Headshots – what you need to know

Film Director Laura Wald, shot by Stuart McConaghy

Headshots – what you need to know

Film Director Laura Wald, shot by Stuart McConaghy

Film Director Laura Wald, shot by Stuart McConaghy

You already know that a headshot is an 8×10 publicity photo. And you know it’s your calling card as an actor. You hand them out liberally  to find representation. Later, your agent or manager sends them out to their contacts to raise your profile. You use it online to build your social media presence. And what’s the first thing you do after saying hello at an audition? That’s right, hand over your headshot.

There are 2 basic types of headshots, and most actors would do good in having both:

  1. Commercial Headshots: Advertisers love warm, friendly and trustworthy people, because trustworthiness, above everything else, sells product. Your headshot should make you look warm, friendly and trustworthy, and make it obvious that you are the ideal candidate for their commercial. A typical commercial headshot features a nice smile and soft colors. The lighting is usually bright, with minimal shadowed.
  2. Theatrical Headshots: This type of headshot is where you show off your type. These are usually more layered and nuanced than a commercial headshot. Normally a smile isn’t the focus in this type of headshot. Think about what you want your headshot to express? What kind of roles do you want?
Color vs. Black & White

Once upon a time the black and white headshot was an industry standard. Then, it didn’t really matter. These days, a color headshot is the industry standard. You want casting directors to think of you as a legit contender, not as someone who is behind the times and someone who is possibly recycling old headshots. Are you going after new roles, and have a stack of black and white ones at home? Forget they exist. Get some color headshot taken, because you don’t want a casting director to doubt that you still look the same as you do in your headshots.

Head & Shoulders vs. Three-Quarter or Full Length

A head & shoulders headshot (showing your head and shoulders, obviously), is pretty much standard, unless you need to show more of your body to get the roles you want, like lifeguard or muscle-bound action hero. Three quarter or full-length shots are usually only used by models, who abide by different rules for their shots.

Speaking of rules, these are the rules for a great headshot:

#1: A Great Headshot Looks Like You

A good headshot is one that gets you auditions. A great headshot gets you the right auditions, simply put.

Your headshot should look like you do on those days when you look in the mirror and say “Damn, this chick/guy looks gooooooooooood!”

If the headshot gets you an audition but you look nothing like the person in the picture when you walk through the door, then you’ve already lost. You’re not going to get the call-back if you’re younger, older, thinner, heavier, etc.

Or even worse: they might be looking for someone just like you, but you lose out on the audition if the headshot doesn’t look like you.

#2: A Great Headshot Shows Your Type

You want the casting director to look at your photo and know right away if you’re the best friend, the professional, the villain, the leading lady, the comic sidekick, the mom, etc. If you are unaware or undecided of your type, have a word with casting directors, agents, acting instructors, or friends in the business. Then talk to your photographer. If you know what you want to convey in your photos and can communicate that to your photographer, your headshot will be perfect. Don’t try to be the jack-of-all-trade who can play anything, it rarely works. If you’re pursuing auditions for distinctly different types, take multiple headshots that reveal those types. Your headshot, particularly a legit/theatrical headshot, should portray your type.

#3: A Great Headshot Should Show Your Personality

Your headshot should show your unique personality. It should engage and pique a casting director’s interest. Maybe it’s that twinkle you have in your eyes; a certain kind of smile that’s all your own; a larger-than-life personality. Whatever it is, your headshot should show off what makes you special and set you apart from the hundreds of other actors whose headshots land on the desks of casting directors every day.

#4: A Great Headshot Is About You, Not Who Took It.

This isn’t to say that you don’t need a great photographer. But a great photographer knows when to put his own personality aside and focus on your style. Often, photographers have a certain look that is their brand, and their photos will always reflect that brand, regardless of the subject. While that is not necessarily a bad thing for photographers, it’s not what you should look for in a headshot photographer. Your headshot should always reflect your brand, not your photographer’s.

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