How to create a great profile picture

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563677_45352028Our identities in social media play an increasing role in our lives, both the private and professional part of it. And our visual image, the profile picture, is a central part of that. A colleague asked med for some hints about how to create a great profile picture, and here’s my answer. Note that this is written with a professional in mind, but you can apply the same process if you want to make a profile picture for purely personal use. That is actually even more fun as you often can be bolder and more creative.

Plan the message – your “personal brand”

Ok, so you want a profile picture. Let’s first think about you and your profile. Why did you create the profile? What are you trying to tell the world? What kind of impression do you want to deliver with the profile and its picture? Do you want to be seen as a leader, an expert, a visionary, an entrepreneur, an entertainer, a trustworthy partner or just as a nice and comfortable person? And what’s the scope? Is it limited to your professional role only, or do you have hobbies, sports, organization memberships etc. that you want to expose as well? But be focused and don’t bring in too many things. And what’s your primary target audience?

Start by thinking about your personal brand for a while.

Plan the image

When you know who you are and what your brand is, then it is time to plan how to express it visually. Here come’s some points you should consider and which hopefully help you decide what your picture should look like.

But you could start by checking your own photo collection, or ask a friend who likes to shoot. There may already be a picture of you that match your personal brand. If you find a candidate you have to decide if it is good enough or if you want build from scratch. Jump straight to the last section if you find a good shot.

  • A profile picture is small. It may be displayed at medium size on your profile page but most people see just a small thumbnail of it. Do not plan a picture with a message that depends on small details.
  • Make a long-lasting picture. Like the logo of a brand, your picture shouldn’t change frequently. Avoid using visual elements that are in right now, but may be passé tomorrow.
  • Portrait or not? Profile pictures were planned to be a portrait of the user, but there is usually no policy or technical limitation that enforce this. You can use any image, but this guide will focus on how to make a portrait of you.
  • Color or black & white? BW can be used to create an artistic impression, and it may help gaining attention among vivid color shots. But BW depends a lot more on form and shapes, which are hard to express in small format. Color is a safer choice.
  • Think of feelings and adjectives that would support your brand. Like calm, reliable, energetic, empathy, joyful, fun, dignity, etc. Keep the selected words in mind throughout the process.
  • Get inspired by others’ profile pictures. Use Google’s image search with keywords like “profile picture” or “portrait”. Add another word to the search if you want pictures with a particular concept. Also browse through your favorite social media and pay attention to others’ profile pictures. Don’t be shy to steal ideas and build upon them, but avoid copying people in the same digital neighborhood.
  • How bold do you dare to be? You fight for attention in a boiling kettle full of vivid images, but your role and brand may require some dignity.
  • Find out what aspect ratio your favorite social media use for profile pictures. Are they shown as squares or are they higher than they are wide? This should be taken into account when planning the composition.
  • Just a portrait or some environment too? Putting a person into an environment tells a lot more than just a face. Could a particular environment be a good way to express your brand? Are you interacting with the environment or just posing in front of it? But do remember the restriction about image size and small details.
  • All pictures have a background even if it isn’t an environment. Dark or light? Smooth or textured? Solid color or gradient color? Just remember that the background shouldn’t compete with the object unless it has an important story to tell.
  • What colors do you like and what colors would support your brand? If you want to address a global audience, remember that colors have different meanings in other cultures. Check this and this before you decide.
  • Your role may demand a certain type of clothing, and you may have some strong personal preferences in this area. You can be mainstream by following the code or revolt by going your own way. As profile pictures are small you are quite likely to do just show head and parts of the upper body rather than full figure, so the lower parts doesn’t matter. A hat works fine, if it fits your brand.
  • How do you want to pose? Do not plan a too fancy pose as those rarely feel natural in the final picture. Remember that your hands tells a lot about your feelings, also plan their position.
  • Are there any personal attributes that definitively are part of your brand? A typical piece of clothing, or maybe a ponytail?
  • The face expression is important. Use the feelings and adjectives mentioned above when figuring out what expression is best for you.
  • Even subtle changes in the camera angle can have a significant impact on the feeling of the picture. You are on the same level as your peers. You may look helpless and begging if you look up on your audience. And a powerful rulers looks down on his people. These rules may not apply anymore if you go for dramatic camera angles.
  • The lighting of the subject is important. A sharp harsh light creates sharp shadows and make the picture more dramatic. So does light from an unnatural direction, like illuminating a face from below. Smooth even light from every direction eliminates shadows but make the picture dull. The right lighting is usually somewhere between these extremes.
  • If you don’t need an environment you can play with the framing of the face. A dramatic effect is to frame the face really tightly, or even focus on a part of it.
  • Looking into the camera creates a connection between you and the audience. But you may want to differ by looking out of the picture or at an object in the visible environment.
  • Accessories may emphasize your story. You can bring in items that relate to your role and brand.
  • You may want to add graphical elements in post processing. It is good to plan that before you start shooting. These elements will become part of the final composition and affect the visual balance of the picture.

