He stared at me with a blank look on his face. It was a look of surprise and embarrassment that betrayed the fact that he had never considered this very fundamental question before. He was a marketer for a large international law firm, and the answer to this question should have informed many different decisions he made in marketing the firm. I wasn’t very surprised by his reaction.

I used to be a trial lawyer and I am accustomed to cross examining people. This felt exactly like that. “Why do you put pictures of the lawyers on your website?” He stared blankly for a moment and then stammered out “so you know what they look like?” I promise I am not making this up.

This answer isn’t wrong, but it isn’t very good either. Perhaps a better way to say it is “to put a name with a face.” When I am talking to or emailing Johnny Lawyer, I can picture his lovable mug. Considering how unpopular having your headshot made can be with some people, this does not seem like a fantastic answer.

Another answer I commonly get to that question is “well, you just have to. Most people do.” Again, while this isn’t the best answer, it definitely is not wrong. It is true that most people do it, and if you don’t it looks strange, like you are not serious. Have you ever received a friend request on social media such as Facebook or LinkedIn where the requester did not have a profile picture? It’s like that. It’s strange. You wonder if they’re even a real person.

A much better answer to that question is as follows. That online headshot is going to be the first impression you make on many potential clients. First impressions and the common knowledge surrounding them are one of those things that everybody knows is true and actually is true. The research in this area is overwhelming. First impressions are formed almost instantaneously, visuals are far more important than text, they are very sticky, and first impressions formed online carry over into the real world. Since that is the case, it would be a good idea to make that first impression a very strong one.

The majority of headshots I see do not make strong first impressions. In fact, many of them make very poor first impressions. People can look uncomfortable, freaked out, scared, and uncertain. For example, Jackson Walker, a law firm with an outstanding reputation and some of the best legal talent in Texas, has some of the worst headshots I have ever seen. They have litigation partners that look like scared little boys. What really pisses me off about this is that it is not their fault at all. They don’t deserve it. They just have no idea what to do in front of the camera, and of course they should not. It is not their area of expertise. The expressions that they put on their faces when they were being photographed should not have been left up to them. Most people who claim to be headshot photographers don’t have an eye for expression and don’t know how to direct it. As a result, they leave it up to their clients who also don’t know what to do, and the result is bad first impressions.

Just so you don’t think I am beating up on other people, I would use myself as an example. Nine years ago or so when I was still a lawyer, I received an email from the firm administrator that read “we are taking headshots for the website. We need you in the auxiliary conference room next Tuesday at 10:20 AM. Wear a dark suit.” Like many people, I was not very excited about this. I felt like I was not photogenic. I generally did not like pictures of myself. There was a time in college that a friend took a picture of me at a party that I thought looked pretty cool, but that did not happen very often.

That evening I stood in my bathroom looking at myself in the mirror practicing difference smiles. Nothing looked very good to me. I figured it was just because I was not photogenic, and I was not photogenic because frankly I was not good looking enough. If I looked like Harrison Ford, I would look good in pictures.

The next morning when I walked into the conference room, the headshot photographer sat me down at the conference table, got my head and my body in certain positions, and then left the rest of it up to me. The result was that I looked insane. It is like the last face you’ll see when you wake up in the middle of the night being strangled to death. It certainly did not make me look like a confident litigator, like a person who you would trust your most important personal legal matters to. Unfortunately, this happens to a lot of people.

headshot of gillett that looks crazy

Looks Crazy

There is no magical combination of facial features that make people photogenic. I have worked with extremely attractive people who were a mess in front of the camera, and I have worked with people who were not as genetically gifted who were amazing. Being photogenic is doing the right things in front of the camera. Remember Harrison Ford? Click the links below to see a picture of Harrison Ford looking amazing and a picture of him looking extremely uncomfortable. By the way, I can do it too. I mean look confident. Anyone can.

Headshot of Gillett that looks super confident

Looks Confident

Extra examples to click on:

Uncomfortable Harrison

Super Cool Harrison

This is what most people including most headshot photographers do not understand, and it is why many headshots suck. When you combine this with a poor understanding of why the headshot is even being made, it is no surprise that the results can often make you look bad and perhaps even widen your self acceptance gap. Can you imagine the overall decline in self image that can occur at a company after some dilettante gets through with them?

With my clients, my goal is always to make them look extremely confident, like they are good at what they do, they are experts in their field, and they are extremely successful. At the same time, I make them look approachable, like they are nice people and are trustworthy. And the resulting poised and pleasant look that projects this confidence and approachability can, and this is the most important part of this entire article, increase their perceived level of expertise. No other headshot photographer is currently talking about the role that a good headshot can play in your perceived level of expertise, so it shouldn’t surprise us that other folks don’t understand it either.

I cannot over emphasize this. I see it all the time. People who should know better, marketers, advertisers, website designers, firm administrators, human resource professionals, the owner’s spouse, whoever is driving the decision to have headshots made usually do not fully understand why. At least now you do, so thanks for reading this far. They demonstrate this to me in conversations like the following.

Website Guy:
Photograph their full torsos.
Gillett:
Why would I do that?
Website Guy:
So we have several cropping options.
Gillett:
That really isn’t my question. Why would you show any of these people’s torsos? I am too skinny, and my torso doesn’t do me any good in a headshot. Some of these people look like heart attack candidates. Why would I start down a three year litigation path with someone who looks like he could farc out in twelve months? That is one reason not to. The burden of proof, however, is on you. Give me one reason to show full torsos in these headshots.
Website Guy:
Okay, just give me half torso.

Another vignette:

Another Website Guy:
Photograph them standing behind a conference room chair and leaning on it with their arms like is on the website now.
Gillett:
You want me to make these litigators look like someone has them bent over a chair?!? Are you nuts? Have you thought about the message that sends? No one bends these people over a chair. If anything, they bend someone else over a chair.
Another Website Guy:

A certain perceived level of expertise is often the only or the main thing that my clients have to market themselves with. Take lawyers for example. Their firms will acquire former Texas Supreme Court justices as partners, purchase expensive artwork for the conference rooms and waiting areas, and spend a ton of money on their offices in general to increase their perceived level of expertise. Despite all of these efforts, many organizations if not most will miss one of the most important and cost effective means of increasing their professionals’ perceived level of expertise, the well made headshot. Having said all of that, here is a final caveat: not everyone needs to increase their perceived level of expertise. Some people just need a competent headshot, and they will hope that they look okay. For some people such as my clients, the goal is much higher as are the rewards. For the rest of you, just try not to look constipated.

TL;DR: confident and approachable headshot = increased perceived level of expertise.