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Taking a Good Headshot

Discover why a remarkable professional photo matters—and how to get one.

A hot prospect is deciding whether to call you or your competitor for personal training services. He hasn’t met either of you, so to help make the decision, he logs on to your respective websites. Your services and credentials are similar, but, alas, the prospect calls your competitor.

The deal breaker? It was that grainy, underexposed photo of yourself. The amateurish snapshot couldn’t compete with the other trainer’s sharp, bright and beautifully composed image, taken by a professional photographer. That subtle first impression swayed the prospect.

Your picture is a reflection of your professional image. Here’s how to take a good headshot that will create an image that says what you want it to say about you in the fitness industry.

Why You Need a Professional Photo

Whether you’re preparing for your first photo shoot or trying to determine whether or not you should refresh the promotional photo(s) you already use, Cory Sorensen—a professional fitness photographer and owner of Sorensen Photography in Los Angeles—advises asking yourself, “What does my headshot say about me?”

“Your potential clients make assumptions and judgments about you based on your headshot,” says Sorensen, who regularly shoots covers and layouts for health and fitness magazines, including Oxygen, Muscle & Fitness, Bicycling and Men’s Fitness. “They will do this without ever meeting you. Projecting the wrong image can cause you to lose clients without you ever knowing it!”

Think of your professional photo as an important element of your overall marketing package, says Sharon Donaldson, Toronto-based owner of Fitness Resume, a service that helps fitness pros accelerate their careers on the international fitness convention circuit. As a former convention and special events director and a former member of IDEA’s presenter steering committee, Donaldson has seen hundreds of headshots and says that a photo’s quality has a definite impact on a fitness pro’s potential success.

“When I see a well-done headshot, it tells me that the presenter is a true professional who knows how to market him- or herself properly,” she says. “That fitness pro has taken time with the application, so I will take the time to give it a fair review. On the other hand, poor-quality headshots that have as much charm as a bad passport photo say that the presenter isn’t taking the application process seriously, so why should I give him or her as much time in the review process?”

Making a
Memorable Headshot

Producing a professional-looking photo is key, but in order to make a good headshot that stands out, you must also make it memorable. “Anyone can do a head tilt on a baby-blue background,” says Donaldson. “Some of the more memorable headshots I’ve come across include varied backgrounds or interesting cropping. For example, if you’re from Maine, consider doing your headshot along the seacoast for some local flavor.”

No matter what backdrop you go with, Sorensen says good lighting tops the list for creating a good headshot that leaves a positive lasting impression. This element requires more than making sure your photo isn’t over- or underexposed. “Whether it’s studio lighting or natural outdoor lighting, it must bring out the features of the face and make the eyes light up,” he says. You should look relaxed and comfortable. “That means no squinting,” says Sorensen.

To really benefit from the art and science of good studio or outdoor lighting, you need to use a professional photographer.

How to Find a
Professional Photographer

You can scout out skilled photographers in the Yellow Pages, online, from local casting agencies or through word of mouth. But before you hire someone, Sorensen advises, ask these qualifying questions:

  • Do you regularly shoot headshots? Not all photographers are good or well versed at shooting this style of photograph.

  • How much do you charge? According to Sorensen, this question serves two purposes. First, you find out if the photographer’s fee fits your budget. Second, a photographer’s response to this question tells you if you are dealing with a true professional. “A good, well-established photographer has set rates to discuss with you in a professional and timely manner,” he says. “If the photographer doesn’t have this information for you up-front, it could be an indication that you should keep looking.”

  • Can I see your portfolio? “See for yourself how good the photographer is by looking at his or her book,” says Sorensen. This may also help you get ideas for how to compose your own photos.

The Image You Portray

Before your big photo shoot, decide on what image you want to portray as a fitness professional. Vivacious and fun? Serious and smart? Approachable and caring? Athletic and enthusiastic?

“There are no strict rules in the fitness industry when it comes to promotional headshots,” says Sorensen. “It’s a personal choice: You can go with an active type of shot, a ‘muscle shot’ or the classic headshot. The important thing to keep in mind is what that image is communicating about you.

A carefully composed head-and-shoulders portrait with you wearing business attire, a warm-up jacket or a sporty shirt (perhaps with your company logo on it) might emphasize that you are a caring and professional businessperson. A full-body action shot of you in sporting workout clothes shows your energetic side. “Action shots are great when they show you using fitness equipment in a fun and enthusiastic manner,” says Donaldson. But, she adds, for the general public or for presenter applications, don’t overdo it with sexy muscle poses.

You might find that using different promotional photos for different audiences works best. Bottom line: “Know who your potential clients are and choose an image that will inspire them to choose you,” says Sorensen.

In Living Color

In addition to the look you want, you must also decide between color and black-and-white photos. Either one works in the fitness industry; however, Sorensen recommends representing yourself with a color image. Since most photographers now shoot in digital, you don’t have to worry about the cost of color film, and you can usually reproduce a color shot in black-and-white, if needed.

Printing in color still costs more than black-and-white, but in today’s digital age you might need only a handful of hardcopy photos, if any. Sorensen advises storing your photo on your computer (and on a CD for safekeeping) to send via e-mail.

A Lasting Impression

After you’ve put time, money and effort into taking a good headshot, you might wonder how often you need to repeat the process. “If your ‘look’ changes dramatically,” says Sorensen, “it’s a good idea to update the photo.”

Otherwise, plan on booking a photo shoot about every 5 years, so your image doesn’t become too outdated or misrepresentative. Think of your promotional photo as your logo, says Donaldson. The more people see it, the more they recognize and remember you as an outstanding professional in the fitness field. n


Concerned about your place in the new fitness industry? We have 40 years of experience supporting pros just like you! Let’s create a new wellness paradigm together—IDEAfit+ is the extra edge you need. Once you team up with IDEA, be sure to take full advantage of all the benefits of membership.

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional and the owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for fitness professionals. She writes for IDEA, Health, Prevention, and Self, and has co-authored books on postnatal fitness and yoga. With a master's degree in human kinetics, Amanda has worked in the fitness industry for more than 15 years, including time spent as a program director and vice president for a chain of all-women clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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