How to Get a Great Actor Headshot

Few things seem to strike more fear into an actor than the dreaded headshot.

If you have been acting for some time, you’ve probably been less than satisfied with at least one set of headshots or the photographer who took them. Perhaps the lighting was a bit too dramatic. Maybe your makeup was too heavy or too light or your outfit just wasn’t right for the types of roles you’d like. Maybe the images were OK back when only black-and-white headshots were acceptable. But now they look really dated. Maybe you continue to use them anyway because you had 500 printed. “Oh, well, they’ll just have to do,” you tell yourself. Sound familiar?

Or, you’re just starting your career and you’ve heard all the headshot horror stories from friends in your acting class. You’ve been told the only way to get a professional headshot is to go to New York or LA and spend a small fortune. You don’t have a small fortune. So you decide you’ll have your sister’s boyfriend take your “professional” headshot. After all, he took some really good pictures of the family’s Grand Canyon trip last year. How hard could it be? The pictures will be fine, you say. Guess what? They probably won’t.

Here are a few tips for getting your actor headshot right the first time and feeling good about the experience.

Finding the right photographer.

One of the best ways to research a headshot photographer is-you guessed it-browsing their website! Answering the following questions before you book your session will easily narrow down your choices.

  • Does the photographer even do headshots? If so, how long has he or she been working with actors?
  • Are there headshot examples on the website? Are all the images similar, or is there a variety of poses and styles? Do the actors look comfortable and approachable?
  • What is a typical photo session like? How long does it last? What are the actor’s responsibilities?
  • How much is a session and what do you get? Actor headshot costs vary widely, from $100 to over $800. The old adage that you get what you pay for certainly applies here. But there’s no reason to break the bank either. It’s more important to consider what you can afford and your ability to work with the photographer to get exactly what you want.

Assuming all your questions have been answered, it’s now time to pick up the phone or send a detailed email. Note how long it takes for the photographer to call back or send a personal email response. You should get your potential photographer’s attention within about 24 hours.

Now that all your basic questions have been answered, be sure to tell the photographer about yourself and your acting plans. Ideally, the guy or gal would have already asked you, thus demonstrating interest in your career and knowledge of the industry.

Do some soul-searching, if you haven’t already, about the kinds of roles you really want and what you’ve already been cast in. Are you great at playing the young ingenue or the troubled bad girl? Do you enjoy being Gordon Gekko or the all-around funny guy next door? Ask the photographer how you might portray those characters in your headshots. Does he or she have any thoughts on this? The answer may give you exactly what you’ll need to make your determination.

OK. The price is right. You’ve booked your session. Now what?

What should I wear?

There’s only one rule that should never be broken when it comes to your headshot session wardrobe. You must keep it simple! Your clothing should be understated. For guys, that means jeans or other casual pants, crew-neck tees or turtleneck shirts and a light jacket or sweater. A business suit with dress shirt and tie is also a safe bet. The idea is to keep your wardrobe from competing with your unique look. No stripes, no patterns, and never any logos. (I once turned a client’s shirt inside out and backwards, so as to hide the logo of a local brewery!)

My approach is to suggest, depending on their complexion, that clients wear muted colors like gray, navy, or brown. If you’re fair, you’ll probably look great in navy or another darker hue. Dark-skinned complexions look vibrant in lighter tones, dissimilar to skin tone and hair color. Unless you’re really buff and going for a cop or tough-guy role, stick with long sleeves.

For women, simple boatneck or v-neck shirt styles convey a polished look on everyone, no matter your size or shape. Jeans never go out of style; however, bring along a daytime outfit like a business suit or jacket that you’d wear to impress! The idea is to be comfortable with yourself and the way you look. By bringing 3-5 outfits, you and your photographer will have plenty of looks to choose from. Color rules are the same for women, muted and complementary to your complexion. Again, avoid loud patterns, stripes, logos, or “messages.” You are the message, not your outfit!

Should I hire a makeup artist?

That depends. I have many beautiful images of clients that didn’t use a makeup artist. I would consider them quite skilled at makeup application. If, however, you’re like me and wear what takes under five minutes to apply, know nothing about foundation, and have been wearing the same lipstick color for 15 years, I would recommend a professional! Men should also consider a makeup pro if plagued with uneven skin tone or dark undereye circles. A good makeup artist will charge a minimum of $125 per session. For an additional fee, some pros will even assist with hair styling.

Success includes thinking ahead!

Throughout your long and successful acting career, you’ll need headshots more than once, so establishing a solid, trusting, long-term relationship with a photographer will be an absolute bonus. Your actor headshot is far too important to leave to chance. A great headshot doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get the part, but it sure gets you in the door.

