Complete Guide to a Great Headshot
Your headshot is your first point of contact, it’s your first impression, it’s your brand, your image, your signature. I often come across acting headshots that aren’t quite up to scratch – either they didn’t go to a professional headshot photographer, they’re overly retouched, or they just don’t look like the actor themselves. Getting headshots is a really important investment for your career, so we decided to create the ultimate guide to a great actor’s headshot.
Ultimately, your acting headshot needs to:
#1 Look like you.
Let’s get esoterical for a second: an actor’s headshot should capture the ‘essence’ of the person in the image. If you were a character, what would that look like in a still image? This doesn’t mean forcing facial expressions on yourself, wearing hats, glasses or bright red lipstick. It simply needs to suggest something about your personality. The other side of the coin here is that your headshot needs to look like you on a good day, yes, but also exactly how you will look when you walk into a meeting or an audition room. We just published an interview with Casting Director Stevie Ray from the prestigious McGregor Casting in Sydney, where he talks about exactly this. If you walk into the room, looking nothing like your headshot, it can mean two things. Either now, you are completely wrong for this role, as you’re hair is shorter, lighter, your skin is a different colour etc., and it also means that you could have been perfect for a role they cast last week, but you’ve now missed it because your headshot doesn’t accurately represent you.
Here are some examples:
I’ve met Andrea Demetriades, and I can tell you, she is this wonderful in person!
Headshot by Sally Flegg
This shot of Kodi Smit-McPhee by Alex Vaughan completely captures his individuality, curiosity and thoughtfulness.
Headshot by Alex Vaughan
#2 Stand out.
Agents, casting directors, producers, directors sift through oceans and oceans of acting headshots every day. It is paramount that your teeny, tiny thumbnail holds it own in a crowd of millions. What does this mean? An engaging, authentic, natural-looking image. Nice balance of colours, correct exposure and a relaxed feel about it. What doesn’t this mean? Wearing a crazy hat, a bright green t-shirt, a tighter crop, a wider lens, or wearing a bikini (!!!).
These headshots stand out, in all the right ways.
#3 Meet all the requirements of a standard headshot
Here I’m referring to image sizing, composition, lighting, editing, and colouring. A standard headshot in Australia is 6×8 portrait – automatic displays on online casting platforms crop to this, and your agent will most likely display your image in this uniform size on their books. Composition wise, you should be close to centre frame, with your body and face mainly facing towards the lens. Experiment with different angles, but it is important for casting directors to see your full face shape, and definitely both of your eye balls…
Lighting refers to the correct exposure – this is mainly up to your photographer, whom should correctly expose the shot. This just means your skin looks like your natural skin colour, there are no deep shadows under your eyes, and we can see everything. Now you can have black and white images on your casting profiles, perhaps for a more editorial or portrait look, but your main image NEEDS to be in colour. Briefs come in looking for brunette actors with hazel eyes, how will they know if everything just looks 50 shades of grey?
Finding your Photographer
Do your research.
Take recommendations from friends, scour the web and find every single acting headshot photographer in your region. Do your homework – they’ll each have a unique style and it’s important to find one that works for you. Some photographers work better with males, than females, others can seem to photograph blondes better than brunettes. I’m allowing you to be extremely picky here, and take the time to find the right fit. You want to feel comfortable in the hands of your photographer, to take some of the pressure off you during the shoot.
The Price is Right
Use your better judgement, don’t pay more than what you think that photographer is worth. However, your headshot is an investment, and it will create more opportunities for you if done well.
What to Avoid
Actors often fall into the trap of hiring a mate with a DSLR to shoot their headshots for free, or some people are even approached on Instagram or Facebook by amateur photographers offering headshots at an extremely competitive price. It is tempting, but I’m begging you to hold your ground. Professional headshot photographers are expensive and well-known for a reason – they’re bloody good at what they do. They capture fantastic images of actors in a natural, relaxed yet engaged state. They know how to retouch an image to industry standards, they know how to frame you, to get you feeling comfortable in front of the camera and they also have their finger on the pulse in terms of what the industry is looking for from year to year.
Do not compromise on quality, no matter what. If that means you need to save up for another month in order to afford the photographer you want, then do it. If you’re serious about your career as an actor, then you must take your headshot seriously as well.
So you’ve found the perfect actor headshot photographer for you.
Book in advance
Give yourself plenty of time to get ready for your shoot. You might need to go shopping and update your wardrobe, book a make-up artist, get a haircut, a facial, maybe even hit the gym.
Gather a collection of some of your favourite actor headshots from your country – it can include “celebrities” but also find some unknown or lesser-known actors headshots. What do you like about them? What is the actor wearing? How are they standing? Take notes, figure out what you like and then use that to inspire your shoot.
Important: don’t try to imitate another actor’s headshot. That will NEVER work. Your headshot is about you, allow your own individuality to come through instead of pushing to be someone or something that you’re not. (Good philosophy for life too.)
Give yourself the time you need to prepare for your headshot. This will be different for everyone. I’m fresher in the mornings than the afternoons, so I might schedule my headshot session for 10am if possible, giving me enough time to get up, go to the gym, wash my hair, do my makeup, and drive to the shoot with plenty of time to spare. You don’t want to rock up to your shoot feeling flustered, unprepared or anxious. If you need the whole day, if you want to get a massage, run a marathon, go out for breakfast with friends, or simply sleep in, do it. Treat yourself. Give yourself every chance and getting a splendid acting headshot.
I don’t mean bring your actual wardrobe – that’s excessive. Just bring between 5 and 8 options of clothing/outfits.
