An AI Headshot Versus a Real Headshot. Five Reasons Why the Difference Matters.

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By The Light Committee

Should People Stop Shelling Out Hundreds of Dollars for Real Headshots When There is Now the Option for an AI Headshot for Under $50?

If you live in a large metro area like Los Angeles and have shopped around for headshots, it is likely you have stumbled upon high cost and a myriad of choices in available photographers that it can be dizzying. And so now that there is the option of getting an AI headshot, people are going to at least try it out. But there are at least five reasons after you try it, not to use an AI headshot and go ahead and get a real one made. After all, as you will see, they are not all expensive.

A headshot of a woman in a jean jacket outdoors with natural light in Glendale, CA
Even in a Compressed Image for Posting Online, a Real Headshot Like This One is Superior in Quality, and Just Using Natural Light too. But There is Much More to the Superior Real Headshot Than Just the Technical Quality. - Image Source: The Light Committee

Before we get into the number one reason why not to use an AI headshot, here are two more bonus reasons… First, it’s not real. An AI headshot is nothing more than a loose interpretation of you and not anything authentic of you. In fact, if you study it for just a second, you’ll start to notice those aren’t your teeth, it’s not your body, not your forehead, and so on…

With a real photo, the camera captures an absolute mirrored reflection of what you were doing in a specific moment in time – an authentic you. An AI headshot is a computing mash-up of a bunch of selfies of you. There is no moment in time, no authentic you. When someone says about your AI headshot “did you just recently take that headshot?,” you can’t respond “yes” because that specific AI headshot never happened. It was never a moment in time captured for you, of you. It’s essentially a lie and misrepresentation of you. That may be too deep a thought for some but, it’s true and another big difference with a real headshot. A real headshot will always have a strong positive memory associated with the moment it was created. An AI headshot never will.

A client recently came into The Light Committee admitting she tried to do an AI headshot. She said she posted it and immediately received negative feedback from her close friends and family. “It doesn’t look like you,” they commented and eventually someone asked “is that an AI headshot?” She took them down and came to see a real photographer at The Light Committee. She admitted she didn’t even look at them herself, just being lazy about it and posting them. But after the commentary, she looked more closely and saw her teeth didn’t look like hers, nor did the body. Her forehead was larger and in some of the shots her face was narrower than usual. She admitted it was a waste of time and money, even for just $40. She was fortunate. Many people might not have friends and family willing to give honest, candid feedback about the shots. You might be using an AI headshot that everyone looks at, knows it’s fake, judging you for it, and not giving you feedback about it.

#1. Is There is a Significant Price Difference Between an AI Headshot and a Real Headshot?

The cost argument is a big one and most of this article is dedicated to it because it is important. Frankly, it is an opportunity to point out you can get real absolutely premium headshots without paying a fortune and you can probably find a solution in 10 minutes or less. More on this to come…

try it on example of a headshot looking unnatural
This is An Example AI Headshot From Try It On. Does It Look Natural and Like a Real Human to You or More Like a Mannequin? Image Source: Try It On

There Were Already Cheap Virtual Headshot Alternatives

The first point to make about cost is it seems most people are just falling under the trap of what’s trending when it comes to getting an AI headshot for cheap. For years before the AI headshot came about there were already options available to get virtual headshots for cheap.

The virtual headshot vendor is where you take a few shots of yourself with your smartphone, with some of their guidance, and submit them to the vendor and they retouch it for you or swap a background behind you for around $50. Again, this has been an option for years and probably better than an AI headshot because at least your face doesn’t get skewed, altered, etc. (as much) in a way that doesn’t resemble you. More on this later too.

Still, people rushed to the AI headshot because AI is trending. So, the cost of an AI headshot is hardly any new advantage. People will likely get the AI headshot trend out of their system and turn back to the tried and true. Those that don’t will stand apart in a way they’d prefer not to because in the end, a premium headshot will again be a differentiation opportunity.

But Real Headshots Are Expensive, Right?

Arguably the biggest reason people dread getting a headshot is they can be expensive. In Los Angeles, it is common to find quick headshot sessions asking for hundreds of dollars for a look or two – a look being an outfit change. The problem is more likely that a person does not want to spend a long time looking for a headshot photographer that provides value. But how long is too long to save hundreds of dollars and still get a truly premium headshot that no AI solution could match?

Use Search Tools to Your Advantage

We live in an age where people cannot spend a few minutes on a task at a time. But what if it can save you a lot of money and bring you prime results? If you use Google and are willing to spend just 10 minutes instead of just 10 seconds, you can likely uncover true value. Here are some quick tips to help. Do a Google search in Safari, Chrome or Edge browsers and if on a desktop or laptop search for “headshots Los Angeles” – or replace Los Angeles with your city, or “headshots near me.”

