Professional Head Shots: Making a Statement

by Brian Mercer

June 2013

My wife is extraordinarily photogenic. I’ve never seen a bad photo of her. Her passport picture is stunning. Her employee ID badge looks like a professional headshot. Even her driver’s license resembles an author’s photo from the inside of a book jacket.

Not me. In photos I look like something that’s lurched out of a swamp: pallid, bloated, zombie-like. Oh, there’s the rare good picture of me that comes along every few years, but it is always someone taking a candid shot when I’m utterly engaged in something else. When I pose for photos, I look like a scarecrow at best.

So when I passed the booths at the 2012 PNWA writers’ conference and spotted photographer Mark Bennington’s table offering professional author headshots, I was conflicted. I liked the idea of having an author photo ready when my agent sold my manuscript. (And this happened a few months ago!) At the same time, I knew my track record when posing for photographs. The photos on Mark’s placard were, without exception, striking. Could he make the same happen for me?

As it happens, he could. Recently, I sat down with Mark to discover how he makes the magic happen.

Brian: What makes a great headshot?

Mark: In a word, Understanding. I mean, it's an understanding of light and composition, but more than that it's an understanding of the person in front of you, an understanding of what they look like and what is beautiful about them, as hokey as that sounds. I think a great headshot is something that represents a genuine expression of who you are, in this case as a professional writer. So, for me it's about creating an immediate rapport and capturing what is most alive about the person in front of me. And I think if you are relaxed, having fun and working with a skilled professional, chances are you'll get a great shot.

Brian: What about for people like me, who tend to stiffen up in front of a camera? How do you manage to coax a good photo out of them and what advice can you offer people who are uncomfortable posing for a camera?

Mark: Yeah, everyone is different so my approach is based on the personality. Mostly, I'm laid back and joke around and at the same time I'm eyeing everything so the shot and the light are good. It's kind of like a sleight-of-hand magician who steals your wallet... I just chat and joke around with the client and presto, we just captured some great shots and half the time they don't know what just happened. I love that part of it.

Brian: Why do aspiring authors need headshots?

Mark: For better or worse, this is the modern world of social media, and it looks like it is here to stay. It does seem like all the writers I have spoken to and worked with feel it makes a huge difference in how they are perceived. I mean the truth is, if you see a great, genuine, professional photo of an author, chances are you will take them more seriously than if you see them in an old washed-out, under-exposed snapshot by the Christmas tree from 1996.

Brian: Do you have any recommendation on how to dress for a photo session?

Mark: Keep it simple, but also have it reflect the kind of writer you are. Repetitive patterns are ok, but for instance big flower patterns aren't great. I love bright colors, but really it's all about capturing the best you and creating an image or brand that best represents what you sell. Also, the make-up should be what you look like on your best day... Natural and easy.

Brian: I suppose you don’t need to wait until your book is published before you get a headshot.

Mark: Again, the more seriously you take yourself, the more seriously others will take you. This is a life choice. In this modern world of blogs, Twitter and Facebook, we are constantly having to present ourselves to the public. Your photo many times is the first thing people see (if you have one) and can help or hurt the way people take in your work. Always better to lead with your best foot forward.

Brian: Of course, you take multiple photos when you have a session, so there may be quite a few photographs to choose from when someone is selecting which photograph to use. How do you evaluate the best headshot? Are there certain things about color or lighting or composition that are better than others?

Mark: Yes, there are always a quite a few to choose from. When it comes down to the final shot, I always trust my gut and recommend the client does the same. However, some clients don't want to choose or feel it's too difficult and they pick the top 5 or so, then show them to all the people they trust and whichever shot gets the most votes, that's the one they go with. A lot of people use Facebook to do this.

Brian: Do you have any other advice to offer for someone interested in getting professional headshots done?

Mark: It's like wine: you shouldn't have to mortgage your house to get a great bottle, but chances are you aren't going to get an incredible bottle for $3 either. So, take it seriously and at the same time don't be afraid to enjoy yourself! Or at least work with a professional who enjoys it so much you can live vicariously through them for a moment!

Mark will have a booth at the 2013 PNWA writers’ conference. This really is a great opportunity to be photographed by one of the top headshot photographers in the country, an excellent investment you will not regret.

Mark Bennington was born in Davis, California. Previously a working actor in New York and LA, he’s been a professional photographer since 2004. He can be reached directly at or though his website Mark will be at the PNWA’s 2013 writers’ conference with camera in hand.

Brian Mercer is the author of the forthcoming young adult novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013), and co-author of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-day Guide to Out-of-body Experience (Llewellyn, 2004). Brian’s web address is

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