How to Choose Better Profile Pictures

Learn what makes a great social media profile photo.

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read

Use a Natural, Smiling Headshot

First, for your primary profile image, use a high-quality headshot. To be clear, that's a photograph of your head and shoulders. Keep in mind that profile photos are usually very small and your readers mostly want to see your face, so that’s what the majority of the photo should be—your face.

I've know I’ve mentioned this before, but smiling and eye contact are both very important--even for pictures. In fact, researchers found that both men and women find people who smile and look straight at them more attractive and more likable.

So, be sure to smile energetically (think of something you are particularly proud of to makes your eyes sparkle!). Forget the brooding, serious look. Look directly at the camera. Forget the sunglasses. Forget the artistic half-the-head-cut-off shot. Forget the cartoon avatar. If you really like those looks, then leave those for secondary or tertiary images.

Use an Uncluttered Background

Next, choose a photo that has an uncluttered background. Pure black and pure white work great because the focus will be on your face instead of the background. In a pinch, I sometimes take a quick snap of my clients in front of a dark evergreen tree just outside my office door. By using a short depth of field, it makes the background slightly blurry, which makes it a great spur of the moment plain dark uncluttered background.

You definitely don't want to use a photo that includes someone else--even if the other person is mostly cut out from the picture. Don't include other things either. Turns out men, in particular, tend to like to include things like cars or their new mid-life crisis Harley. Again, the photo should be your head and shoulders against a plain background with a big smile looking directly at the camera.

Wear Appropriate Clothing

Next choose appropriate clothing. First this means you're actually WEARING clothing! Men, no bare chests, and ladies, no swim suits. In fact, long sleeves tend to work better than short sleeves because bare skin tends to distract from the main focal point--the face.

You'll want to choose clothing that is appropriate to your profession. For example, a shirt and jacket is likely to be overkill for a person who works in higher education, but, could be appropriate for a lawyer or doctor. For students, think business casual. In general, collared shirts tend to frame the face nicely and are often a good option for both men and women.

Choose solids and dark or neutral colors (black or navy blue work well). Don't wear crazy patterns or bright colors. In some of my photos I am wearing a black shirt, whereas in others, I am wearing a dark red shirt (I was hoping people would think passionate when they saw the picture.) However, in most cases, simple, unobtrusive, and understated clothing works best because it allows the expression on your face to remain the focal point.

So, there you have it, some quick and dirty tips to help you make a great impression with your social media profile picture. To be approachable and memorable, choose a head and shoulders shot against a plain background. Be sure you are smiling and looking at the camera, and finally, wear appropriate clothes.

This is The Public Speaker, Lisa B. Marshall. Passionate about communication, your success is my business.

For discounts, insider tips, and freebies, I invite you to join my newsletter or the Facebook Page. I’d also like to invite you to join my networks on LinkedIn and Twitter – this way I can see your profile photo!

If you have a question, send email to publicspeaker@quickanddirtytips.com. For information about keynote speeches or workshops, visit lisabmarshall.com.


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Businesswoman image courtesy of Shutterstock


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.