How to Get Great Headshots – The Inside Story

Q. What are Actor’s Headshots and how are they used?

A. Actor’s headshots are images of actors which are used as an aid in casting by Casting Directors, Agents, Managers, Directors, Producers and anyone involved in auditioning talent for the various markets in the entertainment industry. From the earliest Hollywood “Pub Shots” i.e. Publicity Shots to current Electronic Submission Digital Images, headshots have been the currency that circulates through the industry representing actors in an effort to be seen for a role. An effective headshot is a mix of aesthetic value (it is pleasing to look at and makes the actor look good) and casting viability and clarity (it defines the elements of the actor’s type that are important in defining the logical characters that actor can play).

Headshots are one of the most effective elements of an actor’s arsenal in terms of “being seen for a role”. A strong headshot can be an effective entrée into the offices of the people who hold the reigns of power in the entertainment industry. A great headshot can not tell someone how talented you are, but it can define your qualities as an actor that in turn define the types of roles you should be playing. We have all heard stories of actors whose headshots have “gotten them in the door” of a big shot agent and launched a successful career.

Headshots are used in two primary forms, the reliable 8X10 reproduction and the rapidly growing Electronic Submission. The 8X10 reproduction is exactly what it sounds like, a print of the actor’s headshot reproduced on 8X10 inch paper and usually printed in large quantities. Reproduction Houses that specialize in making copies dot the landscape in most large cities that are centers for actors. Actors submit a “Master Image” either in the form of a Master Print or Master Digital File and the Reproduction House makes carefully controlled copies of that shot. These copies come in two basic forms, Photo Reproductions which use continuous tone photo paper and produce copies which are indistinguishable from the original, or Lithographs which are lower cost and lower quality reproductions of the image using a fine dot matrix process, much like the images in a newspaper. Budget and personal style determine which process an actor goes with and there is an ongoing debate concerning the best choice. Typically actors who use expensive photographers looking for high photographic quality will want to maintain the elements of that quality in their reproductions. Reproduction Houses have price points throughout the spectrum with Photo Reproduction Houses charging around $115 for 100 Photo Reproductions to Lithographic Houses charging $50 for 500 lithographs.

Electronic submissions involve emailing a low resolution JPEG to the appropriate party. It’s important for every actor to learn how to resize their digital headshot file so that it will sail swiftly through cyberspace and land gently in the queue of the target’s email. Currently there are no established standards for image size but most offices prefer that the image be sized under 1 Megabyte and be converted to 72 dpi. If that sounds like gibberish to you, you can learn to resize your photos fairly easily through many of the photo software programs out there. Typically the programs that are packages with your digital camera will explain the process and allow you to resize your image “for the web”.

Headshots are submitted to industry people who are involved in the casting process. Depending on the level of professionalism, this could mean sending them to an agent as a means of making contact or sending them as a response to an ad for a Student Film Casting in a local actor’s newsletter or giving them to an uncle who knows someone who knows Steven Spielberg. They carry the hopes and dreams of many actors in getting discovered.

Q. What makes a great headshot?

A. A great headshot is the perfect balance of quality, individuality, and effectiveness. A great headshot works on two levels, first esthetically – it looks good to the eye, even upside down. It grabs the attention of the viewer and pulls him/her in. Agents receive thousands of headshots a month. Your headshot has to stand out from the group and grab that agent by the lapels and say, “Look at me!” Secondly, it has to place the actor within a context that makes it easy for the industry professional to mentally cast that actor. They should be able to picture the actor in specific types of roles. This actor would make a great Romantic Lead, that one would make a great Villain. The headshot should be specific enough to define elements of a “type” but not so specific that it limits the actor to only one note. No one headshot can represent all of the possible roles that a talented actor could play, but an effective headshot can represent qualities that logically give a perspective for casting that actor.

