What Makes a Bad Headshot? | Take a Great Headshot as an Actor

What Makes a Bad Headshot

Written by on | Acting Tips

A headshot is potentially the most important tool in your acting kit, arguably even more so than your resume and your education. If your headshot betrays you, it won’t matter if you’ve been to the best acting school and done all the best courses, if your headshot betrays you. To be clear, what makes a bad headshot is one that either presents you poorly, or misrepresents who you are at this point in your life.

The Photographer You Choose

A headshot that presents you in a bad light can be due to many different things. Some that you cannot fix are bad retouching, bad composition, and bad lighting. That is why it’s imperative to get a professional photographer. Someone who is talented at shooting portraits and has the top-of-the-line equipment will undoubtedly produce a better quality image than your neighbour’s DSLR.

It’s not about hiring a professional photographer to improve image quality, it’s also about the aesthetic. The entertainment industry is built on reputations and relationships. It sounds like a cliche, but what really drives this mentality is one of style, integrity, and trademarks. The style of the headshot professional you most identify with will resonate with casting directors in a different way to other potential photographers, giving them an immediate read of your vibe. Your own integrity is supported by the integrity of the photographer whom you hire. Not only are you supporting other artists in the industry, asserting yourself as part of the community, you are also proving that you respect their art form enough to acknowledge that what they do can’t be faked by some other muppet with Photoshop.

Your headshot becomes your trademark, a quick read of the package you’re selling. This is the recognisable thumbnail that casting directors will come to associate with you, so make it one that carries with it a solid professional backing. Take this seriously and professionally, and you will be viewed in the same light.

The ‘Performance’

What can lead to a poor headshot is your acting, or your comfort in front of the camera. Every frame that is captured by that shutter should be a moment of performance, with all of the requisite life and soul that you breathe into any character. Everyone’s prompts will be different for this, and if you are shelling out for a professional photoshoot, I suggest doing some character research. While it may seem silly to craft a character when that character is you, it’s more necessary than you’d think. The most important thing in a headshot is clarity. Unfortunately, you will never be perfect for every role out there, but this is actually an advantage – by specialising, and identifying your niche, you can be absolutely perfect for that type of role, rather than a jack of all trades and a master of none.

Build yourself your ideal character, the one that you couldn’t not be cast as, and the self-assured naturalism that you capture will sell you for that role, as well as carry you over the threshold for many others that have more general specifications. Err more on the side of specificity rather than generalisation. It’s like painting your walls beige. Sure, they’ll never go out of style, but no one will actively take notice or like them either. Your headshot’s job is to get you noticed, so do this above all else.

This advice could be easily misconstrued as “fake it” or “perform”, and that’s not what I’m saying. We want to see the genuine you. You on a good hair day. You need to find the truth of the performance in you. This can just be a good way to reframe how you approach getting a headshot taken, especially if you know you’ll be uncomfortable in front of the camera.

So go on an’ get in front of a mirror to learn your angles. No level of narcissism is too high when prepping for your personal photoshoot.

There’s a Hat

Don’t wear a hat, guys.

You’re in Pants Land

What makes a headshot a headshot, is that it’s a shot of your head. We start heading into, and I’m not going to say bad headshot territory, but rather ‘not a headshot’ territory is if it shows anything other than your waist upwards. Anything lower, anything where we can see the bottom of half of you is just not a headshot. Even if the photo is awesome, it just isn’t the brief.

Think of it this way, the further we are from seeing into your eyes and the depths of your soul the less that headshot will serve you. 

Which brings us to…

It’s a Modelling Shot

A big indicator of this is; a photo where your eyes are focused anywhere but directly down the barrel of the camera. Getting your headshot done is the only time the aim game is to spike the camera. Unless of course you’re in The Office, or Fleabag – der.

The reason for this is, when performing we’re pretending to be unaware of the fact that we’re being watched by a camera or audience. But the headshot is a different thing, it’s just you looking directly down the barrel of the camera, implying that this is you, the professional and no one else. Again, being a professional is somewhat of a performance in itself.

A ‘candid’ not-looking-at-the-camera shot tells the story that you are asking to be looked at, observed or watched by the employer. It seems strange to consider, but a shot where someone’s eyes look directly down the barrel says ‘Here I am looking at you, asking you to look at me in return’. Direct and powerful. Giving the barrel your gaze is inviting the viewer to see who you are rather than merely what you look like, which my friends is what separates a modelling shot, from an actor’s headshot.

Dude, Where is My Nose?

If any permanent distinguishing fixtures on your face have been washed out in lighting or in the editing process, that is a headshot that does not serve you.

Flyaway hairs, a zit here or there – get rid of them, they aren’t permanent features. But anything to do with your bone structure like your face shape, nose shape, cheek bones etc, or things to do with your skin such as freckles, skin tone, birthmarks – those are things that visually set you apart as an actor. If they’ve been washed out then that is some not cool territory – do not settle with that. Your headshot should show your individuality in all its glory.

Skip the Props

You may be shit hot at playing violin, juggling or magic tricks, but just remember this is your acting headshot. All you need to act is yourself, and all you need to sell your wonderful self is yourself. Leave the guitar for your resume, and just bring yourself.

Your Shirt is Being a Scene Stealer

Let the record state that I’m not anti-shirt, in fact I love shirt. But I do know that an attention pulling, self-centred upstaging shirt has no place in your headshot. Because you are the star here, not Signor Shirt. Just bring a few options so you have something that ensures you’ll be the thing that pops.

If you’re going for an off the shoulder top, just make sure we can see at least a bit of that top in the shot, otherwise at a glance you can look completely naked. You just want to make sure the first thing people say when they see your headshot is ‘Wow, what a vibe!’ before they say ‘Woah, they appear to be naked’! Always put the vibe as the priority.

About the Author

StageMilk Team

is made up of professional actors, acting coaches and writers from around the world. This team includes Andrew, Alex, Emma, Jake, Jake, Indiana, Patrick and more. We all work together to contribute useful articles and resources for actors at all stages in their careers.

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