Asking what makes the best profile picture is a bit like asking which is the best carpentry hammer. Some jobs require a tack hammer, others a framing hammer, still others a joiner mallet.

There are different styles of profile pictures and, like the different kinds of hammers, each is best for slightly different use. Making a choice is complicated by the fact that there are not standardized, agreed on definitions for the different styles, and the lines between them can blur (when does a headshot become a portrait?). But here are some distinctions to consider when choosing the best approach to your own profile picture, or your client’s.

What is not in question is the importance of the right profile picture. It has been established through scientific research. One study showed that people not only formed a first impression from a profile photo, they stuck with that impression long after meeting the subject. Another study showed that people with an appealing profile photo got 38% more job interviews than those with less appealing photos. And yet another showed that people accurately recognize the personality traits depicted in a profile picture.

The Headshot

headshot example for best profile picture

This is what most people use as a profile photo on social media like Linkedin, Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube. It is usually a tight head-and-shoulders shot, most commonly on a light background. The general goal is to look pleasant and approachable. Standing out is not main goal, but to instead give viewers comfort and to show credibility by looking like the other professionals in a given field. These typical headshots are often rather generic, and that is by design. Any professional or job seeker could this kind of profile photo for social media.

It might surprise you to know how much actually goes into a simple headshot, from knowing how to properly pose subjects to using the “right” lens and focal length, lighting setups, and more. Once you master the basics, however, you should be able to capture great headshots with minimal gear in just about any location.

Best Profile Picture: Portrait

Portrait example for best profile picture

If a headshot shows what you look like, a portrait shows who you are. These should surpass a basic headshot in composition, lighting, posing and backdrop. While a headshot could go on your Linkedin profile, a portrait could go on your wall. A portrait can be used in social media, but it is something of a “scroll stopper,” made for standing out from the crowd, not for fitting in. There are circumstances when that is desirable. Suitable for C-suite executives, daring entrepreneurs, consultants, and artists.

Branding Portrait

This shows not just who you are, but what you do. These show your personality with a depiction of what you sell or the service you provide (hence the scads of photographers holding a camera in profile pics). This should be of a piece with your business identity in color, design mood and message. These photos should convey the feeling you want people to have about you and your business or service. This one is for the best profile picture for small business entrepreneurs all day long.

Boudoir Portrait

These risqué portraits, with the subjects in partial, reveling or suggestive clothing, are probably NSFW (Not Safe for Work), although that depends on your work. For people in a glamour industry like acting, modeling or the beauty trade, tastefully implied nudity (no genitalia, please), could be used to grab attention, raise your profile, and promote a career. For most people it’s a way to boost confidence, provide a keepsake for a partner, or to just enjoy the pampering and attention that comes from the experience. Tread carefully if you intend to share these. Best for actors and models.

Best Profile Picture: Cinematic Portrait

cinematic example for best profile picture

A cinematic portrait, as its name implies, should look like a frame from a movie. It tells a story – or at least invites the viewer to imagine what is happening in the photo. As with a movie, every detail requires attention including wardrobe, hair, makeup, staging, props, lighting, and post production color toning. This is the best kind of portrait for an actor going for a specific kind of role, or the person who wants a real showpiece to print and hang on a wall.

Environmental Portrait

The bartender behind the bar, the farmer in the field, the mechanic in his shop, the scientist in the lab. The environmental portrait shares elements of portraiture, branding and the cinematic portrait. The subject’s surroundings are important to establishing mood and context. Because the background and details are important, these shots are better for brochures and websites than the limited space of something like a Linkedin profile shot. However, if you have a destination business, like a car shop or brewery, this might be the best profile.

Best Profile Picture: Black and White Portrait

black and white example for best profile picture

Converting a color picture into black and white is sometimes called “adding art sauce,” which is apt. It makes for striking images, but they can also become stark and edgy. They are not generally best for people trying to look approachable or for those who need to look like they run with the pack. That makes black and white the best profile picture for artists, musicians, and some actors – villains, especially.


**All photos capture by and used with permission from Roy Furchgott.