Yes, a lot of different aspects to think of. You do not need to pay a lot of attention to all of these, but they are all things that affect the picture. You may pick some of these points and focus on them. Hope this section puts your mind in creative mode so that you can come up with a great idea.

Take the photo

OK, now you should have a visual idea in your mind about what you want to create. Let’s start doing it by shooting the picture. Some hints that makes it easier to succeed.

  • Ask someone to help you. Sure, you can use a tripod and timer to shoot by yourself. But it is so much easier if you don’t have to run back and forth between your pose and the camera. It is of course a plus if that someone has experience in portrait shooting. Depending on your planned shot, it might be good to have an assistant as well.
  • Plan what camera to use. You do not need the latest megapixel monster as the picture will be shown small. But you should definitively use a camera that produce sharp pictures. Some mobile phone cameras are already good enough, but cheap pocket cameras may not be. Most cameras manage to take decent photos in good light, but use a system camera if you want to play with low-light scenes.
  • Scout the place to shoot where you have the right environment or background.
  • Plan when to shoot. The light conditions depend on weather and time of day. Other conditions, like traffic for example, may dictate when to shoot if you are planning to do it in a public place.
  • Plan the lighting. Will natural light be enough or do you need artificial light to achieve the desired result? If the light is sharp, you may want your assistant to reflect light onto the shadow side of the face using a light flat object, like a sheet of Styrofoam.
  • Shoot wide. Leave enough room on all sides of the object. It is easier to crop and create the perfect composition afterwards on the computer.
  • Control the balance between object and background. You can make the background less distracting by making it darker or less sharp. You can blur it by moving the object further from the background and/or using a larger aperture setting in the camera.
  • If you plan to replace the background using Photoshop, then it should be as even as possible. Select a color that creates a sharp contrast around all parts of you.
  • Be careful with focusing, especially if you try to blur the background by using a large aperture. Always make sure the primary area of interest is in focus, which almost always is the eyes in portraits.
  • Work on the technical details first without minding pose and face expression. Shoot, check the result on the camera’s screen, adjust something and shoot again until the light and exposure are right.
  • Then continue to find the right pose. Just shoot until you are satisfied with what you see on the screen.
  • Finally work on the face expression.
  • When done, look through the shot carefully and check all the details. Load the picture into a laptop and view it on a proper screen before you pack your stuff and leave the shooting scene. At this point it is still easy to correct small details and take another shot.
  • Why not try some variations when you are up to speed. Change clothes or pose or something else and shoot some more. It’s good to have more shots to select from.

Finalize the image

Now you should have a decent picture of yourself. It might be good as is, but all pictures can be improved by post processing. Use Photoshop or your favorite image editing program, or ask a savvy friend to help. These are examples of things that can be used to brush up the picture.

  • Adjusting overall exposure, contrast and color saturation.
  • Putting more or less attention on objects by making them darker or lighter.
  • Selectively blurring unimportant parts.
  • Cropping the picture.
  • Concentrating focus to the center of the image with a vignetting.
  • Cloning out distracting details.
  • Replacing the background.
  • Adding graphical elements like frames, logos and symbols.
  • Maybe doing more advanced manipulations like combining two shots with different face expressions. Your imagination is the only limit. (And the limited picture size of course.)
  • Or why not get a cheap round of plastic surgery if your Photoshop operator is savvy enough for that. :)
  • Remember to zoom out and view the picture as small as it will be shown in reality. Does it still work?

OK, that’s it. Now you should have a great profile picture. But as always, testing is important. Show the picture to someone else and ask them for honest opinions. Your test audience should not know how you have planned the picture and what you have tried to achieve. Even better, use people who don’t know you at all. Ask them to describe the person in the picture just based on what they feel when seeing it. (Some persons are better than others on this.) It’s a success if that match what you tried to achieve.

And last but not least. This is important but it is after all just a picture. It helps you get attention and new followers, but in the long run people will still judge you by what you post.

Safe surfing,
Micke

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