established 2008

Media Training

Taking A Good Bio Picture

by Joreth Innkeeper © copyright 2010

The two types of pictures you are probably most familiar with are online profile pictures, and actors' headshots. A Bio Picture is neither one. A Bio Picture is something that is used in press kits, so that when a story is written about someone, there is a picture for the reader to identify the subject. Think of the photograph on the back of a book, or next to a journalist's byline.

So the first thing you want to do is to ask yourself, what do you want the world to know about you?

Keep this in the context of your reasons for becoming a Poly Spokesperson. Is one of your primary goals to emphasize a stable family life? Are you representing the Urban Professionals? Much like the Dress For Credibility section, you want to choose something that shows off your conservative side - find a tone-down version of your authentic self. And remember the tips from the Dress For Credibility section on television and film regarding colors and patterns for wardrobe.

Next, you will want to practice some poses. Whatever you do, do not take a picture of yourself facing the camera squarely. This is one of the most unflattering poses possible, especially with consumer snapshot cameras, since they typically have a wide-angle lens. Also, don't take a picture of yourself holding your own camera. Those make interesting online profile pictures, but do not make good, professional-looking headshots. Use a tripod or set the camera on a table or other level surface. Most digital cameras nowadays come with timer settings - use them or use a friend. With digital, you can take as many as needed until you get one you like.

If you do not have a professional photographer helping you to suggest more complicated poses, stick with the basics and take a picture from the waist up. We'll discuss a few poses, then go on to backgrounds and lighting.


A basic pose is to turn your body so that you are facing only 3/4 of the way towards the camera, and to face your head squarely towards the camera. If standing, you can place one foot in front of the other with your weight on the back leg to help keep you from facing flat.

Another pose is to turn your body so that you are facing 3/4 AWAY from the camera and turn your head to look over your shoulder back at the camera. Keep your shoulders relaxed and back, don't hunch.

If you have access to a stool and table at the right height, you can sit on the stool with your back to the table and your side to the camera. Then lean backwards and rest your elbow (the one closest to the camera) on the table behind you while turning your head towards the camera and twisting your body at the waist slightly towards the camera (your body will naturally want to turn this way if you have only one elbow up on the table behind you).

And one final pose suggestion is to sit on a stool (no chair backs) facing the camera, spread your knees, and rest one foot on a block or a stool so that the knee is raised and the thigh is parallel with the ground, while the other knee is slightly lower, or possibly straight down. Next, take the arm that is on the same side as the raised knee, and rest the elbow on your knee. Keep your other arm to your side and out of the way, keeping your shoulders back and relaxed. As an alternate, you can rest your other arm on the lowered thigh if that is more comfortable or creates a more pleasing shape to your shoulders. Turn your face to the camera. You may be tempted to rest your head on the hand of the arm on the raised knee. Avoid doing this if you don't have someone with portrait photography experience to adjust your head and hand position for you.

As for head tilt, in all pictures, you do not want to be looking down your nose towards the camera. Keep your chin pointed down. Make sure your camera is at eye level or slightly higher and your head and body are not leaned backwards, giving us an up-the-nose shot. It is better to be looking slightly upwards at the camera than downwards, but straight on is the safest. Leaning back and looking down is popular for band pictures, but it creates a feeling of arrogance and aggression which will make your audience feel alienated or in opposition to you. In your Bio Picture, you want to create a feeling of invitation and trustworthiness, not put your audience off before they even hear you speak.

Crossed arms does the same thing, by the way, so avoid poses with crossed arms.

You also want to avoid tilting your head sideways too much - unless you have a professional photographer who is putting you in a pose that requires a sideways-tilted head. If you normally take sideways-tilted-head pictures for a coy and flirtatious look, practice in front of a mirror keeping your head straight, especially if you go for one of the over-the-shoulder poses. A tilted head just makes you look like you are a doll with a broken neck.