What is the Right Actors Headshot For You?

As a busy actors headshot photographer in London I’m often asked for my advice on ‘what is the right actors headshot for me?’ This can be a delicate subject as often actors see themselves in a particular way. A classic one is seeing themselves as younger than they actually look, especially women around the late twenty’s early thirty’s still believing they can play much younger roles.

I mentioned briefly in an earlier article helping the photographer can pay huge dividends in the final outcome of the actors headshot shoot. Having gone to the effort of choosing the right photographer, preparing for and choosing what to wear at the shoot, getting your make-up and your hair to look right if that’s what you chose. Making sure you’ve thought about and done some research on the type of headshot that’ll work best for you and your market – not simply what you’d like to look like. Once this process is done it’s time to think about how you can make sure that you’re choosing the right shot for you.

Remember it’s critical that you pick the right headshot.

As I alluded to in an earlier tip, most actors headshots need to show the actors as versatile so as to open themselves up for as many roles possible. This means that your headshot should be open, friendly and above all else it must look like you. Remember we want the Casting Directors to be able ‘paint a character on you’ rather than see you in only one very narrow role. That is of course unless you have a particular ‘look’ that you’re only ever likely to be cast for.

If your dreams of the perfect role are in the musical theatre then often a great smiling headshot showing bags of life and personality is the one for you. On the other hand if you’re more of a ‘serious’ actor aiming at classical roles then something with a slightly more serious look, showing loads of emotional depth in the eyes would likely be more suitable for you.

In the past when the only option was to enter a single actors headshot into Spotlight or send out your individual 10×8’s you had to choose a shot that would cover all possible roles. However with the advent of the digital age and numerous casting websites you can now use a range of headshots showing your versatility. Spotlight is the oldest and best known among casting directories although there are others such as CastingCall and Castnet where you can now add several pictures to your listing on their website.

Making that all-important choice is critical to your exposure and who makes that choice ultimately has to be you, as you have to be happy and confident with the headshot you put out. Having said that, get a second opinion if you can. Ask your photographer what he thinks as in a lot of cases they’ll have years and years of experience with what works and what doesn’t. The other good thing about asking your headshot photographer is that they’ll give you a straight and unbiased opinion. You could always seek advice from other actors and friends, but remember that this is your career and you must try to get objective opinions from someone inside the business.

Asking your mum or dad or even your boyfriend or girlfriend can lead to drastic mistakes as often they see you in a particular way. Are you still ‘daddy’s little pumpkin’ or are you now a serious performer, and does your mum think that ‘you look cute like you did when you were a child’ in a shot and suggest you use that one? It’s usually the same with your partner simply because, as they have an emotional attachment they’ll also often see you in a particular light too.

Remember you’re trying to appeal to Agents and Casting Directors not the folks at home. It’s your main marketing tool and you’re using it to get you work.

Headshot Advice for Actors

Weekly I receive phone calls from actors looking for dirt cheap headshots. In most cases, dirt cheap headshots from amateur or novice photographers are exactly that… cheap and not usable to market yourself.

The truth, actors who spend the time and money to have acting coaches, active training, invest in continual growth and great headshots are the successful actors.

Here are some facts you need to know for great headshots:

1) Meet and Greet the Photographer

If a photographer is not willing to actually meet and talk with you, run away. This person generally does not care about you or your career. This photographer is more interested in lining his or her pockets by acquiring as many clients as possible. At the very least, a photographer should be willing to conduct a phone interview. There is no way a photographer is too busy to meet with a prospective client. Ask yourself – ‘How will they capture my personality if they have no idea who I am? There are THOUSANDS of actors in Los Angeles (NYC as well) and thousands more arriving every month. What separates you from these actors? A headshot of another pretty face? I don’t think so. Do casting directors hire an actor on a picture alone? No – why on earth would you?

Meeting with the photographer to confirm your compatibility is very important. This cannot be stressed enough. Take the time to meet the photographer. This allows you both to get a sense of one another.

Feeling good about your choice will go a long way in producing those headshots that will get you auditions. The rest will be up to you.

2) Does Experience Matter

This is a tough subject. There are many talented beginners out there. They usually charge a lot less than highly experienced photographers. But they lack experience, therefore they do not always deliver the best product. How can you tell if the photographer you’re looking at is as experienced and as talented as they claim? It’s simple. When you go to meet with the photographer, ask to see printed work. A quality headshot will not lie on paper. That you can be sure of. I recall a magazine I interviewed with asking for a printed portfolio. They loved my work online, but they knew that a print is 1000% truth of quality. Did I get the job, YES!

