Headshots: brilliant image or fuzzy concept?

Jan 22, 2011   //   by Kate Powers   //   Coaching Tips, Director's Notebook

“There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.” – Ansel Adams

“”The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself.” – Edward Steichen

They’re your calling card, actors. They are your ticket through the door. Very often, they are the difference between being seen and not being seen for the part. This means that they are a critical first step across the chasm between the non-working and the working actor.

You have heard stories about casting directors sifting through hundreds of headshots in a few short minutes, with most of the pictures ending the journey in the garbage bin. Those stories are true. Relatively few headshots ever get flipped over. Make sure that yours does.


Do your homework.  Research photographers.  Don’t open Backstage and pick one whose ad features a couple of attractive people. Don’t make three phone calls and book an appointment with the cheapest photographer who has time this month.  I mean, research photographers.  Strenously research photographers.

Ask other actors if you can see their headshots; most will be willing or even enthusiastic to share them.  Ask them about their experience getting the pictures taken. If you have an agent or a good relationship with a casting director, ask them for suggestions.  Build yourself a short list of photographers who’s work attracts your interest. Make appointments to look through their portfolio and / or take the time to study the images in their online portfolios.  If you don’t see you — your approximate type — keep moving (if you are African American and all the images on the photographer’s site are of Caucasians, that is a good sign that this particular shutterbug doesn’t know how to photograph African-Americans; if s/he did it well, s/he’d include it in that portfolio.)

Next, set up an appointment to meet with the photographers on your (now hopefully shorter) short list.  Do you feel comfortable with this person?  If you don’t, then don’t pay him a couple thousand dollars to photograph you.  If you are ill at ease, it is going to show in the pictures.  If the photographer is not asking you questions about the kinds of work you want to do, the roles you want to play in the immediate term, move on.  Ask the photographer if you can bring your own music to the session; this should be a no brainer, but actors are sometimes intimidated.  (Then listen to what puts you in a good mood during the shoot and your music will help you reveal your best ‘you’.)

If you love the images in the portfolio and you feel comfortable with the photographer, book the session.

What should(n’t) you wear?

Ladies: don’t wear that cheap shelf-bra camisole and then throw an off-the-shoulder sweater over it as a second look. Guys: don’t wear one striped collared shirt and one solid collared shirt.  If you think that this represents range, you have bigger problems than bad headshots.

Casting directors and directors are busy, often overwhelmed.  Help them to find you, call you in and cast you.  What are five roles you could play in the next year?  What might they look like?  How might you explore that in your wardrobe choices for your session?  For this part of the journey, it is helpful to think in archetypes: could you be the young dad? Could you be the corporate raider? Could you be Indiana Jones?  Then don’t just show us your superior dental work in that picture:  perform weekend casual polo-shirted dad, perform be-suited junior investment banker, perform adventure-wear global explorer.  Of course you want to get that all-around commercial shot, but don’t limit your possibilities by only pursuing that for the whole session.

Put those images to work

When you take that survey of teachers and friends, finally selecting your principal, relatively neutral legit shot, then go back over your favorite images from the shoot. Pick something very different from the legit shot and use that for your follow-up postcards.  Show me what you can do; teach me how to think about you; intrigue me into calling you in.  Put those pricey headshots to work, so that they can help put you to work.

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