Q. How do I go about getting a great headshot?

A. The search begins by sifting through the maze of avenues available to get a photograph that can represent you as an actor. Yes, it’s possible that your Uncle Charlie who works at the DMV could take your picture and it will be in focus and will look like you to a certain extent but in the competitive world of Acting, better headshots present the actor as a professional who takes pride in his/her presentation and understands that the first line of offense is “penetration “. A Casting Agent receives a headshot (with a resume attached to or printed on the back) and decides whether that actor is worth a look or whether that headshot goes into the circular file (we all know what that is). Take a look through the dumpster behind a Casting Agent’s office and cry for the lost opportunities tossed in there.

If you decide that the best approach is find a professional photographer (obviously my choice) and not to rely on a lucky accident by a friend, then you are faced with the prospect of figuring out what your budget will be and who is the best qualified photographer you can find for that budget. Professional Headshot Photographers come at all price points from the $99 special to the $1500 Hot Shot. Is more expensive better? Can you get a great headshot for $99? The bottom line is that as in real life – quality usually costs something. It comes down to this: A professional who has pride in his/her work, makes a living doing that work, and has tons of experience is invested in the result that they create, and has a sense of the market and current styles. Lower prices depend on volume for profit and must then cut back on personal attention and care. Yes, it’s theoretically possible to get a great shot for $99, but it’s also theoretically possible to pay $99 seven times to come up with something that could have come the first time from a trained qualified professional who knows the value of their work and depends on positive word of mouth to stay in business.

It’s a cutthroat world out there for Actors. There are a myriad of businesses specifically designed to separate an aspiring actor from their money. Modeling schools that make empty promises for hefty sums, Casting Agents who charge for meetings, Agents who receive kickbacks from unscrupulous photographers, Acting Teachers who put the moves on students or take advantage of naivety. You’ve definitely got to listen to your gut, but forewarned is for-armed and it’s certainly a buyer beware situation. But all is not lost and actors do get their money’s worth by finding the photographers who deliver great results for reasonable prices.

The first step is to put your ear to the ground. Find a network of actors who are happy with their headshots and the rate they were charged. I mention the rate they were charged because the trick is not to break the bank, but to pay a reasonable rate to get a satisfying product. What is the going rate? What is enough to spend? Logic dictates that people who do something well get compensated for it. That goes for Doctors, Lawyers and Headshot Photographers. So, if the $99 deal seems too good to be true, yes, it probably is. Most New York Headshot Photographers fall within a range from $350 to $850. Does paying $850 guarantee a great shot? No. And beware of the “flavor-of-the-month” photographer who makes a big splash but can’t deliver consistent results over time. New York City is the land of hype and Lemmings form a line at every cliff face along the Hudson River. Most photographers in the range from $350 to $850 would probably do a fairly competent job, but the best shots come from a collaboration between a great professional that you connect with personally and feel comfortable with, and an actor who accepts some responsibility in the process.

Q. What then is the actor’s responsibility in the headshot process?

A. An actor should be clear on the markets he/she wants to work in first of all. Do you want to get TV commercials? Well, you need shots that target those markets and present your type in a strong clear way. Are you a Business Person, a Mom, a Dad, an All-American Boy/Girl Next Door, A Pop-Culture GAP/MTV Kid? That’s what should be evident in your commercial shot, and you might be more than one type. You need to cover all of your types. You might have an 8X10 of your strongest type and then a postcard with a shot of you as a different type on it. How about Film or TV or Theater? That’s called a Legit Shot. A Legit shot defines the qualities that an actor projects and that fall into broad categories in the acting world. Are you more on the intense, edgy side or the loose, light, comic side? Are you going to be hired as the love interest or the best friend? Are you strongest as a more specific type like a thug or a general type like a romantic lead? And within those categories, where do you fall. Are you Ross or Joey or Chandler? Are you Monica, Phoebe or Rachel? Actors need to define themselves so that others can see it. A great photographer has the perspective to help you project your type so that Casting People are goosed in the right direction for casting you. If they understand the roles you would be good for, and your shot accurately and powerfully defines those elements, you’ll get called in for parts that you are right for, a big important step in getting a role.

