What makes a good profile picture?

Your guide to getting a strong online profile photo

We’ve all had those moments where you’re scrolling through social media and a profile picture makes us do a double take — and not always for the right reasons. From the awkward “I’d rather be anywhere else but here” smiles to the overly staged “I’m a serious professional” poses, the world of profile photos is a bit of a wild ride.

While getting a good profile picture might seem like a pretty straightforward task, if you’ve ever tried to take one, you’ll know it’s rarely a cakewalk. It’s a process with a lot of toos — too smiley, too serious, too bright, too dark, too… And when you strike gold and have that “Finally! That’s my profile pic!” moment, you need to take another one for a different platform.

But if you’re in the process of getting a new profile photo, don’t sweat it. In this guide, we’re going to run you through everything you need to know to get a strong online profile photo that stands out for the right reasons. Whether you’re trying to get the perfect LinkedIn profile picture or a more personal shot for social media or a dating app, we’ve got you covered. Plus, we’ve included examples from professional headshot photographers for a bit of inspiration.

Ready to dive in?

*Featured photo: A very natural shot by portrait photographer Krystian at Data Images.

Why a good profile picture is important

Good profile shots can be friendly and professional like this shot by headshot photographer Lee Christiansen 

Cast your mind back 20 or so years and profile pictures weren’t really a thing that most people thought about. Sure, they existed but they were mostly for “edgy” teenagers taking selfies with 3 megapixel digital cameras from bad angles with questionable filters for Bebo and Myspace.

LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook didn’t come along until a little while later (they launched in 2003, 2006 and 2004 respectively). So for most people, the first time you’d meet someone would be the first time you’d put a face to the name. In that moment, you’d make snap judgements (whether you wanted to or not) about the person and form a first impression of them.

But now our first impressions are based on profile photos. In the digital age and era of remote work, your profile photo is usually the first thing people see and we make assumptions in as little as seven seconds just from a glance at a photo.

So making that first impression count is incredibly important.

Getting that little circle version of you spot on can be the first step towards getting that job you applied for, being offered a new freelance contract, driving more engagement or convincing someone to swipe right.

But it’s not just about first impressions, your profile picture is a great way to show people your personality and help them remember you. By taking the time to get a strong profile photo, you can show people a lot about yourself and help you stick in their memories.

But getting a shot that showcases your personality, makes you stand out in peoples’ memories and makes a great first impression is much easier than said. But that’s why you’re here and what we’re going to help you with and the first step is to work out what you want from your profile photo.

Work out what you want from your profile photo

Looking at headshots and portraits like this one by London-based headshot photographer Nigel R Glasgow can help you work out what you want from your profile photo

Before you start taking selfies or contacting professional portrait photographers, you need to work out what you want from your profile photo. What do you want your profile picture to say about you? Understanding what you want to achieve is the first step to getting the perfect shot (or shots).

This stage is all about reflecting about how you want to come across online. Are you looking to come across as a consummate professional or a bit more relaxed and approachable? Do you want to show a lot of personality or dial it back?

The answer to these questions often depends on the platform you’re getting a profile photo for. But at this stage, most people aren’t exactly sure what they want and the best way to work it out is to take a look at what others have done for inspiration. Start off by looking through the platform you want a photo for and look at other people’s profiles. Take a look at a variety of profiles to see what you like and what might work for you.

Another way to get inspiration is to take a look through photographers’ portfolios. Headshot photographers work with a huge number of people with different aims so their portfolios have got a wide variety of styles for you to look through. Make sure you look at several portfolios as it helps to give you a better idea of your options (plus, you might find a photographer you want to work with!)

When you find a photo that you like, think about:

  • Why you like it
  • What makes it stand out?
  • What makes it memorable?
  • Is this style suitable for your needs?

If you’re struggling to work out what you like, go the opposite way and make a list of things you don’t like. Make a ‘nope’ list of things you want to avoid. Not a fan of overly posed shots? Prefer natural light to studio lighting? Put it on your list. Doing this helps you to narrow down what you like and how you want to come across.

When you’re going through this process, it’s handy to have a rough idea of all the different elements that go into a profile photo.

Get to grips with the elements of a good profile picture

When you see profile photos online, it’s easy to miss how much effort has gone into making it stand out. When it comes to nailing your photo, there are a lot of key elements that make a big difference. When you’re thinking about your profile shot, you’ll need to consider:

Lighting and background

Profile photos — Lighting and background — William Walsh Photography-min
A great example of your different lighting options (left is with natural light, right with artificial light) by portrait photographer William Walsh Photography. 

Good lighting is absolutely crucial. Natural light is generally soft and appealing. Assuming good natural light is available and your photographers used it well, it highlights your features without being too harsh. Soft, diffused lighting is also great for avoiding shadows that could obscure your face.

As for the background, choose something that isn’t too distracting. Busy backgrounds will draw the eye away from you where a simple background means that you’re the focal point of the photo. If you’re outside, a natural scene can work well, but make sure it doesn’t steal the spotlight from you — using shallow focus can show you’re outside without distracting the viewer.

