Headshots: 4 Tips for Choosing a Great Photographer

There are things in life on which you can cut corners and take the cheap and easy route . . . and if you’re an actor, your headshots should not be one of them. This doesn’t mean that you have to shoot with the most expensive photographer you can find—the one with the celebrity clientele and fees in the $1000s—but this is also not the time to hand your old point-and-shoot to your girlfriend or boyfriend and have them snap a picture of you standing in front of your fridge. Of all the tools you have and use as an actor, it’s quite possible that headshots are your most important. A headshot is your calling card; it introduces you, serves for the recipient as a visual reminder of you, and helps to establish and promote your personal brand. With all that at stake, it’s easy to see why good-quality headshots are nothing less than an investment in your acting career, and should certainly be viewed as such!

The task of finding a good photographer is one that may seem deceptively simple, but can actually be quite tricky. After all, taking a single photo of someone’s head doesn’t seem like rocket science, so shouldn’t anyone with half a brain and a decent camera be able to do the job? Answer: not necessarily. The nuances of headshot photography really separate the good photographers from the mediocre, and the mediocre from the truly awful. Beyond just turning out a generic photo of someone’s head, a skilled headshot photographer will be familiar with, and up-to-date on, the performance industry’s standards, and know how to create a headshot that is competitive with other actors’ in your field. He will know how to work with your unique skin tone, hair, and eye colors to make the photo really “pop”. And above all, an excellent headshot photographer will know how to work with you to create a photo that perfectly embodies, expresses, and sells your personal brand.

So, you already know that it’s not necessary to break the bank in order to get great headshots. But where should you look?

1. A great place to start is with your peers. Look at the headshots belonging to your various friends, classmates, or colleagues, and then ask them for recommendations. Keep an eye out at auditions, too; naturally, there’ll be loads of headshots to see in an audition waiting room, and most fellow actors would be flattered if you complimented their headshot, and happy to help if you asked for the name of their photographer. If you still need more photographer options, a quick Google search ought to yield more results than you know what to do with.

2. Choose a photographer you’re comfortable with. In contacting a photographer to inquire about his or her services, you are doing more than simply seeking out the best price, or even the best-looking portfolio. When it comes to selecting a photographer to shoot your headshots, it is just as important that you are picking someone with whom you feel good, comfortable, and at ease. Trust me on this! You can be totally in love with the photos in a certain photographer’s portfolio . . . but if you feel uneasy around this person, it will show in your headshots! And all the beautiful composition or stunning catchlights or even skilled retouching in the world will not totally fix a photo in which you look tense, frustrated, on edge, or any of the other things that will read on your face if you are stuck in a room with someone who gets on your nerves or makes you feel uncomfortable. So what do you do instead? Pick the photographer who makes you feel relaxed. Best case scenario (and I’ve personally encountered this many times, so it’s not impossible to find!) is that you work with a photographer who makes you feel like the two of you are old friends. Not only does this take the edge off any anxiety you may be experiencing on shoot day, but it goes a very long way toward helping to capture the essence of your personality when you are feeling calm, relaxed, and open- all things that make you appealing to the people who will eventually be viewing these headshots and, hopefully, hiring you!

3. Always assume that your photo will look as good as the worst photo in the portfolio. This may sound unnecessarily negative or harsh, but remember that, like everyone else, the photographer is trying to present himself and his work in the best possible light. The photos that you are viewing are the best of the best, and hand-picked to show off the photographer’s highest quality work and to attract more business. A skilled photographer will be turning out excellent headshots on average; in contrast, steer clear of the portfolio with a bunch of mediocre photos, and one or two that really stand out. No matter how much you like those two great photos, the odds are high that your headshots will end up looking more like the former, so-so majority.

4. Make sure that you find out the pricing structure on everything. Not every headshot photographer prices things the same way: some charge per hour, others per “look” (clothing, hair, and/or location change). Some include basic retouching in the headshot fee, others charge extra. Some will hand you a disk of your photos before you walk out the door on the day of the shoot, others have them ready for you in 1-2 weeks time. These are all things you want to know up front, and ideally, to have in writing. This will help you to most effectively weigh and compare your options among different photographers, and it will also save you from an unpleasant surprise when you encounter an unexpected—and unbudgeted for—expense down the road.

I hope these tips prove useful to you in choosing a headshot photographer! Check back soon for follow-up articles covering makeup artists, pre-shoot instructions, and other tips to help you get the most out of your headshot session, and ultimately come out on the other side with the perfect headshot for your acting career.

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Elizabeth Elizabeth Sekora is an actress and classically trained soprano living in Los Angeles. She has 24 years of experience in theatre, film, opera, television, and voiceover work, and holds a Bachelor of Music degree from University of Nevada, Las Vegas. www.elizabethsekora.com.