A story for you:

My First Headshots

One year ago, about two months before I was set to launch into private practice internship, I booked my first round of professional headshots for my marketing materials. Though I’d been fiddling with my therapist website for several months already and researching things like fee setting, policies, and SEO, I didn’t really know what I needed in order to have a compelling online presence. Getting headshots just seemed like a basic thing I was supposed to do.

I had heard things about “niching” but had no idea yet how important it was (how could I? I’d never yet had to recruit my own prospective clients). I was still living in the pleasant fog of ignorance when it came to therapist visibility. And I don’t mean Google search rankings. I mean actually being seen for who we uniquely are and what we do. All that blank screen shit from my training had seeped deep into my brain, despite my longstanding discomfort with the rigidity around self-disclosure I’d encountered in my education.

So, to prepare for the shoot, I bought dresses that I thought I might conceivably be caught dead wearing (and literally never wore again), practiced my Mona Lisa smile, and imagined photos of myself sitting peacefully in a field with my hands in my lap, like some kind of saint. This was what I saw as my “therapist brand” (though I didn’t call it that at the time).

I think the photos I got back from the shoot captured exactly that. Which was… fine, I guess! But not quite right. A little too generic, a little flat. Something was missing, but I didn’t know what.

Round Two: One Year Wiser

Fast forward a year. That first year of full-time private practice will do a number on you, let me just say. A lot had changed about me–both about how I was thinking of my practice and how I was presenting myself to the world, particularly in terms of my gender expression. I realized I needed new headshots.

To get by, I took a few selfies with my amateur DSLR skills. They came out OK (even though I threw the whole thing together impulsively and managed to not remember how to use my wireless remote switch). But my friend, cheerleader, and marketing expert Jacqueline Rimmer soon convinced me that I NEEDED some legit photos for Dream Your Practice.

So what did I do? I went out, got some recommendations, and booked the shoot for three weeks out.

I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to communicate with my branding. But suddenly I had a deadline: I had to dial that shit in FAST.

Hence the whirlwind of a week I had not long ago, envisioning a shoot location, figuring out WTF to do with my hair (I was trying to decide whether to dye it purple for the first time since college), and WAY too much shopping for accessories (literally every day, before and after client sessions) that were going to complete this Look I was still frantically trying to formulate in my imagination. Plus collecting props, gathering inspiration images, and doing a lot of meditation to get clear on what I wanted to create.

The result: WOW.

I got the photos back from my amazing photographer (and fellow therapist) Lauren Selfridge not long after our shoot, and they floored me. I’m not someone who enjoys how I look in photos, generally speaking. But these–they actually LOOKED like me. My genuine smile. My silly faces. I had a total blast on the shoot itself, which I wasn’t expecting–and that authentic enjoyment and fun 100% translated in the images I got back

What I’ve Learned about Getting Professional Headshots

So here’s what I learned from this process that I’ll be taking with me to every future photo shoot I do–and I hope you will, too:

Lesson #00: They’re so worth it.

If you have a talented photographer friend, great. See if they’ll do a real shoot for you. If not, don’t fool yourself into thinking a selfie is going to cut it for the purposes of marketing your business. Book a professional photographer (and see my glowing review of Lauren Selfridge below). This will be a couple hundred (tax-deductible) marketing dollars very well spent.

Lesson #0: Figure out your niche first.

I don’t say this lightly. For many therapists it’s a long and taxing process (mostly because, once again, it requires us to be super visible!). But the more energy you can devote to really thinking through this, the better your photos will turn out. More on this in a future blog post.

Lesson #1: Create an inspiration board on Pinterest and share it with your photographer well before the shoot.

As you’re surfing around, look for color schemes, outfits, poses, and facial expressions that light you up. Make sure to include notes about what specifically in the image you feel drawn to. This will help your photographer get clear on your vision, but it will also help you understand better what you need to bring out in your own shoot. I recommend starting this process as early as possible, so it can inform your shooting location and outfit selection.

