This archive is a collection of all my written wisdom about online dating photos, from both myself and from my photographer Jennifer. I don’t show examples because my clients’ photos and files are confidential, and I feel smarmy scraping the internet for bad profile pictures whose owners surely wouldn’t appreciate them being reposted here. I’m happy to show you some specific examples or go over your own photos; just ask. Now, read on!
Some navigational assistance:
Setting up an attractive shot
Your primary picture (SO important!)
Non-primary pics (action, full body, etc.)
Captioning your photos
Editing your photo collection
Group photos and selfies
Getting photos while out with friends
Hiring a pro photographer
Your shoot day checklist
Gals, bust out a little hair and makeup effort. I know, I know; this is a mostly lady-centric tip. But given that we get more societal freedom with hair and makeup, well, let’s use it to our advantages. When you take pictures, you should amp up your normal cosmetics a bit, because photos really do wash some of that out. It’s almost like putting on stage makeup, if you’ve ever been a performer. Do some eyeliner and/or heavier/darker shadow than you might normally do. Double down on the mascara. Use pancake foundation/concealer to hide imperfections. Bust out a brighter, bolder lip color than you’d actually wear in public. Look, we’re not doing a nine-hour Vanity Fair shoot here; we’re just amping up your usual look for a quick selfie. Got it? Pump up the lipstick jam. (Sorry.)
Wear flattering clothing! So easy. Folks, if you feel like something makes you feel heavy or frumpy or generally not your loveliest, then don’t use pics in that outfit! (Or crop to just the face.) You’re not trying to hide the realities of your physique, but you ARE trying to capture a moment that is realistically flattering and makes you feel good. Plus, the better you look, the less uptight you’ll be on camera. Trust me.
Make some follicular effort. Whatever your gender, try at least a LITTLE. Guys, I know most of you don’t all feel like you can truss yourselves up with makeup like we ladies do, but you can still make a little effort. If you’re a dude who grooms his head and/or facial hair in a certain way, do that before you take your little selfie. And girls, take a sec to take your hair down and smooth it out, etc. Personally, I look WAY better with my hair down and my bangs tamed with 30 seconds of flat-iron fighting. Figure out what your thing is to gently oomph up your tresses, and go do it.
Show the right amount of skin. Shirtless dude pics are basically a hilarious online dating meme. We’re not going to discuss the shirtless photo phenomenon in TOO much detail, dudes, but suffice it to say, you immediately come off as smarmy to most women even if you’re rocking incredible abs. Heck, I’m an abs lover, but I’d still never reply to a guy who posed like that in a pic. If you MUST show off your incredible body in your profile, you need to find a situation that merits it! Use a shirtless pic from a race you’ve run, or a regatta or something. At least a beach pic. There has to be a REASON for all that skin!
Same kinda thing for ladies doing full body shots with weird sexy poses and whatnot. If you’re including a pic from a tango class, fine. If you’re just, like, feeling up the wall in your hallway with one high-heel-clad leg bent all sexy-lady-like, well, that’s weird. (And don’t even tell me nobody does that, because I’ve friggin’ seen it! Like, kind of a lot!)
Gals DO want to show a certain amount of skin in at least one pic, but it can just be a casual T-shirt that showcases cleavage or something. And it doesn’t have to be your primary picture; it can be one of the auxiliary ones. Ask me if you can’t tell if it’s crossing the line!
Backgrounds, styling, and setting up shots
There’s a fine balance of shooting candid pics so everyone looks natural and relaxed, and shooting a super-styled, super-posed, tight, formal portrait. Online dating pics should be more towards the casual end of things, but there are several things you can do to make sure that your candid shots will still look really good and make you take center stage.
Style your shot. You can style the table a tiny bit, even if you’re going to be taking candid shots. Try moving the pretty votive candles so they cast a nice glow or add an interesting pop of light (but make sure your camera can handle that first, because some cell phone cameras will freak out with a light source like that). Move half-eaten dishes and extra place settings to the end of the table. Stick cell phones and wallets somewhere less obvious. Pretty desserts and cocktails are allowed to stay in the shot if you like! Since you may be shooting wider than just a close crop on someone’s face, think about all the little tabletop elements that will appear in that bigger shot. It won’t look fake, it’ll just look less gross than other people’s unstyled shots!
