How to Take a Great Author Photo

If you want to give someone the heebie-jeebies, pull out a camera and ask if you can take their picture. If you want to see them collapse in a sweat, tell them this will go on the back of their book.

author photo

Rule #1: Don’t take author photos using your computer’s camera after a night drinking grain alcohol and Drano.

In fact, there’s nothing that’ll force you out of your comfort zone than trying to make a go of living off your writing. You can make it either by writing a book that sells a bajillion copies, such as “The Martian,” “Harry Potter,” “Gone Girl,” or “Hunger Games,” or write a lot of books and use your marketing, publicity, and networking wiles to get them into the hands of readers.

Since you can’t bet on writing the next “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” you’ll have to take the other path, and that means making everything you do — story, cover, website, press release — the best you can.

And that includes the author photo.

The Goal of the Author Photo

The purpose of the author photo is two-fold: to present you in the best light possible, and to leave an impression of the types of books you write. This doesn’t mean carrying a gun and wearing a deerstalker if you write mysteries, or dressing like a zombie for your horror novel.*

* This is not a hard-and-fast rule. If you’re writing a novel set in a war zone and you’re ex-Special Ops, a shot of you in the field displaying your HK416 with the AG416 grenade launcher will effectively establish your credibility. If you’re a serious writer of police procedurals and you’re posing aiming a pistol sideways like a gangbanger, however, expect to be mocked.

So before you step before the camera, think about what kind of photo you want. Are your books serious or humorous? What points are you emphasizing in your marketing and can they be reflected here? A cozy bookstore mystery could require a shot of you among your books. A gritty city thriller could benefit from you posing before a wall of bricks, or walking down an alley. Romance writers tend to be carefully made up and posed in beautiful scenes, either out of doors or in beautifully furnished rooms.

Whatever you choose, a best practice is to have one author photo that you use everywhere instead of a half-dozen good ones. Treat your photo like an icon, a brand, so that people recognize you at a glance.

Exception: What if you’re writing under several pen names, or worse, under a name that you don’t want connected to you at all? If it’s the former, it’s best to take several photos that reflect the genre you’re writing in. If you’re writing werewolf bondage porn, you don’t want to use a photo that can be linked back to you; anyone can drop a photo into Google Images and discover not only where it came from, but similar photos. In that case, it’s best to use a photo of your dog.

NOTE: No matter who snaps the shutter, take as many photos as the memory card allows. The invention of digital cameras was a blessing for those of us who have to rely on luck to catch that perfect moment when the hair lies flat, the eyes are open, everything is tucked in, and no one is photo-bombing behind you. Remember: Once the winning picture is chosen, the rest can be trashed and no one will ever see them again.

Who Should Take the Photo?

Self-portrait, a family member or a friend, or a professional? I have done all three, and there’s no one answer.

If you take self-portraits, using the camera’s timer, it’s a lot of bother going back and forth, setting the camera, pushing the button, and then rushing into place. But it’s ideal if you’re camera-shy, no one is handy, or you don’t have the cash to hire a pro. Plus, all that running around provides a handy distraction. Instead of focusing on your facial features, which is a bad idea, you’re wondering when the shutter will go off, so there’s a better chance of catching a natural pose.

My current author photo was captured this way.

Bill Peschel author photo

Enlisting the help of a family or friend saves you the trouble of setting up each shot. It also gives you more opportunities by letting you go places and try different set ups. On the negative side, they may not know anything about how to work a camera except to push the button. They also may not be able to give you advice on how to pose, or notice that your fly is undone, or that light is reflecting off your glasses, making you look like Xmen’s Cyclops.

Hiring a professional photographer means shelling out significant money with the promise of a top-quality product. Not all photographers are the same. Knowing how to light and photograph a subject is not the same as listening to your goals, putting you the paces, and suggesting new and exciting setups. Look at the great photographers. They have a signature style that lets you tell the difference from an Annie Leibovitz photo (most of the time; her quality varies widely) and a Richard Avedon photo.