Next, use the CTRL and F keys (or OPT and F on a Mac) together to launch the ability to search for words on a page. There might be slight variations. For example, in Safari on iPhone, you do this instead by typing the word you want right where the web address is shown. Then you will see an option pop up that says something like “find on this page.” Now search for the dollar sign ($). This is a quick way to scan an entire page for listings that have the $ sign and can instantly reveal photographer rates without having to comb through websites for it.

studioshot bad results do not look like the actual person
Is This Even the Same Person as the AI Headshot? Maybe They Mixed Up Files by Accident? You Be the Judge. Study the Shot for Yourself Because Most People When Viewing Someone’s Headshot Do Just That. - Image Source: StudioShot

Searching From a Mobile Phone

If you can only do this from a mobile phone, before you do the dollar sign find, scroll down the search results several times. Keep swiping a few times down the list of results and then return to the very top and then search for the dollar sign on the page.

This is to unhide some of the search results that your browser might initially hide for speed / performance gains, so that they show up when you look for the dollar sign. This might also be necessary on a desktop or laptop depending on how Google decides to return search results to you that day. Scroll down to the bottom of the page several times before you search if Google has fed you infinite scroll results. If you see the page numbers 1-9 or 10 at the bottom, you will have to repeat the find-on-page for subsequent pages. Search at least 5-6 pages.

Start to make a list of possible photographers.

At this point, you should have spent only 4-5 minutes to do this. Next, go to Google Maps and do a search for “headshots near me” but then widen the map results to the longest point you would travel. You can do this by pinching in with your fingers on a mobile device or hitting the minus option on the zoom feature three times on a desktop or laptop. In LA, most people might keep things to around 20 miles. After changing the zoom out, there should be an option about “redo this search in this area” or to “show list” and go ahead and do either of these.

Now in maps you start to look at photographers by how many 5-stars they have. In Los Angeles, there are plenty that have 50 or more. So, you might want to go for ones that have at least 100. Go ahead and search 3-4 map pages and come up with a list of the top 5-6 photographers with the most 5-stars.

Now add them to your list.

You might now have a list of 7-10 photographers. Go to each of their websites and if they don’t easily list their rates, eliminate them. Dwindle it down and you’re likely to find real value from some photographers. Choose one and avoid the rest of the madness of an AI headshot. This process should take around 10 minutes to uncover true value.

#2 Is There Much of a Difference in Quality Between an AI Headshot and a Real Headshot?

There is a massive difference in quality between a real headshot and AI headshot but, again, you must be willing to weed through the masses of photographer options out there to find the ones that have truly premium headshot quality.

Some might argue that quality is not so relevant because most pictures end up being posted as small thumbnails. However, in many such profiles, people can click that image and see a larger version of it. But even with smaller images the quality of a real headshot is apparent to most. Remember too that for most people a headshot is an investment only made every 3-4 years. In that time, there can be many ways you will use your headshot. So, the quality is important. You might be a guest author for an article and the editor needs your headshot. You might be a speaker at an event. You might want to run ads for your business. And on, and on. A headshot is not always going to just be for a LinkedIn profile.

But there is more to it than quality. There is the vibe of the image that matters too. More on this later and back to quality for now.

headshotpro bad results no eye contact
All Smiles But Why Are They Staring Off Into the Yonder? Proper Eye Contact Is Everything in a Typical Headshot. On Top of That, Why Are They So Plastic-Like? You Be the Judge. – Image Source: HeadshotPro

We can get technical about the quality difference between a real camera and smartphone but let’s keep it simple here. Let’s use an analogy. Imagine if you gave an artist a set of unsharpened crayons with limited colors and then also gave them a set of fine art sharp pencils with unlimited colors and they did a portrait of you with each of them. The fine art pencils would kill and in photography a real camera and lens compared to a smartphone is 10 times more the effect.

Furthermore, even if you use so-called upscaling technology, it’s still garbage in, garbage out. This is why the best AI can do to make up for the lack of detail is to make you look more plastic-like. Furthering the garbage in argument, smartphones do not even have true portrait lenses that headshot photographers use, which is why selfies never look as accurate as a real lens.

proper posing and eye contact in a headshot
Meaningful Eye Contact and Custom Posing Are Important Factors in a Headshot, Like With This Real Headshot, Which Are Out of Your Control With AI Headshots. That’s in Addition to the Flexibility of Getting Half-Body or Full Body Shots to Suit Your Goals. - Image Source: The Light Committee

#3 Does the Photo Shoot Experience Matter or Is it Better to Save the Time?

The photo shoot experience is as paramount to premium results as is the photographer and the gear he or she uses. First, remember that with a photographer, you do not necessarily just get a headshot. You might set up a session to get a full body shot, or half body shot. You might get some lifestyle shots too that are suited for your profession. This might be a real estate agent outdoors next to a door, giving the impression of inviting you into your new home. It might be a psychologist on a couch with a warm smile, comforting you in your session. The photo shoot lets you plan for such shots that help you stand apart as a professional versus your competition. You do not want to leave that to a robot in the sky.