NEVER POST in-the-mirror selfies. It just looks lazy and friendless and home-porno, ya know? There’s nothing wrong with self-shot pics now and then, but not the mirror kind. Most cell phone cameras now have this great little front-facing camera feature. Use it!
Aim for contrast. See if you can find either a clean, calm backdrop to shoot in front of (in which case you can wear something with a pattern), or an interesting backdrop like a blooming garden (in which case you’d want to wear a solid color that plays well with your surroundings, so you stand out from all the business of the plants).
Limit your photos to a few great ones
Impressions online are fleeting, and ideally you should make a bang impression with a very tight collection of three to four photos, no more. Yes, I know every single site encourages you to upload entire albums of selfies, and to hook up your Instagram feed too. But you know what? That’s not the best strategy.
Posting too many pics or albums may lead to Pic Overload. This is what happens when people browsing your profile have TOO MUCH information and cute pics to browse from, and they zone out and click on to the next profile because there’s no mystery left. (The only exception to this is eHarmony because they integrate photos really well throughout your profile text.) So you should hone down your photo collection to the perfect few; a super-flattering profile picture, at least one “action shot” that shows you out doing something fun and also happens to show your full body, and a couple “freestyle” ones that I won’t be too bossy about as long as you avoid the pitfalls I list on this page. :)
Normal smiling pictures are pretty common, and they’re also the hardest expression for most people to make naturally when a camera is pointed on them. So it’s actually both easiest and most effective to make an expression that’s slightly kooky or fun. Ideally, unless you are someone with a VERY dark sense of humor (or none at all), you should have some kind of expression of mirth.
I can’t post you examples of my clients or strangers, for both privacy and copyright reasons. But I’m happy to show you a few different pics from my own roster, to give you a sense of what I’m talking about! Please be decent to me for sharing these with you; I don’t need any double chin comments! (Trust me; I know about it.)
None of these are just straight-up me pretty-smiling into a camera while someone else is taking my picture. There’s good reason for that—such pics are REALLY HARD to get and have them look good! Most people aren’t that naturally photogenic, most amateur photographers don’t know how to make their subjects look good (knowing flattering angles and whatnot), and most people get nervous and kinda shut down with a lens trained on them.
Furthermore, smiles get BORING. Because your competition in almost any dating demographic is other people with smiling pictures, you actually have a better chance of standing out and seeming interesting or worth getting to know if you have a somewhat unexpected image as your primary pic.
Think of it from the perspective of someone flipping through pages and pages of search results, with only that tiny cropped square (and an accompanying username and age/location dataset) to decide who seems cool—a pic that grabs your attention is VERY valuable in that browsing context! Once your quirky photo gets more clicks, that engagement leads to people actually reading your profile and/or clicking to see your other pics where you’re smiling and looking all pretty. Singles are more likely to read past just Section One if you have an interesting offbeat photo, and reading the profile is where you really get to shine and reel ’em in! (Because you’re already following my profile-writing advice and/or hiring me for help with that part when you get stumped, right? Good.)
Such pics also showcase more personality, humor, and joie de vivre. They make you look like a fun-loving person. They make you look confident, because it’s inherently confident to put something kinda wonky out there and just trust that people will respond positively. I get a TON of clients telling me how cool and quirky and fun and interesting and exuberant they seemed based on their pictures.
There is some research that shows that straight men in particular can also do well with a kind of sarcastic look on a non-smiling face, looking away from the camera. But that can be a tricky thing to capture. If you attempt this approach, I’d still make at least one of your other pics a “quirky” one so you don’t come off as too serious, unless of course that’s consistent with your personality.
Duckfaces. Don’t do them. I refuse to let you hire me if you actually put one of these in an online dating profile. Are we clear?
Your primary/avatar/main/profile pic
Your primary picture should be flattering, obviously. It should adhere to pretty much every other guideline I mention on this page. But there are a few more important factors for primary pic success. It should also be:
- high contrast; the background shouldn’t blend into your hair or shirt or skin
- well lit; we should be able to clearly see what you look like
- high res; no janky pixelated shots allowed
- cropped pretty close to your face, at least in the avatar view
The goal of all of these picky constraints is that you look recognizable even at tiny sizes. After all, check out the small cropped size of photos that’s displayed in online dating search results and suggestions—you need to look amazing, but you ALSO need to think about the technical qualifications of your pic.