Q. When I look at most Headshot Photographer’s work, it all looks the same to me. What differentiates a great Headshot Photographer from a good one?

A. It’s difficult if you don’t know much about photography to differentiate levels of quality in photography. This is where in this interview I have to speak personally, based on my experience and what I do to make my work stand out. One aspect of portfolios that is fairly evident is whether the photographer has a limited formula, which is stamped out on each client. It’s not too difficult over time to master the technical elements in portrait photography. With enough experimentation any photographer can hit on a combination of lighting and lens that makes a pretty picture. What separates the greats from the rest is a photographer who generates the style of the headshot from the style of the client, who has a deep bag of tricks and has mastered many forms of lighting and shooting so that the headshot tells about the actor and not what photographer took the photo. Many agents pride themselves on being able to pick out the photographer who took your headshot, and while there are just a limited amount of photographers out there, the goal should be to sell you, not the photographer and their style. It’s helpful to look through magazines that profile actors. The best photographers in the world shoot the actors for those magazines and you can learn a lot about quality photography, taking in those images.

On the most basic human level a great headshot makes a connection with the viewer. The actor and the photographer work together to make that happen. You need to look through the lens and see the person behind the glass. Bring it to them; create an emotion, intensity, and a statement that is defined in your mind. I encourage my clients to feed me emotions or intent. Some have an easier time with that than others. For those that find it difficult, we play games to loosen the flow. I don’t commit to shooting until something is happening. I look for the moments when I feel the connection and BANG – there is a headshot!

The sitter is creating the role and the photographer is directing the action, choosing angles, and lighting, backgrounds that enhance the overall statement of the headshot. There is powerful magic in a great headshot. It commands attention and makes the viewer want to meet that person. As human beings we are drawn to truth and beauty, and those are the elements that make an outstanding headshot. A great photographer is excited by the search for those elements in all of his/her clients.

©Joe Henson 2009, All Rights Reserved

Actor Headshots – Five Winning Secrets For Good Headshots

Are you ready to shoot your actor headshots? If you’ve already picked a headshot photographer and have your wardrobe, hair and makeup all figured out, here are five tips to help you get the most out of your headshot photo session.

  • Shoot one universal headshot. When you have your actor headshots taken, choosing a few different “looks” that suggest character types (white collar, girl next door, etc.) is a good thing. But you won’t be able to have a look that’s perfect for every role that you want to audition for, so you should also have what I call a “universal headshot” – a straight on, no nonsense, what you see is what you get headshot that tells exactly who you are. It shouldn’t be a dramatic or smiling shot. If you get a good “universal headshot”, you will find yourself using it more and more and it will establish your face in the casting director’s mind (who keeps seeing one same photo over and over). That type of headshot will get you work because it’s full of possibilities. How do you get the right look? It’s all in the eyes, which takes us to this next headshot tip…
  • Tell a story. Often, actors preparing for a headshot photography shoot will spend a lot of time thinking about their wardrobe and make-up but will neglect the most important thing – their acting. Unfortunately, being relaxed and open in front of a camera doesn’t come naturally, even to actors. Good headshot photographers help the process, but you’ll get much better headshots if you’re prepared to “tell a story” with your eyes. The night before the shoot, think of what you want to get across in your actor headshots, then write down a one-liner for every different intention. Keep it simple. Just think of how you would convey who you are or what you want in the least amount of words possible (for example, “I really want to get to know you”) and then tell that sentence with your eyes.
  • Do a headshot mix. Line up some songs on your iPod the night before your headshot session. Pick different music for different looks you have planned. Don’t worry about picking out cool songs. You’re not getting modeling pictures. Pick music that you respond to. Close your eyes and notice how each song makes you feel, then decide if this is the right “mood” for the headshots you want. If it is, include it in your mix and loop it if you need to. Most headshot photographers are happy to work with actors’ music at the photo shoot since it helps them relax and get in character for their different “looks”.
  • Stay away from coffee and cigarettes. I got this tip from a headshot photographer: to avoid bags under the eyes, stop drinking coffee two weeks before the photo shoot. If you’re a heavy coffee drinker, you may get headaches when you hold off on the java, but it will help you have a nice skin tone and overall fresh look you won’t have to Photoshop for hours. Another thing that improves complexion is to stop smoking of course.
  • Skip the retouching. A lot of actor pictures look “retouched” to the trained eye of a casting director or agent. If you need to brush off a little speck on your shirt, that’s fine, of course, but avoid going through your headshot session thinking, “I can retouch that later”. Your goal should be to get the perfect shot you don’t need to do anything to. One way to do that is to take regular breaks during your photo session to review your headshots. Most headshot photographers have digital cameras, so reviewing your pictures as you go is easy. Some photographers can even show you a large image of your headshots on a TV screen hooked to their camera. Make sure you love the shots before you go on. Check your general look and posture, but also watch out for little details like flyaway hairs or shiny skin.