A headshot does not always have to be against a gray background. But even if it is just this basic, a real photographer with premium lighting and a full-frame sensor camera and premium lens will deliver noticeably superior quality.

Finally, most photo shoots are positive experiences, even if you don’t like being in front of the camera. When we are in a positive mood, it exudes and this comes across in the results of the shots, which AI cannot match in trying to generate out of thin air.

One of the starkest results of AI headshots is how lifeless people look, much like mannequins. In many cases of AI headshots posted online, eyeballs appear to be looking in different directions even though that is not a trait of the person. Or the eyes appear to be looking just off to something else in an odd and disconcerting way.

AI headshots do not match her look
Study These Shots Like a Real Person Looking at a Headshot Would and You’ll Start to Ask Questions. Why are Her Eyes Wider Apart In Each Shot? Why Are Her Eyebrows Higher in One? Why is Her Face More Narrow and Longer on the Left? And Her Lips are Wider on the Left Despite the Smile Being Pretty Much the Same. Pull Back Now. Are They Even One and the Same Person? Again, You Judge Yourself Because That’s What People Do to Headshots. - Image Source: Medium

A seasoned photographer can help you with posing and facial expressions. For example, do you want to exude confidence or warmth? Or do you want to come across as very friendly or as a serious person? There are subtle variances in facial expressions and posing that creates these and sends the relevant message to the viewer. Don’t forget too that backgrounds and lighting also play a role in setting the vibe. It all has to sync. This is why lighting and sets are so vital in the movie world and it is precisely the same case with a headshot.

#4 Have Smartphones Really Caught Up Enough to Real Cameras?

No, smartphones are still vastly inferior to the quality that can be produced from high end cameras, and probably always will be. And, again as previously pointed out, even with upscaling technology AI is no match. Arguably the bigger difference here is how people always look to justify their purchasing decisions, in this case to go the lowest-cost route of an AI headshot versus working with a real photographer. It’s perfectly normal to justify your own decisions.

There are consumers that buy white label products because price is the utmost importance even if they could afford more and even at the expense of quality, especially when they cannot tell a quality difference. That’s the AI headshot buyer in summary. Then there are people who buy a low-cost but quality name brand because they can tell a quality difference over white label. Finally, there are people who buy the freshest organic product because quality is paramount, price be damned. People who care a little to a lot for quality – the latter two examples here – are probably best off working with a real photographer.

But it is arguable that anyone that can use a headshot should not settle for AI quality. So much is riding on your headshot. It is proven by many studies that people are judging you by your headshot, even passing you by on LinkedIn before even looking at your profile’s content. A headshot is more important than most people think.

#5 Does AI Overbake a Headshot or Do Photographers Just Do the Same with Photoshop?

In just about any AI headshot results posted online, the results are heavily overprocessed. In many cases, faces have little texture and are plastic-like. When they are not this, the faces are off in other ways. If you look at three examples and study them just a bit, you will start to notice faces are skewed from one shot to the next, or the eyes are wider apart or lips more narrow from one shot to the next. How can this be acceptable if it is supposed to be one and the same person?

bad AI headshots are real
If You Want to Look Like a Plastic Mannequin Then Perhaps the AI Headshot is for You, or If You Want Shots of Yourself Staring Off Into the Yonder for No Apparent Reason. Image Source - HeadshotPro

This is critical to point out because when your headshot is not resembling you, it can be disconcerting to a person that sees it and then later meets you. Are you the person they thought they were meeting? That is not a first impression you want to leave on a customer, client, casting director, etc. Some might counter, “well as long as one ends up being close enough, that’s fine.” But with a real photographer that delivers premium quality, even in a quick 30-minute session, you will get dozens of options that are better than close enough and several shots that are great.

Some can argue that photographers do the same overbaking with Photoshop. Yes, a photographer can overbake a headshot. But here’s the thing. It’s optional. You can ask the photographer not to retouch your headshot or specify certain things you want and do not want retouched. You can be in full control.

Wrapping it Up

There will always be people where $50 in anything matters and there is nothing wrong with that. But if a $50 difference in a headshot price is not a big factor to you, consider the moral dilemma. The art world is definitely under attack by AI. AI has generated a song using major artists without a second of their involvement. You can imagine the domino effect AI would have if it put all artists out of work. Photographers, musicians, film makers, painters, and more. Artists hire many people and buy many things. Support art with your dollars by not using AI.

And if you think AI is not coming for your job, try thinking more deeply about that. AI will seemingly have a disastrous effect on many jobs and most of them being for highly skilled work. Many people think of professions like doctors and lawyers being untouchable but AI is already trying to replace lawyers too.

Editorial Note: The images from AI generators posted here were downloaded and reposted here at their full size and unaltered. You might find smaller versions of them on their own sites.

AI Headshot bad results
Are We Just Beating a Dead Horse Now Because Is This Even the Same Person? Image Source: Try It On