Non-primary photos (action shots, etc.)
Your non-primary photos can and usually should be smiley, and at least one should show your whole body or most of it. You needn’t be posing in a bikini like Miss America or shirtless in front of a hot rod, but you basically have to confirm the browser’s hope about what your body looks like. Most people want to know that your self-identified body type isn’t 400 pounds ago, etc.
This full-body shot gives you a nice opportunity to show yourself out doing something fun! If you’re outdoorsy, show a hiking pic. If you’re a cyclist, you can show a riding pic. You get the idea. You convey a lot with that shot, so show yourself in a setting. (And if you’re not outdoorsy, you can still find a pic where you’re basically standing up and we can see your frame and get the idea about what the body part of the Awesome Total Package is like.) A fun, happy, joyous pose and expression will help you out if you’re not actively engaged in some athletic activity.
Caption every photo ever
EVERY pic should have a caption. Yes, every one, even the primary one! In the photo page of your profile, that’ll show, and it’s a great opportunity to infuse a little more humor and fun into your profile, and show that much more of a glimpse into your personality. Captions can be humorous, but if you’re not feeling the humor vibe you can just put something. Anything. Just not nothing! Don’t miss a chance to define yourself as a bit more human and relatable and different from all the other profiles someone is browsing through.
As you get older (let’s say 40+) it can be smart to include a date in captions to give a sense of your age. Keeping it short and absolute (“March 2013” as opposed to “last March”) is easiest on both you and the viewer.
Don’t ever, ever use the lame default caption like “Uploaded with the OkCupid iPhone app!” Nobody cares, and it makes you look like you have sloppy attention to detail. Even if that’s true, there’s no reason to announce it before you’ve even met someone. :)
Don’t rely on group photos in your online dating profile! (There’s a recent, highly publicized study on The Cheerleader Effect that’s causing confusion among singletons.) Basically, the cheerleader effect may be accurate for stuff like Facebook pictures and marketing images, but a group photo sends the wrong message in an online dating context. Watch on for details:
You especially need to avoid photos with a bunch of friends or family members. I know, I know; it seems counter-intuitive, because you want to paint a picture of what your life is like, and you don’t want to look like a weirdo who only posts selfies. But the thing is, aside from making people want to check out your friends or your cousin instead of you, pics with you and friends or family immediately present a little mental block, a little hitch. (Not this kind.) They pull viewers out of grooving on you, just like that IMDB link pulled you out of grooving on this email. See what I did there? I’m not afraid of Will Smith’s charm. I know you’ll come back to me… there you are. So: no friendsies!
And no families…ies. Showing family shots feels overly intimate, just like trying to introduce someone to family on a second date. Give it time. And definitely no shots with kids! Even if you explain that it’s your nephew in your caption, it just makes you look like a parent who failed to disclose your children, and/or baby-crazy in that split-second first impression moment.
If you MUST post pics with other people, you need to very clearly caption which one is you, even if you think it’s totally obvious. The caption can also include fun details about the shot to infuse more personality, but you’re required to call yourself out. I’ll be checking up on you!
As you probably know, selfies (i.e. photos you take of yourself) are gaining popularity and therefore social acceptance. In truth, the selfie is not the best online dating picture choice. It sort of subconsciously communicates alone-ness, which can sometimes read as desperation, you know?
But if your selfies are just plain old good, flattering shots of you, then you’ll look less lame and desperate, and more just like a person who casually snapped a pic, no big deal, I’m too awesomely busy to really think about this but here you go here’s your image I guess whatever *upload*. Ya know? That kinda blasé look is better than the “I LITERALLY COULD NOT CONVINCE ANYONE ELSE TO HELP ME WITH THIS PICTURE THING BECAUSE I DO NOT INTERACT WITH HUMANS” vibe.
Remember, your online dating presence only presents a tiny, momentary snapshot (so to speak) without a lot of context or humanity, so people are going to form these quick subconscious opinions of you based on every little aspect you put out there. You best make sure they all represent you well.