Hope these headshot tips help you have a successful photo shoot.

3 Ways to Remake Stale Headshots Without Reshooting

You know your headshots are your number one calling card for developing your resume and it’s likely that you are often in search of the perfect one.

Considering how expensive it can be, most actors can’t get new headshots every time they would like to, so what can you do?

You can give your Headshots a Make-Over! Yes, using the ones you have – if they’re not too-too old.

To start with, be sure to work with one of the best professional headshot photographers you can afford and you won’t have to worry about a Headshot Make-Over. However, let’s say that for whatever reason, you’re not ready to do a whole new shoot, or you’re saving your money to work with a top headshot photographer like Bradford Rogne.

If that’s the case, then you might want to do something to freshen-up your current photos instead. To help you with that, this article gives you 3 ways to improving your acting headshots without re-shooting.

If you’re seriously considering doing something about your unsuccessful headshots, this article could save you several hundred dollars and the frustration of having to get new photos… yet again.

Here are 3 ways to freshen-up your photos:

1. Change the color of the background.

It’s amazing what a difference it can make if you change the color of the background to a neutral color. It helps keep the focus more on your face. However, the reverse may be the solution for you. If you have a neutral background, you may fare better with a colored background. We all have certain colors that bring out our skin tones better. Play around with the background color and decide what option catches your eye and makes you stand out in the headshot.

2. Change your shirt color to a more complementary color to your skin.

This suggestion is obviously similar to the first suggestion. If you are wearing a shirt or blouse that is too textured, too patterned, too bright, or too dark, this is an issue you can improve to get a better headshot. A photo lab (like Reproductions, Ray’s Photo Lab, etc.) can pretty easily change the color of it by editing with something like Photoshop. Or maybe you or a friend have photo-editing software and can do it without spending any money. However, if you don’t have the skills then leave it up to a professional because you don’t want make the pictures worst with unprofessional editing.

If all your headshots were taken in the same outfit, freshen up your group of headshots by changing the shirt color of one of them. Maybe, you’re using different headshots as your commercial shot, dramatic shot, bad guy/gal, comedic guy/gal, or sexy guy/gal – all individual characters. A simple color change to the shirt can help differentiate those photos and bring new life to those individual characters.

3. If the background is too busy, with too much going on then get rid of it.

I hate to say it, but some otherwise really good headshot photographers get so focused on the “artsy-ness” of their photos, they forget that YOU are the subject they are selling, not their headshot skills.

Because they do that, sometimes the photographers do funky things with the background, such as making it blurred, and it is more distracting than helpful. While they may argue that it puts the attention on you by blurring the background or making it super busy, I think not. I can almost guarantee your face looked great without the funky background.

If you have a photo like that, you could change it to a neutral background color. Fixing the busy background will blow you away. Okay there you go!

As previously mentioned, you or a friend may have the skills to perform what’s suggested, in which case, you will spend hardly any money. And if you use a professional photo editor (from a photo lab, etc.) you’re still only likely to spend the cost of an hour of labor. That is far less than paying for a new headshot session and everything (makeup, etc.) that goes along with it.