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Are there any design/artistic 'rules' which could be effectively applied to help make social media profile images (like Facebook profile images/covers) more engaging and integrate well with the target site? That will mainly be Facebook for now, but the content will be used elsewhere.

I'll be shooting for a few people so their profiles will be in a variety of contexts (both professional looking as well as personal) so advice that is specific to any area is valuable.

Note: I'm looking for artistic and compositional advice not technical and production details which are readily available.

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My one-and-a-half cent:

  • Isolate the subject from the background; this can be achieved by using a narrow depth of field, or just using a plain backdrop.

  • Make the person identifiable, which often means that the face should be a significant element of the picture (>10% of the area). Sometimes, especially when the profile picture is displayed as small, it's very hard to tell who's the person in there.

  • Smile! Or anyway some expressivity of the face. Passport-like pictures look terrible in my opinion, even in "professional" social media like LinkedIn.

  • Nice lighting is usually important: it's one of the main aspects, and you will find a ton of information wherever you look. Try not to have harsh shadows, backlighting (unless it's what you want), and possibly have the light come from a side, to give depth to the figure.

  • Especially in the professional context, I think the picture looks more engaging if the subject is looking at the camera. This is my personal opinion, but while a natural or "candid" look is nice for casual pictures, if the person seems to look at the viewer it creates a stronger connection.

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    Excellent answer - I would also add - try shooting from above slightly. Having a camera above the subject and having the subject look up a bit can provide a more appealing image in certain circumstances. – B Shaw Sep 19 '14 at 1:17
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There's no such thing.

Think about it, let's take two people, both recent college graduates, one wants to be invited to the best parties and one want's to go work for IBM - there's practically no single style of photo that would work for both of those.

The first person would want a picture of himself in a wild party, the wider the better - but that picture won't earn him any points with the IBM recruiter.

The second person should probably go for a simple headshot-ish picture in an appropriately nice shirt against a flat background (see my picture at the bottom of this post, my day job is in software consulting so I use a bland "professional looking" image) - this picture will make the party friends call him a mildly insulting names and move on.

This is actually a marketing question, not a photography one, It's like asking for rules for logo design that will work both for dell.com and mailchimp.com - they just want to convey such a different message it's hard to find any common ground.

What does the person want people to think of him/her? what picture will best represent this person they way he/she wants?

The persona doesn't have to be separated from the background (sometimes an environmental portrait style is more appropriate), the person doesn't necessarily have to be identifiable, look into the camera or smile, even nice lighting isn't always needed to the convey the "message" the person is trying to get across (but as the photographer it's your job to get the lighting right)

The only rule I can think of that is applicable to a wide range of people is to avoid small details because those can be lost when the picture is downsized and one's profile picture is likely to be downsized all the way down to a tiny icon in multiple places.

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