A lot has been written on the internet about what to wear for professional headshots.
And, for some reason, a lot of the conversation has revolved around what colors are best for headshots.
While there are definitely best practices, the question is actually less nuanced than you may realize.
Color Theory for Professional Headshots Is Mostly Bogus
Some experts will say that the color red conveys passion and power.
Other experts will say that the color green conveys creativity and uniqueness.
But even if these associations are real, for most people, they aren’t very helpful in a practical way.
Who says the job/client you’re after cares about you being “passionate and powerful”?
How do you know your audience of people cares about your “creativity”?
What if you want to be “powerful” but don’t have a red shirt?!?!
So many questions. Also …
What if different jobs/clients care about different things? How do you decide?
What if your future clients or employers belong to a different culture than your own?
As Monica Zagrobelna points out in her article on the topic, “In China, red is a very positive color, full of happiness and energy, yet in the Middle East and some African countries, people see this color as a symbol of danger or evil.” (Source)
So, the truth is that unless your professional headshots need to represent a caricature of yourself, you don’t have to lean in 100% to a specific personality trait you want to convey.
It’s probably a distraction anyway.
Looking professional, approachable and trustworthy is enough.
You don’t need to scream “passion and power!” (or any other color association) at the top of your lungs with your professional headshot.
Exceptions to the Rule
There’s something to be said about company branding matching across photos.
Also, If you work in the environmental space, wearing the color green (or having a green background) might be a nice touch toward conveying associations with nature.
Or, if you work in aviation, light blue might provide some subconscious associations with the sky.
It’s true that yellow can bring warm energy to a photo, and orange can indicate someone who’s willing to think differently.
However, spending too much time evaluating colors is a distraction from what should be the priority.
What’s Our #1 Tip for Colors to Wear?
Wear whatever color looks good on you.
That advice may be disappointingly simple, but it’s the honest truth.
People will find you more trustworthy and desirable to work with if you look comfortable and confident in your clothing.
The best way to do that? A) Hire a professional headshot photographer and B) Wear colors that complement your skin complexion, tone and undertone.
What Colors Look Good for Headshots?
As mentioned, start by considering the three factors to what colors to wear for headshots: skin complexion, skin color and skin undertone color.
Everyone knows about complexion, but not many people know about tones or undertones.
Factor #1: Skin Complexion
Simply stated, this is the lightness or darkness of your skin.
Typically, you’ll want to use clothing that has high contrast with your skin complexion.
Someone with a very pale complexion won’t look good in a very white/light shirt.
While darker skin tones can still look good in black, it will not create as powerful an image, as the skin and clothing can meld together.
For professional headshots, you usually want to focus on contrast.
Medium and darker skin tones can still look great in darker colors, but it usually requires blending various tones for a low-contrast look. This style is harder to pull off correctly, which is why we usually recommend high-contrast looks.
Fair skin complexion, white background, and white shirt are a bad combination for this person. They look washed out.
Factor #2: Skin Color
Without beating you over the head with the obvious, typically you don’t want to match your skin color with the exact same color of clothing.
Skin color is different from complexion, as complexion refers only to lightness/darkness.
Color is more obvious in people with fair/light complexions, but it is still relevant for everyone.
Green (Olive) – Usually this is present in people of Asian, Middle Eastern, Indigenous American, or Mediterranean descent.
Red – This is most obvious in people of Northern European descent. There are also a fair amount of people of African descent who have red tones in their skin.
Blue – This is most obvious in people of Scandinavian descent, although it also tracks down into Asia and the Middle East.
Skin color is not strictly one color or another. Many people are blends of various colors.
Factor #3: Skin Undertone Color
Skin undertone is the “shade within your skin color.” Your skin undertone can be either cool (looks more blue-ish), warm (looks more yellow-ish) or neutral.
Undertones don’t have anything to do with skin color, as all races/ethnicities can have any one of the three undertones.
Depending on your undertone color, you’ll want to select colors for your headshot that complement your undertone.
Don’t know what your skin undertone color is? Check out these 4 DIY tests from Maybelline. (Makeup people 100% know about undertones.)
You may have never thought about this before, but after you complete the DIY test, you’ll never forget this tip. Healthline has a surprisingly helpful article on undertones here:
What about hair color?
It shouldn’t match the color of the background. So white hair on a pure white background is a no-go.
That one is obvious, so we didn’t cover in depth.
Now Put It All in Action
In general, the rule is to wear colors that complement, but don’t match, your natural skin tone and undertone. You’ll also want contrast with your complexion.
Let’s say you’re a person with fair complexion, light red (pink) primary skin color, and a warm undertone. You’ll typically look best in blue, green or black.
Let’s say you’re a person with medium skin complexion, olive skin color, and a neutral undertone. You’ll probably look best in colors like red, gold, forest green, cream, brown and purple.
Let’s say you’re a person with dark skin complexion, red skin color, and a neutral undertone. You can wear almost any color, but professional headshots will look better with at least one light-colored piece of clothing for contrast.
Still need more help? Here’s a wonderful guide on how to pick the best colors for your skin complexion. We wish we’d written it!
There is tons of mixing and matching among different types of people. Color theory for wardrobe selection is equal parts science and art, so don’t expect any specific answer here.
We’ll give you guidance, but you should take a close look at your wardrobe to confirm which colors look best on your hair and skin. Typically, you’ll have many of these colors already in your wardrobe.
Wear the color in your professional headshots that looks best on YOU. You’ve probably already accumulated a bunch of clothing in that color.
Just make sure it:
2) Doesn’t look worn
3) Isn’t wrinkly
That will take you much further than trying to manipulate your viewers’ subconscious with specific colored clothing.