The Headshot: An Acting Job
Updated: Jul 12, 2019
Your headshot is your business card. If your headshot is bad, you look bad. If a casting director cannot sense your type, your headshot is useless. If you want the industry to take you seriously, you must have a respectable, high quality, killer headshot.
The job of a headshot photographer is not to take pretty pictures, but to help you get marketing materials that help you book work. Contrary to what many people think, during a headshot session, the actor has the leading role. Actors, you should be in control of the people and things who represent you. I am not saying that you shouldn’t take direction from the photographer. What I mean is, it is the actor’s job to know their type and to be responsible to experience emotions during the session, which will be reflected in the final product. A mere change of clothes may not give you the results you’re looking for. Photographers should provide guidance and industry-standard quality, but if different attitudes are not conveyed in your pictures, then you paid for an extra look in vain.
At the same time, a forced expression will not appear authentic. It is important that you own who you are and whom you can play without forcing it. Trust your feelings; embrace who you are with all your individualities. Own and believe that you are enough and be brave to expose it. The goal is to create a memorable, castable, and marketable you.
Recently, actor and producer Patrick Roper posted two very interesting articles about branding and headshots to Facebook that caught my attention, so I invited him to join me in this blog entry to share his thoughts. A native of Seattle, WA, Patrick has worked in theater and film since he was a teenager. He is a talented performer with several awards under his belt. Some of his recent film appearances include Birth of a Nation, Florida Girls, a supporting role in Killerman and a major supporting role in the historic drama Emperor. Patrick actively administrates the dynamic Facebook page Savannah Georgia Actors Group (SGAG), where he shares valuable information about the film, television, and theater industry.
What can you do to prepare for a headshot session?
First and foremost, read the first part of this article ;)
Second, pick a photographer who understands headshot lighting and branding. Research the heck out of the photographers you have in mind. Every photographer has his or her own style and this might not mean his or her pictures are better or worse. Pick the style that works best for you and the industry you are in. Do not use your friend that has a good camera for your professional material; use a headshot photographer with a suitable portfolio.
Patrick recommends that actors follow a bunch of different headshot photographers, in different markets, all over the world on social media (particularly Instagram since it’s image based).
“This gives them an idea of the current trends in various markets and how they are evolving. It also helps them choose who’s style might fit their brand the best and if that photographer might be someone they want to work with. I was also recently reading from UK headshot photographers and CDs that they find that the US markets tend to like wider shots that include a bit more body whereas in the UK they prefer tighter headshots. Natural light shots are big these days, but there is a huge trend in “Cinematic” style shots that are lit and color corrected like film and TV shows. Also I’ve noticed more “Rembrandt” lighting is becoming popular (warm and with more dramatic shadowing that brings out facial features. It doesn’t hurt to get a little bit of everything I think, but you can never go wrong with a solid natural light headshot” –he states.
Next, talk to your Agent if you have one, to see what kind of looks they need from you. They are the ones submitting you for jobs and they need to have options. Every time you take headshots you should consult with your agent. They could give you an extra suggestion or a redirection that you were not aware of!
Pick your clothes carefully ahead of time. Make sure they are clean and wrinkle-free. This is very important. In addition to looking unprofessional, wrinkly clothes sometimes are hard to retouch. Try on possible outfits before your session. I don’t mind at all when my clients email me asking for guidance. I love this, this means you’re taking things seriously and you’re getting prepared. It’s ok to bring a few more pieces of clothing than those needed, but don’t bring too many as to not get overwhelmed at the time of changing.
A note from Patrick: “I recently heard one of the top Casting Directors in Atlanta say that she thinks people put too much emphasis on what they are wearing and flat out does not care what they wear as long as it’s not distracting. I’ve heard time and time again that a headshot should focus on the head (particularly the eyes). All else is negligible.”
Make up can make my job very easy or can became a nightmare. If you are using a professional make-up artist, make sure to ask for a natural look. Some makeup flaws are hard to edit, especially around your eyes. If you do not wear makeup or do not know how to do yours, come as you are! The less make up you are comfortable with, the better.
