I have never been comfortable in front of a stills camera. And frustratingly, it seemed to me the more money I threw at a photographer the more tense and worse the pictures would ultimately be. In fact, my most successful shot with the most longevity of use, was at the beginning of my career, shot by a friend of mine in a park. But working with a non-professional photographer means there are way more misses than hits. In fact, I have done follow-up shoots with friends with a big fat zero of any images remotely usable. And currently, it would appear the industry has never been more driven by the headshot. This is a visual medium and with such highly edited film and television production, the look of the actor has almost trumped craft. So where does that leave us?
Choosing the Right Photographer
I have learnt the most important part of a photography shoot is your relationship with the photographer. This means something different for all of us. When you are truly comfortable to be yourself, it will make it easier for you to tap into more vulnerable and authentic places.
One thing I learnt on my most recent shoot with LA-based photographer Ken Weingart is the importance of rapport. Full disclosure, this was a complimentary one look shoot. Which certainly took away that niggling anxiety of: this has to be good because I’m spending so much money on it. Ken is a character. I found his eccentric sense of humor disarming and enjoyable which was key to relaxing. He was also very complimentary and encouraging but also firm about what was working and not working from his own professional perspective. He was also very open to sharing the work as we shot, so I knew we had something that was working.
How do we be our most authentic and comfortable version of ourselves in the company of a stranger who has the professional skill and eye to craft a technically captivating image?
When asked to comment for this article, Ken had the same thought: “Pick a great photographer! That is #1. If that person is funny, smart, and cool it will get you to be loose. Nothing beats knowing you are in good hands, that psychologically is unbeatable. And that of course, applies to any endeavor — research well.”
Now, his energy might not be the right one for you. Perhaps, you might prefer a less talkative photographer or you may open up more around female energy or a photographer who allows time to breathe in the shoot versus a faster pace. For example, there is a top photographer I’ve always wanted to shoot with but I find when I look through their portfolio, the headshots of the boys do not have the same star quality that the female shots do. It is not an unreasonable assumption that this particular photographer may have a better rapport with female talent.
The solution is requesting a consultation as an non-negotiable part of your shoot package. They may not offer it, but I would prioritize this. If they are not willing to do that, I would move on. There is nothing worse spending $650 on a shoot and looking through the images and finding nothing. Trust me.
Preparing for the Shoot
Women and men have different styling expectations. I have heard agents bemoan over use of make-up for women, so I think the less is more adage is still relevant regardless of gender. Photographers request you bring multiple wardrobe options to set. There is something a little cringe when you see an over styled head shot or worse, you are styled in clothes that are clearly not your personal style. I brought three very basic looks to my latest. I think an option that reflects your eye color is a must but having alternatives to swap in depending on the backdrop is wise too. Also, your commercial representative does not need eight photos of you in different outfits. They simply need an alternative shot of you smiling if you happen to be a bit more serious in your theatrical option. I assure you, I have booked roles where I have worn a suit without ever having a suit-themed head shot.
If you get nervous, you are going to sweat, so prepare accordingly! This latest was no exception and I was relaxed! Bring a mirror so you can do your own checks – still a lesson I continue to not put into action. Some packages will offer hair and makeup. I have used a service like this before. I have never once used a single photo from that particular shoot. The hair was too clean cut and my skin was exceptionally perfect (if I do say so myself) making the final product completely off model to my natural state. If that had been a catalogue shoot, great! But it’s not. After consulting with Stagemilk’s Violette Ayad, she would advise hair and makeup for women. She reminded me that sometimes to achieve that great “natural” look, it is actually the result of a full face of make-up. The only addition to this is to make sure you are specific about what YOU want. You are the boss, don’t let someone you have just met create a look for you that feels foreign. Don’t let politeness or agreeableness get in the way of the shoot. We are actors not models. You know, when you see a model in real life and you think: “wow, they look so different in their shoots”. That’s great for models but is it a titanic level disaster for an actor.
Choosing THE shot
I have changed my mind over time on who should be the one to choose your key shot. It is definitely not friends or family. Rule them out right away. Your parents have known you too long to see you in a commercial light. You also don’t want the weight of their valued opinion skewing your own instincts.
The photographer does not know you beyond that one session – so I would rule them out too.
I think the agent is the best person to make the final decision. The caveat I would add is only send them your shortest of short list to choose from. Also, do not show your agents the raw footage. Agents tend to not see the potential of a shot before it have been (for example) color graded. They are the business, you are the creative. They will likely pick the image most likely to get you into the audition room – any room. I have certainly taken a photo in my time which made me look 100, but if that photo is not truly representative of you and your natural energy, you are going to find yourself going in for a lot of roles that you are not right for you and will not get – a frustrating waste of time. It needs to reflect you in all your quirkiness, darkness, humility or sexiness – depending on what you are currently energetically leading with. Certainly, a tall order. You are the artist in your artistic career. And it is important that you will be 100% satisfied if only one of those from you shortlist is picked for your marketing by your team.
The Edited Image
Photoshopping or image editing is another element of the process that I think is difficult to navigate. Less is more ALWAYS. You need to balance looking like you and a need to pop out from the thousands of shots submitted to casting. A photo edit in my opinion, should remove short term skin impurities, lift the picture’s colours with an emphasis on your eyes and removing stray hairs… that is it. Any more than this, you risk looking doll-like and in an industry hungry for authenticity, I don’t think it is particularly on trend to go much further than that.
I would really communicate what you want up front with the photo editing. I was given that option on this latest shoot which I did not do (do as I suggest, not what I do clearly) and as an artist in their own right, a photographer will have different views and ideas about what’s important and what isn’t. Make sure you are on the same page all the way through the process.
If you are left by this article feeling: well I don’t know what I communicate. Then I think there is some work to do on your craft. Your point of view and understanding your quality IS the job. I have seen people do surveys to work out what a shot is communicating which is not a bad idea. However, if you are not yet in tune with that naturally, it’s time to get to work in learning about who you are and what you have to offer this beautiful competitive frustrating mess that is the entertainment business.