Recently, I saw something online that struck me as a little funny: Someone was advertising a service to take portraits for Facebook profile photos. Why, I wondered, would anyone pay money to have their face snapped for a little 100-pixel thumbnail? Then I really started to notice... Forums are filled with people asking for advice on taking profile pictures. Folks seem to change their profile photo frequently rather than choosing a portrait and sticking with it, like you keep a driver's license photo. (My daughter changes her Facebook profile photo weekly.) I've already talked about general tips for taking portraits, but this seems like a great time to dive into tips specifically for taking great profile photos.
Traditional portrait photos usually have a vertical orientation, more tall than wide. It's the very origin of the term "portrait orientation," in fact. That's not true about the photos used by most, if not all, social networking and sharing sites, though. Whether you're taking a picture for Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, Windows Live, or some other site, the little frame that your photo sits in is probably going to be perfectly square, or very nearly so.
That can pose a challenge, since we tend to think about portraits as rectangular. You'll want to be sure that the camera is zoomed in (or you are physically close enough). When you compose the shot, put the emphasis on your face, not the rest of your body, or the square cropping will tend to make you appear miniscule, or show way too much of the background.
Use a simple background
Speaking of the background, you might want to keep it really simple. Remember that your profile photo will be very small. At Facebook, for example, most people see a profile photo that's just 50 pixels square. That's like looking at a postage stamp from 3 feet away, so any details in the background will end up looking like noise. You might know what you're looking at, but that's only because you saw the photo when it had 10 million pixels in it. Facebook visitors probably won't have any idea what's going on.
Some people like to use props or a representative setting, but I think the best profile photos have a plain background. Recently, my wife decided she wanted a new profile photo and asked me to take a picture with her camera phone. Unfortunately, we were at a club waiting for a concert to start, and that is rarely the sort of place that's conducive to good photography. Luckily, I found a wall that was solid red and the lighting wasn't abysmal--so I took this shot, which she was quite happy with.
Fill the frame
You already know we're shooting a picture for an oddball square frame, and a noisy background can be a major distraction (I hope my daughter is reading this--her profile pictures are often an indiscriminate jumble of colored pixels, in which I can barely make her out from the background).
So the logical next step? Fill the frame as much as possible. I think that tight, close-up face shots work best for profile photos. That reduces the clutter and lets visitors easily identify you. Here's the picture I currently use on Facebook, which is mostly me, but has just a single background element--a computer monitor.
Don't go overboard, though. Some folks zoom in so far that you only see a part of their face. It's not a flattering look--I call this the "help, let me out" pose.
Another thing that rarely works well is profile photos containing multiple people. Frequently, I see photos of two or three people, or even an entire family portrait, wedged into that tiny frame. It becomes challenging to identify anyone or anything in a space that small. My advice: Save the family portrait for the photo section of the site, and keep the profile focused on you.
Use enough light
Lighting is always important when taking any kind of photo, and doubly so if you're using a camera phone. Certainly, your camera's flash is the enemy. Close-up face shots are easily blown out by camera flash, and in the dark you're likely to get red eye. When I shot that profile photo of my wife that I showed you earlier, I knew we were in a relatively dark place. But instead of using the flash, which would look horrible, I turned on her camera phone's HDR mode, which tries to make the best of available light. The result wasn't something I'd submit in a photo contest, but it was acceptable for Facebook.
Consider the angle
Finally, one last bit of portrait wisdom: Consider your angle. You can take portraits straight on, for example, from below, or above. Folks are generally somewhat more photogenic when shot from an elevated position, which is why you see a lot of photos of people looking up into the camera on Facebook. It might be a cliché, but it actually works. You can easily get that shot yourself by holding your camera phone at arm's length, just about at forehead or hair level, or someone can get the shot for you. Shots from below, though, are generally not that attractive.
Hot pic of the week
Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.
Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.
This week's Hot Pic: "Denver Street Life" by Leo Burkey, Denver, Colorado
Leo says that he processed this photo in Photoshop using a filter called Pixel Bender, which he thinks lends the photo a Norman Rockwell sort of feel.
This week's runner-up: "Cloudy Day" by Nic Jaworski, Charlotte, North Carolina
Nic says that he shot this photo with his LG enV Touch camera phone on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.