I don’t really mind doing photo shoots. I’m not a model, and I don’t want to be one. But every actor winds up doing a LOT of still photo shoots. Sometimes, they want photos of you to decorate a set — like if you’re playing one of the kids in a family, and they’re filming in the family house, they’ll stage a bunch of “family photos” of things like Christmas, or a group photo of the whole “family” (cast) to put on a table in the background of the shoot.
Other times, you’re doing promo photos for the film. And sometimes, still photos are part of a commercial job. But a headshot photo shoot is something that every actor has to do at least once a year (more often if you’re a kid who’s growing, with changing looks).
Like I said, I don’t really mind doing the photo shoot. You just bring a bunch of clothes that meet the requirements your agent has set for you, and the photographer tells you what to do.
But I hate — and I mean HATE — having to go through all the photos after the shoot and pick the one or two that I’ll use as headshots for at least the next six months. Why? Part of it is because I don’t really like looking at pictures of myself. (What teenage boy really does?) But part of it is that it’s really hard to guess what look the casting directors will be looking for, and how to best represent myself so that I will get a chance to audition.
Luckily, I don’t have to actually pick the final images myself. My grandma and I will narrow it down to a few images, and we’ll submit those to my agent, and she’ll make the final call about which one will be my primary headshot for the next few months. I trust her to make that choice because she’s the one who submits me for auditions (three new ones in the last 24 hours), and she knows what is most likely to get me hired.
Your headshot is the first thing a casting director or agent sees. It goes on your online profiles, and you print 8X10″ photos to attach to your resume, and bring them to every audition. They’re emailed whenever your agent submits you for a role — and a lot of times, you will get hired based on what the casting director sees in your headshot. This is especially true of working as an extra, where your headshot may be all they see before they decide whether or not to hire you.
What Makes a Good Headshot
I don’t pretend to be an expert, but my agent and the casting directors I’ve worked with are experts. And here’s what they say about what makes a good headshot. A good headshot looks like you. It isn’t a glamor photo of what you look like after an hour in the make-up chair, and it isn’t a photo that’s so heavily retouched that the casting director doesn’t recognize you when you walk into the room and they’re looking at the headshot you sent in advance.
That said, the “raw” headshots of me in this blog will be retouched a little — I had just gone camping, and I had several mosquito bites and red spots on my face the day these were taken. So they’ll be retouched before the photos are printed. But the mole on my chin, and my freckles won’t be removed, and neither will the little scar I have. That’s because my scars and my freckles are part of who I am — and if the casting director doesn’t want to hire someone with freckles, then they wouldn’t want to hire me. I don’t have a lot of them, and they can easily be covered with make-up, but that’s not my choice to make.
The second thing about a “headshot” is that it isn’t really of your head. It’s more of a head and upper body, or head and shoulders shot. The casting director wants to get an idea of your body type, not just your face.
Last, but not least, a headshot isn’t about the background, or the clothes you’re wearing. They’re just there to add color and texture to the photo. But the focus has to be on you, because the real purpose of the headshot is for the casting director to get an idea of whether or not you have the right “look” for the part they’re casting.
Judging “Raw” Headshots
I remember the first time I had headshots taken. We spent a lot of time looking at the lighting and picking the one that we thought was best. But my agent said that another photo — one that I didn’t think looked good at all — was the right one. What I didn’t realize is that most photographers include a little bit of retouching in the price for the headshots. And they take a ton of images, at slightly different camera settings, so that they can quickly enhance or edit the photos once you narrow down your selection.
So when you look at the photos, look at your expression, your hair, how your clothes hang, and focus on that. Let the photographer edit the shot to make it look its best — don’t pick a photo just because you like the lighting, or you think it’s the right color balance or something. The most important thing about a headshot is that it gives the casting director some idea of your personality. If you’re the bright and bubbly type, that should show in your pictures. And if you’re the brooding, bad guy type, that should show, too.
When you are working with a photographer, it’s important to know what kinds of roles you are going to be going after. My agent doesn’t want me to use headshots that position me for “bad boy” roles, for example. So I go for middle-of-the-road headshots that show me as an average kid. I also have some “character” headshots I can use for specific roles, like when I am auditioning for a role as a bully or a Goth kid.
What that means is that when I am looking at wardrobe for a headshot photo, I go with the kinds of clothes I’d wear if I was going somewhere with my friends. You want to make sure that there are no logos or images visible in your headshots — you don’t want to get ruled out of a commercial job because you’re wearing a shirt with a competitor’s logo on it, for instance. And you don’t want to wear a shirt that offends anyone because they don’t like a particular band, or don’t get the joke from your T-shirt.
For the photo shoot I did this week, I took eight different outfits with me to the shoot, and the photographer picked the ones he thought would look best on film. We wound up shooting four “looks” — a shirt and tie, a hoodie, a simple solid color golf shirt, and a combination of a plaid shirt and bright colored T-shirt. We were going to shoot one look with a jacket, but it was over 100 degrees by 10 a.m., and it was just too hot to try it. Like I said, I’m an actor who plays a range of parts, and I often play the “average kid” roles. So my wardrobe for headshots is pretty simple.
But I know some actors who specialize in certain kinds of roles, and their headshots tend to be a lot more specific than mine are. If you’re a character actor, who usually plays a certain kind of role — a cop, a gang member, a cowboy — talk to your agent about what kind of headshot you need. In general, you don’t want to wear a costume because that typecasts you too specifically. So if you usually play a cop, don’t have a headshot of you in a uniform — but a conservative jacket that practically screams “FBI” might be perfect for your headshot.
One thing is for sure, though. If you are under 18, you want a headshot that’s age appropriate. Girls shouldn’t wear much make-up in their headshots — if they notice the make-up, it’s probably not age appropriate. They should be looking at you, not your make up or clothes.
Teen actors who can play younger should use headshots that show them at the mid-point of their age range — I don’t want to look much older than I am, because I am often cast to play younger roles because (a) I’m kind of short (5’4″) and (b) I still have kind of a baby face. So, while I could make myself look like a high school senior, or pose behind the wheel of a car since I am learning to drive, doing that might rule me out of a lot of parts I could get if I used a headshot that doesn’t “typecast” me as an older teen.
Help Me Pick New Headshots
I could use some help with selecting new headshots. Here are a few of the ones taken this week. What do you like? What do you think would work for me for the next six months or so?
Remember, don’t focus on the lighting and anything that can be edited out, like the mosquito bites on my forehead from camping last week. I’d welcome your comments as a personal message, or as a comment to this post.
A good tip on the wedding photography forums when going through lots of pictures is “edit out, rather than in”. In other words pick a folder of images and start removing the ones you think aren’t that good. It’s easier than picking the ones you think are best because eventually that is what you will be left with anyway.
Yeah, that’s what we did. We divided each folder into two sub-folders. One of them were the ones that were definitely out — the ones with my eyes closed, the one where I looked like Justin Bieber, the ones where there was something major wrong. Then we created a folder called “possible” and one called “dislike”,and sorted pictures into them.
Last, but not least, we divided the possibles into those where I am smiling and those where I look serious. To be honest, I like the ones where I look serious the most, but agents and casting directors always seem to like the ones where I am smiling.
Now we’ve got it down to about 20 possible images, from hundreds, and it’s time to make some choices. But you’re absolutely right: it’s a lot easier if you start by “editing out” the ones you wouldn’t never use.
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