you're holding in your hands.
  • Use a photo you don't have reproduction rights to. Here's a difficult thing for people to understand: Just because you're in a photo doesn't mean you have the rights to use that photo however you like. Unless you hire someone specifically to create an image for you (work for hire) and your agreement says the image is for publicity and publication, the rights to a photo belong to the photographer. If you use it in a way that was not intended, you are violating their copyright and could be sued.
  • Use a photo where you cannot see your face. We want to get to know the person behind the words. That's hard to do if your face is covered or you're so shadowed or far from the camera that we cannot make out your facial expression.
  • Clutter the photo. It's tempting to have a ton of writing paraphernalia or research books or whathaveyou surrounding you. It's okay, you don't need to use your author photo to convince anyone of the depth of your research or how seriously you take being a writer.
  • Do the "I am deep in thought" pose. Keep your chin out of your hands, eriously, you're not convincing anyone.

Bonus Tip

  • e-Ink is a thing. My publisher rightly pointed out that the image has to work in high contrast black & white, not just color. e-Ink screens cannot display color and there are millions of ereaders like the Kindle Paperwhite still using e-Ink instead of backlight screens.

Composition is key

We've discussed "The rule of thirds" before. As a compositional shorthand for photographers and graphic designers, it's the old standby. But there are other rules of composition that help you align elements in a pleasing manner whether it's photography or a book cover.

Please note: You can skip most of these concerns by hiring a professional. It's not as expensive as you might think and these photos will be seen by everyone who reads your book, visits your blog, follows you on Twitter or Facebook, or just reads your bio on your publisher's website. It's important. As I often say, writing is a business, invest in your business.

That said, if you don't have a publisher doing the cover and have to choose between paying for a decent cover and paying a photographer to take my author photo, I would opt for the graphic designer. Not because I am a graphic designer, but because though my photographer friends might disagree, I think it's easier to accidentally get a great photo than it is to stumble into great graphic design. (If you want to try it, though, I previously wrote about cover design here in this post Judged by its Cover: An introduction to book design. Good luck to you!)

While I was thinking about this today, this lovely video on the basics of photo composition crossed my desk from the folks at National Geographic. It's worth noting that the first thing discussed is the Rule of Thirds, but there are other rules and ways to break them that are worth discussing.

My wife does this instinctively. As I said, she's almost irritatingly talented sometimes. The rest of us have to think about it, but once you start seeing composition you'll start noticing it everywhere.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).