How to Capture Your Best Side

When Greg Scott, senior vice chancellor of business and operations, was recently asked to speak at an event, the event’s organizer also requested that he provide a photo to include in the program. Scott knew just the one to use.

“I use this one for all sorts of requests,” Scott said, of the photo that accompanies a story about his role as the Pitt United Way Chair. “I like that I’m smiling in it, and that you can see my office in the background.”

Facial expressions and physical environments are just two elements that can help a headshot or portrait tell a story. Other choices like clothing and small personal props can also help, but what’s equally important is that subjects feel at ease and comfortable so that a portrait can reveal personality.

Put your best side forward

Don Henderson, director of Visual Services in the Office of University Communications, noted that when he and the visual services photographers are taking photos, “We’re not looking for professional models; we want to capture the person at his or her best.”

So, what should you consider when choosing — or taking — one to use on your faculty or staff profile page, or when a professional organization makes the request? Should you smile? Wear a pantsuit? Sit in your office or find a bench among trees outside?

Aimee Obidzinski, assistant manager of Visual Services, frequently takes photos of Pitt’s faculty and staff. She said people often request she get their “good side,” but seeing themselves in photographs can sometimes surprise people.

“You look in the mirror and see the mirror image of yourself, but a photo is actually how others see you. I think that’s why so many people look at their photo and think they don’t look quite right,” she said.

Get the right look

Obidzinski likes to try different set-ups where people look over one shoulder or the other so they can choose what they think is their best.

Clothing Do’s and Don’ts


  • Wear bright or solid colors.
  • Wear bold patterns like wide stripes or large plaid.
  • Wear clothing appropriate to your workplace.


  • Wear small or busy patterns or textures that create such patterns.
  • Wear a solid color on a similar-colored background.
  • Wear drab or dull colors.

It’s important to consider how individual “best” can be. Workspace-appropriate clothing or accessories are a good choice, but that doesn’t just mean a suit and tie. Scientists or physicians who work in lab settings might choose to wear a clean lab coat, for example.

Given that a portrait can often be a first impression, it’s good practice to keep well groomed, so check your hair and makeup. If you usually wear glasses or jewelry, keep them on for your picture, as you want it to be representative of your usual appearance.

Try to keep an upright but relaxed posture — you want to appear comfortable and natural. As for whether or not to smile — there’s no right or wrong answer, but it’s a good idea to try different facial expressions during a portrait session so you can choose the one you like best.

Ask for help

Subjects shouldn’t be afraid to ask their photographers for thoughts and advice. Elements like composition, lighting and background can be complicated, and a professional photographer can give guidance to help you get your best shot, as well as offer an objective eye.

Even if you don’t hire a professional photographer, it’s worth asking a friend or colleague to take the picture, rather than using a selfie. This can help with lighting, as the position of light sources (particularly behind the subject) can cause images to be over- or under-exposed, which can wash out or darken photos, respectively.

Bringing it all together

In advance of the day of your shoot, it’s good to prepare to make sure you’re not rushed. That means giving yourself a little extra time to get ready and checking that your clothing is neat and clean. Try to arrive at your appointment a few minutes early — this gives your photographer time to chat with you, take a look at the environment and ensure you get the best portrait possible.

Once you have the best photo possible, you can use it in a variety of ways, including online career networking. “Professional-quality headshots can make profiles on social networks like LinkedIn stand out,” said Sam Moser, social media specialist for University Communications.

A quality portrait can do more than help you stand out, though; it can also be a powerful statement of self-expression. “I always tell people that the photo is an image of you, and this is how you would like others to see you,” said Obidzinski.

  • Greg Scott, senior vice chancellor of business and operations, uses this photo when organizations request a portrait to use in publication or alongside an event. Environmental shots, like in an office or outdoors when weather permits, can help ensure that the subject stands out from the background. Including a favorite coffee mug or other personal props can also be interesting so long as they don’t detract from the subject of the portrait. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Tom Altany, photographer, Visual Services, arranges Will Entrekin for a shot. A professional set-up is not just an expensive camera with a huge sensor and long lens; it also includes portable lighting rigs, sensors and other tools that measure environmental factors like brightness, shadows and colors. (Aimee Obidzisnki/University of Pittsburgh)
  • There are several good ways to ensure that a subject stands out from the background. It’s worth looking for an environment with more dynamic contrasts, such as colors different from the subject’s wardrobe. Have your subjects move closer to the camera and further away from the background to soften the background’s focus. Here, a portrait of Will Mitchell, director in Facilities Management, shows how a background with less distractions (such as the concrete column and the green tree) creates a clean and simple environment, as opposed to traffic lights and pedestrian traffic. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Aimee Obidzinski, assistant manager of Visual Services, chose to position Sam Moser, social media specialist for University Communications, against a solid green background to contrast the irregular grey pattern of Moser’s sweater. (Aimee Obidzisnki/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Cellphone cameras require lots of light because they have small sensors compared to DSLR and mirrorless models. Don Henderson, director of Visual Services, demonstrated how too much light can have its own problems, and the difficulty of getting a good angle at arm’s length. (Aimee Obidzisnki/University of Pittsburgh)
  • After adjusting your posture and especially when wearing light fabrics that portrait lighting might make appear more sheer, it’s a good idea to check your collar and sleeves to make sure that any straps or undershirt seams are invisible. (Aimee Obidzisnki/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Pay attention to details. Double-check your wardrobe before you take a shot to make sure buttons are fastened correctly and there are no errant accessories. In this picture, you can see how the shirt’s pattern of small checks in the folds of the fabric on the upper torso and around the shoulders seems to create distortions in the image. (Aimee Obidzisnki/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Obidzinski noted the importance of a contrasting background to make sure that the subject stands out from it. “If the background is too dark or too close, the subject can blend in too much and get lost in it.” (Aimee Obidzisnki/University of Pittsburgh)
  • While vibrant and fun, very bright and elaborate patterns can contrast each other and create a “busy” image that might appear cluttered. It can also put the focus of the image on the patterns themselves — rather than on the subject wearing them, and thus detract from the portrait’s effect. (Aimee Obidzisnki/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Not only can patterns with small, intricate designs get lost, but some garments also feature contrasting textures, like the cords and fuzzy ornaments on this winter sweater. It might be your favorite, but something solid and simpler will likely photograph better. (Aimee Obidzisnki/University of Pittsburgh)