One photographer who is known for her author photos is Marion Ettlinger. She specializes in serious black-and-white close-ups (usually from the face to face and arms) that show authors as intellectual, studious, deep thinkers. Her photos are so good that they were published (“Author Photo,” 2003). Even if you don’t have the money to hire her, it wouldn’t hurt to study her work to see the variety of ways an author can be posed.

marion ettlinger author photo

Thumbnails of Marion Ettlinger photos from her website.

To hire a photographer, check out their work online, particularly their portraits. Do they show a variety of seeing? Are the facial features varied? Arrange an appointment to talk to them. Explain you’re talking to several photographers (even if you’re not), what you’re looking for and that you would need guidance during the posing session. Inquire about cost and make sure you have the copyright clearance to use the photos for publicity. Ask if you’ll get a file in JPG or RAW format to use as you wish.

You’ll have to decide if you can get along with this person during the hour or so it might take for a photo session. If you feel uncomfortable, if you don’t think you can put yourself in their hands, or if they say something like “we’ll fix everything in Photoshop” — which means they don’t have the skills to do it with the camera — say thank you and that you’ll need time to think about it. Then send them an email and say you regret you’ve decided to go elsewhere. Remember: You’re in business, and so are they. Everybody gets rejected, and they’ll forget you in a day. What they won’t forget is being strung along and ghosted. That’s bad manners.

Tricks and Tips for Posing

I’m not a photographer, so I went online to find advice. The best tips came from the vintage pin-up community, dedicated to making women feel sexy and good about their bodies and attractiveness. These photographers, many of them women, often work with amateurs, so much of their advice seemed appropriate for authors as well.

1. Consider what you’ll wear. If you haven’t worn them in awhile, try them on and see how they fit. The day of the shoot is no time to discover your favorite motorcycle jacket can’t be zipped up (too many doughnuts!) or that your shirt has stains.

2. Same goes for grooming. If you’re going for rugged, or the “you just got out of bed” look, your hair is probably fine. Otherwise, tweak, shave, wash, and groom.

3. If you’re working with a photographer, tell them what you don’t want to see. It’s all right to be vain. You should speak up about your double chins, the bulging belly, the bags under your eyes, or that prominent birthmark. What can’t be minimized by the pose and lighting could be softened or removed by Photoshop.

4. While we’re on that subject, Photoshop does not perform miracles. If the photographer can’t light the set properly, but says they’ll fix it in Photoshop, that means they don’t have the skillset to take great pictures.

5. Bring along your favorite tunes to play. It’ll help relax and distract you while you’re posing.

6. A good portrait is all about the face, and the face expresses what you’re thinking. Being told to “act happy” or “be yourself” is terrible advice and will usually result in a face that could be carved onto Mount Rushmore. Instead, imagine that someone you love just walked into the door. Your face will soften and even glow a little bit. If you want a sterner expression, imagine that it’s someone you dislike, like that reviewer who trashed your last book.

7. Don’t be afraid to move around, dance, jiggle, or pull a funny face. Remember the rule: Take as many photos as the memory card allows. The ones you hate will be trashed forever after the session.

8. Be aware of stress in your body. Your hands threaten to break the edge of the table. Your back’s tight enough to bounce quarters on. A gremlin is stabbing the back of your neck. Shake it off and sing the chorus from the Taylor Swift song, laugh it off, and get back to work.

9. While posing, keeping your tongue against the roof of your mouth will slim your face and minimize the double chin.

10. If you’re staring off to the side, look into the light source whether it comes from the strobe, the softbox, or the umbrella. The light will fall full on the face, brighten your eyes, and flatter you. You don’t want to look like a zombie.

Your author photo is a reflection of your personality and exemplifies your brand. A little thought and preparation will result in a picture that you can be proud off that you won’t have to do again for several years.