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I can still remember the days (long ago) when an author’s photo on a book cover was optional. Sometimes there would be one, often in black-and-white; sometimes not. Now, however, in these days of “mediagenic” authors and digital imagery, the author photo is no longer an option. Which is a little stressful for those of us who have a disproportionate number of bad hair days or who may not love the camera.
But, as Jane Friedman writes in this blog post, every author needs a professional head shot. For one, if you hope to promote yourself and your book, you’ll be asked for one — and, as Friedman points out, a photo can do wonders in terms of giving you credibility or establishing trust … or have the opposite effect.
Jane’s post offers excellent tips for what you’ll want in a photo, and I’ll add a couple more:
– Stay within your budget, or you’re sure to be even more stressed about it. There’s nothing worse than spending money you don’t have … but especially on a photo that will remind you of it at every turn. Many wonderful photographers out there know that we writers don’t make a lot of money; find one that you can afford, then relax and enjoy the process.
– Invest in a good camera, and find someone who knows how to use it. It’ll pay off in the end — for one, you can take photos on your book tour and at other events, which are always nice to have. Two, you can take a few good shots to offer in addition to your Official Author Photo. And, finally, you may even be able to use it for your Official Author Photo, especially if you don’t like or can’t afford the more formal studio shots. The photo I’m currently using was taken by my husband (who put himself through college in part by working as a photographer), and while it’s not a professional studio shot, I like the more casual feel of it.
– Be yourself. Have you ever been to a reading where you couldn’t identify the author because he/she looked so unlike the photo on the book cover? Beware of this. You’ll want to look your best, but don’t go too crazy with hair and makeup; most of all, you’ll want to look like yourself. And, while it’s certainly tempting, avoid using a photo that captures your youthful self but doesn’t at all resemble your current self. In this blog post, author Mary Akers concludes that author photos should be updated every ten years — and this seems just about right; it allows us to put off the trauma of author photos for a good amount of time yet still keep our image somewhat up-to-date.
– Interview photographers. This is a great idea no matter what, but especially if you’re going to spend a lot of money. Once you’ve narrowed down your list based on the portfolios you like the best, schedule a meeting or a chat as well. Make sure the photographer knows exactly what you want and can achieve this for you. And make sure it’s someone you feel comfortable with, or you won’t be looking very relaxed in your photos.
– Check out this Q&A with photographer Rosanne Olson, below.
I first encountered Rosanne’s work in her beautiful book, This Is Who I Am, a collection of images and essays on women, body image, and compassion that Kate Winslet called “an absolutely wonderful book” and declared, “Every woman needs to see it!” As well as an author, Rosanne is an award-winning photographer and photojournalist who also has more than thirty years’ experience as a teacher and lecturer. She is particularly passionate about telling stories through portraits — of women, families, business professionals…and, yes, authors.
Rosanne generously agreed to chat with me about author photos, offering more important tips for authors to keep in mind. All the photographs below, including author photos of Wendy Call, Susan Rich, and Kelli Russell Agodon, are courtesy of Rosanne. Visit Rosanne’s website for more on her work.
What do you think makes a good author photo?
The photograph needs to convey how the author wants to portray himself/herself. Usually that means approachable, intelligent, engaging. Some people are more dramatic in how they want to be seen. Some are more friendly or sophisticated.
What advice can you offer to writers who are nervous about having their photos taken?
People come to me with varying degrees of “nervousness” about how they look and how they “photograph” (“No one has ever taken a good photo of me” is a common complaint). This is very natural. My approach to get people to relax is to spend time talking to my clients before I pick up my camera. I also will likely read some of their work prior to the session. I make recommendations about clothing and makeup, and then, as the session proceeds, share some of the digital images with the client. I like to make them feel that they are in competent and compassionate hands with something that is very precious to them. After the session, I get them to sit with me to edit the photos to make sure they get the look they want.
What are the biggest mistakes authors make when it comes to their photos?
Sometimes people come here with too much makeup on. Or they bring their clothing stuffed into a bag so everything is wrinkled. Believe me, not just authors do this but lots of people. It is actually pretty amusing except for the fact that clothing then needs to be pressed or steamed here. Aside from that, people are usually willing to trust me to do the best possible job that I can with them. It is an exquisite collaboration.
What should an author expect to pay for a professional author photo?
Photographers’ fees vary across the country, but most charge somewhere between $150 and $2,500. If you pay the least amount possible for a photo you may get something okay. Or even just fine. But will it work for years to come? I try to work with people and their budgets. It is definitely an important investment.
Do you recommend color or black-and-white for author photos — and why?
Things are shot digitally these days so all images come out in color and it takes an extra step to convert them to black-and-white or sepia. That said, I think color conveys more because it is, well, color.
Do you have any recommendations for authors who are looking for a photographer? What questions should they ask?
An author photo is an important piece of one’s “brand.” If you have a photo you like, you can use it for years. When people see it they will think of you and of your work. I think of some of the famous, famous photos of people like Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver and how they convey so much at a glance. Pick your photographer by looking at the photographer’s web site and perhaps talking on the phone. Also, ask for references from other artists and authors who have been photographed by that person.