Most readers know what I look like from the image that accompanies this column. Originally, there was another picture in the space: One where I appeared to have bed-head and my smile seemed like the result of a rotten "say cheese" joke. I was also wearing a green striped blouse with an argyle sweater in grey, green and purple. It was cute in person but wrong for the camera. In short, I could have passed for a teenager.
These days, connecting with people through the Internet often happens before connecting over coffee, which means it is imperative that your digital picture represents the best you possible.
You are, quite literally, attaching a face to a name.
If the context is business, a booze-induced candid from your vacation to the Virgin Islands won't cut it. Even professional pictures taken with the best intentions can detract from your credibility or give off subtle cues that you don't take your career seriously.
"It's all about image and image sells," says Toronto-based portrait photographer Steve Stober, who regularly snaps people for Web or publication purposes.
By the same token, not including a photo on your company's web site or an online professional network such as LinkedIn can work against you. "People may not want to connect with you because you're remaining anonymous," says Diane Craig, president of Corporate Class, an image and etiquette company in Toronto. "How can they build a relationship with someone who can't even post their photo online?"
You do not need to be photogenic to look good in a business photo. Giving some thought to your hair and what you wear is likely all that's necessary.
Image consultant Diana Kilgour suggests that "murky" colours should be avoided: Browns and neutrals never translate well. "People look younger and healthier in clearer colours," she says from Vancouver.
She recommends a blouse and jacket with some degree of contrast (light blue with a darker grey) for women, because the combination gives dimension to a two-dimensional image. Men appear most professional, she adds, when they wear a shirt with a collar.
But they must fit impeccably, Ms. Craig says. "The last thing you want is a collar that's too tight or too loose and the tie is dragging." She says button-down collars should be paired with sportier jackets and no tie.
On the other hand, Mr. Stober says ditching the jacket can be a pleasant surprise. "I like when the sleeves are rolled up. It looks more applied, friendlier. We've just seen too many executive announcements that look the same."
Most importantly, what you wear should correspond to your profession, Ms. Kilgour says. Dressing in corporate attire when you're a trainer can be confusing. Or, as Mr. Stober puts it: "People are aware when something looks contrived or you're not being yourself."
Ms. Craig strongly recommends bringing two outfits when having your picture taken. While dynamic on the hanger, a blouse may "overwhelm the picture and then we don't see you any more," she explains.
Accessories offer an opportunity to convey personality, but less is more. Opt for stud earrings, which draw attention to the eyes, rather than hoops or chandelier styles, which can be distracting and bring the viewer's gaze down the neck. Ms. Craig says a necklace or brooch is fine, but not both.
This not the time for smoky eye shadow or dark lipstick. In fact, Mr. Stober says makeup is not even necessary if the picture is lit properly. Plus, Photoshop can work miracles on under-eye circles and blemishes.
But just because digital retouching can make you look 15 years younger does not give you license to go that route, especially if you intend to be meeting people face to face. I, for one, wouldn't trust a date who bared little resemblance to his online photo; same goes for someone dealing with my personal finances.
As for hair, try to find the midpoint between casual and coiffed. "It shouldn't look fresh from salon with set and spray," Ms. Kilgour says. But as Ms. Craig rightly advises, "You want it to be as smooth as possible ... if it's curly, make sure there are no little hairs sticking out." And don't forget to have your eyebrows groomed.
Now, as for the person on the other side of the lens - stick with a professional. Yes, a neighbourhood photo developer could take the equivalent of a passport picture, but the outcome won't be the same. "It's the difference between sitting at a counter for 30 seconds and working with a photographer for an hour to get something that really works," Mr. Stober says.
Working with a professional photographer is not inexpensive (Mr. Stober's pricing begins at $300, http://www.stevestober.com). But as Ms. Craig says, "It might be the price of entry to getting an interview."
And unless your hairstyle changes dramatically, a business photo can be used for years. There's little risk of a portrait looking "too 2009" because the tight frame will not reveal waistlines, hemlines and choice of footwear. So go ahead, get your photo taken sans pants; no one will know. Just remember to keep a straight face.