Beauty Tips: Makeup for Your Work Photo

I speak from my own pain. 😭

Early last year, I was just beginning my journey at a new workplace. On orientation day, my HR coworker took photos of me and the other new hire. Aesthetically, I was anything but prepared for this photo.

It was bad enough that I tend to feel tired during the time of day that this picture was taken (I looked pretty wiped out in the photo). But on top of that, my makeup – though perhaps acceptable for the workplace itself – looked atrocious in the camera lighting.

I was definitely NOT photo-ready.

I lived with months of embarrassment, which I would feel every time I saw this photo – (it was BAAAAD, people) before I finally requested a retake from HR, when someone else happened to be getting their picture taken. I felt so vain requesting this, but the severity of the unsightliness was great enough to move me past that.

This may seem to be an egocentric concern to have, but consider that your coworkers and bosses are going to be viewing your picture each time they review staff photos to become visually acquainted with those on the team. An unflattering picture has the potential to harm your chances for career development and promotion (though the level of such career impact will depend, to some degree, on your field of work and company culture).

And so, to prevent you, my makeup-wearing friends, from making the same mistake at your future workplace (and if and when you get your photo retaken at your current job), here are some tips for your first-day-at-work professional photo.


Tip #1: Keep it Natural

Pretty girl with natural or no makeup
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

When I had my photo taken, I was wearing (IIRC) a rosy “nude” sort of lipstick. Well, this lipstick actually ended up looking close to a bright pink in the photo. It appeared as though I had no idea how to apply my makeup for the workplace.

What to do instead: If you have fair skin like mine, you’ll want to wear, at most, a clear or lightly-tinted gloss, or a true nude lipstick (not super rosy, deep, or colorful). This will actually come through as way more flattering in the camera lighting.

In my opinion, if you have darker skin, you can pull off just about anything. Even deep or bright reds would probably look great on you. But if you have lighter skin like mine, STEER. CLEAR. of reds! Even reddish browns. They have no place in workplace photos.

While red can accentuate the rich beauty of deeply pigmented skin, if you’re pale and pasty like me, it’s more likely to make you look like a) a (possibly willing/complicit/desirous) target for sexual harassment and favors, b) vain or self-focused, and/or c) like you’re there to look pretty rather than to work. These judgments certainly aren’t fair, but they happen nonetheless, and you want to (covertly) hijack your bosses’ and coworkers’ brains and convince them that none of these assumptions apply to you.

With fair skin, red lipstick can stick out like a sore thumb in pictures (not saying red lipstick isn’t pretty with fair skin, but IMHO, it’s just way too pronounced a look for this occasion). You don’t want to draw excessive attention to any one part of your face in the photo.

If you opt for a lip shade that’s not clear or transparent, you’ll want to wear a lipstick that’s slightly warmer (more brown/golden-toned) than what you usually would wear. Not bolder or deeper, just a hint more golden-brown. (So no icy, cotton-candy pink, or totally pasty, sugar-cookie nude lipstick.)

You want something with some sunlight in it. The color will cool down in the fluorescent lighting of the workplace, and you want warmth to offset this.


Tip #2: Go Light on the Eyes

pretty blue eye with minimal makeup

Now, I don’t want to get too specific here, because “proper” or flattering eye makeup depends a TON on your eye shape, and to some degree, your eye and skin colors.

Again, in this case, I think those with deeply pigmented skin can get away with a much bolder look (or with no makeup, for that matter. Dark skin just naturally looks put-together and alive). If you have darker skin, chances are, you could pull off a semi-bold eyeshadow look with heavy liner.

If you’ve got lighter skin, however, you’ll want to very tightly apply a thin line of neutral-colored liner. No blue, purple, or green. And unless you have other dark features (like deep brown/black hair and dark eyebrows), you’ll probably want to steer clear of black liner as well. Additionally, I recommend little or no mascara. At most, apply a small amount just to the tips of your lashes, or only to your top lashes. You’re essentially going for a no-makeup look.

I know this can be counterintuitive for those of us with pale skin, because we feel like we have to add color everywhere to fill in the pastiness. But too much color in certain areas can actually accentuate the pastiness throughout the rest of the face. And there’s the risk of looking a bit clownish or “nightclubby”.