Here are some specific selfie tips, adapted from this longer blog post:
Shoot from a *little* above (but don’t go crazy). Shooting from above is flattering (yay boobs, boo triple chins). Most people know this, but many have taken it to a crazy extreme of shooting from WAY ABOVE which is super obvious and makes you look kinda like the archetypal selfie, a narcissistic teenage girl.
Shoot from ever so slightly above your head when you’re taking pics solo. If you’re one of those lucky motherpluckers who has no neck fat, consider shooting from side or even slightly bottom angles just to show off that you can. (Of course, check your shot and make sure you still look adequately hot, you skinny bastards you.) But don’t shoot as if the camera were placed atop a building or something. My defunct video demonstrates the ideal range, which is like 30-45° above your face level. Ask me if you’re struggling!
Wear the right clothes! Don’t get too sexy-glammed up with your selfies. Yes, look cute and nice, but don’t be super cleavage-tastic or shirtless or anything. It’s fine to have a shot in your online dating photo roster that shows you all dolled up, but when the sexpot shot is clearly one you took on your own, it subconsciously sends kind of a weird message. Part desperate for attention, part lonely, and generally just off. So dress flattering and cute, but not DTF.
Consider your background. A lot of what gives selfies a bad rap is the fact that they get shot in totally awkward contexts, like in front of a bathroom mirror or a really messy gross room. Don’t shoot yourself without considering the background, though; that’s when selfies look awkward and sad instead of effortlessly cute.
Control thy face. Repeat after me: I will not duckface, for it is not sexy, and it makes no goddamn sense. You are not to make weirdly attempted smutty lip faces at the camera. Your selfies should either be smiling as naturally as you can muster, OR goofing off.
Yes, goofing off! That’s the very best option, in my opinion. The selfie is inherently awkward, since photographs until very recently were always a social activity. So this is a great time to embrace the awkwardness. Goof off, look askance, roll your eyes, crack up. Mug.
Hamming it up for your selfie is a funny way to embrace/diffuse the awkwardness, and it makes your shot look more playful and fun in comparsison to all the bad smoldering, forced smiles, and duckfacing out there.
Make sure your camera can hack it. If you’ve got a crappy old webcam or phone that produces grainy or pixelated shots, you should nix the selfies and just get your friends to take flattering pics of you while you’re out and about. A bad selfie does not deserve a place in your tightly edited collection of online dating photos.
Every haircut deserves a selfie. Any time you get your hair cut or otherwise done, snap a selfie. You never look more polished. If you usually wear makeup anyway, put on a little more when you know you’re going to get your hair done.
Getting pics when you’re out with friends
It can be hard wrangling cute pics out of your social adventures, but you should try. Because selfies shouldn’t be the bulk of your dating pics, and frankly, your friends probably all want cute pics too for their networking and social media accounts. Lead with this angle if you have trouble squeezing pics out of them!
You know that intro sequence to How I Met Your Mother? With everyone super cute and happy and well groomed and having fun and shot from a cute angle? Do it like that.
Think about composition before you shoot! You know how most pictures of a night out with friends have four people, leaning in together, centered in the shot, looking straight at the camera, and smiling? Well, that’s because everyone takes pictures like that. So they get real boring real fast. I never even thought about that until my photographer Jennifer pointed it out. If you ARE going to shoot group photos (and most people do even if they also make time for some solo stuff), you should think outside the boring four-person-leaning-in box.
Consider having the person with the camera (or phone) get up on a chair. I know it sounds crazy, and waiters and other diners will totally look at you and laugh. But Jennifer swears by this! The pictures you get from this refreshing angle will be different and fun, and will also have the side benefit of being way more flattering because they make your faces and bodies look slimmer (and they show off more boobs if you wear a revealing top). If you can’t handle the awkwardness of actually standing on a chair, at least stand up and kinda shoot from up high while your friends remain seated.
And even your group pictures don’t always have to be dead on with people looking and smiling at the camera. Candids are really nice too. Take some candids throughout the night; your friends will get used to this and start ignoring you and acting more naturally if you just keep at it. If you get your friends used to you clicking away while they’re talking and laughing and drinking and whatever, you’ll get some fun shots eventually even if you take a million bad ones. (After all, with digital cameras, who cares if you shoot a bunch of junk shots to get some golden ones?)
