Uncanny Valley: The Problem with Using an AI Headshot Generator for your Professional Profile (2023)

The ideas, views and opinions expressed in this article represent my own views and not those of any of my current or previous employer or LinkedIn.

AI is everywhere these days. We are seeing its rapid evolution right before our eyes. AI-generated art has wowed us through deep learning models, and language processing models such as GPT-4 are offering endless possibilities for how we communicate. In fact, AI was pivotal in helping organize my thoughts for this article. AI can even use predictive analytics and sentiment analysis to improve marketing for organizations wanting to reach specific audiences with marketing campaigns. These models are making new leaps and bounds every day.

And now we are seeing companies offering AI headshots in various styles, lighting, environments or scenes.

You may have seen some examples of websites or apps that offer this service, and some of them even state they work with real professional photographers to curate and retouch your photos.

Given most people (all people?) don’t like to be in front of a camera – though the idea of selfies somehow makes the same timid, camera-averse people suddenly crave to be the center of attention all over their social feeds – it’s no surprise people would rather find a quick and easy solution where they don’t have to be awkward in front of a camera.

It sounds tempting, right? Given the incredible AI-generated art and landscape photos we’ve seen in recent months, who wouldn’t want to have a perfect headshot for their online profile without spending time and money on hiring a professional headshot photographer or going to a studio? Who wouldn’t want to have fun experimenting with different looks and backgrounds without leaving their home?

But before you rush to try these services or use them for your professional profile picture, you may want to think twice. There are a number of reasons why using an AI headshot generator is problematic for your professional image and reputation.

Trust in your business and brand is top of mind for business owners and leaders. If a photo looks like it’s been manipulated and doesn’t look anything like you do in person, that can undermine your credibility and people’s trust in you.

A2022 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report on Trust in Technologyfound that 65 percent of people agree with the statement, “I worry technology will make it impossible to know if what people are seeing or hearing is real.” The same report highlighted that trust in technology varies across different markets and regions, and that social media is one of the most distrusted subsectors within technology. The research was in the context of deep fake videos, which is very relevant to what we’re seeing with computer-generated headshots.

First of all, an AI headshot generator may produce unrealistic or inaccurate results that do not reflect your true appearance, personality or culture. For example, it may alter your facial features, skin tone, hair style or expression in ways that make you look different from your authentic self.

In one LinkedIn post, a CEO who was excited to try one of the popular AI headshot generators, was very disappointed in the algorithm’s results specific to her hair, and even dubbed the experience an #AIHairFail. She said, “AI photography isn’t yet there for women of color, particularly those wearing many hairstyles.”

I tried one of the AI headshot generators myself and the results were…interesting.

The service asked me to upload 10-20 selfies and individual images of myself. While I’m a professional headshot photographer, I uploaded a bunch of images in the vein I would anticipate most people would upload - no professional lighting, various angles, environments and multiple wardrobes.

The most interesting thing happened next, the service wanted me to pick the skin tone that most closely matches my own. There were only a handful of options, so my exact skin tone was not there. I selected the one that I thought was the best match. Next, it asked me to do the same for my hair color, eye color and hair length (above ears or below ears). If this is really an AI generated headshot, wouldn’t it be able to detect these things pretty accurately?

See a) three of the actual photos that I uploaded and b) a dozen of the nearly 80 examples that I received back - in less than an hour. With that fast of a turnaround and with the service claiming to have already delivered half a million headshots, I can’t imagine these photos were curated or retouched by real professional photographers. Some of these images might look like me in about 5-10 years, but they aren't reflective of what I look like right now.

Uncanny Valley: The Problem with Using an AI Headshot Generator for your Professional Profile (1)
Uncanny Valley: The Problem with Using an AI Headshot Generator for your Professional Profile (2)
Uncanny Valley: The Problem with Using an AI Headshot Generator for your Professional Profile (3)

For reference is c) a headshot of me taken in January 2023 by world-famous NYC headshot photographer,Peter Hurley.

Uncanny Valley: The Problem with Using an AI Headshot Generator for your Professional Profile (4)

An AI headshot generator is inauthentic at its core, because today’s AI can only replicate and produce what it has already seen and learned from existing photos and experiences, even if those images are an amalgamation of multiple different artists’ styles or works.

Photography, and I’m not talking about the department or mall studio variety, is about human connection. Never say never, but I don’t believe AI will be able to replicate that human engagement to produce authentic headshots. It won’t be able to capture the unique essence of who you are in the moment, or convey your emotions and intentions through your facial expressions like a great headshot photographer can.

At face value, some of these headshots might look a little bit like the person it’s trying to capture. As a photographer and human, I can tell the real from the fake pretty easily just by looking at the “retouching,” which also seems to be computer generated.

I can understand the argument that retouching could also deem a photo inauthentic, and that’s true with deeper retouching. Most trained headshot photographers only employ natural retouching tactics, unless a client requests something more specific.

The real tell of an AI headshot though is in the eyes. Many of these services make the eyes look empty, almost like you are looking at a person without a soul. In several of the shots it fired back at me, it didn’t even look like my eyes were looking at the camera (where is the camera?) This can make you seem distant, cold, angry or uninterested in engaging with others.

But as a business professional, you need to show that you are innovative, creative, and adaptable to different situations and challenges. You need to show that you have something unique and valuable to offer to your potential clients, employers or partners. You need to show that you are not just another face in the crowd, but someone who stands out and makes an impact. You need to show you are easy to work with.

You cannot currently do this with an AI generated headshot, which is generic and predictable. You can only do this with a human-captured headshot, which is authentic, original and engaging.

While AI-generated photos can make for good entertainment and creative expression, an AI headshot generator is not best forbusiness professionals. Instead, find a professional headshot photographer who will get to know you and your business on a deeper level and create positive and authentic headshots that will engage and attract the types of audiences you want for your business or career.

Besides, a photo session with an outstanding photographer is fun and can help build confidence. Show off your true qualities and best self with authentic professional headshots taken with a real camera, professional lighting, and natural retouching.

Have you tried an AI headshot generator yourself? I’d love to hear about your results.

Jeremy Bustinis a professional photographer in Atlanta, Georgia. He specializes in premium headshot photography for business professionals, entrepreneurs and actors.


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