In all poses, you want to look straight into the camera lens without squinting. You want a pleasant expression, but it is up to you if you wish to smile, and whether to smile widely or with a closed mouth. Do not force a "Cheese!" fake expression. Your "smile" should come out through your eyes, and for that, it needs to be real. Pulling up the corners of your mouth is not a smile - when we smile naturally, we engage all the muscles in our faces.

Think of what kind of personality you wish to imply, and then actually put yourself in that mood before sitting down to take the picture. If you want to be bubbly, happy, wide-smiled, do something to make yourself laugh first, like watch a funny movie, or do some physical exercise that gets your endorphins up and makes you feel good. If you want a more controlled, pensive, or demure sort of expression, then sit yourself down with your favorite beverage, read your favorite book or watch your favorite quiet movie, play with your pets, or do whatever it is that will really put you in the mood you wish to portray in your picture. Then, when it comes time to actually press the button, pause for a few seconds and think about that activity, or your partners, or whatever it is that will make you relive that emotion. If you are really feeling that emotion, your expression will be more natural, and will convey that emotion much more clearly than faking it or attempting to "act" (unless you are an actor and can pull it off).

The Background:

If you are taking this photo yourself, or with an assistant without professional photography experience, then you are probably using a snapshot camera without interchangeable lenses. Your photo should be a close-cropped image of you from the waist up, mid-ribcage up, or top of the chest up with very little space between your body and the edge of the picture. If you draw an imaginary grid on the picture, dividing it into 9 equal squares (3 across, 3 down), your eyes should be on or near the top horizontal line, with either the top of your head cropped off in a close-up, or a little bit of space between the top of your head and the edge of the picture for a zoomed-out, waist-up shot. If you have a camera with a zoom lens, zoom your camera all the way in, and then physically back up until you are framed correctly (either back yourself or the camera up). This will reduce that fish-eye effect that happens when you get too close to your subject, and it will help to make the background a little more blurry, focusing on you.  If your camera does not have an adjustable lens and uses digital zoom (like camera phones), then do not zoom in first because that will lower the resolution quality of your photo, but do physically back yourself or your camera to best frame your shot.

One thing you want to look out for, is that the edge of the picture should not cut off a limb at the joint. For instance, if you take a waist-up shot, make sure your arms are cropped somewhere between the elbow and wrist, or between the shoulder and elbow. Having a picture with your limbs ending at the edge of the image at the joint makes it look dismembered or amputated. But cropping somewhere in the middle does not produce the same effect. Of course, if you are doing a ribcage-up or chest-up photo, you will probably not see any limbs at all and this won't be an issue. It is OK to cut off the top of your head if the photo is zoomed in close, as long as the reason is because your eyes are on that top-third line and we can see the rest of your face. If you are doing a waist-up, further away shot, do not put your eyes on that top-third line if it means having too much space between your head and the top edge of the photo. You do not want the top of your head to just touch the edge of the image either. The top edge (and all around the sides as well) should be just a narrow border of background in farther-away shots, or cropped head in close-ups. Look at all the good examples in this training module (not the how-not-to examples) and pick one to copy if you need guidance.

Think carefully about your background. It, along with your wardrobe and expression, will say a lot about you. And not intentionally choosing your background says a lot about you too. If you are active and outdoorsy, you can take your picture outside - somewhere relevant to who you are (we'll get to how to light your photo next).

If you want to take your picture indoors, you can avoid the white wall badge picture look by thumb-tacking a bed sheet to the wall behind you. You can hang it flat, or you can let it droop in a swag or gather like drapes for some additional texture. Getting it all nice and wrinkled also looks good. Use a solid color sheet or one with a muted, abstract pattern. Do not use a sheet with a repeated or tiled image.

If you have a section in your home that you would like to showcase, perhaps a bookshelf, or a fireplace, you can use that instead of a blank wall or sheet.