The camera-holder should ham it up. If you can’t get your friends (or your self) loose enough to ignore the camera, even after a couple rounds, then try crossing your eyes and stuff. Make goofy expressions. Jennifer says I do a really nice job of this; she casually shot the third picture in my okcupid profile when I was just goofing around for the lens because I felt awkward that Jennifer was photographing me. Turned out nice, didn’t it? ;-)
Whether you’re going for a posed shot or a candid, try to compose shots so the subject or subjects aren’t dead center and looking right at you. Try putting the group to the left with negative/blank space, or an interesting feature of the room you’re in (like a fireplace or a giant window or garden). This is a great way to mix it up.
Of course, with the ability to custom crop photos for their avatar view, you’re not always going to see that gorgeous fireplace or garden in every view of a given pic. But it will still show up in the bigger version of the photo, and it will make everything look and seem more interesting and refreshing. Off-center! Trust Jennifer! She’s a pro! :)
Be a selfish camera hog. As I said earlier, you don’t want a bunch of pictures with you and your friends. You want a couple of just you for dating sites (and it doesn’t hurt to have some solo ones for LinkedIn and other professional bios). So either make sure you’re sitting near the end next to the interesting/empty space you’ve remembered to include (nudge nudge), or just ask for a few separate shots. You may look anti-social in the moment, but true friends will want to help you find love so they should be supportive of your quirky photo requests. (Note that you shouldn’t be TOTALLY selfish—oblige them with a few shots too so they have something for FB and LinkedIn, even if they’re not single.)
Seek out natural lighting. Whenever you’re out with friends at a venue that has a giant wall of windows, or an outdoor balcony or patio, try to sit near that. (Don’t upset your friends or anything, but feel free to suggest it if nobody else really cares where the server puts you.) Natural lighting is so wonderful for everyone’s skin tone and for all the colors to come out cleanly with minimal photo editing. (OK, you probably don’t worry about photo editing and color correction like Jennifer does, but still.) The old tip about not shooting straight into the sunlight does still apply, because if you’re strongly back-lit, you’re not going to look as good. But you can always swap seats and take turns snapping a few pictures in the good lighting. True friends should be flexible about playing musical chairs to help you look great in your dating profile!
Make pics a priority. I know it seems silly, and it can be annoying when a table of eight all whips out their phones to Instagram their meal. But taking pictures of each OTHER is another matter! If you remember to try to get flattering images of everybody, and take turns being the chair-stander or the well-lit person, everyone will stop minding so much that you’re photo-obsessed because they’ll get great shots of themselves too. (Even happily coupled-up people like having flattering new Facebook profile pictures from time to time.)
Share, and share nice. Jennifer tells me that even as a pro photographer, she’s guilty of this myself sometimes; she’ll prioritize client work over casual shots with friends or business partners like me. :-) But realistically, if you remember to upload your pictures in a non-annoying, easily accessed public place (I like Dropbox, or a private Facebook album if everyone is on FB), then your friends are going to learn to appreciate your camera obsession.
On the flipside, people can get weird about having their pictures online. Don’t upload a ton of group shots to Facebook and tag everyone; stick them somewhere private first and let people comb through them. Ask before you post a shot that’s great of you but has someone else in the background. You can always crop and blur and whatnot, but just remember to be sensitive to those kind, patient friends who put up with your shutterbug antics!
Hiring your own photographer
Several months ago, my podcasting partner Kai wrote this great article on how to hire a professional photographer to shoot his online dating profile picture. He got some lovely pics out of his shoot, and his guide is a helpful walkthrough of how to hire someone no matter what city you live in. I actually think his guide is pretty cheap; you’re likely to spend more for a longer and better shoot with someone more experienced and more willing to listen to your needs. But it’s a great starting place if you can’t wrangle your pals into doing this for you.
However, Kai’s guide alone is not enough! Most professional photographers are experienced in shooting portraits, but normal portraits have a totally different vibe than an ideal online dating pic. If you wind up with a super-composed, super-portrait-y, super touched-up shot on a site like OKCupid, you’ll look like a weirdo. Yeah, I said it. You’ll look like you’re trying to fake your good looks, like you’re trying too hard, or like you have something to hide. Which is usually NOT the case, I know! You gorgeous scamp, you.
