Headshots: 10 Tips for the Eight By Ten

Throughout your acting career, you will get many, many sets of headshots. They will change with your age, your haircuts, your city and your evolving type. Headshots are often the first and last impressions casting directors have of you, so it is of paramount importance to have a good one. Unfortunately, sorting through all the advice out there on how to take good headshots can be exhausting and confusing. Luckily, I have composed this handy-dandy listicle! (Everyone please keep using that term until it happens for real. Having a word for what I do here feeds my validation addiction). So in the interest of aiding you in your ceaseless quest for approval, below are things I wish I had been told the first time I got headshots.

1.  Know What You Want: Don’t even sign up to get new headshots until you know what you need. If you have never gotten headshots before, it might be helpful to think of who you hope to impress with your headshots. Are you working primarily as a theatre actor, or are you shooting for film and commercial? Even your location might come into play. (While a good headshot is essentially a good headshot, preferences for borders and style may vary slightly according to coast and/or region). Your target audience will determine the personality and final look of the headshot. First determine what kind of actor you are, and where you want to direct your career. Then start looking for photographers.

2.  Research the Photographer: You guys. I know I always say research, but for rullz it is supes important. This is the time to go bananas Stefani style, B-A-N-A-N-A-S. If you are starting from scratch, look at the agencies with which you would like to sign and see if they favor certain photographers. Look at the headshots of successful actors in your chosen region and see what kind of backgrounds, tones, cropping, and framing are popular. Depending on your resources, this is definitely the time to invest rather than skimp. Remember that a good headshot will make money back for you. Consider going physically out of your way to find a photographer, especially if you are not in a city with a big market for professional photographers who specialize in headshots. If you are already familiar with your acting community, ask around and see what kind of experiences other actors have had. The most important thing is that the headshot looks like you. Not an idealized version of you. Not the version of yourself you hope to one day be. It should look like you on your best days, but you as you are right now, because that is who is going to get hired. So when you are looking through photographers’ headshots, see if you know any of the people who have had headshots done with them. If the headshots don’t look like the actors you know, run for the hills.

3.  Don’t Choose Out-of-Focus Shots: Especially if you are working with a photographer who doesn’t do a lot of headshots, you may end up with a shot that is slightly out of focus. While this may not even be noticeable at a glance, to people in the business it can end up making your headshot look unprofessional. Familiarize yourself with focused headshots and state your preferences.

4.  Watch for Contrast: Another pitfall is a level of contrast that is too high. For example, if you are pasty pale and wearing pastel blue, don’t choose a shot with a stark black background. (I can’t imagine ever wanting that background, actually). Crazy high contrast is distracting. Incidentally, the reverse is also true. Don’t choose a shot where you blend into the background or you will end up looking like a disembodied head. No one hires a disembodied head.

5.  What to Wear:  The rules are endless, so in the interest of sanity, we are going to simplify: interesting solid colors. Stay away from patterns and shiny materials. Figure out what colors look good on you (and remember that certain colors, like red, often don’t read well on camera). Choose shades that complement and enhance your coloring, rather than draining it. Interesting collars and textures are great as long as they aren’t too outlandish. Layering can help create a dynamic look. Flatter your body type, and remember that you are probably only shooting from the waist up. Unless you are an exceptionally specific kind of actor, this is not the time to flaunt cleavage or yards of chest hair. Stay away from big jewelry. But remember to look like you. Wear clothes that fit your personality and suggest your acting type without limiting you. If you wear glasses or facial hair, consider getting some looks with and some without.

6.  Don’t Be Afraid to Reschedule: Looking really tired that day? Cancel. Wake up with a huge blemish? Cancel. Feeling off-color or bloated? Reschedule! It is not worth throwing money away on a shot when you don’t look your best. And in the interest of avoiding this, treat yourself well in the preceding weeks. Lay off the booze, eat right, and get plenty of rest! It will make a big difference.

7.  Figure out Your “Looks”: This is one of those times when it is helpful to have a handle on your “type” (the kind of roles as which you are typically cast based on appearance and demeanor). If you don’t know, do not take headshots until you figure it out. Anything else is a waste of your time. If you already know, translate it through a lens of what your desired employers want. If you are primarily theatre, make sure you have a standard shot and a character shot. (Think loosely dramatic and comedic, but more commercial). If you are going film and commercial focused, consider throwing in a “professional” look. Think Law & Order. Other examples of commercial looks might include edgy, young mom, girl-next-door, or male ingénue. You still need a more serious standard shot and a warmer, more “smiley” shot. Even if you are a big character actor, stay away from really crazy character shots, as they will make you look amateurish.

8.  Tell Them What You Want (what you really, really want): If there has ever been a time for assertiveness, it is now! Remember, this affects your career. This is about you. Some photographers have artistic quirks that might not jive with your needs. Be polite, but firm. Articulate everything you need and want up front, and they focus on something that doesn’t work for you (for example, having hands prominent in the shot), don’t be afraid to speak up and disagree.

9.  Breathe: It is easy to hold your breath subconsciously while being photographed, but this will inevitably make you look stiff and unnatural in the photo. Be aware of continuing to breathe naturally through the process.

10.  Eyes: The eyes are probably the first thing a prospective casting director or agent will look at, so they are very important! Establish a connection with the camera. Practice before you get your headshots done so you won’t be intimidated.  Find a trick that works for you—pretend you are looking at a person, or create a perspective for yourself. For certain looks, imagining you have a secret can translate well. If you feel yourself deadening behind the eyes, take a fresh breath and open your eyes slightly. (But don’t go overboard, or you will end up with bugged crazy-eyes)! Aim for being completely open and relaxed, and let the emotions channel through unhindered.

Bonus Tip! Relax: It is so important to look natural. So take your time. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed. Establish a rapport with your photographer until you feel comfortable. Have fun! Joke around, do whatever you need to do to make sure that your personality will shine through. In the end, that is what will get you hired.


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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com