When you have a nearby background, such as a wall, you do not want to be right up against it. Pose about 4 feet in front of the background - farther if you are casting a shadow on the background.


Speaking of shadows, you want to avoid them entirely in most cases. The way you do this is by bouncing or diffusing the light. The sun makes a great light source, if you can direct it properly.

When outdoors, do not sit directly in the sun. You will tend to squint if the sun is in front of you, and you will be dark (backlit) if the sun is behind you. If the sun is above, you will have dark shadows blocking your eyes, and your eyes are the most important feature in a headshot. Take your picture outside on a bright, sunny day, but sit in the shade, like the shade of a tree, which will make a nice background too. The sunlight will be diffused through the leaves and will bounce up from the ground, and that will create a nice, even lighting with no ugly shadows.

When indoors, you can also use the sun if you have a big window in the room in which you are taking your photo. The same rules apply - do not sit directly in the sun, rather, let the sun bounce around the room indirectly. Do not mix sunlight and indoor light - these are actually different colors of light and the camera will show that. Our eyes color correct for the imbalance, making it all look "white", but cameras can't do that. So use either sunlight or indoor light, not both.

If you are using indoor lighting, choose a light source that is really bright, but one that you can direct which way the light is pointed. A floor lamp that has the lampshade pointed up, so the light goes up and bounces off the ceiling, is a great lamp to use for these purposes. Track lighting where you can point the lamps at the walls is also good. A regular lamp that has a semi-transparent lampshade will be a nice, diffuse light, but make sure the lampshade is not in color - otherwise you will have that color tint to your skin.

Next, find your camera's white balance setting. Find a piece of paper or sheet that is pure white and hold it where you will be standing. Place the camera where it will be, and take a picture of the white paper with as little else in the frame as possible. Use that to set your white balance (you will need to consult your camera manual for detailed instructions). You can also try your camera's auto-settings if it has any, for "indoor" or "sunlight" or "overcast" lighting, again, taking a picture of the white sheet. Use the setting that makes the sheet look as close to true white as possible on your computer - NOT on your camera's LCD screen.

Whatever you do, if you do not have professional photography experience, equipment, or an assistant who does, DO NOT USE YOUR CAMERA FLASH. It will not look good. The shadows will be harsh, the quality of the light will be unflattering, and, since it is slightly off center (all built-in on-camera flashes are), there will be the tell-tale shadow on the background. Trust me, we can all tell what a picture with a built-in flash looks like, and it will be a huge neon sign saying "this is not a professional photo".

You CAN have the lighting be stronger on one side than the other, for instance if you are using sunlight through a window. You just want that lighting to be soft so that there aren't really dark shadows or shadows with sharp edges.

If you wear glasses, a pro trick for removing the glare from the lenses is to tilt the glasses downwards so that the earpieces stick up and are not resting on your ears. If your glasses are facing flat to the camera, or tilted even a little bit upward, they will reflect the lights and obscure your eyes. Tilted down, they will not reflect anything. It will feel weird, but it will not look weird. You may need to try tilting them at several different angles to get the right compromise between no reflection and being able to see that they're tilted in the photo. For the photo, it is not important that you see through your glasses clearly, it is more important that WE see your eyes through the glasses clearly.

The Final Image:

In your final image, you want to be looking right at the camera with an expression that you feel is flattering and representative of who you are. You want your body to be turned partially away from the camera but your face to be facing squarely. You want to minimize head tilt to the side and back but tilting down somewhat is OK. You want the proper amount of headroom for the composition of the picture - either cropping off just a bit of the top of your head for a close-up or just a bit of space between the top of your head and the edge of the image for a medium shot.  You want soft, flat, even lighting with no harsh or strong shadows. You want a plain or understated background that does not distract the viewer from you, and, if possible, out of focus. You want your skin to be skin-tone, not yellow or blue or red from a bad white balance. And you want the image to focus on your face, so waist-up to head-only are best.

© PMA 2008