Your headshots will be seen by more people in a position to hire you than will ever meet you face to face. They are your surrogate. They represent you when you aren’t in the room. They represent you on a computer screen, in a sea of similar actors submitted for the same role. Therefore they must be very good.
But what makes a good actor headshot?
There are many components that go into creating a compelling headshot. Five essentials that you can focus on are below.
Your headshots must capture your essence, you experiencing a moment – a genuine emotion. And, your portfolio of shots needs to represent the various types of characters you can believably play. Anything else is frankly a waste of your time and money.
Think of your headshot as a “1-second short film.” It must convey tone, character, and tell a story. This is true for Commercial shots, and especially with Theatrical (TV & Film) shots.
Telling these stories begins with you understanding your believable casting types; how you are perceived by others. When an actor walks into a casting office their essence is immediately perceived. Our essence is our kernel. Your essence is something you should embrace and use to your advantage. For example, if you find you are frequently called in for and book the doctor role or the best friend role, that should tell you something. Use it to your advantage.
Most of us have a blind spot to our casting types and need some guidance, either in a workshop setting or with someone very experienced in this way of thinking. We perceive ourselves differently than how others see us, how the world sees us. Unless they are in the business friends and family will have a hard time discerning this too; they know you too well and do not see you in the same way someone in casting would. You need to have objective, accurate information to accurately represent yourself and your believable types, in your headshots.
The Eyes Have It
So, what is that stand-out quality in a headshot that connects with the viewer, that draws them in?
You’ve heard the quote, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” Your headshot must connect to the viewer by inviting them in with your eyes. If the viewer’s focus goes to another area of your photo they should always come back to your eyes. Therefore the eyes must be engaging, have a spark and an emotional life in them.
Your eyes are also your key tool for communicating what I’ll touch on in another section, Acting in Your Headshots. It is through your eyes you divulge your secret, show that vulnerability, or convey confidence. Like on-camera acting, the moments you capture in headshot sessions should be subtle and nuanced. This is primarily expressed through the eyes.
Dress the Part
Once you know your types it’s time to prepare to convey those types in the headshot session. Write down 2-3 specific looks you want to capture. Once the looks are refined, pick wardrobe those people would wear. Examples should be observed in real life and on screen. Find out how these people and professionals are being wardrobed in film, TV and commercials.
Now I don’t mean a costume like a doctor’s coat or police uniform. Nothing says amateur to a casting professional than an actor wearing a lab coat in their headshot. (This may be new information for some and not for others. Because actors and photographers continue to do it, it bears repeating.)
Instead, think of your headshots as “flexible.” By that I mean depending on your believable types and your shot, you could use a “professional suit shot” for a doctor, banker, business person, lawyer, stock broker, and possibly a detective submission. With that approach you have 1 picture that could represent you for 5 or possibly 6 types of roles. Give the casting professionals credit for being creative. Hint at your character type. They will fill in the rest depending on the role you are submitted for. There’s more flexibility in a character type shot that is hinted at rather than branded for only one type of role.
Acting in Your Headshots
Remember your shots are not you simply smiling or looking serious. They are you experiencing a real moment, a genuine emotion. They are you acting. Prepare thoughts, secrets and scenarios that these people/professionals would be experiencing and use them during the photo shoot. Think of it as a script or subtext for the shoot. This is where your acting work comes into creating your headshots. You can use these thoughts/scenarios/subtext as a mantra or touchstone when you’re working in front of the camera to inspire grounded acting choices and guide you in capturing the images you are striving for. Without these guides you may become distracted shooting and find you end up with the same generic expressions in a series of photos of you in different outfits, which will not make for a strong or effective portfolio of shots.
Hiring Your Collaborator
Choosing the right photographer can be daunting. It is important to find someone who knows the importance of and is skilled at capturing compelling actor headshots.
When reviewing a headshot photographer’s work, ask yourself, do their shots from actor to actor look all the same or general? Their portfolio should have examples of actors experiencing believable moments and genuine emotions that set off one actor from another, even those with similar physical traits. Look for examples in their work that show individual actors representing their distinctly different believable types.
Clear communication between you and your photographer is crucial. They need to understand the purpose of the different character types you want to achieve, how to capture each of them distinctly, and most importantly how to coach you in the process so you may deliver the necessary genuine, nuanced emotion.
Your photographer needs to understand this approach and be able to capture a moment that shows your essence uniquely. The payoff comes when your shot is lined up with 5 or 10 other similar actors being considered for the same role and your essence – how you represent this type they’re looking for – shines over the others, and gets you in the room for that audition or agent interview.
You are looking for a photographer who will coach you as an actor and not work with you as a model.
Remember that headshots are a business investment. A lot of time and money go into shooting, retouching, formatting for print and the web, and printing the shots. When you multiply that by the number of looks you want to capture it adds up quickly. Use your time, money and effort effectively.
Here’s another expression, “Luck favors the prepared.” The better prepared you are for your shoot the better chance you have at getting your best, most compelling shots, those that set you apart from everyone else being considered for the same roles.
5 Headshot Focus Essentials – Recap