Prepare, prepare, prepare. You’re paying money for a product. You wouldn’t hire a designer for your home and let them do whatever they want with it. Go to your headshot session with a clear vision of what you want and talk to your photographer about it. Some things might not work out the way you thought they would, but there are always other possibilities and alternatives.
As for the editing part, Patrick recommends to keep it minimal. “Don’t get edits that smooth out your appearance. You earned those wrinkle, freckles, and scars. Tommy Flannigan doesn’t edit out his scars. He markets them. Diana Rigg was a stunning beauty in her younger years. She’s now an old lady with wrinkles and character and markets that. Patrick Stewart went bald in his twenties. He markets that. You need to honestly market who you are. Editing should be limited to blemishes, stray hairs, and maybe lighting and color correction. You HAVE to look like you on a good day, but not your best day. This is not a glamor competition. This is a reflection of the real you, right now. Not the real you of 15 years ago. Be confident in who you are. That is what will sell you. You confidence, not your vanity."
One thing I would love my clients to know is that while you obsess over a small blemish, a wrinkle on your neck, or a loose strain of hair –all that could be edited out- these will not keep you from being cast. When looking at a picture of yourself you will always focus on those things you do not like, while the rest of us might never realize are there (I will tell you what mine are: droopy eyelids and lines on my neck). Be kind to yourself.
Patrick's take on editorial shots:
Actors should, of course, get some solid headshots (focused on the head and eyes) with the actor looking into the camera. Those are the calling cards of our industry. When it comes the more “character” oriented shots, I think it’s better to do editorial style shots for those. Something that looks more like it’s out of a magazine lifestyle spread or a film screenshot. Something that tells a story. This give the actor the opportunity to really act in the shot. To become their brand. A good mix of shots that are both looking into the camera and others that are not and look more like screen shots. Set up a scenario that a character in your brand would get be in in a film and get those shots. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it can be a lot of fun to do this and if you are really focusing on your brand. You can get some great photos that really sell who you are and what you bring to the table. This type of photography is going to be very important in the actor’s marketing. Mark McCullough does this a lot. I do this a lot. I think actors get too obsessed with getting the great headshot (which is important), but forget that they are marketing a living, breathing person and the way to do that is editorial style shots.
Nothing is worse on IMDB than seeing someone who has 15 headshots in a row, that all kind of look the same (but in slightly different clothing or even worse, the same outfit). It looks amateurish. It tells me that they are indecisive about their image and don’t solidly understand their brand. I want to see their brand engaging and interacting with the world. That gives them life. That helps people see them in different scenarios.
How Patrick selects his own Headshots:
I tell people with everything they hear in this industry, that they are dealing with one person’s opinion and not to get too wrapped up in it. I think actors engage in too much mind taffy about doing everything right and trying to please everybody. When they go to different workshops they hear conflicting info and forget that they are dealing with opinions, not facts. I recommend that if people are seeking opinions about their shots by posting them online or getting “approval” from mentors or other industry professionals that they keep this in mind. Not everybody is going to like your headshot. Some people will nitpick the silliest things. You’re not going to please everybody, so get that idea out of your head and pick a shot that really speaks to who you are and what you sell.
After I pick a bunch of shots that grab my attention and the attention of others that I’m asking for opinions, I tend to take to raw image and zoom in on the eyes to make sure that those are DEFINITELY in focus. The eyes need to be sharp. Then I double-check the general focus of the facial details. But the eyes need to be sharp. If they are too fuzzy, that photo will usually be put aside. I like to be able to see what color the eyes are and even the little details in them if the person has an eye color that’s light enough to see details. Some people have really dark eyes, so the lighting becomes a bit more important to give the eyes some life. As for lighter colored eyes, I think it’s better to be more conservative as far as light reflection. Lighter colored eyes are usually very vivid and I’m not sure why some photographers want to cover up that definition with a lot of glare. I don’t really want to see a huge window reflection in somebody’s eyes. All of this is my opinion, of course. The trick is that you have to remember that most CD’s, agents, and others are seeing a thumbnail sized version of this photo, so it has to be something that jumps off that screen in a sea of other small photos. But it also has to look good blown up to an 8x10.
At the end of the day, whatever photo is chosen should scream what the person is selling in terms of their brand and be the highest quality version that they can get.
We hope you are feeling motivated to book your headshot session!