Depending on the closeness of your eyes, you could apply just a bit of white liner to the inner corners of your eyes. This has the effect of making you look more awake. It also has the effect of drawing the eyes out further from each other. Be sure to blend it well though, so the application isn’t super conspicuous.

If you apply liner, shadow, or mascara TOO HEAVILY, you risk looking tired, depressed, or even a bit angry and hostile. Worse, your boss might think that your makeup is leftover from last night (especially as things begin to smudge and smear)!

Sometimes, a rose-gold eyeshadow with a bit of shimmer adds a nice finishing touch. It’s very subtle, but can add that glowing effect to your eyes. Consider this instead of, or in addition to framing your eyes subtly with brown liner.


Tip #3: Use a Gentle Setting Spray

If possible, invest in a setting spray that you’re comfortable breathing in. (Though I still recommend trying not to breathe in the spray, even if the formula is mostly or completely natural. 🙂 ) You may have to search online to find a quality natural spray that you like. Or you can try making your own.

The benefits of applying a setting spray are many. It will give your makeup a fresher, no-makeup kind of look, as it tends to firm-up the makeup, making everything appear seamless and smooth. Additionally, you’ll have to worry a bit less about your makeup rubbing off on your clothing or wearing down as quickly. Your eye makeup should stay in place much longer, preventing smearing. Having one less appearance-related thing to worry about (like smudged makeup) can also boost your confidence, which comes through in a photo.

I don’t recommend applying the setting spray every time you wear makeup – just when you know your makeup is going to be put to the test, you’re going to have an extra-long/active day, or it’s a special occasion (such as first day of work or job interview).


Tip #4: Contour Your Face

image of contour and highlight points
Photo credit: flickr.com

Contouring is a great way to highlight the features of your face and to enhance the appearance of alertness and vitality.

Generally, some great rules of thumb are: apply your lighter color (your highlighter) in a vertical line down the middle of the nose, darker color (your contouring shade) just outside that middle line, highlighter in the middle of the forehead and chin, highlighter below the eyes, and contour on the cheeks – below the highlighted areas beneath the eyes.

You can contour with liquid concealer and/or with a bronzer powder. Be sure to blend in the concealer/highlighter and finish off with a powder close to your normal skin tone, so the contouring is not obvious, just subtly defining.

For some great tips on contouring, check out this video.


Tip #5: Skip the Blush!

Or go very, very light. Just for a faint glow.

Blush was considered fashionable in a certain day. And it still is, in certain settings. But it has the potential to appear somewhat old-fashioned, especially if you were not born in the time in which it was popular.

Save blush for evening dates and other social events. It has the potential to carry negative connotations in the workplace, similar to the messages that can be accidentally conveyed by pale or fair-skinned women wearing bright red lipstick (especially for a photo).

If you can apply your blush faintly and smoothly enough that everyone thinks it’s just the natural glow in your cheeks, then be my guest, but please, learn from my mistakes:

When reviewing pictures of myself in which I was wearing blush (to what seemed an appropriate extent in “real life”), I’ve noticed that the blush really, really sticks out in my pictures. Again, it looks like I don’t know how to apply makeup, and tends to make me appear more tired and emotional (even though this perception is unfair, it’s a tough one to shake. Face redness tends to be associated with a more reactive or sensitive temperament).

For some jobs (such as retail, sales, and creative work), bolder makeup may actually be considered preferable. Sometimes, such a look can help people succeed in these lines of work. But I’d still recommend a more natural look for your photo.


To sum it up, less is more. This isn’t to say you don’t necessarily want to wear any makeup for the photo (it really depends on you – your skin health, personality, and preferences).

All in all, the goal is to look presentable without looking like you put much effort into it (the whole “I woke up like this!” thing). You want to look low-maintenance, awake, alert, calm, and focused.

Bottom-line: Stick to nudes, gentle golden, and rose-gold tones. Keep everything subtle. And when in doubt, the answer is probably: don’t.

stylish businesswoman
Photo by Jonathan Daniels on Unsplash

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