As a marketing agency executive and part-time photographer, I have to say that diving into the AI headshot trend came with mixed emotions. On the one hand, how cool and fun is it that for just $17, I can have one hundred different versions of me created?
On the other hand, not one of those photos would actually BE me. Isn’t there enough imposter syndrome and crises of self-esteem going around without yet another tool to help people appear perfectly airbrushed and perfectly lit and somehow pore-free?
If someone complimented me on my AI-created profile pic, would I accept it without clarification? Does it even matter how the image was created, if I feel confident in how the image represents me?
Let’s start with a guessing game: can you guess which one of the photos below is the real me?
(The answer’s at the bottom of this post!)
The Artificial Eye and Its Bizarro-World Effects
Real talk: I haven’t laughed as hard as I did when I was reviewing my AI headshots in a very, very long time. As in actual tears flowing down my face, runny nose, loud honks of laughter, the whole nine yards.
Despite AI’s best intentions, which can be boiled down to “generate a realistic image of a person’s face based on certain parameters or inputs,” today’s headshot generators aren’t quite reliable yet — or consistently realistic.
The number of photos I received with “glitches” was pretty overwhelming: more than half of the 100 proofs I was sent had some sort of issue, and I’m not talking about a lighting issue. I’m talking about extra body parts. New facial features that aren’t actually a part of my IRL face. A smile that rivaled Tom Cruise’s, for in several images I too had a single tooth right down the center of my mouth.
Strangest of all, as I flipped through my images from the Uncanny Valley, was the way AI was determined to rearrange limbs into non-human configurations. It was weird enough to see my face with an added dimple, but then there was THIS:
I’ve heard of two left feet, but what in the impossible yoga is even happening here?
Almost all of the photos I received included some sort of unnatural and obvious mistake. While the company I used offered “retouching” for another $7 per photo, my corrected hand pic (same as above) came back with the correct number of left arms … but a completely different mouth.
AI Headshot Photo Negatives to Consider
Headshot photography is not easy! I have photographed dozens of individuals and it requires a lot of time and care to capture someone’s personality in a professional way. The cost of such services ranges anywhere from $150 to over $1000, depending on where you live and the expertise of the person you hire.
That’s a big expense compared to the $10-20 range that AI headshot companies are charging. No wonder so many people are trying out this trend — it’s far more affordable than an IRL professional service.
But there are plenty of downsides to this cheaper alternative to real photography. Aside from the image anomalies I received, my photos felt like a ripoff of someone else’s work. AI supposedly generates brand new images from scratch, but every AI system is also training on pre-existing images: it really felt like my face was simply morphed onto images I’d seen before from red carpet events, magazine shoots, etc.
Authenticity and the Human Touch
As a sales and marketing executive at an influencer marketing agency, I hear the subject of authenticity come up all the time. The top-performing creators and campaigns that we see come from those who know how to keep it real.
The truth is, keeping it real in the photo industry takes a lot of effort. I tracked what it took for me to manually re-create one of my AI headshots:
- Hair, makeup and wardrobe: 1 hour
- Camera and lighting setup: 25 minutes
- Single pose self-portrait session: 35 minutes
- Gear: Nikon d750 DSLR with 50mm/f1.8G Nikon lens and tripod/remote control
- Photo editing: 1.5 hours using Lightroom editing software
That’s over 3.5 hours spent for ONE photo setup, and that’s just for a home shoot — being on location can add all kinds of extra gear and logistics.
But it’s precisely the human experience and expertise that results in top-quality professional photographs (with the correct number of limbs!). Pro photographers are not cheap for a number of reasons: they use high-end equipment, they have years of experience in their craft, and they take a lot of time and effort in their work from planning to post-processing.
With all that in mind, which scenario do you think will produce the better result?
- Hiring a professional photographer whose portfolio you love, who offers customized shoots that require a lot of personalized attention to detail
- Paying $17 to an online AI headshot service
I’d say it’s obvious that the AI scenario won’t be able to compete — but you also simply can’t beat that price point. It’s just that what you’ll get with the first option is likely to be priceless, while the second option may result in a real blow to your self-esteem (depending on how you feel about accuracy when it comes to teeth, arms, etc).
“Is THIS what I want on my LinkedIn profile?”
We’ve all seen criticism for social media users who post overly filtered or unrealistic content (“lashgate” comes to mind), and professional headshots seem no different when it comes to potential backlash from those who know you don’t really look like that.
Do AI headshot services cross too many lines as they create artificial representations of our likenesses? Or are they any different from sharing a regular smartphone selfie with extra face-blur?
Personally, I find myself in the camp of “it’s better when it’s from a human.”
In fact, I’d love it if the so-called de-influencing trend would take over AI selfies, returning us to a land of reality where people sometimes have skin texture. I’d go so far as to say I’d love a social world where disclaimers are required for artificial content.
For now, though, I’ll simply share my belief that it’s inherently artificial to use an algorithm to create a human likeness — and I greatly prefer genuine photographs of real humans.
The Lighter Side of AI Headshot Imagery
Here at Sway Group we recently enjoyed an all-company reveal of our very best AI shots. Frankly, I suspect that is the current best use of an AI headshot service: allow all your employees to access the service, then hold a meeting where you compare them all.
So many weird arms/teeth. A set of wrists with no attached hands for one of our account managers. One poor person’s image was so nightmarish I’ve had to promise not to share it here, but just let your imagination run wild.
I realize AI is making advances by the hour, and soon enough we’ll likely see major improvements that do away with the extra appendages and strange glitches. Still, no matter their merits, AI headshots will always come with limitations, and can never be a perfect substitute for human creativity and artistry.
As we move forward, I hope to see a greater appreciation for the value of human work and the unique qualities that only humans can bring to the creative process. After all, despite how much longer it took to create, I definitely like the photo of the REAL ME the best.
To see me recreate my AI headshot, check out this TikTok video with all the behind-the-scenes details of my real photoshoot!