If you log on to Facebook and grimace yet again at the sight of your driver’s license-like "mug shot," take heart. Most people could use a little sprucing up when it comes to their online image. It’s not just a matter of vanity: With potential bosses, business partners and romantic interests Googling you and checking out your profile on LinkedIn and other social networking sites, the photos of you that live in cyberspace have become your online “stamp" and your ticket to a new job or partnership, either romantic or professional.
Don’t underestimate the effect these images have on others. While we all grew up being told not to judge a book by its cover, the truth is that we all do it. And because people are forming their first impressions of you based solely on your photo, you need a great one to win you the opportunity to show a potential boss or date how attractive or charming you are in real life. The following six steps will help you create an authentic and attractive online image. Think of it as the real you, slightly enhanced.
1. Show the real you: It’s more than a little deceptive to upload a decade-old vacation photo and try to pass it off as current. The same holds true for pictures taken when you were 10 pounds lighter. And while it may seem clever to post your baby photo, an avatar drawing or your “Mad Men” doppelganger, it works against the goal of showing the world who you really are.
“When you’re on a site like LinkedIn or Facebook, you want to build a rapport and trust with the people you’re virtually connected to,” says image consultant Julie Maeder of New Leaf Image Consulting in Troy, Mich. “A photo that misrepresents you in any way can lead your connections to have doubts about you or draw the conclusion that you’re ashamed of your looks, or even that you’re hiding something.” By the same token, never leave a photo field blank, which can imply the same things — or that you're lacking in self-confidence.
2. Think like a film director: Step back and think holistically about the message your photo is sending. This includes your choice of background, lighting, dress code as well as who is (or isn’t) in the shot with you. In clothing, solids are always a better choice than patterns (which are distracting), and bright colors are better than dull ones because they make you seem vibrant, not drab.
- Tailor your image to your objective. If you’re looking for a job in a conservative industry, dress the part and select tasteful accessories. Creative? Showcase your style and flair.
- As any photographer can tell you, lighting makes or breaks a photo, so avoid harsh overhead lighting, which exaggerates wrinkles and sagginess. Choose a backdrop that accentuates rather than fights your natural coloring and clothing.
- The same rules apply to online dating sites. Don’t post a photo of you with your ex — and unless you’re a pro at Photoshop, cropping him or her out will look cheesy. Women: Avoid anything too provocative or too stodgy. Men: Button that shirt and take off the baseball cap!
- “People spend a ton of time on their outfit and their accessories but neglect to think about the wall behind them,” says Bryn Taylor, founder of the Re-Stylist, a fashion styling firm in New York City and San Francisco. “Pick a location first and choose your outfit second. You want something that both flatters you and keeps you from blending into the background. If you pick a white background, opt for a darker top. Or if you’re sitting on a dark gray sofa, wear a light-colored top for contrast."
- No matter how much you love your pets, they don’t belong in a picture that will live in a career site — unless you’re in the dog-grooming business. “You want to project a clear representation of who you are as a social person,” Maeder says. “Your photo should communicate whether you’re extroverted, funny, playful, mysterious or thoughtful.” When in doubt, have a friend shoot you doing what you love most, whether that’s cooking, playing tennis or walking in the woods.
3. Update your image periodically: It sounds like a big “duh,” but looking contemporary is essential. “For LinkedIn or other career-oriented sites, you should look professional but not overly staged or stiff like some headshots tend to be,” Maeder says. “Keep your wardrobe simple and appropriate for your profession — but wear something current. That includes your hairstyle. Look out of date and a potential employer might think your ideas are out of date, too.”
This is even more important on dating sites. While you want to post your most attractive photo, your hair should reflect you at your most natural. So if you have curly hair, don’t upload a photo after a keratin treatment. You want your date to recognize you when you actually meet face-to-face.
4. Perfect your smile: You want to convey warmth through your smile. If this is hard for you, then next time you’re having your picture taken think about something that makes you happy, Maeder says. “When you daydream about something pleasant, your eyes smile, too,” she says. “By contrast, if you try to smile without thinking of something pleasant, your eyes won’t match your expression and your smile will look fake.”
5. Watch your angles: Be a savvy subject by tilting your chin up a little instead of looking directly into the camera. This makes even the roundest of faces look more sculpted. “And stick your chin out and slightly pull it away from your neck,” says Susie Galvez, an author, speaker and beauty industry expert based in Richmond, Va. “This makes the jawline look stronger, and double chins will magically disappear. But unless you are a personal trainer or have a good reason for showing your full body (or even from the waist up), stick with a headshot."
6. Get a second opinion: Before you upload any images, email your favorites to one or two friends who know you well and whom you trust, Taylor says. They might wind up picking something you don’t like because they see you more objectively than you can. Even if you don’t agree, be open to their opinion. We’re our own worst critics, but the name of the game is winning others’ stamp of approval — and maybe a fabulous new job or relationship.
Lambeth Hochwald is a New York City–based magazine writer.