How to take an author photo

Giulio Saggin

Anything done well looks easy. This includes author portraits. You’ve no doubt seen ones you like and while they might appear easy to replicate, looks can be deceiving. How many times have you wondered why your cake looks different to the one in the cookbook?

I’ve taken many portraits during my 25+ year career as a photographer and it’s now like water off a duck’s back for me. However, sometimes I listen to myself giving instructions to my subject – “turn your head a bit to the left … too far … back to the right … now straighten it and drop your chin …” – and there is a lot happening.

While some authors have their portraits done professionally, you don’t need to go to the expense. You also don’t need a ‘fancy’ camera. A smartphone will give you a good result.



A plain background can work well, and window light is always lovely.


Hands hanging by the side is a big no-no. Get the hands doing something (it only takes a few seconds).


Sunlight can cause shadows and squinting, while using flash indoors causes unsightly shadows.


Here are a few tips:

  1. A window is a good place to start. Why? Window light is soft and even. Stand side on to the window, and not with your back to the light. Eyes might see your face but a camera will reproduce a silhouette. Even having light on inside the room won’t balance the brightness of the light outside.
  2. We all love a sunny day but direct sunlight can lead to shadows under eyebrows and squinting.
  3. Avoid standing under an inside ceiling light. They can cause shadows under the eyes, similar to Point 2. Also, if your portrait is going to be used as a colour photo, some inside lights will cause a red colour caste.
  4. Avoid flash photography indoors. It leaves horrible shadows.
  5. Watch out for backgrounds. The kitchen window might offer nice light but we don’t need to see the remnants of this morning’s breakfast in the background. Sometimes a plain wall behind works best (although see points 3 and 4).
  6. On the subject of backgrounds, if your subject has dark hair or is wearing a dark top, a dark background might not be advisable. The same for light hair etc.
  7. Hands hanging by the side is called the ‘store mannequin’ pose. Avoid it at all costs. Holding something is my preferred option but even clasped in front, in pockets, or arms folded looks better. Anything but hanging by the side.

These are a few practical tips. There are many more, but this should help. The best thing is to use what’s written here and and take lots of photos, trying different things. In this digital age, the amount of photos you can take is virtually limitless.

Another thing that will help is to think of photos – including author portraits – as visual stories. I used this message with great success when explaining photos to ABC reporters during my nine years as national photo editor with ABC News Online. The reporters loved that fact I translated photography into a universal language, by showing how photos and written stories are structured the same.

As writers, this should make sense to you, as some of the parallels include using exciting (visual) langauge, including the necessary information, finding an angle, avoiding messy copy … the list goes on and on. The main thing is to think of photos as stories in their own right, and not separate ‘things’.

The presentation I gave to reporters is now my latest book. Its unique approach to photography gets people thinking about photos as visual stories and will help you understand why photos look the way they do. Remember, anything done well looks easy.♦


   sagan_giulioGiulio Saggin has been a news photographer since 1989 and has worked in Australia and the UK. He was also national photo editor with ABC News Online from 2007 until June 2016. He has published three books: You, The Citizen Photographer: Telling Visual Stories, Deep Fried Pizza and …so I did. You can read more about Giulio’s work at or

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