Here are some guidelines:
#1 Be comfortable:
Nothing too rigid and conservative, and nothing too loose and exposing. Probably similar to what you would wear on a brunch date, or to a creative meeting.
Loose clothing might be more flattering in real life for some, but as a general rule – tighter clothing always looks better on camera.
#3 Necklines & layers:
Bring a variety of necklines, this includes jackets and jumpers. A nice knitted jumper, a denim jacket, a singlet, and a fitted t-shirt would cover you for a variety of looks and offer differing necklines and layers.
Black and white only work in certain lighting, with certain backgrounds, so definitely include in your options on the day, but make sure you also have plenty of medium tone colour options as well. Bright colours can work, such as red, purple and blue. But when I shoot, I find navy, maroon, olive green, denim, grey and leather to be my favourite colours and textures to work with. Keep your skin tone in mind, often lighter skin tones appear washed out when wearing black, and darker skin tones appear even darker when wearing white. Take some test shot selfies in your backyard, and ask others for their opinions on what the best colours are for you.
It’s safest to avoid patterns, especially stripes. Occasionally flower prints can be nice, depending on the colours, and lace can sometimes work too. If there are some more striking items of clothing you own, that people comment nicely on when you wear out, it’s worth bringing. Often our friends are a better judge of what looks good on us than we are!
Go natural. If you curl your hair every day, and would do so for an audition, then curl your hair for your headshot shoot. But if you’re like me, and prefer to just let it run wild, then a wash, a brush and maybe some coconut oil spray will be enough. You can also try tying your hair up in some shots, and leaving it out in others – you might end up with some variety. I look a lot younger with my hair up, so sometimes using that headshot works in my favour when going in for a younger role.
Facial Hair: Gentlemen, if you have facial hair, great, all you need to do is groom and trim on the morning of your shoot. You could also take your razor with you to try a clean shaven look in your shoot as well.
If this is your very first shoot, it is definitely worth hiring a make-up artist. But not just any artist. Like your photographer, find someone who knows what they’re doing when it comes to actor’s headshots. You’re not going to a wedding or high school formal, you want to look like you would when you go in for an audition. Even if you’re someone who doesn’t wear make up in every day life, you will at least need some powder. Light always looks better on skin when it’s flat, and without moisture. Use eye shadow, mascara, brow pencil and bronzer to simply accentuate your features, but go easy, not too much that you could enter a beauty pageant or be completely unrecognisable on the street.
Your photographer will have a make up artist that they frequently work with, and can pass their details on to you, all you need to do is ask.
Oh, and do not even think about fake tan. That is an absolute no from me.
We get emails every week from actors asking for help choosing between a selection of headshots. It is tough, I know, but you’ve got to get good at objectively looking at your work, and yourself on camera. It will make you a better actor. If you can give yourself notes and improvements, and not rely so heavily on tutors, friends and your agent’s opinion, then you’re in a good place.
Once you’ve had your shoot, your photographer will compile the best shots from the day, and send the low quality files through to you. You then have to choose just one image for them to edit. Some photographers offer more than one, and you can choose up to four to be edited. But, only one is going to be your thumbnail shot, so let’s start with that.
Here are my top tips for finding the right one:
1# LEAVE YOUR VANITY AT THE DOOR:
This is not about finding the image where you look the prettiest, thinnest, most handsome, charming version of yourself. Yes, the industry is vain and superficial to an extent, but your talent and your personality are ultimately what is going to seal the deal. (Also good dating advice.)
Start by narrowing down to 10. Then ignore all the others, and just look between those 10. Find shots which are similar, pair them up next to each other, and choose the one that speaks to you the most out of those. You will then probably end up with 6 images.
#2 Get some outside opinions:
Show your 6 (differing) images to people whose opinions you value and trust. If you have an agent, absolutely consult them. I would stay away from family, they are often too close to you, and know you too well to help you find the right acting headshot. Friends who are also actors or creatives are great. Stay off the internet, there’s no need to search for validation from your whole Facebook community. Do not send to casting directors, producers, or directors – unless of course you have a very close relationship to them and you know they would be happy to help you choose the right shot.
#3 Trust your instinct:
You might naturally be a smiley, bubbly person, but for some reason, this shot where you look vulnerable and contemplative is really standing out to people and intriguing them, perhaps go with that option.
#4 Look for the most engaging image:
This doesn’t mean quirky, or unconventional. Usually this is something in the eyes. The eyes are windows to the soul, a good shot draws you in to the eyes, and speaks something about you. It makes someone feel comfortable, perhaps warm and captivated. You might not be able to put your finger on it, but it’s a quality that you’ll find very successful and hardworking actors have, and is often described as Charisma.
If you’d like a second shot, third shot, or fourth shot edited, here you can try to achieve some variety. Perhaps something more commercial, something with a bright smile, something darker even, or something with a different look (clean shaven, hair up, bright colour clothing). Aim for a solid variety, there’s no point getting two very similar shots edited because you simply can’t choose between them.
Okay, you’ve chosen your final shot/shots and sent off to your photographer to edit. Once you get the edited shots back, now you send them to your Agent if you have one, and upload to your online casting profiles (updating your Facebook profile picture is optional). Make sure you credit the photographer where you can as well, they worked hard for you.
I hope this guide helped you achieve a great headshot.
Here’s a list of top photographers in Sydney.
Here’s a list of top photographers in LA.
Subtle plug: I’m based in Sydney, and frequently take actor headshots. Hit me up for a quote! [email protected]
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