Getting the right angle

Profile photos — Photo angles — Richard - Ellamax
Different angles can make a significant impact on the look and feel of a profile photo as shown by this photo by London-based portrait photographer Richard at Ellamax

The angle your photo is taken is a key element that can significantly affect how you come across. A photo taken slightly above eye level is often the most flattering, as it tends to make the eyes look larger and gives the jawline a more defined appearance. But the best angle varies from person to person, so it might take a few tries to find what works best for you.

Eye contact and expression

Profile photos — Eye contact and expression — Thomas-SymingtonPhotographics
Eye contact and expression can make a big impact on the overall impression of a profile photo — look at the difference in these shots by Thomas at SymingtonPhotographics

Deciding whether to make eye contact with the camera or look away depends on the message you want to convey. Direct eye contact can make your profile seem more personal and inviting, while looking away can create an air of mystery or contemplation.

Your expression should match up with the vibe you’re aiming for — whether that’s approachable, professional, or playful. Remember, your expression goes beyond your smile.

To smile or not to smile

Profile photos — Smiling — Amir Wanas Photography
Smiling can make a bit different to the impression your profile photo makes as shown by these shots by Amir at Amir Wanas Photography

Speaking of smiling — choosing whether or not to smile in your profile photo depends on the context and the impression you want to make.

A genuine smile can make you seem more approachable and friendly, which is great for social media and dating apps. For more professional shots or corporate portraits, a slight smile or a semi-serious expression might work better, depending on where you work and your industry.

What to wear

Profile photos — What to wear — Martin Strivens
What you wear in your profile photo can be a great way to show personality, your industry or hobbies like in these photos by headshot photographer Martin Strivens

What you wear should usually match the tone of the platform the photo is for. For professional networks like LinkedIn, business attire or smart casual are usually a safe bet (although you can stand out by bucking the trend).

For more casual or personal platforms, you can be a bit more relaxed, but your clothes should still be neat and reflect your personality. Solid colors often work best, as patterns can sometimes distract from your face.

Read our guide on what to wear for corporate headshot sessions.

The benefits of hiring a professional photographer

Profile photos and headshots by Andy Go
Working with a professional photographer like Andy Go means that you’ll get exactly what you’re looking for from your profile photo.

As you can see, a fair bit goes into getting a good profile photo — maybe a fair bit more than you thought when you started reading? That’s why it’s a good idea to consider hiring a professional portrait photographer. While it’s definitely possible to get a decent profile photo on your own, there are a lot of benefits to getting professional help:


When you start working with a professional photographer, they’ll usually kick things off with a chat about what you want from the shoot. This is your chance to go through the types of photos you like (and don’t like) and give them an idea of the type of photo you’re looking for.

They’ll then use their experience and knowledge to make sure they get the best light, angle and pose for the shot. They’ll also give you guidance on what to wear and your expession to make sure your photo is spot on.

Higher quality of shot

The experience and knowledge of a professional photographer naturally means you’ll get a much higher quality of photo for your profile picture. But that’s not the only thing that improves your photos— many portrait photographers also use high-quality equipment and have access to a studio space and professional editing software.

This means that not only will the initial shot be high quality with great lighting and capturing you perfectly but small adjustments can be made in post-processing if needed. This combination guarantees the photo looks polished without appearing overly edited.

Equipment aside, it’s the experience of working with people, knowing the angles and approaches that make a good headshot photographer capture great profile photos.

Help you relax in front of the camera

One of the most important skills for professional photographers — especially portrait photographers — is the ability to put people at ease in front of the camera. With so much pressure to get your profile picture spot on, it’s easy for photos to look stiff and awkward.

When you book a shoot with a professional, they’ll make you feel completely relaxed having your photo taken and they’ll help you to look more natural and authentic in the shots.

Backlog of shots

When you hire a professional, you won’t just end up with one profile photo, you’ll have a massive variety of shots to choose from. Not only does this give you more choice but it means you’ll have options for different platforms.

This means you can have a more professional-looking LinkedIn photo, a casual Facebook profile picture, and something in-between for other platforms, all from one session.

Picking your best photo

After you’ve worked with a professional photographer, you’ll have a good selection of professional photos to choose from. You’ll be spoilt for choice which can make picking just one a bit tricky (a nice problem to have!).

One of the best ways to pick your profile photo is to run through your shots and choose a few that you really like. Then take a closer look at each of them and ask yourself questions like:

  • How do I feel when I look at the photo?
  • Is the photo right for the platform?
  • What message does it convey?
  • Does it stand out in a good way?
  • Is it memorable?

After this, you should have a clear front-runner for your profile photo. If you’ve got more than one, that’s great as you can use them in different places. If you’re still not 100%, try asking a friend or family member for their thoughts — often getting an outside perspective can help you decide and give you a big confidence boost.

Ready to get the perfect profile photo?

Profile shots and portraits by Bexphoto
Profile shots are a great way to show a bit of your personality like in these shots by Bex at Bexphoto

So there you have it, everything you need to know about what makes a good profile photo.

If you’re ready to get the perfect profile photo, you’re in the right place. At Photographerforhire.co.uk we make it easy to find a fantastic photographer to work with:

  1. Start your search by looking through our photographer categories like portrait photographers and headshot photographers
  2. Browse through your options
  3. Look at photographers’ portfolios
  4. Get in touch with photographers and book shoots directly through our site.

Good luck with getting your next profile photo!