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How To Take Your Own “Professional” Portrait

a.k.a. Selfies for fun and profit
Train to be a model, or just look like one

Every marketing website should have quality photographs of the people involved. Nay, not just photos... Portraits!

You may not have the resources to hire a professional portraitist, so here are some tips to do it yourself.

Have fun

This is the first tip for so many reasons. If you dread doing this, you’ll put it off. Lighten up! If you are full of life while taking the shots that will come across to others. Professional photographers are part cheerleader and part psychologist, pumping up the model and pushing the right buttons. Do that for yourself and your portraits will shine.

Make it an event

This is not just a to-do. It’s an event. Prepare accordingly.

You have the technology in your pocket

Chances are your smart phone camera has all the resolution you need. You can’t blame the equipment.

Location, location, location

Take great care with the background of your shots. A plain wall or “field of color/pattern” often work best, if possible.

Look for elements that feel out of place or otherwise steal attention from the subject. Could be a lightswitch, door frame, exit sign… anything you don’t notice in day-to-day life but will stick out in a portrait should be avoided.

Also look for odd relationships to the subject. Maybe because of line of sight it looks like something is coming out of your head. Not good.

All that said maybe a busy background is great for you, if it has the personality you want. Wallpaper? Artwork? Nature? Shelves of stuff? You decide.


This is a HUGE factor that is often overlooked. In general it is good to use natural lighting, but avoid direct sunlight in any part of the photo. A good trick is facing toward (or angled toward) a window with indirect light. Absolutely avoid light that is primarily coming from above (ceiling lights) or below (unless you are a mad scientist or professional monster).

Look the part

Your wardrobe, hair/grooming, etcetera make a major difference. Whatever image you’re trying to present, turn it up a little extra. Go out of your way to appropriately “dress up” for this special event. Not overdressed, just right. With a little extra.


Leave ample space around the subject (you). We can crop in, but we can’t crop out! The eventual cropping may even tell part of the story. If you leave space we can experiment with that later. Future you will thank current you if you leave lots of space.

Who takes the photo?

Best: have a camera-person

If you can, get someone to handle the camera/phone for you. Your partner, a friend, anyone who cares about helping you get good results. Tell them what you’re going for (maybe show them these tips). You've already done the heavy lifting; they just need to be there, hold the camera, and press the button over and over and over again. Let them know you'll be taking a LOT of shots — just keep pressing/tapping that button — and how you want the shots (not) cropped. Piece of cake.

Alternative: use a “tripod” and a timer

This might be a “real” tripod or rigged from available resources like propping the camera up on a stack of books. This will let you have a nice open crop with lots of background. Be prepared for a lot of back-and-forth.

Alternative: use a webcam

Recent-model webcams take surprisingly decent quality photos. Follow the other tips and you can do well. The main issue with using a webcam is you may be limited as to where you can take the photo.

Last resort: take selfies

It is hard to take a selfie (holding the camera in your hand or on a stick) that doesn’t look like a selfie. This initiative is about raising the bar so selfies are really a last resort. That said, if you are conscious of all the other tips (ESPECIALLY the camera angle) you can make it work. Take selfies that don't look like selfies (unless a selfie is on-brand for your business).

Be a model, work that camera

A good general presentation is head and chin up, back straight, neck long, shoulders down, confident and self-assured but warm. However, if you stop there you may be missing out on pure gold.

Take a LOT of shots, experimenting with posture and expression changes. Be an actor and assume a role. Embody the traits you want to exude and see what comes across in the images. Say "Confident" or "Warm". Get creative about what those traits might be. For example, try on “Conspiratorial” and “Star-struck”.

Try some extreme emotions/personalities: scared, surprised, elated, seductive, disbelieving, comically evil, etcetera. These serve as a way to loosen up and bring out some humanity. Tell an emotive story while the camera is snapping. The “outtakes” are usually the most engaging and personable shots. Create something that feels fun to you, just for you.

And, hey, you never know. The shot you end up using may not be one you thought you were going to take when you first started.

Take “off” shots

Pros don't say "3, 2, 1..." they are constantly shooting. Often the best image is not when you thought the camera was taking the shot, but just before or just after that. If your camera has a "burst" mode or similar that will take a lot of shots in a row, try using it. Or, just repeatedly hit the shutter button. If you have a helper, ask them to take shots even "in-between" poses.

Camera angle

How does it change the feeling of the image if the camera is at the same level of your eyeline, above it, or below it (even subtly so)? Experiment!

Be prepared to do more

Take some shots and evaluate. Look at the background, lighting, posture, expression, etcetera. Make improvements and take some more. When you feel like you have enough to draw from, take another round doing something fresh. Go way out there.

You should have dozens if not 100+ shots to choose from. Pros take a ridiculous number of photos in order to get that one shot that works. You should, too.


When you start winnowing I plead with you to follow this important rule of thumb: resist throwing out any shot that makes you laugh. “But we can’t really use that, can we?” is a good sign that Yes, you should really use that. Why not? If your potential clientele is anything like you, they are going to love it! The ones you would share with friends might also be the ones you should use to market your services. I have a capitalist thought about that: “when people laugh, they feel good; when people feel good, wallets open.” Even if it is only the first part that happens, that is a win in my book. Be noteworthy.

About photos of team members

When taking photos of individual team members make sure there is some common element. It may be that the background is always the same. Or everyone is obviously wearing the same t-shirt or holding the same stuffed animal. Maybe everyone is cartoonishly frowning (an unusual thing for portraits). Whatever it is, keep your team from being a hodge-podge “team” of disparate photos. Tie them together, making sure the unifying factor is repeatable when you bring in new team members.

Have a question or comment about this post, or just want to say hi? Drop me a line

Earlier Post: Why testimonials are so important, and how to ask for them

Later Post: The wonderful stupidity of Mini Habits

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