Ideally, you should read through the rest of this article to get a sense of what your goal is from your photographer. You can also send them this professional photographer spec. Once you’ve understood what you need for online dating and communicated the vibe you’re going for to your photog, you need to plan ahead for the actual shoot.
Your shoot day checklist:
1) Before your shoot, glam yourself up more than usual. You won’t look as made up on camera, so it’s better to pump it up for pics. If you’re a makeup wearer, put on more foundation/concealer/powder and blush than usual, darken your eye makeup a bit, and wear a slightly brighter or bolder lipstick than you normally would. Use lip liner if you have it. And wear an outfit that you feel cute in, that feels flattering and makes you happy. I also think it’s best to avoid really small-scale patterns; pinstripes and gingham-type plaid are OK, but anything like a small floral will kinda get lost and can just read weird in smaller online dating pics. Solids or bolder/bigger patterns are better. I think bolder colors look better, too! There’s science behind wearing red, but really, just wear something bright that people have complimented in the past.
2) Bring at least two shirts that fit the above description so you can switch it up on the fly. If you’re the modest type, make sure you wear some sort of tank/under-thing so you can quickly change in public without wasting your photographer’s valuable time. If you wore a dress, think even harder about how to configure your likely very public outfit changes.
3) A hairbrush, hairties/clips if you have longer hair, or some pomade/product if you have shorter hair and could ever consider putting “product” in it. Throwing your hair in a slightly different configuration is an easy way to fake it looking like a different day. If you’re a guy, experiment beforehand; you can muss your tresses up with a little muddy-like stuff for a different look. Or don’t; this is to your comfort level, but ask your hair cutting person to show you how to use product next time you get a trim if you’re clueless but curious.
4) Accessories for a quick swap-out—you only need to worry about stuff that’s visible near your head, like hats, earrings, and necklaces. Or facial jewelry if that’s the kind of thing you swap up a lot, but really, that probably won’t be super obvious unless your piercings are HUGE and that’s the kind of thing a photog might not be wild about waiting around for. Pro tip; if you slip off to a restroom you might be able to more subtly/efficiently change these things in there, but I recommend warning the photog first so they aren’t annoyed by your switch. (I know, we’re babying them like a diva, but you know what? You don’t wanna annoy them.)
5) Bring some of that makeup with you, if you put it on in Step 0. You don’t think it’ll rub off, but it might. Bring face stuff and lip stuff; you can leave the rest behind to make room for…
6) Your picture-taking smartphone, and/or your camera. Just in case! Often the pros are shooting with really high-end equipment, which produces great results and all, but it can LOOK professional which isn’t always the look you’re seeking in a dating profile. If you bring your stuff, you can even shoot a few selfies after your session ends, while you’re still looking all awesome. I actually think it can be nice to bring your laptop too, AND your charger for your phone (don’t forget the little AC plug, not just the cable, you iPhoners). Sometimes it’s nice to dig right into stuff after your shoot, and you probably won’t have access to your photog’s stuff right away, but you can get some instant gratification by uploading your self-shot stuff immediately. Just be mindful of storing it safely while you shoot, in case you wander off and leave it somewhere and it disappears and you cry and cry and blame me forever. Don’t do that.
7) Fancy tech accessories. I don’t know how geeky you are, but if you’re the type of person who owns an iPad stand or an iPhone tripod or a Glif or a little iPhone lens doo-hickey or WHATEVER, bring that crap. Bring it all. Stick it in a satchel and cart it along. Again, you might be more able to play around with fun selfies after your pro leaves the scene, so any tools that help with that are smart.
8) A jacket and an umbrella! Look, maybe these tips are a tad Seattle-specific, but you don’t want your sexy hair and makeup totally ruined by rain (although one Ruined by Rain shot could be hot, and that kinda sounds like a good hair metal band’s debut album title, now that I think about it.) Bring stuff to combat whatever inclement weather you’re facing. Oh, and bring sunglasses; your main profile pic should NOT have your eyes masked, but one of your non-primary pics can be in shades.
And there you have it! You’re gonna look so darn great, I can’t wait to see the results. (And for real, if you send them to me, I’ll let you know how you did!) Happy dating, and get on out there with your cameras!
Still need help with your pics?
If you’d like me to help you get cuter online dating pics, just get in touch!