Lesson #2: Choose some keywords to share with the photographer.

This mostly takes the form of:

“My marketing material colors are ____ and _____.”
“I want my prospective clients to feel ____ when they see my photo.”
“I want my clients to feel _____ when they work with me.”
“I want to be sure to convey the fact that I’m _____, ______, and _____.”

For the record, you need to dive deeper with these answers than “warm and fuzzy” or “safe and understood.” And this part can be super challenging because it requires that you’ve actually thought about your image as a therapist. As we already discussed with niching above, visibility is often hard for us! More on this in a future post.

Lesson #3: Start planning outfits early and get lots of feedback.

Some quick tips:

  • Avoid white clothing as it can confuse the camera and make lighting balance tricky. (I learned this the hard way.)
  • Add some bling: accessories make a huge difference and can snazz up a very simple outfit. Bring a number of options to the shoot: they’re easy to switch out for some more variety in your photos.
  • Make sure you’re comfortable and can move around, especially if you want some more dynamic shots.
  • Get some wardrobe changes in if your photographer is cool with it
  • Choose clothes that communicate both your vibe and your marketing colors.

Lesson #4: Get your damn hair cut.

Just do it, OK? Maybe a couple days before so if something gets screwed up you can go back and get it fixed. Tell your stylist that the haircut is for a photo shoot within the week so they know it needs to look perfect Today (not in a couple weeks).

Lesson #5: Bring a friend along if you can.

For moral support, someone to smile at, and extra help fine-tuning details. Make sure to instruct your friend to pay close attention to possible wardrobe malfunctions and hair/makeup issues that the photographer might not be able to catch because they’re focusing on a million other things. It’s helpful to choose a friend who has a naturally good eye for this (without being critical). Make sure to return the favor!

Lesson #6: Look at the camera.

Popular wisdom indicates that making eye contact with the viewer inspires more trust than images where you’re looking off camera. This is extra important for therapist websites, where trust is a huge component of what you want to inspire so that people will take the next step and contact you. I regret not having been aware of this in my first shoot last year. I got a lot of great-looking pictures back, but almost none of them had me looking at the camera, so I felt like I couldn’t use them as primary images on my site.

Lesson #7: Have fun and be yourself. For real.

The demand to be buttoned up and professional as a therapist can be overwhelming. And depending on what populations you’re working with, conservative might be the right way to go. But it’s definitely not the right choice for everyone. There’s this thing in marketing called the “know, like, and trust factor.” And it’s essential for therapists. Let yourself shine through in your photographs so you don’t get lost in the sea of generic headshots on Psychology Today.

Some people worry about looking “too happy” in their therapist photos because it seems… unprofessional? Rude to their suffering clients? OK, maybe. But I say let yourself cycle through a range of natural expressions during your shoot. You might be surprised at what you (and others) end up liking.

Lesson #8: When you get your photos back, look at them for the first time with a good friend, instead of alone.

If you’re like me, you’re much more likely to pick apart the final images than anyone else is. You’ll notice things no one else would ever see. You’ll be convinced you look like shit and be on the verge of demanding your money back before someone has a chance to talk you off the ledge. Save yourself the angst, disappointment, and rage, and share the reveal with a supportive friend who will tell you how great you look. At the very least, if you can’t share the moment with someone in person, send the photographer’s album link to friends before you look at the photos yourself so you have their kind words in your mind before you dive in. I’m so glad I did this for my second round of photos.

Lesson #9: Lauren Selfridge is awesome!

If you’re in the Bay Area, do yourself a huge favor and check out Lauren Selfridge for your headshots. She’s fantastically talented, passionate about photography, and a therapist in private practice to boot, so she gets therapist headshots in a unique way. I feel so lucky to have found her. (For a few of the fabulous photos she took during our shoot, check out her gallery.)

Psst… Want more?

I created a FREE comprehensive 10-page checklist for making the most of your professional headshots. You can grab it over here!