What an experienced professional can give you is consistency. Someone who takes great pictures every day. The truth is that anyone can take a few decent pictures to promote themselves. But you have to get it right time and time again to have agents, managers, and others in the film and TV community refer people to you consistently. A photographer who specializes in working with actors can help you relax and express yourself. This will translate in capturing an authentic look in your new photos.

“No. 1 headshot photographer in town”, run away from this claim. It’s just a gimmick designed to manipulate you. Plain and Simple.

3) The Headshot Factory

Headshot photography is a business and every photographer wants to make a good living. Quantity, Quantity, Quantity… Shooting as many people as a photographer can fit in a day does nobody any good. Shooting as many people as possible in a day is certainly very rewarding for the photographer. But what about you, the client? Shouldn’t the session be about you and giving you a great product? How can anyone provide a high quality product when they are rushing between clients? Simply put, they can’t. Most top photographers do not take more than two headshot appointments per day.

Ford has it right… “Quality is Job #1″. This should be the motto of every headshot photographer.

4) Post Production

The ability to instantly review pictures on the back of the camera makes it easier for anyone to shoot. But the care that goes into each step in photography has been lost by many photographers. In this world of digital technology, there is a perception that you take a picture and it’s done. But just as with film, digital files represent the original captured image with numerous steps to go.

Post production is not the same as retouching. With film, an experienced photo printer would go into the darkroom and make the best possible print from a negative. The printer would adjust the brightness, contrast, and sharpness of the image, to include dodging and burning areas of the picture. This is also necessary with digital “negatives”, this is referred to as image processing. Image processing is necessary to make adjustments to the overall picture. Retouching on the other hand, is eliminating stray hairs and blemishes on the skin. When a photographer starts with a great file up front, then post processing is used to fine-tune color, contrast and skin tone.

You should not work with a photographer who is not willing to post produce and retouch their work.

Amazing headshots start with a quality image from the get go, not quantity.

Searching for a great headshot photographer can be a lot of work and should be valued with the same importance you place on your career.

Amazing quality headshots will pay you back many times over.

Tips for Getting an Amazing Actor Headshot

1 – DO NOT EXPECT TO LOOK LIKE SOMEONE ELSE IN YOUR HEADSHOT

I cannot stress this enough — your headshot should actually look like you. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people think they need to look like someone else in their headshots! Several years before I was a headshot photographer in Vancouver, and was looking for a photographer to do my own headshots, someone suggested I go to a certain photographer: “This photographer is so amazing! They make you look like a totally different person!” Well, newsflash!…that’s what you absolutely DO NOT want when you’re getting an actor headshot. If your headshot does not look like you, casting directors might ask that you get a new headshot, and you will have wasted hundreds of dollars. Also, if you haven’t gotten an agent yet and you are submitting your headshot to talent agencies, you want your headshot to accurately represent what you look like in real life. You don’t want your potential agent to be surprised when you show up, looking nothing like the headshot you submitted.

2 – THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN CONSIDERING PROFESSIONAL MAKEUP

You should look like yourself in your headshots, but you should also look your very best on the day your actor headshots are taken. Some men and women pay extra to get professional makeup done. Professional makeup is not crucial and can add an extra $100 or more to the total price of your actor headshots. For women, it’s usually best to do your own makeup as you normally would, and wear a foundation that blends perfectly with your natural skin tone. Be sure to bring your makeup with you to the photoshoot, for touch-ups. For men, you really don’t have to worry about professional makeup at all. If you are concerned about shiny skin, buy some translucent skin powder. I suggest Marcelle’s Translucent face powder, available at most leading drugstores. You will also need a makeup brush or puff, though cotton balls work just fine, too. Most photographers should know how to retouch their own images, so they will be able to remove blemishes, scars, and discolorations.

3 – PREPARING FOR YOUR ACTOR PHOTOSHOOT
It’s always important to eat right, but definitely consider nutrition and how you treat your body a week or so before your actor headshot photoshoot. It’s best to stay away from too much caffeine and sugar the week leading up to your photoshoot (if you can, avoid these things entirely), and be sure to drink lots of water to hydrate your skin. Also, make sure not to spend too long in the sun the day or two before your photoshoot. A slight tan is fine, but a sunburn will be very tricky to hide with makeup and/or retouching, and may cause your skin to peel and look dry. Some people worry that their skin is too pale for a photoshoot, and they schedule tanning sessions in preparation of their headshot photoshoot. ONLY do this if going to a tanning salon is a normal part of your routine. If you want a bit of extra colour for your photoshoot, consider purchasing some bronzing powder (select one that isn’t too sparkly!). And remember: It’s so essential to get enough sleep the night before your photoshoot!